Dee Dee Jernigan missed a layup, which is supposedly the simplest shot in basketball. And then, seconds later, she flubbed another one. It cost her team, Xavier University, two points, a win over Stanford and a spot in the Final Four.
The price tag, though, was much higher for Jernigan, who hasn’t talked about the misses since uttering a few shell-shocked words that night. For reasons even she can’t pinpoint, Jernigan is on the telephone and talking about it now.
Every athlete and sports fan should think about her message, the one about the correlation among layups, losing, love and life. In sports there’s an often unseen flip side to one shining moment. A miscue, or two, that an athlete just can’t escape -- ever.
“It wasn’t real at the time,” said Jernigan, who became a YouTube sensation for her gaffes during last season’s National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. “It was like a movie.”
From feel-good story to comedy to horror flick. All because the ball didn’t go in the basket, wouldn’t go in.
Jernigan, even now, can’t keep from dwelling on the disappointment.
Ever since Stanford won that game on, yes, a layup at the buzzer, I wondered how a young woman moves on and gets past those misses, the ones that kept Xavier from its first Final Four.
Past Is Present
Jernigan, it turns out, isn’t moving on and hasn’t gotten past. Not yet. Maybe never. She’s stuck. Jernigan numerous times during our chat said she isn’t beating herself up. Then she admits to thinking about those layups every day.
“Game-changing. Career-changing. University-changing. Life-changing, too,” she labels those layups. “It changed my life. Not for the better, either.”
Dee Dee Jernigan used to love Googling the name Dee Dee Jernigan. It wasn’t ego run amok. It was inspiration running through the family. Her little sister would sit there, too, marveling at the list of accomplishments and accolades on the computer screen. High-school All-American. Top 25 recruit.
Jernigan doesn’t dare search now.
And you can forget about Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to heartbroken sports fans, antisocial networking is more like it. Jernigan heard from plenty of them.
Good-bye Google. Bye-bye basketball, too.
Jernigan’s affection for the game hasn’t waned, but her ability to act on it has disappeared. She always figured on playing somewhere after college. Coaching, maybe. Anything to stay close to the game. “I can probably help some young kids,” Jernigan said.
Only Jernigan won’t even pick up a basketball. She shies away from any hoops-related events, even coaching clinics. Kids, she says, use Google, too. No longer is she Dee Dee Jernigan, the accomplished basketball player. She’s the girl who missed those layups.
“It’s like nothing else that I did in my basketball life matters,” Jernigan says.
If only people could talk with Xavier coach Kevin McGuff, a father of four who frames those layups in the context of the bigger picture, of what Jernigan meant to the team, then, and the school’s program, forever. It was Jernigan, McGuff says, who in a preseason meeting made her teammates believe the Final Four was possible. Demanded that they believe.
Jernigan knows that her former coach and teammates harbor no ill-will. Still, she can’t get past it. “It kills me sometimes,” Jernigan says. “I’m just going to have to deal with it, get over it. Running away from it is not helping me.”
You Can’t Go Home
Going home isn’t an option. Jernigan grew up in East Chicago, Illinois, hearing countless recollections about the uncle who once missed a potential game-winning dunk in high school. “People remember,” she said.
Jernigan can’t forget. Or forgive, which is why she’s employed as an aide to mentally challenged adults instead of bouncing a ball or holding a clipboard. It’s a job, yes, but not a passion.
“I’m not doing what I love to do,” Jernigan said. “It’s a terrible shame.”
All because a basketball didn’t go through a hoop.
The next time Sports Illustrated or some publication like it picks a Sportsman of the Year I hope they consider ex-Washington Mystics General Manager Angela Taylor, a former Stanford basketball player who was elated when her alma mater beat Xavier for a spot in the Final Four. Only amid the jubilation, Taylor couldn’t stop thinking about Jernigan. So the sympathetic stranger penned a letter. It helped, Jernigan said, an appreciative sentiment that I relayed to Taylor.
“You can’t have played the sport and not felt heartbroken for Dee Dee,” Taylor said over the telephone. “I just felt that I had to do something.”
We all should. Starting now.
The sports world is still marveling at the accomplishment of the women’s basketball team at the University of Connecticut, which yesterday won its 88th consecutive game, tying the record established by John Wooden’s UCLA men’s team.
That’s a lot of made shots, smiles, hugs and victory celebrations.
While acknowledging the accomplishment, let’s all take a moment to remember that sometimes the ball doesn’t go in.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)