Seven years ago on March 21, 2014, I was walking through the parking lot of the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Mercer University’s men’s basketball team was about to play the Duke University Blue Devils in their first game of the NCAA tournament. Perennial powerhouse, Duke, was a heavy favorite to beat little, unknown Mercer from Macon.
Duke had all the marquee players who were jockeying among themselves for position in the upcoming pro basketball draft. No one had even heard of our starters, Daniel Coursey, Jake Gollon, Langston Hall, Bud Thomas and Anthony White.
Most sports analysts expected this game would be in Duke’s pocket shortly after the opening tip-off. So, it was a fair question that I was asked by a Duke fan as I was heading into the arena.
“Can you win?”
He and his somewhat inebriated tailgating buddies were wanting to place some bets on the game, and this particular fellow was trying to figure out if he should put a dollar or two on the Mercer Bears, so he could cash in in case of an upset. I remember exactly what I told him.
“If we play our best game, and you don’t take us seriously; yes, we can win.”
I won’t soil this page with his answer, but I will tell you that even through his dimming affect he registered shock and disbelief.
When the game started, there were only a handful of Duke fans in the stands. They thought that this wouldn’t even be a good warm-up game for their mighty Blue Devils. They planned to show up for the next round when their Blue Devils would be matched against a real opponent.
The Duke blue was notably missing in the ocean of Mercer orange and black that filled the arena. Students, faculty and fans came by the busloads to see our team play under this huge national spotlight. And, we were raucous!
The game began and went back and forth. We were staying surprisingly close to these basketball Goliaths. When halftime came, Mercer was down by just one point, 34-35. You could feel the rising confidence among the Mercer fans who were gathering around the concession stands, starting to imagine the unimaginable.
As the second half began, the Blue Devils made their expected surge, but we kept close. Neck and neck the game went for the next 17 minutes. At the three-minute mark, we were slightly ahead and gaining momentum. It was at that moment that I realized we were going to win.
By the time the final horn sounded, Mercer fans were going crazy and what was left of the Duke “faithful” were heading for the exits in utter disbelief. We had pulled off the upset, winning 78-71, in the most exciting athletic event I have ever witnessed.
How did we win? How did the tiny Mercer Bears defeat the towering Duke Blue Devils?
There were probably many factors that contributed to our victory, but this is the one that sports announcers pointed to that night as they tried to explain the “Mercer Miracle.” Duke clearly had better players, but Mercer had the better team.
Every one of Duke’s players was more talented, more athletic and more experienced than any of ours, but they played as individuals, trying to be impressive. That collection of five great players couldn’t beat one great team.
Our team of mostly seniors had been playing together since they were freshmen. They knew each other. They cared about each other. They were committed to a common goal, and each one contributed their unique strength and made their own personal sacrifices toward achieving that goal.
What we found to be true on a basketball court seven years ago in Raleigh is true in life, everywhere, every time. Individuals, no matter how powerful or gifted they may be, are no match for a team, united in achieving even the most impossible feat.
We are living in a divisive time when personal agendas are pushed and individual interests matter most. Nothing great can happen through this. But, imagine what could be accomplished in our communities, in our nation, in our world and even in our university if we valued the uniqueness of one another and pulled together. Imagine what pernicious problems could be solved and what life-giving progress could be made.
I learned something that day in Raleigh. We can win … but only together as a team.