“Nobody roots for Goliath.”
This sentiment was famously uttered by Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball playing behemoth famous for once scoring 100 points in an NBA game and, later, for boasting of scoring with many times that number of women. Still, for all his accomplishments, the public always seemed to add a figurative asterisk to everything Wilt did. “Of course he can score all those points and snare all those rebounds,” they implied. “he’s so much bigger than everyone else.”
Wilt was correct. Nobody roots for Goliath. And now, after collecting four years’ worth of evidence, let me posit that nobody roots for Amir Williams either.
Now, I am not saying that the Ohio State senior center is comparable to Chamberlain. Other than their heights, the item they probably most have in common is the amount of scorn fans heap upon them. The difference is that where Wilt was berated on the road, Amir has suffered at the hands and mouths of his hometown backers.
This is not to say that there haven’t been times that he deserved it. I am not an Amir-apologist. Teams like their big men to have hands like catchers’ mitts to gather entry passes and errant shots. Amir occasionally plays like he had ping-pong paddles surgically implanted at the end of his wrists. He has the incredibly frustrating habit of carrying the ball at waist height as he gathers himself to go up for a shot, or after coming down with a rebound. This is despite the fact that this is the number one thing that coaches have been telling him not to do since he first stepped onto a court as a child. On defense, his arms are often at his side rather than over his head. His knees are locked, rather than flexed. And he moves side-to-side about as easily as a grocery cart with a wonky wheel.
Still, despite everything I just said, I will not join in with the rest of the Buckeye fanbase that blames Amir for everything that goes wrong within a seven-foot radius of either hoop.
Let me digress for a moment. After a lifetime of watching Ohio State basketball, the first year I had season tickets for the 2006-07 campaign. This was the year of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., and the run to the championship game. For virtually all these games my oldest son, Evan, who turned 10 during that season, accompanied me. The seats next to ours were filled with a rotating cast of characters (who had obviously bought their seats on the secondary market) except for some of the marquee games when the true owner, a 50-something white-haired man, would show up with his squirming grandson to actually watch the best basketball team Ohio State had fielded in a generation.
He never cheered the entire season.
As he sat in his seat with his arms clenched across his chest, the closest thing he would offer was a gravely “Come on Bucks,” through teeth gritted so tight you could strain coffee through them. Actually, it ended up sounding more like one word, “C’monbucks.” And this growl primarily occurred in those situations when the team had displeased him, or a lead looked like it was in danger of being fretted away.
There is a unique sound when a home crowd gets apprehensive about how the game is progressing; usually a murmur then an attempt at a reassuring cheer and clapping, and maybe a “Let’s go Bucks,” chant.
I think the semantics of the cheer are worth noting. “Let’s go Bucks” implies that we are all in this together and we are moving forward. “Let’s go!” It’s what you say when you are heading out the front door with your dog on a bright summer morning. “Let’s go, buddy!”
On the other hand, “C’monbucks” is the sound of someone who clearly feels that he has been wronged. He is where he wants to be and wants the rest of the world to quit lollygagging behind. It implies, “I have my ticket. I’ve done my part. Why aren’t you playing as perfectly as I desire?” It’s what you snarl when it’s six degrees outside and you just want that dog to finish taking a leak and get back inside the damn house. “C’monbucks!”
After a season of Evan and I rolling our eyes and shrugging our shoulders at the grumpiest man who ever lived, “C’monbucks” quickly became the Baumann family shorthand for the person -- Ohio State fan or otherwise – that is never happy. Any points given up or any shot missed or any game lost simply must be due to the fact that their team failed to do something. They can’t grasp the fact that sometimes the other team simply makes the better play or plays the better game. And, unfortunately, there are many that occupy the Schottenstein Center who have been afflicted by this plague.
Which brings us back to the last four years where “C’monbucks” has steadily been joined with “C’monAmir.” Arriving at Ohio State as a highly-touted high school basketball player, and possessing the tall and wide body that virtually every successful Big Ten team has had in the middle since about the dawn of man, there were a lot of high expectations for Amir. Since then it has been four years of glimpses of what everyone hoped would happen, but it’s never come completely around that curve.
Again, I would argue that while Amir may not have turned out to be what everyone hoped he would be (AKA Greg Oden 2.0 with an upgraded knee system), the problem might lie in the amount of expectation put on an 18-year-old kid. And, if I may play armchair psychologist for a moment, I will offer that it comes down to the Goliath complex. Every exasperated sigh or set of hands thrown up in disgust alongside the cry of “C’monAmir” is really just the fans’ collective subconscious screaming “If only the world had seen fit to make me 6-feet-11-inches tall, you can bet I would never squander that gift by missing a hook shot!”
When Goliath is successful, he’s just doing what he’s supposed to. When Goliath is felled, he’s let everyone down. Take, for example, the early part of the this season, when Ohio State was experimenting with playing a zone defense. During one game a lowly team successfully completed two back-door alley-oop dunks. “C’monAmir,” the crowd rumbled. In both of those cases, though, it was another Buckeye on the backside defense who got sealed off allowing the play to happen. Yet Amir gets the blame. Or consider the scene when a three-point-shot is taken and an Ohio State opponent gets a long offensive rebound near their foul line. “C’monAmir, get a rebound!” the crowd yells. Well, the fault there is the guard who failed to block out after the shot. Amir is positioned five feet from the rim, not 15.
As of this writing, Ohio State’s men’s basketball team has two regular seasons games left. They probably need to win both and get some help to earn the double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. Then they probably need to win two games there to rise anywhere above an eight-seed in the NCAAA tournament.
This is all after a March 1 home game against Purdue that, in many ways, displayed Amir at his Amir-iest.
Earlier this season Amir temporarily lost his starting job. Then, everyone took notice when Amir registered a DNP (coach’s decision) against Indiana and OSU won convincingly playing small ball. Obviously the switch from starting center to bench warmer was coach Thad Matta sending a message. But it also was a coincidence in the schedule, as Indiana didn’t have a starter taller than 6’ 7”. The height and bulk of Williams wasn’t needed against the Hoosiers.
In the following games, Amir got back into the rotation. When Anthony Lee was hurt, Amir’s minutes per game jumped again. Many had their eye on the upcoming Purdue game where the Boilermakers would be trotting out two players more than seven-feet-tall. Would Ohio State be able to survive inside?
But here’s the thing. Williams is better when matched up with a player of similar size and speed. This is most evident during games when he has to leave the key to guard the opponent’s pick-and-roll play. When he hedges away from his man, he often fails to cut off the smaller, quicker opposing guard and just ends up escorting him to the rim for a layup.
For Purdue, though, the plan is for the guards to feed the ball inside and let the trees go to work. And with Lee still hurting, that meant it was up to Amir and Trey McDonald and their 10 available fouls to hold down the fort. Purdue’s plan worked pretty well, with both centers combining for 20 points. For most of the first half, Purdue had a double-digit lead.
Meanwhile, the referees made pretty quick work of the foul situation (ugly calls going against both teams all night) and with about five minutes left in the game, McDonald had fouled out and Williams was playing with four fouls.
Still, Ohio State had battled back to even the score with Purdue and the teams were trading baskets. With just more than four minutes left in the game Purdue’s Rapheal Davis drove to the hoop. Williams shuffled his feet along side him, kept his arms straight up, but otherwise could do little to stop Davis from making a layup and tying the score at 54-54.
“C’monAmir” bellowed a voice from behind Evan and I. “Play some defense!”
I snapped and turned my head to see a man who looked not unlike a walrus in scarlet and gray. “He has four fouls. There’s nothing he could do there,” I said before turning back around.
“Well... Why would he start now?” mumbled the walrus under his breath.
Evan and I looked at each other and shrugged. We didn’t say it, but we were both thinking it.
A few more minutes pass, a few more points are scored until, at the one-minute mark (“… and Michigan still sucks!”) D’Angelo Russell makes a layup to give Ohio State a one-point lead. Now the Buckeyes need a defensive stop to cinch the game. Purdue set their offense and everyone in the building knows that they want to get it to the center. But while Williams is playing strong defense behind Purdue’s A. J. Hammons, OSU’s Shannon Scott is cheating back and sitting in Hammons’ lap. Unable to make the pass, Purdue’s designed play falls apart, the shot clock is running down, and a Purdue guard has to try to drive. However, this time he isn’t going straight at the rim; instead he is floating down the left side and this is where Williams is dangerously effective. At the last second, Williams steps away from his man, blocks the shot, and grabs the rebound.
The crowd is cheering. Players are bumping chests. A couple of free throws from OSU and it’s looking like the game is locked up. In 28 minutes, Williams has scored
six points and recorded two offensive rebounds, three blocks, and a steal.
Still, with less than three seconds left and down by four points, Purdue throws a desperation pass the length of the court. Williams and Hammons jump for the ball, it falls to the floor, and Williams picks it up. The Purdue players start to walk off the court. Everyone assumes the game is over. Then everyone notices the referee’s whistle.
Amir has shuffled his feet. The ref has called travelling with one second left. It doesn’t make any difference in the final score. Still, I know, somewhere in the seats somebody was yelling one last “C’monAmir.”
Nobody roots for Goliath. But given the option between rooting for the player or joining the chorus of “C’monbucks,” I think I’ll take the player every time.
James Baumann roots for the Buckeyes, the Reds and The Kinks among other things. He writes stuff too.