"The misconception is that there are tears coming out of my eyes," Thomas Hill told me on Thursday. "There weren't." Hill is the former Duke guard who in 1992 became the happily crumpled face of the Blue Devils' last-second victory over Kentucky in the Elite Eight—maybe the face of March Madness itself. After Christian Laettner sank his 15-footer through the heart of the Wildcats, the CBS camera caught Hill off near the far sideline, seemingly doing the death scene from Little Women. Now, two decades on, Hill would like the record to reflect that he wasn't actually crying. "It was just a facial expression," he said.
He is very serious about this, too. On Thursday, our old friend Ben Cohen wrote a larky little story for The Wall Street Journal about the annual weeping and blubbering of the NCAA tournament. Asked if he was crying, Hill was adamant: "Absolutely not! Not even close."
Hill is now the director of championships for the Sun Belt Conference. I got him on the phone Thursday afternoon. He had the righteous and faintly aggrieved air of a guy who'd finally beaten a bad rap. I wondered aloud if his expression might've been more on the order of "holy fucking shit."
"Right," he said. "Exactly. That's exactly what I was saying."
(If you have any doubts, watch the clip again. Ten seconds after he's shown "crying," we see him again, smiling and dry-eyed.)
Hill's contributions that day are little remembered. He played 37 minutes and put up 19 points; I'd forgotten he was even on the floor for the final shot until he corrected me.
"I was on the left wing," he said. "It was a play we practiced a lot, almost every day. It was something familiar to us, and it was in our playbook. It wasn't just randomly drawn up, and it wasn't a miracle. That's what my expression was—because it was so perfect. We had practiced that a lot, and we had failed a lot. For it go off like that, in that situation, was unbelievable."
It didn't take long for the moment to become part of the March Madness wallpaper. We all remember Hill "crying" in the same way we remember Jimmy Valvano's frantic search for a booster to hug. But Hill never went out of his way to correct people, preferring instead to "stay under the radar"—until now.
"I let it ride for 20 years or so," he said. "I've come to embrace it and understand that it's part of my history. And now we're gonna have some fun with it."