Darius the Great 

Some of us were there. Many more of us saw it on television. And almost all of us have heard about it by now: the two missed free throws that ended a game, an era, and the hopes of an entire city; Darius Washington, the valiant freshman who had been fouled in the act of shooting a three-pointer and had a chance to win the game against arch-rival Louisville -- and thereby crown the University of Memphis Tigers' season with a bid to the NCAA tournament.

It had been a disappointing season, redeemed mainly by the emergence of Washington -- D-Wash, as he came to be called -- as a super point-guard and playmaker who kept the Tigers' season hopes alive, at times almost single-handedly.

Upon seeing his last shot rim the basket and fall away on Saturday, Washington hit the deck, clearly devastated. He had literally to be lifted off the FedExForum floor by consoling teammates. They didn't blame him, nor did we, nor should he blame himself. As one of his teammates said, the team wouldn't even have been on the brink of such unexpected success without Washington's heroics -- including a heart-stopping steal of a Lousville pass in the crucial last few minutes.

Not only was young Washington named to the all-tournament team for his exploits, he had previously been designated Conference-USA Freshman of the Year. Clearly, he will make many more shots than he misses in the years to come -- especially when it counts.

Ralph Branca, the old Brooklyn Dodger pitcher who in 1951 yielded the pennant-wining home-run ball -- the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" -- to the Giants' Bobby Thomson, suffered the same kind of despair that Washington did, initially. Why me? he asked a friendly clergyman. Because you can take it, said Branca's priest, meaning that as a tribute to the forlorn pitcher's strength of character.

We might say the same of Darius Washington. He too can take it, though it will surely hurt for a while. As far as we're concerned, his heart and talent are as great as his stature is small. And, with any luck, we've got three more years to watch this prodigy.


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