DES MOINES, IA
In a deathly quiet Colorado locker room after the game, the thing that spoke the loudest was the image of Josh Fortune, slumped in a chair with a towel over his head, not moving an inch. Other players ate food or changed clothes. The unlucky ones had microphones put in front of their faces. Fortune didn't budge. In a game that was full of missed opportunities for almost everyone in a Colorado uniform, he seemed to be putting the loss on himself. Seeing him there, seemingly frozen in time, pulled up a different still frame in my brain from about half an hour earlier, of Fortune leaping into the air to intercept a UConn pass with one minute remaining in the game. What happened afterwards was probably running through his head as he sat there in the locker room.
Near the end of a second half that had seen the Buffs lead by as many as eleven and trail by as many as 13, the score was 66-63 UConn with one minute remaining in the game. Xavier Talton had just made two free throws after Dominique Collier stole a possession away from UConn. In a game that had seemed all but over with a little more than three minutes remaining, Colorado was back within one possession. Again, the Buffs applied full court pressure, and again it forced the Huskies into a mistake.
Sterling Gibbs lobbed a deep pass out of a trap in the corner, and Fortune was there to intercept it around mid-court. In a split second, a million different possibilities rushed through the minds of everyone in the arena. Colorado could cut the score to one, or even tie. UConn was collapsing. Maybe CU could even win the game in regulation with the amount of time on the clock. Despite a five minute field goal drought in the second half, and eleven missed free throws, the Buffs still had a chance to win. Then Fortune dribbled to his right, where he had the ball stripped away by Gibbs. In an instant, all those thoughts were gone. The Buffs never had a chance to tie the game again. UConn made all eight of their free throws in the final minute, capping off an incredible 22-23 performance from the line, and the score was never closer than three again.
In victory, plays like the one Fortune made are forgotten immediately after the game. In defeat, they're the ones that stick out. I'll probably never forget the four seconds between the time he intercepted the ball and when he lost it. The anti-Fortune reaction on social media was strong, and understandably so, but it's not fair to pin the loss on him. If you feel so inclined, you can blame Tad Boyle for having him on the floor late in the game, and you can also blame the Buffs as a team for putting themselves in that situation to begin with. The eleven missed free throws and the minus-three rebounding margin aren't nearly as easy to point a finger at, but they were far more instrumental in the outcome of the game. These are facets of the game where CU usually excels, and today they didn't do them very well. Fair or not, we've come to expect a reasonably high amount of turnovers from this team; especially the guards. The Buffs turned it over twelve times, and Fortune accounted for five of them. That's not good, but it's also not particularly surprising. It's unrealistic to expect these things to change in March when they've been consistent all year.
None of this mattered to Fortune as he sat in there the locker room. However difficult it may have been to watch that play on television or in person, it was a hundred times worse for him. Athletes don't live in a vacuum. They are aware of their shortcomings, and they know how easy it is to develop a reputation. After his costly turnover against Utah, Fortune was tagged with the "turnover prone" label, and it didn't go away for the rest of the season. If he had a good game where he took care of the ball, it was an anomaly. If he made a bad pass or lost the ball while dribbling, it was "Fortune being Fortune." Today, in the biggest game of the season, he lost the ball five times, including the final minute heartbreaker.
Imagine if you were really good at your job, but had one major shortcoming. Then imagine if the general public knew about it and constantly criticized you for it. Imagine working day after day to fix this problem, only to have it come back to haunt you when it mattered most, and when the biggest number of people were watching. It might cause you to block out the world and look inside yourself for answers, which is what Fortune appeared to be doing in the locker room after the game.
I don't know what was going through his head, but I do know this: Fortune has one year of eligibility left, and he's going to do everything possible to ensure that this will not be what he is remembered for. Sports can be cruel. One minute you're a hero, and the next you're the goat. Josh Fortune has one more season to determine what his legacy will be.