Reason and the Statue of Liberty Comment Count

BiSB April 2nd, 2013 at 4:29 PM


We live in a world that has been largely demystified. We've done a pretty good job of mapping all of the uncharted lands. We have located the Higgs Boson. We have mastered fire and sequenced the human genome. And while there are many things in our world that we do not know, we chalk less and less up to the "unknowable." We give our superheroes gritty reboots to show how they could realistically exist in the world we inhabit. Reality TV has all but replaced the scripted show. Even magic has fallen victim; instead of David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, David Blaine sits in a glass box for a week and holds his breath for 15 minutes, as if to say, "we all know the physical parameters of this world, so watch me strain against them." The illusion of the supernatural is gone. We are left with merely the unexpected.


It is no surprise, I suppose, that sports have followed suit. We scoff at announcers and commentators who pretend that a thing called "momentum" exists as a causal force separate from the game itself. These mystics see "Team A is currently playing better than Team B" as a sign that Team A is being pushed forward by an invisible yet irresistible hand. The Skip Baylesses of the world insist there is a "clutch gene" which, based on my limited understanding of genetics, is the only gene that can spontaneously appear and disappear based on one’s athletic performance on a given night. Lebron wasn't clutch until he was. Tom Brady was clutch until he wasn't, then he was again, but now he isn't. NBA players develop reputations based on incredibly small sample sizes of high-variation events, all in the name of the almighty narrative.


We modernists see these explanations for what they are: crutches. It's much easier to attribute success to intangible forces than to either find and analyze the underlying reasons or to acknowledge the role of luck and chance.  You’ll never hear a commentator say, “sometimes good players miss makeable shots” or “sometimes an average player can do something great.” That isn’t satisfying, but that’s life. We want more, but sometimes there isn’t more.


So when a game like Friday's Michigan-Kansas comes along, every fiber of my rational brain tries to tell me, "these things happen." There was no voodoo. The space-time continuum did not yield just this once to the will of Trey Burke. He took a series of low-percentage shots, and he made them. I mean, look at those four shots. Trey Burke is a 38% 3-point shooter. The odds of him making three NORMAL triples in a row are about 5%. The odds of making those four shots? A 20-foot hesitation pull-up, two 27-footers, and a 30-footer? No "will to win" or "grit" or any of the hundred other clichés you can come up with can make a player capable of reliably making those shots. He got lucky, I tell myself. It was awesome and amazing and a feat of incredible skill and talent that likely won't be repeated in the near future, but it was a fluke nonetheless. “Sometimes when you’re on” and whatnot.

But I've watched the last few minutes of regulation and the first few minutes of overtime a half-dozen times. Each time I've tried to make myself believe that this is just something that happens sometimes. And each time I have failed. At this point I’m willing to swallow the clichés. Trey Burke wanted it more. He had the will to win. He put the team on his shoulders. He made the damn Statue of Liberty disappear. Don't try to tell me how he did it, or if HE did it or whether it was just one of those things that happen. Just this once I am willing to believe my eyes. Lady Liberty is gone. All that remains is Trey Burke pointing at the empty night sky.

The rote play-by-play of those four minutes hardly does his work justice, but it is illustrative.

  • Burke forces a ten-second violation.
  • Burke penetrates, draws in Withey and dishes to McGary for an easy lay-in.
  • Burke hits a long 3.
  • Burke drives for a layup.
  • Burke hits The Trey.
  • Burke hits a long three.
  • Burke hits a long two.

That's 13 points, an assist, and a forced turnover in four minutes. He was good before and after that (he scored 23 in the second half and overtime), but those were really the magical minutes. And from a purely statistical standpoint, they were outstanding. But for those who watched the game, it was simultaneously more impressive and completely unsurprising. There's a reason Josh Bartelstein was celebrating when the ball was still in the air, and it is the same reason you felt so good when it left his hand. You've seen him do ridiculous things all year. You have experienced those moments where you both scoffed at his shot selection and laughed because you knew it would fall. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t shot the ball very well for the first 38 minutes, or that he was taking a contested shot from an improbable distance under impossible circumstances. When he released that ball, I’m willing to bet most of you reacted not with a prayer but with an unspoken “watch this.” Bartelstein knew. Bill Self knew. We knew.

Bartelstein Burke_Self


Michigan fans also recognize this feeling because they have experienced its opposite many, many times. In the cold recesses of every Michigan fan's consciousness is that collective moment where Evan Turner and Josh Gasser and Kalin Lucas and Ben Brust hold an arm extended as they send a dagger straight into the souls of those helpless onlookers. There was the moment where you, like the audience in a Greek tragedy, knew the hero's fate before he did. You knew those shots were gonna drop. But for one day, Michigan finally had the deus ex machina on our side. By the time Trey hit that long pull-up two, all of your normal thoughts about ‘good shots’ were replaced by your inner Lou Brown telling Ricky to forget about the curveball and throw him the heater. We hastily scribbled a caveat to the “death to long twos” mandate (and all of the other strictures of proper basketball etiquette) that says, “...unless Trey is doing his thing, in which case, just… just watch this.”

Make no mistake; the game was not a one-man show. Michigan doesn't win that game if Mitch McGary doesn't play the game of his young life despite being punched in the groin for no particular reason. GRIII made an impossible layup from eleven feet under the basket and hit two huge free throws late. Stauskas and Hardaway had solid games. Even Jordan Morgan was there to challenge what would have been a game tying layup at the end of overtime. But that night will rightfully be remembered for Trey Burke. For a few brief minutes he made everyone believe he could do anything. If Michigan needed a four-pointer to tie, he would have made it happen. If the lights went out, he could bring them back up. If that impossibly large scoreboard came crashing down, you get the feeling he would simply shrug and say, "nah, that's cool, I'll carry this too."


Can everyone see this? Good. You’ll like this part (AP)

Brian is right that The Trey is going to be replayed during every NCAA tournament from now to the end of time, and rightfully so. It was one of the most remarkable single moments in recent tournament memory. But my lament is that it will be remembered simply as that moment. Everyone remembers the shots of Christian Laettner and Bryce Drew and Lorenzo Charles, but their shots are remembered in isolation. Trey Burke’s night was more than one glorious bomb. It was an individual effort that both encapsulates his season and made us feel for a brief moment that the gods were on our side.

Michigan fans have been incredibly fortunate to be able to watch Trey Burke do his thing this year, and among the many reasons I am so glad he did what he did against Kansas is that the basketball world got a taste of what we’ve been watching. On the biggest stage, Trey did what we have come to expect. He was unflappable. He was remarkably talented. He was clutch. We may have grown spoiled by this consistent excellence, and it will probably only be after Trey leaves that we will fully appreciate what we all just saw. In the meantime, though, Trey doesn’t seem to be done. He’s got a few more tricks up his sleeve, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss them.

Someone just make sure that he returns the statue before he leaves.


Swayze Howell Sheen

April 2nd, 2013 at 4:40 PM ^

some of us some of us have mastered fire more than others, e.g., little bro:

that said, great piece. i'll definitely remember the sequence and not just the shot, but what an exclamation point that one shot is.




April 2nd, 2013 at 4:52 PM ^

"If that impossibly large scoreboard came crashing down, you get the feeling he would simply shrug and say, "nah, that's cool, I'll carry this too." "

My favorite part, loved it.


April 2nd, 2013 at 4:56 PM ^

I'm not one to kiss ass, but your front page stuff is awesome, BiSB.  You're able to describe my feelings on the subject in a way that makes me believe that you are actually my disembodied internet voice echoing off a wall.


April 2nd, 2013 at 4:58 PM ^

Bry, when you've reached a comfortable financial position in life and you don't have to worry about school loans, you need to get out of your job and do something that you're really, really great at - writing - for a living.  (Yeah, yeah, lawyers write everyday but we all know how much it sucks.)


April 2nd, 2013 at 4:59 PM ^

Great piece BiSB. Probably one of my favorites. This should definitely be included in the MGoHallOfFame.

I agree though that Burke may not be fully appreciated until he is gone. But if Michigan wins the next two games, the realization that he is one of the best in Michigan history will be made immediately.


April 2nd, 2013 at 5:01 PM ^


I went to a gym this afternoon in order to try and reenact “The Trey.”  While I am no Stauskas, I am not terrible from three.  What I noticed other than my going 0 fer was the fact that from that distance I was not able to shoot with any form and actually have the ball approach the basket.  I ended up chucking the ball at the rim. 


It just reaffirmed what I thought.  Not only was it a clutch shot, but the degree of difficulty, and the ease by which it appeared to be released, are just amazing. 


Remember when we were worried when Morris left early for the draft. 


April 2nd, 2013 at 5:19 PM ^

Fantastic piece of writing. You captured all I have felt about Trey from the beggining of this season not to mention Trey's magic at the end of the Kansas game. 



April 2nd, 2013 at 5:32 PM ^

when he launched was a 30 footer after all.

I was still hoping that we'd get the rebound and something good would happen, but I was shocked when it went in. 

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!s filled the living room from all members of the family, including the two dogs.  (OK, their's were WOOFs.)


April 2nd, 2013 at 5:41 PM ^

I've been in it many times. When it happens to me, it's usually when I'm shooting a rifle. Everything falls away and you're just going through the motions and hitting everything. Nothing else matters right then and there. You just cannot miss. I don't think it has anything to do with luck or momentum. Many people have discussed having this feeling.


When Trey took the shot, I didn't think it was going to go in. Even after the shot went in, I figured it was going to just be another gut shot to us Michigan fans and either Michigan would find a way to lose or Kansas would find a way to win, I didn't cheer until Kansas missed the final 3 pointer and the last seconds ticked off the clock. Then I jumped off my couch and started screaming. It was a strange feeling, from the opening tip until the very end, I thought Michigan would lose the game and was just surprised at the end. This happens to me sometimes. As Michigan inched closer, I just started to get more and more irritated that they would actually tease me into making it close instead of just comfortably losing by 10.


April 2nd, 2013 at 5:50 PM ^

To be honest - and anyone can believe me or don't, I don't care - I felt the win as soon as the regulation buzzer went off.  Teams in Kansas's position just do not win in OT.  Teams don't blow huge leads like that and then salvage the OT win.  Much more often than not, the team that tied it up miracle-style wins it.


April 3rd, 2013 at 1:38 AM ^

I was extremely confident once regulation was officially over. My family was going bonkers after the shot went in and I absolutely yelled at the top of my lungs, but then I came back to reality and prepared for the letdown that would be the final 4 seconds. Once I saw that Kansas didn't salvage the win right then and there, I settled down. I may have even cackled with knowing glee at that point.

Mr. Yost

April 2nd, 2013 at 5:46 PM ^

Don't forget about Burke's Kobe assist to McGary in OT...I know it somewhat takes away from the "lore" as it was a missed shot, but he drew Withey away from the basket, got a somewhat decent look away and McGary cleaned it up for a big 2 points.


April 2nd, 2013 at 5:46 PM ^

I will never be convinced that, any time a player suddenly gets hot, it's nothing more than a quirk of probability.  Maybe it sometimes is, but even so.  The zone is real.  It's a quirk of the human brain and something to do with your unconscious mind and your conscious one and the difference between the two, not always probability.  The right motivation or circumstances will turn it on.  And since the human brain remains one of the last frontiers of earthly science, for at least a while longer the unpredicability will remain a part of sports.


April 2nd, 2013 at 6:18 PM ^

Agreed. I've had runs where I knew the ball was going in before I even started my shot. I think it's about finding a rhythm and confidence, then that rare period of time when you subconsciously (as you state) let your muscles do what you trained them to do and ignore all the other factors (other players, what you're "supposed" to do, improbability, etc.)

Drew Sharp

April 2nd, 2013 at 7:04 PM ^

I think of Tiger Woods (2000-2008) when I think of illustrations of "The Zone". When he swung the club he knew exactly what would happen every time. He would swing and couldn't twirl the club fast enough to start walking and hit the next shot. The only way I can verbalize it is pure greatness that you can't describe but know it when you see it.


April 2nd, 2013 at 8:37 PM ^

Maybe it's the case that, for me, the "illusion of the supernatural" is simply gone.

I didn't play organized basketball after high school, but I had a couple of moments then where I felt like there was no way I wasn't in "the zone." I remember one game where I made four three-pointers in the fourth quarter, and for years reflecting back on the game I remembered feeling like each shot was so ... I don't know... inevitable. I would use phrases like "the basket looked like it was the size of a swimming pool" and "I don't know, man, I just knew it was going in." And for years, you couldn't do anything to convince me otherwise. Hell, it's still vivid in my memories.

But now there's a larger part of me that wonders if it's just confirmation bias. Like, are there numerous other times when I hoisted triples and thought "oh yeah, I'm totally feeling it," only for the shot to rim out, and my mind just forgot about it or dismissed it, choosing to remember the times it came to pass? Quite frankly, that seems more likely than being in some mystical "zone" where everything I do works out.

And that's why I look with skepticism at most sportswriters, whose stock-in-trade is grafting narratives onto events that are largely random. I can't help but view things in terms of probabilities. KenPom (I think) said that with about 2:30 left in the Kansas game, Michigan had a 0.5% chance of winning. As unlikely as it was, approximately one time out of 200 it would happen. This was that time.

A large part of me wishes I still believed in stuff like "will to win" and the power of "grit." But I just don't. And that's why when I read things like "Trey Burke wanted it more," I can't help but think to myself, "did he 'want it more' the first 38 minutes of the game? If so, why didn't he do anything about it? If not, why not?"

That being said, this is beautifully written and an enjoyable read. And that's coming from an OSU grad. Good luck in the FF. Bee one gee uber alles.


April 2nd, 2013 at 8:56 PM ^

You'd have to account for why certain players of equal ability seem to be more clutch than others. It happens far too often that certain guys come through when the pressure is on, and others nut up. Certain guys make te biggest players in the biggest moments, others disappear, or worse, screw up. The QB who throws the interception. The golfer who wins lots of money but doesn't take home the jacket. And it's not just how talented you are; Robert Horry isn't making any hall of fames, but when he yet go that three at the end of a game you knew it was going in....especially if it was the NBA Finals. (Dammit)


April 2nd, 2013 at 9:13 PM ^

How much of it is actually just SEEMING "clutch"? Sure, some guys perform better in late-game situations, but small sample sizes can introduce a bunch of noise into the data. There are also unrelated reasons; a great golfer might notwin the jacket because he doesn't have the putter to play well on Augusta's quick greens. 

Robert Horry is probably a bad example, too. He MADE a bunch of big shots, but he also MISSED a bunch. People only tend to remember the hero moments, but Horry was a career 35.8% 3-point shooter in the playoffs. 


April 2nd, 2013 at 9:45 PM ^

But then you have to figure why it happens to the same guy on different courses. Why Tiger didn't blow leads when he was mentally on top of his game, but Greg Norman was known for it.

And it's the hero moments we are talking about. No one cares what they shoot the rest of the game. Someone would have to study what Horry shot at the end of playoff games. And even if it's lower, is it not as much a difference as other guys in those situations? There are a lot of guys who are great at free throws, but you aren't shocked when they clang two at the end of the game. And guys who regularly missed some, but you don't fear they're going to miss when it counts. You can be Peyton Manning who is going to be better than anyone ever for 90% of the season...but when the games get big regularly has his worst games or throws that uncharacteristic INT at the end.

It's hard to quantify, because people change. They get older, more experienced, can become mentally tougher. But the stats are only really good at quantifying how we train the body, but don't do nearly as good of a job on how we train the mind. Because the end of season "stats" said we should be watching Florida, Louisville, Indiana, and Gonzaga this weekend, instead of having Louiville joined by the 11, 13, and 33 teams. Human beings; such funny creatures.


April 2nd, 2013 at 10:20 PM ^

And people are too reactionary over it. How about Flacco do it more than one year before we anoint him more than Dilfer 2.0? But you'd probably want one Manning brother for 16 games and another for the playoffs.

There's a part of that goes beyond talent that just psychologically says "I got this" where others in ALL fields look to fade into the shadows. (A great trial lawyer vs. a guy who may be great in fixing things so you don't ever have to go to trial, but would nut up in the spotlight). Combine that with being "hot"- the luck part, and greater ability, and you do it more regularly. But having that confidence, whether you're Jordan or Horry, talent wise, frees your mind to get not that relaxed state of "flow" more often than the next guy, so sure you at not feel it and you may clang it...but you have a better shot of it happening. But there's still a lot of debate on what kind of personality traits might make one tend that direction.

snarling wolverine

April 2nd, 2013 at 5:58 PM ^

Trey Burke is a 38% 3-point shooter. The odds of him making three NORMAL triples in a row are about 5%.

But you can't exactly assume that every time he shoots it's a 38% proposition. All players have good and bad shooting nights. When Stauskas kept shooting threes from the corner against Florida, I expected them all to go in, because it was clear that he was having a hot game. "The math" would have given him an infinitesimal chance of making six in a row, but shooting is not like flipping a coin. You can get in a groove and get hot. Once Trey hit the game-tying three against Kansas, I knew he was going to keep scoring in OT. He was on. This is something that the statisticians will probably never be able to fully quantify.


April 2nd, 2013 at 6:03 PM ^

Will power is a real thing, not just a cliche, and not to be underestimated.  Burke has it in spades, and it seems to be infectious on his teammates.  Go Blue!