Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 16, 2019

One Gentle Swish, A Long Time Coming

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life returns from a brief break necessitated by a medical issue. Apparently, an original issue part was not warrantied for the life of the vehicle. While the resulting surgery will keep me at home for a bit and forced the cancellation of plans to attend this weekend’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I am happy to report that an expected full recovery is running ahead of schedule. Thanks as always for your support.

To anyone who hasn’t experienced it, describing the noise level inside a professional sports venue as rabid fans give voice to their heartfelt desires in the final moments of a crucial contest may well be an impossible task. It is not just the sheer volume of noise that overwhelms the senses, but also the intensity of raw emotion behind every shout and scream, as hope and despair share momentary space on a knife edge, with the only certainty that just one will survive the next few ticks of the clock, becoming forever the way the moment is remembered.

In our various games certain venues have earned reputations as particularly compelling locations for the expression of fan sentiment. There is Anfield in the English Premier League, home to Liverpool FC. CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where celebrations by fans of the NFL’s Seahawks have been known to register on nearby seismic monitors. Yankee fans in the second and third decks of the old Stadium could feel the concrete and steel shake beneath them at crucial moments in their team’s storied history. Indoor arenas, largely because of their smaller capacity, are less often cited as locations for sensory overload. But make no mistake, put eighteen or twenty thousand screaming partisans in a confined space and the result is sure to be memorable.

There is thus no lack of irony in the fact that the noise an NBA fan most wants to hear at any time, and never more so than as the clock expires in the seventh game of a playoff series, is barely discernable in an otherwise silent room. It is the softest sigh of sound, like a gentle breeze moving through pine boughs on a warm and drowsy summer’s day, the sound of a basketball finding nothing but net – swish.

That was the sound the nearly 21,000 fans crammed into Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto wanted to hear Sunday night, though it would have been impossible for them to do so, given the noise they were busy creating.

Like the entire series, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Raptors and 76ers was a close, hard-fought contest. Toronto led for much of the game, and although Philadelphia refused to capitulate, when Pascal Siakam laid in a basket to push the Raptors’ lead to four with 1:14 to play – the first Toronto points by anyone other than Kawhi Leonard in almost six minutes – the home fans dared to exhale just a bit, victory and a date in the conference final against Milwaukee so very near at hand.

But the teams exchanged fouls and free throws over the next minute, and when Leonard missed one from the charity stripe with 10.8 seconds remaining, the 89-85 margin had shrunk to 90-88. That’s when the 76ers’ Tobias Harris pulled down the rebound and released an outlet pass to Jimmy Butler, who took the ball the length of the court and tied the score with a layup. For Toronto, for Philadelphia, for 21,000 screaming fans, 4.2 seconds and a collective wish for an ever-so-quiet sound remained.

Every player on both teams, every fan in the stands, every viewer watching at home knew with certainty that Toronto’s play to win the game and the series would go through Leonard. A mid-season acquisition from San Antonio, with the right to opt-out of his contract and become a free agent at season’s end, Leonard is the Raptors’ star and had already tallied 39 points.

Toronto lined up with Leonard in the paint. With just four seconds left the Raptors eschewed multiple passes. Instead Leonard ducked behind a screen and took the inbounds throw from Marc Gasol at the top of the key. He immediately began dribbling to his right, pursued by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. As Leonard raced into the far corner of the court, Simmons gave way to Joel Embiid, the 76ers seven-footer. Leonard planted himself just inside the three-point line, and as he prepared to shoot a jumper Embiid took flight. Afterwards, Leonard acknowledged that he had thrown the shot higher than usual, knowing he had to get it over the defender.

The clock went to zero and the horn blared even as the basketball found the top of its arc and descended toward the basket. And then, amid all that noise, the sound could be clearly heard, or perhaps it was simply that everyone knew what the sound would be and so substituted thought for reality.

Clank! Not the sweet swish of success but its noisy counterpart, the ugly metallic braying of a ball hitting the basket’s rim. Leonard’s shot was half a ball short. But it was exactly half a ball short, so instead of bouncing away from the rim the ball bounded straight into the air, rising above the backboard. Down it came for a second chance. Clank! Once more leather kissed metal, and for a second time the basketball bounced, but this time the ricochet was not so high, and directed toward the opposite rim. Clank! For a third agonizing time Leonard’s shot hit the rim, but this time the contact was softer. Even as players and fans stood or in Leonard’s case squatted, all mesmerized by the slowly unfolding ballet ten feet off the ground, the denouement was now at hand. Clank! One final time off the rim, but gently now, the noise more imagined than heard. To the joy of Raptors fans, that final contact was against the inside of the rim. The ball again rebounded, but barely, just enough to center it over the basket, where gravity at last seized the day. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity spent watching a single shot, came the quietest, and for Toronto fans, the sweetest sound of all. Swish!


  1. Best of luck with your post-op recovery, Mike. Stock up on Ibuprofen and AA batteries (for the TV remote).

    • So far so good Allan. Thanks very much for your positive wishes.


      Michael Cornelius

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