Resetting the Scoreboard

What was Daniel Joyce thinking during those 59.4 seconds? For there he was, in the middle of this farce of a basketball game in which the final four-and-a-half minutes of game time had taken 40 minutes of real time, festooned with fouls; time-outs; botched calls; lengthy conferences between the referees, the scorebench and the coaches; missed free-throws; a brawl; ejections; one team pretending the game had finished; and now this, the timekeeper trying without success to accurately reset the clock. And only minutes earlier, his teammates and coach were willing to show the whole stadium that they had no confidence at all in Joyce’s shooting ability. On this night, the National Basketball League felt a long way from its second-tier competition. And one wonders whether Joyce, still young at 22, but already a man who has experienced 4-5 NBL seasons, is thriving on the competition and excited about the victory that his team will have secured in less than a second, or if he’s despairing at the fact that all of those hours on the court and in the gym are only gleaning surreal, farcical experiences such as this.

It’s a miserable, wet, cold night in Geelong. A perfect night for what one receptionist was heard referring to as “the trifecta” that she was looking forward to enjoying that evening: a roast dinner, ugg boots on the feet, and the Cats playing away at Subiaco on Channel Ten. Yet a reasonable crowd makes their way into Geelong’s basketball stadium – “The Arena” – and becomes what is surely the biggest gathering at any match of the South-East Australian Basketball League for Round 12. The crowd is genial, the kids are chanting, the mascot engaging, and the cheerleaders excited and well trained if a few years too young. The free copies of the Geelong Advertiser are almost all gone from beside the entrance, with very few people appearing perturbed by the fact that the paper tells them that the game is due to start at 7:00, when in fact their tickets say 7:30. The Geelong Supercats and the Ballarat Miners may not be household names around Australia, but the local administrators are still keen to put on a spectacle.

The first time I saw Daniel Joyce, Mrs EPO and I lived in Wollongong and were regularly in the stands for Wollongong Hawks home games in the NBL. Joyce was a local kid, growing up on the area’s basketball courts while his dad Brendan coached the Hawks through the best years in their history, including a championship in 2001. Daniel made his debut in 2005, as a still-in-school reserve point guard who would see minutes in most quarters. At the time, he seemed like a promising prospect: skilled with his hands, a decent distributor of the ball, and just in need of developing a little more quickness and a more threatening outside shot as his career progressed and he moved into the more prominent starting role for which he seemed destined.

A couple of years later, alarm bells started to ring when Brendan Joyce left the Hawks and headed off to become the inaugural coach of the Gold Coast Blaze, taking his son with him up to Queensland. Mrs EPO and I wondered aloud to each other whether we were sounding too much like disheartened parents whose kid hadn’t made the team when we questioned whether or not Daniel’s presence in the league was only due to his father’s decision to put him on the floor in the NBL.

And now, a few years later again, in the depth of Winter a long time after the NBL decided that professional basketball was going to be a summer sport in Australia, Daniel Joyce was on the floor in Geelong watching as the scorekeeper took one-tenth-of-a-second too much off the scoreboard.

Joyce’s Ballarat had had this game in the bag. They were ahead by 3 points with less-than-a-shot-clock remaining, and had the ball from their opponent’s baseline. Geelong’s Braith Cox, who my colleague, a long time Supercats fan, referred to as a “particularly dislikable” player, managed the perfect play: he fouled Ballarat’s Tarip Naqqash to send him to the free-throw line without any time being removed from the clock. A time-out was called.

Upon returning from the time-out, as Naqqash walked to the free-throw line, Cox led what became a chorus of complaint to the referees – Naqqash shouldn’t be shooting the free-throws, Cox claimed, because he had fouled Joyce, not Naqqash. It was a ludicrous suggestion, but the referee walked over to the scorebench to confer with officials, clearly unsure herself as to which player should be shooting. After the conversation, she returned to the court, agreeing with Cox that Joyce should, indeed, be shooting the free-throws. Suddenly, every player on Ballarat’s team, along with their coach and assistant coach, was remonstrating with the referee. While the former child-star Joyce stood quietly by, all of his teammates and coaching staff raised their voices in anger, disbelief, and frustration at the sheer concept of Joyce being the player entrusted with shooting the free-throws at this crucial juncture of the game. The Supercats smiled as the referees shrugged off the complaints of the Miners, and Joyce walked to the line.

As was the case the on his previous visit to the line, Joyce’s first shot wasn’t even close. Cox smiled even more broadly as he undertook what appeared to be a ritual that he would conduct between the first and second free-throws of an opponent: he walked from behind the three point line, around in front of the shooter and out the other side. Joyce’s second shot belied the laws of physics, hitting the front of the rim but somehow managing to spin upwards, dropping through the basket to the disbelief of many in the crowd.  Ballarat’s lead was 4 points.

Cox brought the ball down the court, but when flustered by a double team he was called for a double-dribble. It was impossible from the Eastern Stand to tell if the call was accurate, however the comment from Naqqash to Cox of “That’s karma…KARMA!” implied that the call was dubious at best.

Ballarat inbounded the ball, and Cox committed a hard foul. In fact, the foul was hard enough for Ballarat’s players to take offense, and a something between a scuffle and a brawl broke out, with players tackling, wrestling and throwing each other about the court.

The referees, who all stood idly by during the violence, then proceeded to have the longest and most varied number of conversations I had ever witnessed at a sporting event. There were 6.4 seconds remaining on the clock, but the referees needed to consult with each other numerous times, along with people on the scorebench, and members of each coaching staff, before they could make a decision. Before their deliberations ended, many in the crowd couldn’t remember who had started it all. Eventually, Cox was charged with an unsportsmanlike foul, and two of Ballarat’s players, including Naqqash, were ejected from the game. Geelong were awarded two shots and posession of the ball.

Two made free-throws, another foul, one made and one missed-free-throw later, Ballarat still led the game by a point as two players fought for the game’s final rebound. The whistle went to call a jump ball, and the siren went a moment later. Ballarat’s coaching staff tried to pull their team towards the changerooms – as if they thought the referees might decide that the game had ended if only the Miners left the court. The referees wouldn’t have any of it, though, and instructed the scorebench to reset the clock – to 0.7 seconds – and the possession arrow showed that Ballarat would be required to inbound the ball.

Unlike more modern, professional scoreboards, The Arena’s scoreboard can’t be set to a specific time at the push of a button. Instead, the timekeeper had to put one minute on the board and switch the timer on, trying to stop it accurately when it reached 0.7. On his first attempt, he missed 0.7, only to leave 0.5 seconds on the clock. Despite the fact that the team who was leading the game had the ball, that the clock was only out by 0.2 of a second and despite the fact that they were guessing at their estimate of 0.7 seconds in the first place, the referees informed the timekeeper that he was going to have to try again.

59.4 seconds later, he had missed 0.7 again, this time stopping the clock at 0.6. The referees decided that was good enough.

Despite the fact that it meant that they were heading home as losers, the crowd thanked the lord that their team’s final free throw had missed, as they could finally return home to watch some high-quality professional sport on television rather than having to stomach an overtime period at The Arena. And despite the fact that he was heading home a winner, one couldn’t help but wonder what Daniel Joyce thought about the last minute of the game, which felt like such an amateur imitation of professional basketball that the crowd were split into those who were laughing, those who were groaning, and a few who didn’t know any better.

On nights like this, when we wake up the next morning and wonder whether Sam Stosur is ecstatic at her efforts at becoming a Grand Slam finalist, or if she’s shattered at losing what she regarded to be a winnable French Open final, it’s occasionally worth taking a moment to think about the Daniel Joyces of this world. For there are many more having experiences like his than there are having experiences like hers.

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