by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

James Voskuil pulled a crewneck sweater over his head and ran a fist through his wet hair. He had thought about a quick exit after that last shot, while the fans and reporters were still inside and stunned. He had thought about “just running up the tunnel and going straight out the door, into the 20- degree weather, going home.” He laughed now at the thought. He didn’t run out the door, because kids do that, and he is no longer a kid.

He is a man, a young man who no doubt feels a little older this morning because he spent the night seeing his quick jumper from the left baseline go arching toward the hoop, and he can still hear every voice in Crisler Arena yelling, “Drop! Drop!” Only it didn’t drop. It went off the rim, off several players’ hands. A desperation put-back was blocked, the buzzer sounded, and Michigan lost a one-point game for the first time in two years, 76-75, to Indiana, and the Hoosier players did a dance at mid-court.

Don’t blame Voskuil. He was open. Hey, I give the guy credit for taking that shot at all, considering he’d been stuffed on a drive a minute earlier. That happens to a lot of college players, they’re done for the night.

Instead, here was Voskuil squaring up for the kill shot after Jalen Rose found him in the corner. Rose had come upcourt, dribbled into the center, looked over his more famous teammates, Chris Webber in the middle, Juwan Howard nearby, and he chose Voskuil. Was that the right call? Maybe. Maybe not. But at that point the deal was done. Seven or eight seconds left on the clock? Square up. Fire. That’s what you do.

“It felt like it was good when it left my hands,” Voskuil said. “It really did.” He looked for his shoes. He sat in the chair and pulled them on. Most of the lockers were empty now and the sounds of running showers had long since stopped.

“It shoulda gone in,” he said, and then, as if remembering to dot an i, he said, “shoulda, coulda, woulda. . . . “

Basketball as drama

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. It’s a shame that anyone has to go home feeling less than satisfied after a night of basketball like this. Not Voskuil. Not Webber, who is still wondering why he didn’t get that put-back in the air before Alan Henderson swatted it away.

It’s a shame because this was magnificent theater, a clash of styles that somehow, in the collision, made each look better. Here was Michigan, in its trademark fashion, making slams inside, running the break, pumping itself high on emotion after every highlight basket.

And here was Indiana, whose team logo should be a chalkboard, running screen upon screen, taking the shot clock down to single digits, finally finding someone who would bury a long jump shot with perfect follow-through form.

“They’re patient, that’s for sure,” said Steve Fisher, whose troops had not lost to a team other than Duke since March. “They’ll wait until they have the shot, and they hit some awfully big baskets tonight, even with hands in their faces.”

True. You play this game on another night, Indiana may not shoot 55 percent and go 7-of-17 on three-pointers. But you can bet, on another night, the Hoosiers will still do what they do best, set screens, box out for rebounds and keep the ball away from the star opponents. Watching Indiana move without the ball is almost as much fun as watching Michigan move with it.

And yet, though the tendency is always to say a disciplined “system” such as Bobby Knight’s will win over a more free- form style such as Michigan’s, don’t forget this was a one- point game, that with an inch or two on a jump shot, coulda, shoulda, woulda gone the other way.

Too much made of endings

As the reporters filed out of the locker room, Voskuil tugged on his green coat. He talked about “not making a big deal out of this.” He, of course, is right. And yet you had to feel for him. The last time Michigan lost by a point, he was a sophomore and he was starting. Now he is a senior and has to wait behind the most-celebrated recruits since the Beatles accepted Ed Sullivan’s invitation.

He doesn’t complain. He has adjusted his game. He plays smart most of the time, and you take away his eight points, four rebounds and three assists Tuesday night, and you don’t have to worry about who makes the last basket.

“You know,” Fisher said, eyeing Voskuil from across the room, “if that shot had gone in, he’d still have his uniform on and a mob of reporters around him. It’s not his fault. But we make so much of the endings.”

Too much. In this case, it was the meat of the game that was worth remembering. And what it showed us is this: The Hoosiers and Wolverines are indeed what they are cracked up to be this season, and on a night when they both play their best, the game will probably come down to something small. Something small that, in the end, will look way too big.

“This shot is not gonna kill me,” Voskuil said, zipping on his jacket and his bravest face. “I’m gonna get up in the morning, go to class, come in here tomorrow . . .

” . . . and work on the jumper.”

He’ll be all right.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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