The worst moment of a basketball life is a young man slumped over in front of the people who love him and those who don’t. Eyes closed, ears unable to block out the painful noise. There is no way to know exactly what this feels like. Later, someone will ask, and Elijah Johnson will shake his head. He doesn’t know what else to do.
This brutal night will stay with Johnson forever. That’s not fair, but it is reality. Johnson knows the rules. His basketball career at Kansas is over now. His last game as the senior point guard is an unforgettable collapse, a stunning meltdown in an 87-85 overtime loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday.
He has been through so much at KU. He was a blue-chip recruit who turned into a role player. He was the man who hit the most important shot — while smiling — in an early-round win on the way to the national final last year. He played what Bill Self called the best individual game at Kansas in a decade, and then heard death threats after.
Kansas basketball is a eight-figure industry that creates heroes and manufactures razor-sharp expectations. This is what the nasty side of that looks like.
“I can’t explain it,” Johnson says.
A career with so much promise isn’t supposed to end like this. Johnson is a thoughtful young man who sacrificed for his team and in a moment of stupidity — he’ll later say he didn’t realize what he did — smacked a Michigan forward between the legs and allowed millions of strangers to judge him in an entirely different light. His college basketball career is over, and he’ll never again get this stage to leave people with a better memory.
There are a million ways this could be different. A million ways the worst game of Johnson’s season — maybe his career — could’ve been a disaster avoided. A chance to do better. Motivation for a chance at another Final Four on Sunday.
Trey Burke could’ve missed that 28-footer with 4 seconds left in regulation, for starters. If he misses, Johnson is answering different questions. Or KU could have held on to leads that should have been safe. KU led by 14 with fewer than 7 minutes left, by 10 with fewer than 3 minutes left and by eight with 82 seconds left. Kansas was one of the best defensive teams in the country. Good defensive teams shouldn’t fold like this.
Losing those leads was not all Johnson’s fault, obviously. He is a guard on a team that got outrebounded by a smaller opponent. Michigan made 49 percent of its shots against Kansas. Only two teams have done better all year.
Even so, most of Johnson’s teammates played well enough to help him avoid this sinking feeling and the brutal new way in which people will now remember him. Ben McLemore, the wildly talented freshman who will probably enter the NBA Draft, broke out of a slump with 20 points. Kevin Young made all six of his shots. Jeff Withey had five blocks. Travis Releford scored 16 points, and Kansas had been unbeatable when he scored like that this season.
But this game was like no other that KU has played. The cheap shot is starkly out of character for Johnson. KU has risen to most challenges this season. But this was a collapse. No other way to put it. Michigan deserves credit — particularly Burke (23 points, 10 assists) and Mitch McGary (25 points, 14 rebounds) — and Kansas earns blame.
Johnson’s mistakes will stick through the fading of time. He missed the front end of a one-and-one that gave Burke a chance to tie the score in regulation. Johnson made a terrible turnover with less than a minute left, when he fell off balance and threw the ball away.
Still, Kansas put its last possession in Johnson’s hands. Self once said this team didn’t have a point guard, but the truth is he never stopped believing in Johnson. Not even at the very end. So with the season hanging in the balance, Self gave Johnson the keys.
Make a play, Elijah.
“I tried to look for a better shot,” Johnson said. “We didn’t get one.”
He is staring straight ahead when he says this, at nothing in particular. The daze has not yet faded. It might not for a while. Already, social media and message boards and dorm rooms and bar stools are filling with nastiness. There is frustration, sadness, anger. A season is over.
Johnson is listening to hard questions he can’t possibly answer at the moment. He is a college athlete, but right now he is answering for the giant that is Kansas basketball. This is an impossible situation.
The most clear-thinking fans will keep in mind that Johnson is a college senior. Twenty-two years old. But the questions will keep coming. This is the way it works, the flip side of all that adulation and the magazine covers.
Johnson helped win 131 games and four conference titles in four years. He started for a team that played for the national championship. There is so much to be proud of, to smile about. The other day, Johnson said he wasn’t ready to sum up his Kansas career because it wasn’t over. Now that it is, he knows this last game will stick. There is no joy without pain.
Before Johnson can even take his jersey off, there is a sound from the other side of the locker-room wall. It is the Florida basketball team, clapping and yelling at each other, ready for their own shot at something memorable.