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What A Young Basketball Player Felt As He Aimed For A Life-Changing Shot — And Missed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Biles' decision to withdraw from this week's Olympic competition shocked fans worldwide. She acknowledged that her emotional state was shaky and that being the star of the Olympics was no easy thing. Biles became the most recent athlete to train the spotlight on the mental health of competitors.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In sports, we usually focus on what's happening on the gym floor, the field or the court - what athletes are doing. Today, we're launching a series that focuses on what athletes are thinking during and after clutch moments in their performance. We're calling the series Almost a Dub, conversations with athletes about moments of victory, defeat and perseverance that went on to shape their lives.

CHANG: That moment for Darius Washington Jr. came 16 years ago. He was in college and one of the top five freshman basketball players in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Darius Washington Jr. - he's got 10 points.

CHANG: It was the championship game that would get his team, the University of Memphis Tigers, to the NCAA tournament - the so-called Big Dance. The Tigers were trailing, 75-73.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Two-point game, Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He got hit.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Foul on Garcia.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He got hit.

SHAPIRO: In the last second of the game, Washington is fouled and steps up to the line to take his free throws. Washington's dad, Darius Washington Sr., who was a good basketball player himself, had groomed his son for this moment.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: I grasped the concept of - it's all about winning. And that's what I instilled in him. Nobody remembers second place. No one.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: There wasn't a day that didn't go by that we didn't do something with the basketball. You know, we were in the gym, you know, from sunup to sundown pretty much. And we just pounded it, pounded it, pound it, until it became second nature.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: We were at a tournament, and they came in second place.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: Oh, yeah.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: So - and on the way home, he had the trophy. Remember this? He had the trophy in the car.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: Yeah, I was happy, yeah.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: So he was happy about that second-place trophy.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: I'm happy. Oh, yeah.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: And I was like, you can get in the car, but that second-place trophy ain't getting in this car.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: ...Ain't getting in this car.

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: So...

(LAUGHTER)

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: So he held it out the window while I was driving. Now, he's in the car; the trophy is out the car. And when I tell you I was trying to hit all the bumps and everything, you know, for he can drop that trophy because we wasn't going back to get it - from that point, he knew that second place was just something that we just was not going to tolerate.

CHANG: Man (laughter). Second place was not something we were going to tolerate - the dad lesson that was drilled into Darius Jr.'s head. And that lesson was on his mind as he stepped up to the line to make those free throws on March 12, 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: If he hits three in a row, Memphis goes to the NCAA championship.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: I was nervous on the first free throw. But you see that one went in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Two to go.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Boy, does that take the pressure off right now.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: The toughest one was the first one, for sure. When that one went in, like, you couldn't tell me I wouldn't make the next two. And when I missed the second one...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Vern (ph), I would be hard pressed to tell you right now that if you - you'll see a more pressurized situation this year in this tournament as we're watching right here.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: I was like, all right, all right, I'm definitely going to knock this one down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Tournament's on the line.

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: It fell short.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Louisville wins.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Somebody's got to go help that kid out.

SHAPIRO: When the third ball bounces off the rim, Darius Jr. sinks to his knees, pulls his jersey over his head and just lays down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: We were actually behind him. So when he went down and I seen it, I knew from that point - and I had told my wife. I was like, I got to get down there 'cause they ain't going to get him off that court. So I tried to get down. Security's trying to stop me. Then somebody was like, that's his dad. The coaches was out there. I mean, they were trying to get him up, but he wasn't going nowhere 'cause I know my son.

So I get out there and bend down. And I was like, listen; we're going to walk out of here. We're going to walk out with our heads high, and we'll discuss all this in the locker room. So we went in the locker room. Basically, you know, he let it all out then, you know? He was frustrated. He was throwing stuff. And, you know, I was allowing him to do - you know, just get it all out, you know? And he was like, this not supposed to happen to me - dah, dah, dah, dah, dah (ph). And I was like, well, we in this together 'cause my name is Darius Washington, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: So I got to walk this path, too, for the rest of our lives. We can't rewind it back. We can't do anything. We're going to hold our heads up high, and we're going to make it work. So, you know, at this point, we just got to get out of here, get back to - you know, to the hotel, and we'll talk about it some more. For the first hour, you know, we was talking - me, him, my mom. His grandma was there. Everybody was there. So we were talking about it. Then he went and laid down. So I was sitting, looking at "SportsCenter." They were showing it. I'm looking - every channel I turn, I'm like, damn. So then I started to think. I'm like, now how can I - 'cause this is definitely not a good moment in the Washington household.

So how do I, you know, get this going so he can understand it's not the end of the world? He woke up, and we discussed a little bit more about it. I showed him where he went wrong then. I showed him, hey, this is where you lost focus. When you hit that first one, you looked over to the bench. You're doing your little thing, pointing. And he saw that, and he accepted it. So about 5 o'clock, I told him to get dressed. And he was like, where we going? 'Cause I had already thought about this before. And there's no need to run and hide because it's going to come and get you anyway. So I was like, come on, man, we're going down on Beale Street. And he was like, we're going to Beale Street?

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: (Laughter) I was like, yo...

DARIUS WASHINGTON SR: (Laughter) I don't want to go to Beale Street. I said, no, we're going to Beale Street. So actually, that was the best move that could have ever happened because when we got down here, I mean, people were just, like, mobbing. They was, like, coming from all over, just mobbing, just, you know, giving him, you know, five and telling him it's all right; you know, we love you, you know? For you to do what you did, to bring them back, to show the passion, to lay out on that court, that showed that you left it all out there. And so from that point, it was real good, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARIUS WASHINGTON JR: I think if that would happen in today's era, you would have to get off social media because they going to kill you, for sure. Like, you know, with me following and - you know, all these graphics (laughter) - all these graphics and stuff they have, it's ridiculous. You know what I'm saying? So I think for the first week, you would have to definitely get off social media and let it calm down. You have to get your mental together. You got to get your mental together. Get off social media. But you got to deal with it on your terms.

CHANG: Darius Washington Jr. had a short stint in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. He continues to play professionally overseas.

(SOUNDBITE OF M83'S "MEET THE FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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