NEW ORLEANS -- Up it goes -- it is tipped -- for the final time this year. The only thing that matters tonight is right there, in the air, for less than a second.
And then the chase begins. Fifteen players will covet, subconsciously cherish and embrace every second with it. Because, with it, they have power by way of decision. The first decision, which comes with the tip, is followed by thousands of subsequent ones that sway the way of college basketball's ultimate game. Throughout the 2012 national title tilt between Kentucky and Kansas, which will end 67-59 in the Wildcats' favor (giving UK its eighth national title), the orange orb will force a two-guy tie-up and four-player scrum; intentional deceits and regrettable conceits; lift-offs and crashes. It never fails. It does not lie. It is more reliable and mandatory than any play or player, because it is integral to what any play can be or player can do. It is possession, physically defined. Its course leads to unintentional -- and intentional -- fouls, rolled ankles, bad passes, great shots.
Without it, this is only exercise.
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Its name says, "Wilson." It's made out of a combination of composite material and faux-leather that has three patents attached to it. The hybrid, fake-leather tech prevents moisture from creating a slick surface. When Marquis Teague's claws are on it, there is no loss of control. Thomas Robinson is able to effortlessly palm it, not just because he has hands like oven mitts, but because it's always dry. It was born in a factory in China in November of 2011. While others have black-leather channels that peel and deteriorate over time, this moisture-absorbing, cushion-core technology makes it what many consider to be the best on the market.
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It was one of 800 that were made specifically for the NCAA tournament. Seventy-two were stamped and sent to New Orleans. The fleur de lis artwork/logo style is adorned with a "C," indicating "championship." After rigorous inspection, it was shipped from Guangzhou, a city located in southeast China, in December. It came by ship into the Port of Los Angeles and promptly got aired to a warehouse in Nashville, Tenn. It was inspected again. On Feb. 20, it was flown once more via FedEx Air to its tournament destination: the Mercedes Benz Superdome. It sat there, locked up and untouched, until April 1.
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So now arms are raised high and the cameras attached them higher. The anticipation escalates. And up walks Mark Whitehead in black and white stripes. He is the initiator.
There: up it goes. Six hundred grams and a little more than seven pounds of air pressure floats, flashes flares, and they're off. Jeff Withey and Anthony Davis paw simultaneously. Kansas gets possession first. The pill will pull and tug 18 people up and down the floor 133 times from game's start to end. John Calipari and Bill Self won't make the complete trips, but they'll travel just as much, if not more, ground than the players and referees. Because they're magnetized by its traverse, too. You ever watch a coach when his team does and doesn't have the ball on his end of the floor? The behavior, body movement and of course vocal level can be quite different. It travels covers every square inch of the court, plus a few trips to press row and, after one Withey thwap, a landing. It came here beyond the infantry of photographers and into the alley between the students and the court.
Possession and location -- always changing. It bounces so warmly off the springy, maple, raised floor, where it will be dribbled nearly 2,000 times over the better part of two hours. It falls through the hoop 70 times, accompanied by 70 cheers. Seventy out of 154 tries, short-term success is accomplished. Twelve of those baskets will come off Kentucky assists. The passing is what makes Calipari happy. After he achieves his long-awaited first taste of a title, he'll make a point to praise his team for being one that "shared the ball."
Keep it moving. Keep opposing bodies uncomfortable, always chasing you. Share it then shoot it. And don't be afraid to hurt it. Oh, the smacking, cradling, suffocating and abuse it takes. Davis and Withey at times turned the game into volleyball, thanks to 10 blocks between the two, most of them emphatic.
Terrence Jones is angry, so he'll take it out on the ball and the rim right now. During the second half, Davis pokes it loose from Robinson, and then Jones use every muscle in his python arms to angrily, defiantly throw it through. It's 46-30, Kentucky, 14:44 remains.
It can be transference of emotion and form of communication. After a foul on Kansas' Kevin Young, Robinson has possession, only he doesn't. Referee Mike Stuart wants to get this moving along and hand things over to Kentucky. Robinson isn't happy with the call. He forcefully hands over the goods to Stuart.
"Don't give the ball like that to me again," Stuart says in a scold. It's 56-44 with 6:02 remaining. Robinson's Kansas career is likely coming to a close with a loss. His team's spirit is wavering. Few chances, fewer touches.
It never had a higher fight in flight than with 4:21 to go, Withey returned to sender on Davis, an awesome fight of height. That led to 59-50 on 3-point play for Taylor, it flirting on a roll with the rim two times around before falling through. Don't you love the way it can tease 10 feet up? Those seconds seem to last longer. We almost had a great finish. For a time, when it's falling through on each hoop, back and forth, it's beautiful. Truly. It's fluid sport, and that's damn fun. Robinson skies for it; it's like he's off a trampoline. One arm, into the crook of his elbow and back to earth Robinson lands. Suddenly, the lead is five. Give it, give it, give it. We're now seeing bounces faster and more frequently than the seconds, which seem to drag slower for Kentucky. Suddenly, uncertainty. It's 62-57 Kentucky, 1:11 to go, Davis on the line. The first smacks the back, then the front, and pops right. No good. The second throw is pure. Then, Taylor throws it away. Down six, it's a giveaway. The game goes Kentucky's way when the ball falls wrong for one and right for the other.
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It's over. Teague has it. The seconds disintegrate, and up it goes. It's higher than it's been all night. It falls, coincidentally, into the hands of CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel. He knows what I'm writing about. He wants to keep it and give it to me. An NCAA officially promptly swipes it from him. Eventually, the coveted ends up in the arms of Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua. He cradles it in his left hand while he answers questions on the floor, then hugs his wife and family, who are in tears in the stands. No one is awarded the game ball afterward by Calipari; the team is too rambunctious with pride and proven belief that they accomplished what they expected. After the in-stadium celebration ends, it is lugged out with the team's equipment, to the bus, off to the team hotel, in safe storage. Eventually, it will likely land in a trophy case, full of signatures and symbolism. The game, the season, it's over now. There is no reason for bounce. The reason for playing, the catalyst for championships, it officially stops until October.
Then we begin again. Playing it, chasing it, shooting it, watching it. It is basketball.