I remember two years ago being a strange time, a bad stretch of life for the entire world.
I remember the ventilators and hospitals being overcrowded. I remember the daily death reports.
I remember being inside my house for longer daily and weekly stretches than I ever had been. I remember wondering how and why the Chinese let loose the coronavirus. I remember being frustrated that the world has these unexpected awful things happen again and again.
I also remember one Saturday night two years ago during all these bad times. I remember watching a basketball game – one of the top five I’ve seen in my life of more than five hundred.
I remember it was Gonzaga vs. UCLA in the Final Four. The Zags were supposed to dominate. They were unbeaten and on their way to a perfect season.
I remember the game ended with an overtime buzzer-beater by the Zags to win 93-90. I remember the quality of play by both teams being stellar. I remember many of the guys who played in that game.
But I remember one player on the court that night more than all the others. I remember his black hair and UCLA blue headband keeping all the black waves somewhat under control. I remember the early minutes when he came down the middle and slammed a dunk and I screamed.
I remember screaming because this was the Final Four and some guy for a big underdog dunked one with a message: we’re coming to win this game. I remember thinking he had guts and was admirable for dunking with aggression. I remember feeling immersed in this game and not thinking about the pandemic and all the negativity that was about.
I remember a picture of that guy hugging Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs after the game. Suggs had hit the buzzer beater and here’s the story we wrote about that: UCLA-Gonzaga Game Resurrects Us From Our Sports’ Graves (ngscsports.com)
I remember that hugging image being one of those rare photos of genuine appreciation and respect between opposing players who knew they had just been part of an all-time magical basketball performance. I remember the game being a sports competition at its best.
The entire game was exquisite, a grand illustration of non-stop riveting basketball theatre.
Immediately afterward CBS analyst Clark Kellogg stood up and clapped in the studio — a rare gesture — applauding the fight and skilled play by both teams.
“Nobody lost this game,” he said. “UCLA ran out of time.”
I don’t remember after that game thinking about that UCLA player for two years – until a few weeks ago when I realized he was still playing for UCLA. He hadn’t gone pro, to my surprise.
Oh, yes, I remembered his name: Jaime Jaquez. He had scored 19 points in that Final Four game. Just like then, he is still so much more than a scorer. He does all things you want a basketball player to do: rebound, block shots, pass, dribble, and think. He excels at all the key basketball skills. Flashy? No – except when he slams dunks. Mostly he’s practical, playing the game with efficiency, intelligence, and within a team flow.
How refreshing it is that he’s still in college, not a one-and-doner. It’s so good to see a star player stick around for four years for his college team like yesteryear when Lew Alcinder played through his senior year at UCLA.
Which is why I’m rooting for him and his Bruins to win the whole thing this time around. Wouldn’t that be a compelling story? Don’t you love guys who keep coming back, not quitting, and being loyal to their programs?
There’s more to this guy’s appeal. He’s a Mexican American. His father was born in Mexico. In 2019 Jaime played for the Mexican National Team in the Pan Am games.
His basketball successes have been piling up for several years. While growing up in Camarillo, California, he became a hoops superstar. During his senior year at Camarillo High School, he stuffed the stat sheet averaging 31 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
This year he won the Pac 12 Player of the Year Honor and was named Second-Team All-American.
He’ll get drafted and play in the pros. But that’s all in the future. The present – right now — is what matters most, these next three weeks crusading, he hopes and I hope, back to the Final Four to take care of unfinished business left on the court against the Zags in 2021.
The Bruins are a 2 seed. This season they finished with a 29-5 record. It would not be surprising if they won it all.
It will be memorable if they collide with Gonzaga again in the Final Four for one of the great rematches in tournament history.
Jaquez is the kind of do-it-all player who can carry his team to the title the way, many years ago, Danny Manning and Darryl Griffith did with Kansas and Louisville, respectively.
He’s got senior leadership experience in close games with the whole basketball universe watching. He’s got good teammates including Tyger Campbell, the team’s second-leading scorer who contributed 17 points in the Final Four game two years ago. Plus the Bruins have plenty of other talented players.
But it all comes back to the black-haired Mexican American young man. This is on his shoulders, primarily. I did some research on the best NBA players ever from Mexico. It’s a short list. Jaquez already is one of the best Mexican American players ever. If he leads his team to this title, he’ll become the most famous of them all regardless of how well he does in the NBA.
I will remember this guy forever if he carries UCLA to the national title, and probably even if it doesn’t. He’ll always remind me of that catastrophic crisis called Covid-19, that superb 2021 Final Four game, and the NBA-bound gritty guy who kept playing for UCLA through his senior year.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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