Nasty Infinities: What Sheed Taught Me About Regret and Failure
A win always seems shallow: it is the loss that is so profound and suggests nasty infinities.
—E. M. Forster
It is Game Five of the 2005 Finals. I am a rabid Pistons fan. Into these particular Pistons I have invested all the energy I wasn’t spending on trying to right the ship of a life-gone-sad. This investment goes back to the 2003 playoffs. The Pistons first caught my attention when rookie Tayshaun Prince led them back from a 3-1 deficit against Tracy McGrady’s Magic in 2003. The Nets swept those Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, but I was hooked by the relative anonymity of their players and by what appeared to be their ability to win pretty much by just trying harder than the other team.
Of course, everyone knows that in the following year they traded for Rasheed Wallace late in the season and that with him they made a superb run through the playoffs culminating in a surprising 4-1 Finals triumph over the talent-laden, but dysfunctional Lakers. You’d think that would be my moment. But it’s not. That was fun, sure. In fact, I was delirious. But it didn’t feel real. It felt like the anomaly that practically every NBA commentator viewed it to be: a team without superstars simply could not win the NBA Championship. The Pistons had done it only because the Eastern Conference was weak and the Lakers had imploded (as documented later by Phil Jackson’s diary The Last Season). That seemed right to me. So while I enjoyed that first title, I was warily looking forward to the 2004-2005 season, needing a repeat title to truly feel solid ground under my feet.
Let me set the stage. The Spurs dismantled the Pistons in the first two games of the 2005 Finals in San Antonio and I felt the series was over. The next three games would be in Detroit. The first two games had given me no reason to expect the Pistons would win even one of those three games and really they needed to win all three. Even in the unlikely event they did this, they would then need to win one of two in San Antonio to take the title. Know how many regular season games the Spurs had lost at home that year? Three. That’s three losses out of 41 home contests (they were 9-2 at home in the playoffs after the first two games of the Finals). My Pistons were doomed and, somehow, I felt, that meant I was too.
Then the unthinkable occurred in Games Three and Four. The Pistons absolutely destroyed the Spurs, winning Game Four by more than 30 points. Suddenly the series was tied at two-games apiece. The next game would be in Detroit and the Pistons had all the momentum. Though I hadn’t been optimistic that even winning all three games at home would be enough, now I suddenly felt sure that they would take Game Five, head back to San Antonio up 3-2 and, given how they’d played, have an excellent chance of winning one of those two games in San Antonio. All was right.
Game Five was a tightly fought match, the first such game of the series. In fact, for all but 42 seconds, it was a one-possession game. The fourth quarter alone featured five lead changes and eight ties. Stars for both teams missed game winning opportunities in regulation. The Pistons, however, had taken a 95-93 lead with just 9.4 seconds remaining in overtime. The Spurs were to inbound from the sideline.
I was not worried. If not the best defensive team in the league that season, the Pistons were certainly the team that I would most stake money on for any single, must-have defensive possession. Sure, they sometimes had lapses. But with so much at stake, with gritty, athletic defensive terror Ben Wallace on the floor, there’s no way San Antonio scores here. This, in fact, is exactly the kind of moment for which this Pistons team was made, the kind of moment that, in the past, had made me invest so much of myself in them. The Spurs might have Tim Duncan and other more talented players, but the next 9.4 seconds would be about heart and nobody had more of that than the Pistons on defense. In the very worst scenario that I could consider plausible, the Pistons would give up a two and head back on offense tied with one more chance to win it in overtime.
On the floor for the Spurs: Robert Horry inbounding from the left sidelines, Tony Parker at the top of the key, Bruce Bowen just below him at the right elbow. Down on the right block was Tim Duncan and beyond him, on the right baseline was Ginobili. For the Pistons: Lindsey Hunter shadows Parker, Rip Hamilton is tight on Bowen, and Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace are chest to chest with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan respectively. Rasheed Wallace sags off Horry toward the lane, ostensibly anticipating an attempted pass into the lane, but remaining in position to contest a play on the perimeter.
Horry slaps the ball and the Spurs whirl into motion. Parker dashes away from Horry toward the opposite wing, aided by a feeble Bowen screen. At the same time, Ginobili uses a screen from Duncan to sprint toward the left corner, chased by Tayshaun. Wallace and Duncan fight for position on the low block right in front of Horry, who inbounds a bounce pass to Ginobili. As Ginobili catches the inbounds pass, his back to the basket, and with Tayshaun Prince just a step behind him along on the baseline, Rasheed Wallace leaves Horry and runs to double-team Ginobili in the corner.
In that half-a-second, Ginobili recognizes the double team and slips a bounce pass beyond Sheed’s approaching reach, and back into the hands of Horry, who has stepped inbounds and waits just beyond the three-point line. As Horry catches the ball, he is already setting for the shot. Tayshaun has started to switch up and Rasheed turns toward Horry. By the time Horry reaches the apex of his jump, just before releasing the ball, Rasheed is still 10 feet away, and Tayshaun, who is leaping at the shooter, is still a good five feet short. The shot will be, essentially, uncontested, Tayshaun flying and flailing past Horry’s face only after the ball has been released. The shot rattles the rim and drops through the net. As it bounces up from the floor below the basket, Sheed catches it, a blank expression on his usually expressive face.
The Spurs now lead 96-95 with 5.9 seconds to go. The Pistons will have one more chance but Rip Hamilton will miss a closely guarded attempt. Though the team would bravely rebound to win Game Sic in San Antonio and tie the series once more, the Spurs, as anyone would expect, prevailed in Game Seven at home.
I’ve seen that play dozens of times since it took place nearly six years ago. I’ve commiserated with other Pistons fans. None of us have ever been able to really accept that Sheed would leave the Spurs’ hottest three point shooter all alone (Horry had scored his previous 18 points in the game all in the fourth quarter and overtime and was 4-5 from beyond the arc) in order to double down on a player who had gone 5-16 on the night, was 25 feet from the hoop with his back to it, and was already guarded by the Pistons best perimeter defender. That Sheed was an excellent, intelligent defender only made the gaffe more difficult to take.
I don’t remember reading any explanations of Sheed’s decision. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had. I believe Sheed took responsibility for the blown coverage, but I didn’t fault him anyway. The only honest explanation would be that he made an instinctive, split-second move under pressure. And it was the wrong move. It was clearly the wrong move.
A recent blog noted that in an ESPN magazine advertisement for the network’s coverage of this year’s playoffs, an image of Horry’s shot was shown, with captions next to the heads of Horry, Prince, and Ginobili, showing what someone imagines they each might have been thinking. In the ad, there is no caption next to Sheed’s face. The blogger who posted the image invited his readers to caption Sheed’s thoughts. Nobody replied. I came across it after writing this piece, but now I think that in some way that is what I am trying to do: to caption Sheed’s thoughts and feelings because in doing so, I’m realizing, I am really captioning my own. Let me try to explain.
I feel I understand Sheed’s mistake because I have done exactly what he did so many times in my life: left myself vulnerable to the most obviously dangerous line of attack in order to go help someone else who, in retrospect, would have been just fine without my help. So I can comprehend and relate to the structure of Sheed’s particular mistake.
Perhaps I even fantasize that Sheed’s famously underachieving career stems from a strong pleaser streak in him. Hard as that might be for NBA referees to imagine, everyone has always talked about what a great teammate he is, how he is selfless to a fault. He was famously deferential on offense, famously helpful on defense. Now that I think of it, when I attended my one and only Pistons game, the jersey I bought (still the only NBA jersey I own) was Sheed’s. Sheed is probably an Enneagram 2, like me.
But it’s more than just the structure of the mistake that resonates with my experience. It’s also the repetition of the mistake via the (seemingly) endless playback of the video clip. Going back deeply into childhood and far further into my adult life than seems okay, I have—like Sheed when the clip replays—faced the same structural situation repeatedly and time and again reacted in the same misguided way.
I understand the feeling of nasty infinities.
I like to think that this has changed over the past four or five years, that I’ve learned to “watch the film,” as a coaching staff might say, to break down those situations and see how I was led to repeat a pattern and in that way, also that I’ve gotten better at avoiding both the situation and my patterned reaction. I think that’s true.
But even so it’s still painful to watch the clip. Even though it’s in the past and Sheed has surely moved on, even though I have, it’s still painful. How could my beloved Sheed put his considerable talent and all his energy into that wrong move that would cause so much disappointment and pain and regret? I feel so, so bad for him. It breaks my heart.
But of course it’s not Sheed I feel bad for. It’s me. Or, to put it more precisely, my identification with Sheed provides an outlet for the expression of feelings I have about myself. At the time that it was happening, I didn’t know those feelings were about myself. It’s only today, with distance and the act of talking and writing about that moment that I realize how it works on and in me.
I can see, first of all, that it’s hard for me, and maybe for other men, to access and express constructively feelings of regret, helplessness, and compassion for my foibles, especially the patterned ones. I can see that sports and, in particular, my identification with certain figures can allow me “safely” to experience some of these feelings for myself without having to confront them directly as such. As a result, it can be more difficult to assimilate and to use the information those feelings provide about my life in a constructive way. And I can see, finally, that the opportunity to reflect on such moments and to put them into words can take this process to yet another level, in which my identification with sports figures not only releases emotions, but also helps me to understand them.
I can begin to recognize those feelings for Sheed for what they also, more profoundly, are: feelings of frustration and regret at my seemingly inevitable repetition of certain unhappy behaviors in the past; and feelings of pity and compassion for the apparently helpless, apparently earnest version of me that kept making the same mistake again and again without, at the time, understanding why.
And so I know when my heart breaks for Sheed, when it breaks for the earnest energy with which he makes what I can see is a mistake; when my heart breaks for the numbness on his face as he holds in his hands the ball, the made shot, the ball that has become nothing but the result of his irrevocable error, my heart is breaking for myself, for the part of me, anyway, that has been there.
(first published June 8, 2011 at The Good Men ; Postscript 11/25/2012: As of this writing, Rasheed Wallace returned from retirement to join the New York Knicks and is playing an integral part — particularly as a defensive communicator — on a team that jumped out to an 8-1 record, mostly on the strength of its defense. In fact, when the Knicks this past week dropped two in a row, most recently giving up 131 points to the Houston Rockets — an obvious defensive failure — Sheed was out of the line-up with an injury.)