They showed up to watch, just two of 13,529 spectators on hand for tonight’s Runnin’ Rebels game against Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center. But fate has intervened, and Ryan Morris and Mike Clark have suddenly found themselves in the tunnel leading to the UNLV locker room, nervously spinning basketballs in their amateur hands, about to become part of the evening’s entertainment.
Morris and Clark were selected as contestants in a popular in-game promotion, the type of sideshow designed to distract fans during the multiple time-outs that can artificially stretch out and slow down an otherwise fast-paced game. The UNLV sports-marketing machine does a good job of keeping the ball rolling during these breaks—cartoon cars duel on the scoreboard, kids race to don oversized basketball gear and shoot layups and adults scramble to smooch for the venerable Kiss Cam.
But the most popular of these gap-fillers, based on fan reaction, is a shoot-out sponsored by a local auto dealership. Two fans are pulled out of the crowd and given 30 seconds to make, in succession, a layup, free throw, three-pointer and half-court shot. Riches, adoration and years of YouTube glory no doubt await those who can pull it off, but tonight’s participants are just hoping to avoid abject humiliation.
“I’ll feel good if I can make it to the half-court shot,” says Morris, a 29-year-old in a Detroit Tigers cap who played guard during his high-school hoops days in Centerville, Michigan “Actually, I’ll just be happy if I don’t shoot any airballs.”
Clark, a stocky 39-year-old with a limited basketball résumé, also sets the bar low, hoping to make it past the free-throw line. He assesses his chances as “slim to none.” He says he hit a few half-court shots back in the day in Saugus, California, but hasn’t played competitively in years.
Their demeanor is nothing new to Chet Buchanan, host of the Morning Zoo on KLUC 98.5-FM and the announcer for these promotions. “Everybody gets nervous when they start looking around and seeing how many people there are in the crowd,” he cackles. “They don’t want to make a fool of themselves.”
Still, three contestants have sunk the half-court shot this season, after a three-year dry spell with no winners. “Sometimes you’ll get an athletic guy who just exudes confidence,” Buchanan says. “They’ll walk around like, ‘Yeah, I got this.’ The last guy who won, I knew he’d do it when I saw him. You could just tell.”
Tonight contestants aren’t offering similar clues. As they fidget in the tunnel as the clock ticks down to the moment of truth—at the third media time-out of the second half—the enormity of the crowd begins to sink in. Clark tries to stay loose with a little more gallows humor, and the Kiss Cam makes for a welcome distraction, but the tension in the tunnel is unmistakable.
As the eight-minute mark passes, Buchanan rallies the troops: “Okay, next whistle, guys!” And a minute later, dry-mouthed and sweaty-palmed, the shooters take the floor. Beneath the west basket, Morris spins his cap around and bounces on his toes, while Clark waves to the crowd with a “let’s get this over with” shrug at the east end.
Buchanan gives the go-ahead, and both contestants hit their first layup attempt. Morris’ first two free throws rattle out before he swishes the third and moves out to the arc. Clark struggles with his shot before sinking his fourth free-throw attempt.
Morris strokes a couple of sweet-looking three-pointers, hitting the second shot, and he scrambles to midcourt with seven seconds left on his shot clock. At the other end, Clark draws nothing but iron on a handful of 22-footers, as his time runs out.
Meanwhile, Morris heaves up his first half-court prayer, on target but about a foot short. With time for one last shot, he steps back and launches a bomb. It has the distance … but it caroms off the left side of the rim, kisses the backboard and bounces harmlessly away.
Back in the tunnel, relief trumps disappointment—neither shooter has embarrassed himself. The contestants shake hands and prepare to disappear into the crowd when they’re asked what prize was on the line.
“I think it was a one-year lease on a Saturn,” Clark says.
Morris stops in his tracks. “Oh, was it?” he responds with genuine surprise. “I’m glad I didn’t know. It took all the pressure off.”