Photos: Jack Western
In 1996, Space Jam was released and the world changed. For the first time ever, we saw Michael Jordan stretch his arm out across three-quarters of a basketball court as Larry Bird, Bill Murray, and Bugs Bunny watched. For whatever reason, we didn’t question why that was possible. We were more concerned by the complete lack of nuance in the narrative of this children’s story. Of course the two teams would start the game, evenly matched. Of course the opposing team would pull ahead with an insurmountable lead. Of course the protagonists would hear an inspiring speech and catch up in the second half only to face another unexpected struggle before defusing the bomb at the last second. There were no bombs in Space Jam, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is every sports, action, or inspirational “based on ‘true’ events” movie, besides Rocky, has used that same plot, and it’s ridiculous to assume it would happen in real life. Real life doesn’t work that way. Or does it?
According to the York and Northumbria women’s basketball teams, yes it does. 2014 is the year that the perfect Hollywood-style basketball game was played, and it would be a shame to waste the opportunity to tell it in the form of a three act story.
As with any respectable sports narrative, everything is even at the beginning. The score is 6-6 and both teams have their strengths and weaknesses. York are prone to throw sloppy passes and attempt impossible shots, but make up for it with their defence and Gillian Jago’s shooting.
The score goes up back and forth – 8-8, 10-10 – until Northumbria sink a free throw followed by a steal, a fast break, and another layup to pull ahead by three. Luckily, York don’t lose their moment and end the quarter with only a two point deficit at 13-15.
At this point, the game could go either way; our protagonists are pumped up and know that with some can-do spirit and maybe a musical number, they can pull ahead, winning the match over a soundtrack ideally provided by Vangelis.
This is the part of the story where everything goes wrong- the Monstars have pummeled Michael Jordan and the Toon Squad, Darth Vader has cut off Luke’s hand while Han Solo is trapped in carbonite, and York lose any hope of winning the game. Northumbria quickly pull ahead with almost no resistance.
York are plagued with turnovers from sloppy passes and their unorganised defence is no match against their opponents’ almost military-like precision. The gap in the score widens, 17-19, 17-21, 17-24. Northumbria puts up a three pointer that kills York’s morale, and their tremendous speed is an unsurmountable obstacle for our heroes. Elijah Wood having been stabbed by a Ringwraith has nothing on the despair felt in the James College Tent that day.
York only barely holds it together, and the one thing that keeps them in the game is Jago’s ability to rebound everything on both ends of the court. In the end, Leona Williams puts herself in the game, runs past the whole of Northumbria’s defence and scores. But it’s little consolation: York are still behind 25-34 at the end of the first half, and if the rest of the game goes like it did here, things won’t be looking good.
Act 3 begins, as all third acts do, with an inspirational speech. Right before the second half begins, Williams gives everyone a pep talk. It’s the Jeff Winger speech of sporting events. And it works.
The start of the third quarter is one of the most impressive displays of athleticism we have witnessed from the York Women’s team in some time. Williams leads the team in speed with Rachael Cryer as her sidekick in the offence, while everyone else works together to put defensive pressure on Northumbria. Only a few minutes ago they were behind 25-34, but now they’re not letting almost anything get past them and pull up to a score of 35-38.
Northumbria barely even touch the ball at this point, and they are getting desperate. They foul Williams (their fourth foul of the quarter, compared to York’s one), who sinks both of her free throws, evening out the score at 38-38. It’s precisely the Rohirrim at Helms Deep moment they needed. Granted, Northumbria do have a bit of a comeback and finish the third quarter with a one point lead, 42-43, but that doesn’t matter.
The fourth quarter begins with an entire array of blocks and rebounds from York, again largely down to Jago’s formidable presence in the paint. Our heroes put so much pressure on Northumbria that they are physically unable to get near the basket. It takes them three and a half minutes, a third of the quarter, to get their first points, and by then York are already ahead, 46-45.
With less than five minutes left and the score balanced at 47-47, Northumbria puts up the most tense three point attempt. If it goes in, their momentum will be back and York might have to suffer another second quarter thrashing. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, the home team responds with a three-point shot of their own, and it goes in.
With a minute left in the game, York makes the mistake of fouling Northumbria while they shoot, which gives them two points with an additional free throw, which they make. The score is 50-50. The soundtrack in everyone’s head is no doubt by Hans Zimmer. Williams shoots a fantastic field goal, putting York up 52-50. But it’s now Northumbria’s ball, and there’s 29 seconds left. Anything could happen in 29 seconds. Six seconds left- Northumbria is close to the basket. The tension is palpable. They miss.
And with that, the York Women’s basketball team overcome a brutal second quarter to win a game so worthy of a Hallmark Channel original sports biopic that it’s undoubtedly already sitting in draft form in some writer’s filing cabinet.