College Sports

Auburn player went too far with choke sign at free-throw line but has no regrets

Overshadowed in the insane sequence at the end of the Auburn-New Mexico State game on Thursday was a singular bizarre sight and a story in itself:

As New Mexico State’s Terrell Brown stepped to the line for three free throws with 1.1 seconds left and his team trailing 78-76, Auburn’s J’Von McCormick stood alongside him and repeatedly clutched his throat in a choke gesture.

Brown, a 78-percent shooter from the line, missed two of three — just as McCormick brazenly figured he could coax along.

“I just saw the fear in his eyes …,” McCormick said, sitting alone at his locker Friday as the fifth-seeded Tigers prepared to take on No. 4 seed Kansas in a NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional second-round game Saturday at approximately 8:40 p.m. Central time.

When I asked him if he still felt good about it, McCormick said, “People are going to do what they do, and I feel like we got the win, so …”

Auburn guard J’Von McCormick (12) plays against New Mexico State during a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger) Jeff Swinger AP

So the end justified the means to McCormick, who smiled and said that technically he was making the gesture across the lane to his teammate.

Even while it registered barely a blip nationally, his distasteful move was reverberating in the locker room on Friday, when a teammate made him laugh as he walked by clutching his throat.

While Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said “it’s certainly not something that you want or certainly not anything you promote,” he wasn’t exactly, well, pearl-clutching.

He spent most of his time answering the question of how he felt about the gesture by defending McCormick as a great kid and describing all he’s done for this team a day after he scored a career-high 16 points against the Aggies.

Let’s assume the great kid stuff to be true, and to a degree it’s exactly what Pearl should say on his behalf publicly. And even if Pearl didn’t exactly condemn the behavior, at least he concluded by saying, “You look at it as a lesson, not only for him but for the next guy. That’s not at all his character, and that’s not at all ours.”

Let’s hope not. Because this is a clear line crossed, one that deserves a broader rebuke.

Yes, college basketball has much bigger problems off the court. But one thing it indisputably has going for it, especially in March, is the game itself.

This nonsense doesn’t belong in the mix, and to let it go is to tacitly condone it.

Meanwhile, though, this moment also revives an old debate: Just where is the line when it comes to playing head games?

Heck, gamesmanship has been part of sports since the ancient Olympics, where trash talk came in such forms as “curse tablets” — like one excavated in Athens and directed toward a runner named Alkidimos.

“Do not allow him to get past the starting lines . . .,” it said, according to Tony Perrottet’s book, “The Naked Olympics.” “And if he does get past, make him veer off course and disgrace himself.”

You can trace that current all through history and observe the chicken-and-egg nature of shifts in culture and sports, for better or worse.

Some years ago for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for instance, I was researching a slice of basketball history and came across this nugget from a 1948 Missouri-Saint Louis University game: The contest, the writer found remarkable, was marred by Saint Louis “spectators making disconcerting noises” while MU attempted free throws.

The idea that fans trying to distract free-throw shooters once was considered outlandish behavior seems quaint now, of course. And it’s safe to say shenanigans among college players at the free-throw line aren’t unheard of.

But they seem to be relatively rare and typically subtle — if for no other reason than not wanting to risk a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. Players may not exactly be calling out, “Miss it, Noonan, miss,” a la “Caddyshack,” but …

In January in Lawrence, for instance, Iowa State’s Tyrese Halliburton told KU’s Marcus Garrett “give me one” just before he shot.

“And he missed, and (Halliburton) said, ‘I knew you were going to miss,’” KU’s Dedric Lawson said, smiling and adding, “But we still ended up winning.”

Striving to win is what competition is all about, obviously. But at some point it’s about the way you go about it, too. Even if the times are always shifting beneath us, it’s a slippery slope to let stuff like a choke sign go unchecked.

Told of McCormick’s action, Lawson laughed and said he’d never seen such a thing.

And no one needs to see it again, lest another line become blurred into erasure.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.