At halfcourt, one fan's shot at glory.
As he launched the $10,000 shot from midcourt of the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Thursday night, Southern Cal student Nate Erickson knew it was going in.
It was destiny, wasn't it? Well, anyone who knew his secret knew it was destiny. Anyone who knew what lay beneath. Beneath, that is, his yellow "Trojan Fever" shirt.
This, after all, wasn't any ordinary halftime. It was halftime of the USC-Oregon game and this was Nate Erickson, the kid who had grown up in Eugene.
The rules for the Nike Free Tuition Shoot-Out were simple - or so Erickson thought. Twenty-five seconds to make four shots: a layup, a free throw, a 3-pointer and a 42-foot shot from halfcourt. Make them within 25 seconds and you win $10,000 worth of college tuition.
Nobody had done it in four years. But Erickson, a freshman public relations major in USC's Annenberg School for Communication, hoped to change that.
At first, his nerves hissed at him: Miss! He barely made the layup. But he nailed the free throw and the 3-pointer, then headed for midcourt, his confidence renewed. He could do this. Just as he'd done last year at a football pep rally at Berkner High in Richardson, Texas, and won a couple of Dallas Mavericks tickets.
"As soon as I made the three I knew I was going to win it," he said later. "I was on fire."
He had about 10 seconds left. He launched the shot, this guy who had once attended Life Lutheran School at 18th and Hilyard. This guy whose mother had majored in journalism at the UO. This guy who, growing up, moved around the country but never lost his love for the Ducks.
He listens to Jerry Allen's broadcasts over the Web. He has traveled to Starkville, Miss., to watch Oregon play football against Mississippi State, and to Eugene, last fall, to watch the Ducks play USC. And as a high school senior, he scheduled his college visits at Stanford and California on the weekends Oregon was playing the schools in basketball.
Ultimately, he had decided to attend USC based on his desire to be a sports announcer - and because it was able to provide more scholarship money than Oregon. But he knew where his true loyalties lay.
In fact, before flinging the midcourt shot, he pointed to some of his friends in the USC section, almost in Babe Ruthian fashion, as if to guarantee what was about to happen.
Thud. The ball bounced hard off the backboard, not even hitting the rim. The crowd, at 2,725 meager to begin with, responded with a collective groan.
But wait. The ball was bouncing right back to Erickson. There was still time on the clock.
Scott Phillips, a cameraman for the Oregon Sports Network, was standing on the baseline near the basket. `The public-address announcer was saying, `Hurry up, hurry up, get it off!' '
Erickson grabbed the ball, made sure he was behind the line and fired again. The buzzer went off when the ball was in the air, meaning he'd gotten the shot off in time.
It hit the backboard and shot through the net. Good! The crowd erupted. The announcer intoned some sort of "Attaboy!" Erickson leaped into the air.
What happened next is where the story, depending on your point of view, either soared to another level or soured dramatically. What happened next was Erickson ripped off his "Trojan Fever" shirt to reveal this: a green UO basketball jersey with Aaron Brooks' Number `0' on it.
It was, you might say, the ultimate Trojan horse maneuver.
The crowd rained down boos. Erickson ran over to sidecourt, right in front of Jerry Allen, yelled, "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!" and shook the announcer's hand.
What was going on?
"It was just something that happened in the spur of the moment," Erickson said.
"It was hilarious," said Joe Giansante, sports director for the Oregon Sports Network, who was there.
USC officials weren't laughing. Some people wondered if Erickson had gotten the shot off in time. It was shown again on the Jumbotron. "He let go before the buzzer went off," Phillips said. "Then it went in and everybody went nuts."
Until the shirt came off. Suddenly, Phillips said, a couple of people running the contest were huddled together on the baseline. "One of them was yelling at the other: `Why don't you screen these people?' ' The guy replied that it was a random drawing. What could he do?
Erickson showed them his USC identification, then walked off, giving the crowd a thumbs-up gesture.
He went to bed that night thinking he had won a $10,000 scholarship. Then came a phone call at 2 a.m. from a friend who had seen the online version of The Daily Trojan, the student newspaper. Erickson remembers his friend reading him something about a rule stipulating that the midcourt shot had to be made on the first attempt.
Apparently, he wasn't going to be getting the $10,000, which, by the way, is less than a third of the yearly $32,008 tuition and fees at USC.
Indeed, Erickson got an e-mail Friday from the USC folks running the contest: "Thank you for your participation in our Nike halftime competition. Though you completed all the shots, the contract you signed stated you are only allowed one attempt at the half court shot to win the tuition prize."
Ironically, at almost the same time Erickson took his shots, across town a UCLA political science major hit his midcourt shot at halftime of the Bruins-Beavers game to win free tuition and books for a year.
In a further irony, as Erickson peeled off his "Trojan Fever" shirt, Craig Kelley, the USC athletic department's director of marketing, was at Mac Court in Eugene, watching the Trojans-Ducks women's game.
He believes there is such a "one-shot" clause in the contract. "But I can't confirm or deny that until I see it," he said Friday night. "The contract and tape are on my desk and I'll review it Monday morning."
Meanwhile, you wonder if this even would have become an issue had Nate Erickson not shown his true colors. But, hey, he's 19, spirited and says he'll root for the Trojans whenever they're not playing the Ducks. Goodness, it's not as if he mooned the crowd or made an obscene gesture or - closer to home - tripped a cheerleader.
Nobody told him beforehand he got only one attempt. And certainly the public-address announcer - and probably most of the crowd - knew nothing of this odd "single-shot" stipulation.
"If it's in the contract, though, it's in the contract," he said. "The money is not what is important to me."
For starters, he'd just like the hate e-mail to stop coming from USC students who think he's a traitor. And for people to have a bit more sense of humor.
"All my friends here at SC know how much Oregon is a part of me. I have friends on the USC football team. My friends think it's hilarious."
He said he apologized to the guys running the contest. "I wasn't out to get anybody in trouble." But, he says, "Yeah, I would do it all again if given the chance."
Not that all is lost. Friday's e-mail informing him that he'd, in essence, broken the rules, also pointed out that for making three of four, he would get a free pair of Nikes.
Hey, wait, isn't that the company founded by that Phil Knight guy? Maybe he could intervene on Erickson's behalf.
After all, we all know what color he's wearing beneath his shirt.
Bob Welch can be reached at 338-2354 or at bwelch@ guardnet.com.