At first, Gary McGhee saw no reason to be intimidated by Kemba Walker.
This wasn’t the first time Pittsburgh’s 7-foot, 260-pound center had to keep a dynamic guard in front of him late in a tight game.
Because Pittsburgh’s defensive strategy during the 2010-11 college basketball season was to switch every screen, opponents often countered by pitting their best playmaker against McGhee and attacking that matchup. That’s exactly what UConn tried that year with the score tied and time running out in a tense Big East quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden.
While McGhee retreated and recovered deftly for a man his size, Walker took his time setting up the shot he wanted. Walker initially drove right but found no space. He then crossed over, took a hard jab step left and stepped back to create space to release a jumper.
“It was so quick,” McGhee told Yahoo Sports. “I tried to stop on the dime and get back to contest the shot. Instead, I fell hard to the floor. I tried to get up but it all happened so fast. As I looked up, the ball was swishing through the net.”
What already was hailed as a Smithsonian-worthy game-winning shot that night gained significance as March unfolded and UConn kept reeling off improbable victories. The image of Walker sending McGhee sprawling became the signature moment of a run that included five wins in five days at the Big East tournament and another six in a row to secure the Huskies’ third national title.
For the past decade, Walker’s step-back TKO has become to McGhee what Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer is to Memphis’ Derrick Rose, Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper is to Kentucky’s Deron Feldhaus or Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast dash is to Missouri’s Jason Sutherland. It’s a moment of anguish replayed ad nauseum every March or anytime Walker is in the news.
Reminders of that play have been particularly tough for McGhee to avoid since last Wednesday when news broke that Walker was signing with the New York Knicks. As word began to spread that Walker was joining his hometown team and returning to the site of his most iconic moment, McGhee’s phone also began to incessantly buzz.
“I got an alert once he signed,” McGhee said. “Then I just saw the play all over Twitter, Ballislife, ESPN, Bleacher Report.”
The video clips — and the McGhee slander — on social media last Wednesday were especially relentless.
It got so bad that people even began displaying sympathy for the former Pittsburgh center.
To his credit, McGhee didn’t let it bother him when his mentions blew up, his friends ribbed him and New York reporters began hitting him up for interviews. The way he sees it, that’s just part of basketball.
“My friends and teammates over the years always have jokes about it or tag me in stuff online,” McGhee said. “When I train or coach kids, they remember me because of it. It’s all in good fun. If you are not willing to get embarrassed playing the game, you shouldn’t play.”
The attention that Walker’s shot still receives doesn’t surprise McGhee. As soon as UConn finished its run from 9 seed in the Big East tournament to national champion, McGhee had an inkling what was coming.
“I realized after they won it that I would be remembered forever,” he said. “That play literally started the run for their team — crossing somebody and then hitting the game winning shot.”
The replays of Walker’s shot are so inescapable that it’s easy to forget McGhee is more than just the 7-footer whose ankles Cardiac Kemba broke.
McGhee was a contributor to four Pittsburgh teams that won at least 25 games apiece, claimed a Big East regular season and tournament title and in 2009 advanced within one basket of the school’s first Final Four. Since college, McGhee has played professionally across Europe and next season will play in Mexico’s top league for Abejas de León.
While McGhee wishes he had been able to stay on his feet and contest Walker’s shot, in a way he still takes pride in his role in that sequence. How many of the social media haters were part of an unforgettable play with a future NBA all-star inside basketball’s most hallowed arena?
“Having the opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden and be on that big stage was an honor,” McGhee said. “It didn’t turn out how I would have liked but still not a lot of basketball players can say they got to play there. Infamy and fame are in the same family, either way you get remembered when you leave.”
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