KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was too early for heartbreak. The sun was just creeping through the huge glass windows. The plane wasn’t ready yet, and the airport was filled with the lonely echo that comes in those ungodly hours before the coffee shop opens.
It was the first morning of the rest of Scott Skiles’ life, the first morning he was no longer a college athlete but a young man with memories behind him and a prison sentence in front of him. It was a hell of a morning, really, and Skiles was coming in on no sleep. “Not one minute,” he said, shaking his head slowly. You don’t sleep when your insides are on fire.
He was dead now, but seven hours earlier he was still alive, because he was still playing basketball, and anyone who has seen this clenched fist of a man knows if ever a human being needed a ball in his hands for survival, it was Scott Skiles. And, damn, the ball was there, right where he wanted it, in his hands, as the final seconds of the big game against Kansas ticked away, and the score was tied and the crowd was screaming and he was racing up the court with defenders chasing him and his eyes were locked on that basket, as if the last lights of his life were up there waiting inside the red steel rim.
“I had eight seconds,” he said softly, narrating it all over again. “I should’ve dribbled that baby up, 25 feet from the hole. Then I should’ve pulled up and shot a normal jumper and hit it for the game-winner. . . . I had it in my hands. And I failed.”
The shot he fired instead was an off-balance jumper from around 17 feet. It careened off the rim. The clock ran out and the game went into overtime and his team, Michigan State, had nothing left. The Spartans lost a few minutes later, 96-86. They were out of the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t his fault. No way. There was a malfunctioning clock and bad officiating and two missed free throws by teammates and a dozen other good reasons why the blame should fall anywhere but on the pale white shoulders of Skiles, whose gritted-teeth style of play had literally carried the Spartans this far, the regional semifinal, way past anyone’s wildest expectations.
Besides, Friday night’s game was such a thriller, people left saying,
“There was no loser tonight.” But Skiles didn’t buy it. He blamed himself. And in the showers afterward, as the water ran over his head but the loss would not wash away, he turned to his teammate Larry Polec and quietly said, “It’s over, isn’t it?” and Polec could only nod yes, it was over.
What do you do when the buzzer sounds and there’s no going back? You are a senior. You are history. What do you do? You don’t sleep, that’s for sure. “I talked with my folks for a half-hour, I talked with my grandparents. I went upstairs and got into bed. I tried to sleep, but I just rolled around.”
He sighed deeply. His eyes were bloodshot and he wore a green cap over his stringy blond hair. His face was marked by a few pimples, the kind that surface on college skin when things get sweaty.
Here in the morning light, with cinnamon gum in his mouth and his hands tucked in his coat pockets, Scott Skiles looked very young. Too young, it seemed, for all that has happened. Too young, certainly, for the jail cell that awaits him.
But heroes are cast in all kinds of colors, and to understand Scott Skiles you must be able to mix the golds of glory with the deep blues of tragedy, for here was a young man splashing through both. It is doubtful we will soon see his likes again, a 22-year-old twister playing an entire college basketball season with the threat of prison hanging over his head.
He was forever on the front pages of newspapers this year for his 27.7 scoring average, his dazzling passing game, his fiery leadership. And because he was going to jail. A 30-day sentence for violating the terms of his probation with a drunken-driving arrest last November. Skiles had been arrested before: in August 1984, charged with marijuana and cocaine possession, and in September 1984, charged with driving while intoxicated.
After the most recent episode, people had called for Skiles’ expulsion, for Skiles’ head, for Skiles’ coach’s head. And at the same time, other people were calling for him to light it up night after night in the gym for the glory of old MSU.
“It’s been more difficult than anyone will imagine,” he said, leaning forward in the airport chair as he waited with his teammates for the flight back home. “There are a lot of things about the arrests that I’m sure will die with me. I just know I’m damn lucky to have gone to Michigan State. When I got
into trouble people didn’t say, ‘Let’s find a way we can phase this kid out.’ They stuck by me.
“And this year . . . well, I don’t know if I could have played basketball anywhere else with all that happened.”
All season, Skiles was greeted in foreign gyms with chants of “GO TO JAIL!” or “D.U.I!” Some fans waved plastic bags of sugar at him to suggest cocaine.
He had bigger problems. Like the jail sentence that comes this summer.
“Sure I’m scared of jail,” he said, when asked. “It’d be inhuman not to be scared of it. But isn’t that what jail is supposed to be about?
“The thing is,” he added, his voice lowered now, almost pleading, “I don’t want to drive drunk. I mean, I don’t want to go out and kill someone on the road. God, that’s the last thing I’d want to do. I just made a . . . mistake.”
He leaned back, quiet. In that last word was the unmistakable plea of conscience, and anyone who had ever messed up in life would have had a hard time not feeling something for the guy.
But Skiles is not usually that fortunate. His manner doesn’t evoke sympathy. He lacks the sweetie-pie countenance of a Magic Johnson or an Isiah Thomas. What can you do? Some guys buy with their looks and some guys pay for them. Skiles just happens to have the flaring eyes of a marine sergeant in a barroom brawl. And that’s during lay-up drills. Even when he grins he has the look of someone who’s just gotten away with murder.
How did Jim Valvano, the N.C. State coach, describe him? “Whenever I watch Michigan State on TV I’m afraid to turn the channel because I keep thinking Skiles is gonna jump out of the set and say, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ “
But it’s this same ferocity that is responsible for all the victory in the MSU program this year. And there’s the dilemma. You can’t have one without the other. Skiles is a fist-wielding, bad-mouthing, rile-’em-up kind of player on the court. The words “sit down” might as well be written in Swedish for him. Skiles bled from the knee all game in MSU’s tournament win over Washington. Yet he scored 31 points. He led the upset charge against Georgetown even though he had a piercing sciatic nerve injury. He scored 24.
“You can count on Scott to spill his guts on the floor,” said Polec. And that’s what the Spartans needed.
If Skiles had played like a choirboy, MSU fans would have been watching
“Dallas” Friday night.
Friday night. The Goodby Game. It has already replayed itself “too many times” inside Skiles’ head, and this was only in the airport on the morning after. A man walked by with an overstuffed garment bag. Another man passed reading a newspaper. Skiles didn’t notice. His slumped in his chair and his eyes went far away when he described those last two minutes.
“It all happened so quick. I thought when (MSU freshman) Mark Brown was at the line, and we were up, 80-78, if he could have made one foul shot we’d have won it. He didn’t. But I missed a foul shot before him and Larry (Polec) missed one before him, and if we’d have made them, Mark wouldn’t have had to be there.
“Then there was the thing with the clock malfunctioning. It’s a shame that had to happen in such a big game. Even worse than that was the officiating. I hope those officials aren’t working the Final Four because they’re not very good. They made a lot of bad calls on both sides.”
Several of those came on Skiles early. He was tagged with three fouls and forced to sit for the last seven minutes of the first half.
“That was the worst feeling in the world,” he said of walking to the bench.
Well, probably the second worst. There was, and always will be for Skiles, that final shot. You have to fully understand this young man to realize that he had every expectation of winning that game with that shot, every expectation of doing the same thing three more times, until the NCAA crown was painted green and white. If there is such a thing as winning by sheer will, Skiles already has a half-dozen games in his back pocket. And Friday was almost there.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that I thought that I could win the whole thing for Michigan State,” he said. “That’s the way I feel. That’s the kind of confidence I had.
“When I came down the floor, I knew I had Polec on my left and Vernon Carr on my right. After I missed the shot, right before the overtime, Vernon told me he was open. In retrospect, I probably should have passed it to him. But I don’t know, I just felt like I had to put a shot up there.”
Someone suggested that the place was insanity, thousands of screaming Kansas fans thumping their feet and waving banners. Who could think straight in such a blast furnace?
Skiles waved off the suggestion. “I’ve won with that stuff before,” he said. The message was clear. If he was passing out of the college ranks on a disappointing note, well, so be it. There would be no easy excuses.
Then came an odd question, a question that could only be asked of Skiles, and in whose answer you catch a glimpse of something: If he could do one thing over and make it come out right — the trouble that is sending him to jail or that final, off-balance jumper — which would he choose?
He thought about it for a few seconds. He decided on an answer. “I guess I’d choose both,” he said finally.
But he couldn’t help it. It showed. His heart was on the side with the net.
They were calling his flight.
“You know, I don’t know how I’m going to get home,” he said suddenly. “My car’s not even there. I’ll have to get a ride from somebody. Maybe I’ll stick around. Maybe I’ll go home to Plymouth (Indiana). I had 100 percent confidence we’d be advancing to the Final Four. It’s my responsibility. I’m taking the blame. It’s something I have to deal with the rest of my life.”
He reached for his bag. He was dressed like a civilian. His college basketball career was abruptly over. He said he hoped to be drafted by an NBA team, but college is not the pros and he thinks “the scouts don’t like me that much.” He also knows he could be serving his jail term when the NBA draft takes place.
“I really hope I can avoid that,” he said softly.
There were a lot of us who screamed for justice when Skiles was arrested. There were a lot of us who screamed for a miracle when Skiles brought the ball up in those last regulation seconds. None of us ever knew what was going on inside of him. And most likely we never will.
The final colors of a man’s life belong with the gods. But in the early morning light of an airport gate, with all the crowds and the cameras and the celebrations gone, with him sitting there chewing gum, a hat on his head, no jump shots, no waving fists, no siren call of glory, the sweetest moments of his basketball life probably behind him and nothing immediately ahead but a summer and a jail sentence, it was hard not to cast Scott Skiles as some sort of hero, even a tragic one. It seemed only fair.
“I’m very, very sad my career is over,” he said finally. “I don’t know if I’ll ever play like this again. I may make it in the NBA, I may not.
“But you know, it doesn’t matter. As far as I’m concerned, my quality years were played at Michigan State. No matter what happens. And I’ll tell you this. In my mind, my hometown is East Lansing, Michigan. And it always will be.”
He got up, pulled out his ticket, and walked slowly through the carpeted corridor of the rest of his life, his head neither high nor low, but staring st