I am at the intersection of 8th Avenue and 33rd Street -- the intersection of glory and possibility -- in search of Gary McGhee's ankles. It has been four months now and still no sign.
Not a talocrural joint to be found anywhere.
After agonizing over two richly deserving choices, I made my decision on the UConn Play of the Year. And it is the same one as 60 percent of the 3,449 voters in The Courant poll. We have a winner. It is Kemba Walker's remarkable step-back jumper from 18 feet that beat the buzzer, beat Pittsburgh, and felled a giant human redwood at the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
It was the moment that anything became possible for the UConn basketball team. Anything, of course, except finding Gary McGhee's ankles.
They're not upstairs in Madison Square Garden. They're not downstairs in Penn Station. They're not across the street at New York's Farley Post Office where my cousin was once postmaster general. To paraphrase the building's famed inscription: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night has stayed this courier from his appointed rounds. Heck, I even checked with my brother-in-law who's a Port Authority cop. The ankles were not caught trying to sneak through the Lincoln Tunnel.
We did catch up with the rest of McGhee by phone Saturday. Not selected in the NBA draft, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound center signed this past week with KK Zagreb. Their nickname is the Ants, which doesn't do justice to McGhee's powerful frame, which includes arms like anvils. McGhee's dream, of course, is the NBA. His chance to play for Oklahoma City in the summer league was derailed by the lockout, so the dream takes its path through Croatia. FYI, the word for ankle in Croatian is glezanj.
McGhee gets high marks for being a good sport about the poll. Asked if many people talk to him about Walker's basket that gave UConn a 76-74 victory and left him crumbled in the lane, McGhee said, "Obviously, yeah. It was a big play." And, no, he hasn't talked to Kemba about it.
Nearly five times as many folks voted for Kemba's ankle breaker than Dave Teggart's field goal to put UConn in its first BCS bowl. We could have had 10 times as many votes if we allowed ballot box stuffing, but there was only one vote per IP address. So we have a fairly clean decision.
None of this diminishes Teggart's heroics. If history was the determining factor, his 52-yarder with 17 seconds left to beat South Florida 19-16 would have to be ahead of Walker. It was a seminal moment. Heck, if you had said a decade ago that UConn would be playing in a BCS game in 2011, they would have put you in a straitjacket. I loved the way Teggart's mom hid on the concourse at Raymond James Stadium, unable to watch. I loved the way Teggart's 50-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter made it by inches, but the 52-yarder just kept sailing into UConn glory. I loved the way his dad, who had come from Northern Ireland in 1970 and kicked at New Hampshire, was so proud of his boy. And how Geno Auriemma, caught up in the football ride, too, observed, "The kid didn't need a plane to go home."
That's why I agonized.
Yet in the end, it had to be Kemba. Never has a UConn athlete given this state a more thrilling ride. The entire poll could have been Kemba highlights. He scored the winning basket every other night, but that play to beat Pitt, man, was a signature play from a signature player.
"I knew UConn was a good team," McGhee said. "They played really well early in the season. But I don't think anybody really expected them to do what they did. That run they made, they played together at the right time."
The run they made was, in fact, one of the most incredible in college basketball history. Five games in five nights to win the Big East and six in a row to win the national title. After a regular season finale against Notre Dame nothing seemed possible. With Kemba's step-back suddenly everything was probable.
After watching the play 50 times frame by frame I prefer to call it a jump back. With 2.6 seconds left, you can see Kemba exploding back off his right leg to gain separation. His leg looks 10 feet long.
"The pick and roll, we switch everything the last two minutes of the game," McGhee said. "And that's what we did on the play."
So there's a one-through-five switch on all ball screens?
"Yep," McGhee said. "That was the way we ran it all season."
With 12.5 seconds left, Walker was 35 feet from the basket, guarded by Brad Wanamaker. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, followed by McGhee, was beginning his move from the low blocks toward the top of the key. As McGhee explained, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon made an adjustment in the timeout to switch him onto Coombs-McDaniel. Dixon figured UConn would run a screen-and-roll with Alex Oriakhi. He put 6-5 Nasir Robinson on Oriakhi, giving him a quicker switch on Walker. Jim Calhoun made a great adjustment. He went at McGhee.
With 10.5 seconds left, Coombs-McDaniel screened Wanamaker and McGhee stepped out on Walker. With 9.5 seconds to go, after Wanamaker fought through the screen, it looked as if he might have been able to get back on Walker. But there would be no doubling-down on Kemba. Nor was there any defensive rotation onto Coombs-McDaniel off the roll. There would be a straight switch. McGhee wanted Walker. You can see Wanamaker poking McGhee, to, yes, take him.
"I usually do a good job of staying in front of guards," McGhee said. "I move my feet pretty well for a big guy. They don't usually beat me for a layup or an open jump shot."
Kemba is no ordinary guard. He is Kemba. With everybody cleared out, Walker calmly stepped back from McGhee for nearly four seconds. With 5.5 seconds left he was still 25 feet from the basket. It was cobra and the giant now. A bad mismatch. With 4.1 seconds left, Walker darted in once and pulled away. He had McGhee scuffling. He went at McGhee again with 2.8 seconds left and that's when it happened. Kemba showed his trampoline leg that allowed him to jump back three feet. McGhee, ankles gone, buckled in the other direction. With two seconds left McGhee was on the floor. When the ball left Kemba's hands with 1.7 seconds left, there must have been 10 feet of separation. Swish.
"He crossed over from [my] left to right," McGhee said. "He pulled it back and went to his left hand. I thought he was going to drive. He pulled it back again. Good move. Good shot."
Great move. Great shot. Moments after the game, Walker said, "I knew McGhee was going to switch I knew he was so much bigger than me that if I do a lot of moves he couldn't stick with me.
"It's great to do it in your hometown."
So here we are in Kemba's hometown, four months after glory intersected with possibility, and still no sign of Gary McGhee's ankles.