U.S. Reed is 56 years old and can’t escape The Shot, nor does he want to make it go away.
Not a day goes by that Reed doesn’t hear about his 49-foot buzzer-beater that allowed Arkansas to beat defending champion Louisville in a second-round NCAA Tournament game on March 14, 1981.
That’s the day when three upset finishes came down to the wire. That’s the day NBC’s Bryant Gumbel took viewers from Reed’s halfcourt shot to Rolando Blackman’s corner jumper as Kansas State beat top-seeded Oregon State to St. Joseph’s stunning national No. 1 DePaul. That’s the day that essentially resulted in a year later, when CBS got the tournament rights, Brent Musburger started using the phrase “March Madness” after seeing it in a car dealership ad for the Illinois high school basketball tournament.
Thirty-five years after his shot, Reed was watching March Madness at his house Friday night in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson banked in a stunning, half-court shot at the buzzer to beat Texas.
“A friend of mine texted me and said, ‘The U.S. Reed shot,’” Reed said. “I said, ‘No, mine was all net.’ Usually when a shot like that happens, the phone is going to be ringing, and for 30-some years, the phone is ringing every March. That’s been my life ever since that shot.”
Now, it’s Jesperson’s life. Reed finally has company in an exclusive club of players who won NCAA Tournament games with ridiculous, halfcourt shots.
Reed knows what’s coming for Jesperson. He has one piece of advice.
“Take every speaking engagement coming your way,” Reed said, laughing. “When it first happened to me, I would turn them down. There were so many and it was good money too. Back then, you’d get $400 to $500 for one speech. He’ll get more than that now. I started getting burned out. When I got older, I’m like, ‘I wish I had taken that money and put it into the savings account.’ Build your brand when it’s fresh. If I had to do it all over again, I would take more advantage of it. I was probably a little too lackadaisical.”
To fans of a certain generation, Reed’s shot remains an intense memory. Kids at golf shops who weren’t alive in 1981 tell Reed they promised their dad to ask him how he felt making that shot. Strangers tell him stories that relive emotional memories of their deceased fathers and grandfathers, or how someone had a heart attack after the shot, or how someone bumped his head on a ceiling fixture after the shot and went to the hospital.
“One woman said she was having a baby and thought they were cheering for the baby in the hospital, and they were cheering for the game,” Reed said. “You hear stories like at the race track in Hot Springs, Arkansas, they let the horses out, the fans erupted, and it spooked the horses. The stories are the greatest thing. It truly is March Madness.”
The Shot has helped Reed for decades in various marketing and public relations jobs. He currently works for the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in institutional advancement and development.
That’s a fancy way of saying Reed helps the university with branding. His job is to introduce university administrators to corporations and CEOs throughout the state to help funding and sponsorships.
“Most of these guys are from the East Coast and don’t know much about Arkansas basketball,” Reed said. “But when I take them in a huge office of a CEO they say, ‘How do you do this?’ I just say I just call. It helps you get into major doors.”
Several years ago, YouTube called Reed and sent him $1,000 to put the highlight on its site. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good,'” he said.
The media exposure for the NCAA Tournament in 1981 was light years away from what it is today. As I pointed out to Reed, for a younger generation of college basketball fans — myself included — his shot doesn’t register in our memories. I’d seen it before, but wasn’t overwhelmed by it from the media for decades.
Think about it. How many times in recent decades has CBS shown Reed’s shot? Needless to say, it’s nowhere close to Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky in 1992 or so many other memorable shots. There’s no ESPN “30 for 30” on Louisville fans hating U.S. Reed.
But on Saturday night, there was social media reminding us of Reed’s shot. A new generation became curious and searched for the shot, and there it was on YouTube.
You may remember the shot like it was yesterday, or you may remember bits and pieces, or you may have just gotten introduced to it for the first time. Maybe you forgot that Gumbel was the studio analyst and Marv Albert made the call. No matter. Reed still zigged and zagged against Louisville’s press before launching from halfcourt, an odd combination of a normal shot release and a desperation heave that swished through the net and set off bedlam.
“We were warming up before the game and I was shooting long shots like normal,” Reed recalled. “The guys were like, ‘What are you doing?’ I was like, ‘You never know. I might have to shoot a long, long shot in case.’ It was like it happened yesterday.”
Jesperson got to try another midcourt shot again one game later, when Northern Iowa collapsed in a loss Sunday to Texas A&M. Oddly, he tried to shoot from around half court — and missed this time — instead of taking some more dribbles with enough time still on the clock. Call it the ultimate heat check.
Reed said he tried his shot again in a celebrity game with the Dallas Cowboys, including Tony Dorsett.
“I hit it. Same spot,” Reed said. “People were like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t luck.’ Mine was much more pressure. We were behind on the shot. (Northern Iowa was tied). If you miss, guess what? You’re going home.”
Right now, Jesperson is undoubtedly feeling heartbreak. Northern Iowa allowed Texas A&M to rally from 12 points down with less than one minute left, the largest comeback in the final minute of any basketball game in NCAA history.
Pretty soon, the offers will start coming in for Jesperson, if they haven’t already. Reed knows what’s ahead. There will be lots of speaking engagements to high schools and athletic banquets. The shot might even show up on TV shows or movies. Reed said his shot appeared in the movie “Smart House” on the Disney Channel and on a detective show whose title he can’t remember.
“(Jesperson’s) going to want to say, ‘I want to chill and relax a little bit,'” Reed said. “You get burned out. When you’re 20 years old, you just want to be a kid. That’s the thing. I’m an adult now and thinking like an adult. But when you’re that young, you don’t realize I need to focus on that. Hey, milk that as much as he can.”
Like Jesperson, Reed was a senior when he hit the shot and no longer bound by NCAA rules that prevented him from getting paid. He estimated doing about 50 speeches in the first year after the shot. The requests slowed down in the future, but the memories and the impact don’t.
“You can’t put a value on it,” he said. “That shot made so many people happy. It’s part of your brand. It’s the ultimate brand. You’re in March Madness. You hit a huge shot. You’re representing that huge shot. A lot of people want to be associated with the guy who had success, the guy who hit the shot.”
U.S. Reed, meet Paul Jesperson. Paul Jesperson, meet U.S. Reed.
They are part of an exclusive club: The Guys Who Hit The Shot.
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