University of Kansas

Chalmers returns as a Jayhawk hero

The ball is frozen in midflight, a little orange sphere spinning toward its destination. The clock reads 3.6 seconds. And Mario Chalmers’ right wrist is captured in perfect form, a follow-through that could wind up in the Smithsonian some day.

In the background, on an April night in San Antonio, a thousand faces stand and stare, weary and hopeful, waiting for the ball to drop.

Bill Self says he’s watched this play more than you have. Maybe a thousand times by now. The Shot made Self a national championship coach, and Chalmers a KU folk hero, freeing a state and fan base from two decades of NCAA Tournament demons.

“It still gives me goose bumps to see it,” Self says now.

But the man who made the shot, a smooth little guard from Alaska, has never been much for reflection or history or lore. That’s never been Mario Chalmers’ way.

In the moments after Chalmers swished the most famous three-pointer in KU history, and the Jayhawks won their third NCAA title with a historic comeback against Memphis, the scene inside the belly of the Alamodome was pure chaos. KU center Sasha Kaun had screamed in joy, and guard Russell Robinson sat on the back of a golf cart and cried. But Chalmers, after doing a little dance, simply went to hug his mother, Almarie.

A few minutes later, when Chalmers had found his way to the news conference, his answers were clipped and emotionless, just like always. Finally, someone asked Chalmers whether he recognized the historical significance of what he had just done.

“I mean,” Mario would say, “it was a big shot for me.”

Nearly five years after making The Shot, Chalmers was back in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night to have his jersey retired, the first player from the 2008 championship team to receive the honor. In so many ways, that night in San Antonio changed this life.

Imagine an alternate universe in which Chalmers’ shot hit off the back iron. Is there still a jersey retirement ceremony? Or an early departure to the NBA that turned out perfectly? How about a starting spot on the Miami Heat, a burgeoning dynasty with two of the best players of this generation?

Thing is, one of the few people that hasn’t sat back and thought much about how The Shot changed Chalmers’ life is well… Chalmers. To him, it just seemed like another chapter, something that predestined. Play for Dad in high school, be a college star, go to the NBA. Imagine the goal, then achieve it.

Chalmers is the kind of guy who can think he’s the best player on an NBA team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He’s not much for perspective or reflection. And that’s suited Chalmers just fine.

"He has no memory," says KU assistant Joe Dooley, the man who recruited Chalmers to Kansas.

• • • 

On March 4, 2008, Chalmers sat down for a television interview inside Allen Fieldhouse. It was 34 days before Kansas would play Memphis for the national title, but Chalmers had already made a name as the Jayhawks’ most clutch player.

That’s what Self called him. Those Jayhawks may not have had a go-to star — no player averaged more than 13.3 points per game — but when the game was in doubt, Self usually called on Mario.

So on that day in March, television personality Jim Rome asked Chalmers why he was so calm in the clutch.

“I think it’s just growing up,” Chalmers would say, almost prophetically. “I used to always practice taking the big shot. I’d come down the court, count down to myself three, two, one.… ”

In those days, Almarie would help her son imagine the situation. And later, at Bartlett High in Anchorage, father Ronnie would put the ball in his son’s hands at the end of games. Ronnie was a military man, and he’d dedicated his life to his son’s basketball career.

By those days, Dooley was already on Chalmers’ trail. He’d heard about the kid while he was an assistant at Wyoming, and when he came to Kansas in 2003, he spent the next two years making sure Chalmers arrived in Lawrence.

“He’s not afraid,” Dooley said, “which is a big thing. When he needs to step up, he’ll step up, just like he did for us.”

By the final month of his junior year, Chalmers had established himself as one of the best guards in the country. He would score 1,341 career points, 27th most in KU history, and finished second in school history with 283 steals. But on a team with Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins, his pro potential was never certain. Back then, conventional wisdom suggested that he’d return to Kansas for his senior season and have his senior day.

Then came that night in San Antonio, and senior day never came.

When the 2008 NBA Draft came around, Chalmers was projected as a borderline first-round pick. But if his Final Four performance ensured Kansas immortality, his draft-night fortune guaranteed professional stability.

The Miami Heat took Chalmers in the second round with the 34th overall pick, and the situation couldn’t have been better. The Heat had a Hall of Famer (Pat Riley) in the front office, and a superstar (Dwyane Wade) at shooting guard. Chalmers, who had played mostly off the ball in college, started 82 games as a rookie point guard for the Heat — while Wade took some of the ball-handling duties.

Ronnie, who had was the Jayhawks’ director of basketball of operations during his son’s time at Kansas, left the KU staff and assumed a role guiding his son’s professional career.

The transition wasn’t always smooth. Chalmers, for instance, was never shy about hoisting up shots.

“I don’t have many gray hairs,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says, “but the few ones that I have, probably came from Mario.”

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived in Miami in 2010, Chalmers remained a young and cheap option in the backcourt. But when the moment called for it, he proved he could still deliver. Chalmers had 25 points in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, helping the Heat to the NBA title.

“He’s at his best in the biggest moments,” Spoelstra said. “He’s never shied away from them. We all know that. That’s why we love him so much.”

• • • 

It was the second week of April 2008, just a few days after Kansas had clinched its title in San Antonio.

The Jayhawks were back in class, and on a spring campus morning, Chalmers showed up to Stauffer-Flint Hall. The student newspaper was offering reprints of its championship edition to students that had missed out. And Chalmers, wearing sweats and trying to look inconspicuous, showed up at the window and quietly asked if there were any newspapers left.

Other than the basketball, Chalmers says, it’s moments like this that he misses most.

“You never forget your college experience,” Chalmers says. “That was three of the best years of my life. I made some close friends there, and just really became a man at that school.”

Life is different now. More serious, of course. He’s 26 now, and the boyish grin he used to flash at Kansas isn’t quite so boyish. Chalmers now has his own kids to look after.

But wherever he goes, people will still ask him about the shot. Old or young, rich or poor, it doesn’t really matter. When the Miami Heat went to the White House after winning the NBA title, President Obama asked him about The Shot.

So how has it changed his life? Mario Chalmers can’t really say. He hopes, he says, it’s been positive.

On Friday, when he returned to Lawrence, he says he watched a clip of the Memphis game for the first time in years. There it was, 3.6 seconds, the ball in flight, waiting to go in once again.

“I remember everything actually,” Chalmers says. “The feeling I got when Derrick Rose missed the free throw, to Sherron dribbling up the court, to the ball getting in my hands, and me releasing the shot.

“It was just something … a moment in life you’ll never forget.”

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