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The Amazing True Story Of A Once-In-A-Lifetime Buzzer Beater

Sometimes, the stars align and make for a truly unbelievable moment on the court. Dan Grunfeld shares the story of the greatest night of his basketball life.

Nick Robinson buries Arizona in February 2004. Photo courtesy of David Gonzales and Stanford Basketball.
Nick Robinson buries Arizona in February 2004. Photo courtesy of David Gonzales and Stanford Basketball.

Last summer, I spent a long-weekend at a venerable establishment -- the always-classy Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas -- with my two best friends from college. One of them, a teammate at Stanford, has been like a brother to me since the second we hit campus together the summer before our freshman year. The other, my random freshman roommate, was my roomie for all four years of school, three of which we slept in the same room together. That may seem dorky for a high-level college athlete, but it's not like we had bunk beds or anything like that. Okay, we did, but only for one year. Okay, it was two years, but at least it was early in college. Okay, it was our junior and senior years, so there's really nothing more to add here, except to say that I love these two guys and that I wouldn't trade that bottom bunk for anything.

One afternoon during this trip, we were poolside in the million-degree heat, making fun of each other and reminiscing, obviously, when my teammate hit me with the following question: "DG, if you could go back and live one day of your life over, just to experience it again, which would it be?"

Underneath his rugged exterior, he's a thoughtful guy, and I appreciated the question. I went over some memorable times in my life: the night I saw Jim Carrey host SNL with my family in ‘96; the afternoon I got a cortisone shot in my ankle during one of my summers as a pro and proceeded to watch 19-1/2 episodes of Entourage with my foot elevated until I fell asleep; the day I nervously bumbled through everything I did and stammered incessantly until I finally popped the question to my girlfriend, which was thankfully answered in the affirmative. All of these days were amazing, particularly the engagement, but the answer to my teammate's question was a no-brainer. And he knew it. I started smiling, and so did he. We didn't even need to say anything.

No other day could compare to the Miracle at Maples.

And just like that, baking and boiling in the Nevada heat with two of my best friends, one who wore a uniform with me on that day and one who cheered us on from the bleachers, the once-in-a-lifetime basketball experience that I was so lucky to be a part of came rushing back.

It was our sophomore year at Stanford. Our team was ranked second in the country -- on our way to No. 1 -- and we were in the midst of one of the most improbable runs in recent college basketball memory. It was February, but we hadn't lost a game yet. We were an incredible 19-0. Our streak, though, had been in jeopardy on a number of occasions, including the previous week, when we had gone down 19 in the second half to Oregon on the road. As a gritty, united and selfless group, we found a way to steal the game from the Ducks in Eugene, thanks to a late rampage by my boys Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz (the pensive asker of the question above). It's hard to understand the camaraderie and closeness that existed on our team, but we all genuinely cared about each other and trusted each other, and it showed. It had been a storybook season up to that point with a great group of guys -- a ride that none of us could believe we were on -- but we all knew that if we were going to get our 20th straight win, it would be our toughest yet.

We were playing one of our biggest rivals and one of the most talented teams in the nation: the 12th-ranked Arizona Wildcats. They had Andre Igoudala, Channing Frye, Salim Stoudemire, Hassan Adams and Mustafa Shakur, all eventual NBA players. Can you imagine having to defend that team? Me neither. We had already beaten them by 10 earlier in the season, on their home court in Tuscon, led by our best player, Josh Childress. At that time, they were third in the country and we were fourth. Since then, our rankings had changed a little, but the rivalry had stayed the same. The rematch was the biggest game of the year and the greatest threat to our perfect record. But this time, it was in our gym: Maples Pavillion. 

As if the buildup to this showdown wasn't massive enough, the game also happened to fall on my 20th birthday: February 7, 2004. I wore jersey number 20, and we were going for 20-0 on my 20th. I'm not really a numbers guy, but that was pretty cool. Befitting a contest of this magnitude, the game was to be shown on national TV, with Dick Vitale and Brent Musburger on the call. Predictably, campus was as electric as I'd ever seen it in the days leading up to the game. Our fans had camped outside of our arena for at least a week. Oh no, not to get tickets. They already had tickets. They just wanted to be the first ones in the building so they could get good seats. They literally slept in tents outside of Maples, enduring the frosty February nights of Northern California, just so they could be the first through the doors and into the stands for Stanford-Arizona. 

Every day after practice that week, we'd see our fans in their tents; hanging out, talking, studying, throwing Frisbees, and probably starting amazing companies or saving the world in their spare time. The day before the game, we brought them donuts, which I think they appreciated -- especially my roommate, one of the more enthusiastic of the tent-dwellers, who has always had a special affinity for a finely-glazed doughy treat. A bunch of my other friends camped out, too, and though they were crazy for sleeping outside most of the week, God bless them and their support for the Cardinal.

Once the doors opened and warm-ups finally started on that sunny Saturday in Palo Alto, it was easy to tell that something about this game was different. I could feel it right away. Our biggest rivals had come onto our campus in front of our fans to end our streak. This was serious stuff, and the national camera crews on the sidelines didn't exactly make our legion of fans, the Sixth Man Club, act any less like psychopaths. Neither did the dude in the front row, wearing the same long-sleeved Stanford shirt as the Sixth Man members themselves. It was Tiger Woods, a Stanford alum, at the height of his glory. Tiger, one of the most famous people on the planet, was sitting courtside at our game, decked out in full Stanford apparel, to support our quest for 20-0. Whoa. I hadn't been that excited since my sister gifted me all of her slap bracelets back in ‘92, including the neon-orange leopard print one (sorry to rub it in).

Our whole team was jacked up to play, and aside from the few "Happy Birthday Dan" signs in the crowd (and my mom flying in for the occasion, which was great), it was hard to remember that it was my birthday. The atmosphere was too electric. The famous Stanford Band was blasting tunes, the fans were screaming their lungs out, and our dancers, The Dollies, were shaking what their respective mommas gave them. Tiger was slapping fives and pumping his fist like he'd just birdied the 18th. And Dickie V was probably using alliteration to say catchy things about college hoops like only Dickie V can.

The day was set up to be magical from the start, and the action on the court did not disappoint. It was a competitive, hard-nosed battle throughout, but truthfully, the first tangible thing I really remember about the game, aside from me trying to dunk on Andre Iguodala in my limited action and not succeeding at all, was standing on the bench, side-by-side with my teammates, down three with about 30 seconds left. Arizona had the ball, and for the first time all season, I thought, "We're actually going to lose this game."  It had been close the whole way, but now ‘Zona had the ball, the lead, and the momentum. 

At that moment, I couldn't have come close to imagining what was about to happen, but I'm forever grateful that it did.

Our determination and hustle somehow forced a steal in crunch-time, then Josh Childress and his pristine afro buried a three-pointer to tie the game. It was still Arizona's ball, and when they were running down the clock to go for the win, I'm pretty sure that no one in the building thought that Stanford would come up with yet another steal and keep perfection alive on a game-winning 35-foot-bomb at the buzzer. Thankfully, that's exactly what happened, and it was absolutely bananas, the type of moment you see in movies and can only dream about experiencing in real life.

It's still virtually impossible to put into words exactly what it felt like to be a part of this madness, except to say that rarely, once in a very small while, you get the feeling that what has just happened to you was destiny. That's the only way I can describe it. For us to be in the situation we were in, with the amazing group of guys we had, and to win that game in that way in front of those fans on my birthday. Holy crap  I'm not rude enough to play Words With Friends at dinner (looking at you, mom/sister/aunt), but I still have enough vocab to say that destiny is the best way to explain how it felt to see my man Nick "Pops" Robinson's shot splash through the net that day.

It's important to note that once we all found our way back to the locker room after the long and emotional celebration, Tiger came in. He told us how proud he was of us and how he tried to watch as many of our games as possible on TV. He also slapped my hand (bonus!). Later that night, I had a great birthday dinner, and afterwards, we of course went out on campus. To be expected, the party was insane, and I even let my teammate Carlton "You Heard The Nerd" Weatherby roll with me for once. It was a nice gesture on my part, but I didn't stay too long. A friend puked five minutes after we got there and I had to help take her home. Cool girl, but not a strong move at that point in time.

Words really don't do justice to an epic college basketball buzzer-beater like this, so I'll let the video do the rest of the talking for me. Be sure to check out  No. 20 on the bench, jumping up and down like a maniac at one point; sprinting to half court then leaping on the pile at another. That pile grew so big so quickly that those of us on the bottom couldn't breathe and were getting crushed by the mob of fans. Luckily, we got it worked out.

On a personal level, it's crazy to think that this unforgettable day was close to eight years ago.  A lot has changed for me since then: I'm 27, I'm engaged, I've played in Germany, Spain and Israel. I have chest hair now. I both learned and forgot how to drive stick. I'm at such a different point in my life that I rarely talk about that game or even think about it much anymore. But as luck would have it, a simple question asked on a hot day by a brother in Vegas made it all come back to me. And I'm really glad it did. It's always nice to remember the friendships formed and the battles fought in college, and aside from that, it was just one hell of a day. And if you don't believe me, then watch it again yourself.  You won't be sorry.