The most poignant sight of the evening came as I left the dingy little visitor's locker room and climbed the dark stairs. Alone on a step sat Roy Williams, head in his hand, slumped in abject desolation. He looked like the statue of The Thinker, if what The Thinker was thinking about was why Raymond Felton had broken off his drive to the basket after getting a step on Daniel Ewing and finding himself wide open at the top of the key. He didn't penetrate and he didn't shoot. What was Ray not thinking?
The contest had revolved around momentous little things like that. It was an ugly game in which either will or luck had prevailed--or some tangled combination of both. It revealed how fine the line was at the highest level between success and failure.
Maybe that was why Roy Williams was alone in the stairwell. He might have been wondering whether chance had ruled against him, whether he was cursed against the Blue Devils, having as North Carolina head coach lost three consecutive games to them on the last possession. I knew Williams owned a superstitious streak. So he must have been thinking about the perversities of his mojo. Or maybe he suspected that in some mysterious way, the Tar Heels hadn't wanted the victory quite as much as the Blue Devils. Or maybe they had wanted the win too much. Maybe Roy Williams was thinking about why Rashad McCants couldn't hit an open shot. Perhaps he was blaming himself for calling the Long Beach set. It had worked so well against Connecticut a season ago, but Duke seemed to have been prepared for it. All these were unsettling possibilities that could insinuate themselves into a coach's mind like invisible toxins drifting at night from the local chemical plant.
Still, as bad as Roy felt--and he looked cadaverously bad--at least he enjoyed the clarity of knowing exactly why he felt so bad and exactly what he could do to feel better the next time. Which was win. And that was one clear good thing about sports. Life was usually murky, glimpses of light through a dirty car window on a fast drive. But games inscribed a clean and simple line between the light and the dark. You won or you lost. Good, bad. Light, darkness. Sleep, insomnia.
I did the math: Carolina had 23 turnovers, which was way too many in any game, especially one in which Duke ran long offensive possessions. Rashad McCants nailed only three of 13 from the floor. Sean May, at least, enjoyed a monster game against the Devils, 23 points and 18 rebounds. To lose a game by only one, at Cameron, when North Carolina was playing below its capacities--that stood as a perversely good omen. Maybe that's what Roy Williams was thinking. But I doubt it. Not on the stairwell. Maybe tomorrow.
I came into the house and my mother was in her nightgown. The first thing she said to me was, "What was he thinking?"
I knew exactly what she meant.
"I don't know, Mama. He had the corner turned. Ewing had gone for the steal and missed. I just don't know."
"That is a sad way to lose," she said.
"I know. The worst. Not even to get a shot up."
"What was he thinking?" she asked again, almost pleading. "That was terrible. He was open."
"I know," I said. "I know."
"He'd been going to the basket hard in the second half," she said.
"I know. I agree with you. He had him beat. I don't know why he didn't drive. He would have gotten fouled, or got the shot, or found an open guy when they doubled him."
Some questions, it is clear, have no answer. Does God exist? Will there be enough Social Security for us when we hit retirement age? And what was Ray Felton thinking when he picked up his dribble at the top of the lane with only seconds left in the game and nowhere to go with the ball?
"I've got to get clothes out of the dryer," my mother said. It was after midnight and she didn't usually do this after midnight. But I understood; fulfilling a routine task can help you get over this sort of loss.
"Do you need any help?" I asked.
"I've got it," she said.
The rain came down. And those frogs in the swamp kept peeping. Fools.