The Story Of "Wrong Way" Willie And The Buzzer-Beater That Lost A GameS

It was March 3, 1978, the sectional semifinals of the Indiana high school basketball tournament, in the teeth of what they call Hoosier Hysteria. George Washington was playing Northwest, a team it had already beaten twice that season. Washington was up, 61-60, and had the ball. A second remained. David Donald, a senior co-captain on the team, was inbounding from under the Northwest basket. The gym was erupting all around him—"crazy," as Donald would later describe it. "It was so loud."

The game was essentially over. Didn't one of the referees say as much to Donald just before handing him the ball? Donald held it in one hand and smacked it with the other, signaling for his teammates to move to their designated spots, which in this case meant two of them cleared out to the other end of the floor. Leonard Sullivan, a teammate, stayed in the backcourt and stood near the foul line. Willie Carter, the Continentals' other senior co-captain, also stayed behind, positioning himself near the baseline to the right of the basket, just a few feet in front of Donald.

Donald flipped the ball to Carter. In an instant, the game would be over. Only it didn’t end the easy way, the way every person who was in that little gym that night thought it would. In that final second, Washington somehow lost the game without any of Northwest's players touching the ball. Carter was about to become the wrong kind of folk hero.

***

Last month, poor Trey Johnson, a high schooler in Oklahoma, scored a buzzer-beater on the wrong basket, handing an unlikely state playoff victory to an opponent. Johnson caught an inbounds pass near halfcourt, somehow forgot that all he had to do was run out the clock, and dribbled the wrong way before laying the ball in.

A spectator uploaded video of the play to YouTube, and Johnson drew not just national attention but national sympathy. People understood. He was just a kid who'd made a colossal mistake at the worst possible time, after all. The Oklahoma City Thunder comped Johnson with courtside tickets. He met the Thunder's players, and Kevin Durant gave Johnson an autographed shoe.

Thirty-five years ago, Willie Carter made a similar mistake and got no such treatment in its aftermath. The Indianapolis Star mentioned what Carter had done, referencing it in two separate stories the following day. But that’s more or less the extent of the media attention Carter's mistake got. He was consoled by his teammates and coaches afterward and ridiculed by some of his peers, many of whom remember him most for that one unfortunate moment. There would be no national group hug.

"People still talk about it, man," said Donald, who still lives in Indy. He's right: We'd first learned about Carter from a comment left on our story about Trey Johnson. And Rick Hightower, a former TV newscaster in Indy who graduated from Washington in '77, told me someone had mentioned Carter to him when he attended a sectional playoff game early last month.

The bitch of it is that Carter likely would have been remembered for that game even if he hadn't done what he did in that final second. He was Washington's best player, a 5-foot-10 guard capable of scoring from all over the floor. This was the era before the three-point shot, and even though the Continentals trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter, Carter, Donald, and junior Donnie McCoy brought them all the way back, according to a report in the Star. "During the remaining 7:39," the Star said, "Carter, guard Donnie McCoy, who tallied 10 points on 4 of 20, and David Donald, the other senior, clawed back to trim Northwest's lead to 58-56 on a rebound basket by Kerry Noble." McCoy eventually fouled out.

It was Carter who scored Washington’s final five points, the last of them coming with just six seconds to play to give the Continentals a 61-58 lead. One of the stories in the Star credited Carter with nine points in the fourth quarter; another said he scored 12. The box score said he finished with 25 points, but it also said he was 8-for-14 from the field and 7-for-8 from the line, which ought to add up to 23. In any case, Carter was fantastic, until he wasn't.

"Willie was having probably one of his best nights ever," said Ralph Skaggs, a junior who played for Washington that year. "I’ve never seen him shoot like that. Everything he was throwing up that night was going in."

"He was on fire," Donald said.

Basketball-mad Indiana crowned just one state champion in those days, and Washington felt it had as good a chance as any other team to win it all. The Continentals had won the city championship in January even though Arsenal Tech had Landon Turner, who later helped Indiana University win the 1981 national title before being paralyzed a few months later in a car accident. During the regular season, Washington had also beaten Muncie Central, which went on to win the state title.

"Willie Carter," Sullivan said, "probably would have taken us all the way."

Ben Davis High School, just west of the city, was hosting these sectionals. The Giants, featuring future Indiana star and NBA coach Randy Wittman, were playing in the game after Northwest-Washington. They'd beaten the Continentals by two earlier in the season, and the possibility of a rematch the following day was already on people's minds.

"The Ben Davis crowd, they had been on us from the time we started warming up," McCoy said.

As Washington mounted its comeback, its fans made it known they wanted another crack at Ben Davis. Some of those who were there that night recall that Carter had started shit-talking the Ben Davis contingent—Wittman included. But Sullivan denied that.

"It was their crowd and our crowd," Sullivan remembered. "Our crowd was chanting, 'We want you! We want you!' at their crowd. But we [the players] weren't trash-talking."

There also was an "undercurrent" of racial animosity, according to Eddie Bopp, the author of the 2010 book Indianapolis Washington High School and the West Side and a human encyclopedia on the subject of Indy prep sports. Indianapolis had consolidated its city services with communities in surrounding Marion County at the beginning of 1970s, and racial lines were soon drawn between the lily-white county schools and the predominately black city schools. Bopp, who is white, was Washington’s reserve (or junior varsity) coach in 1973, the year a fight broke out after a white Ben Davis reserve player had called a black Washington reserve player a nigger. Bopp had overheard the slur; people knew who and what started the fight, but it didn't much matter. "Initially, our black kid got the blame for it," Bopp said.

All this was in the air when Northwest's Marty Berger scored what the Star described as a "20-foot desperation shot with three seconds to go," cutting the lead to 61-60. Northwest called timeout with a second left, according to the paper, setting up the last play.

I spoke with four of the players on that Washington team. That final moment, after Donald had inbounded the ball, was still vivid to them, even if their memories didn't always align.

Donald: "The ref came to me and said, 'All you've got to do is get the ball in and the game will be over.'"

McCoy: "We throw the ball inbounds, and Willie catches it and throws it right into the basket."

Donald: "He put it on the floor and laid it up. Nobody was near him—everybody cleared out. They [Northwest] just gave up."

(The Star's story said the Northwest's players were "hanging all over their Washington counterparts.")

Skaggs: "I don't even think he took a bounce. It was a pretty swish, too."

McCoy: "It was a layup, but my father's reminding me that it was more like a 10-footer."

(The Star's story said the ball "caromed off the glass.")

Skaggs: "I hollered, 'No!' because I knew the night that he was having it was gonna go in."

There was something weird about that final second, too. It seemed to stretch beyond a second. McCoy thought the clock was slow to start. Sullivan thought the gun sounded late. Whatever happened, the shot counted as two points for Northwest, and Washington's season was over.

"We were running off the court," Donald said. "And then we heard a whistle, and the ref said the basket was good. I was like, What?"

Fans were delirious. Washington's crowd "sank through the floor," the Star reported. Carter collapsed in a heap. A group of Northwest players ran over to him and attempted to lift him up on their shoulders. They were trying, as McCoy put it, to carry him around "like a hero." They didn’t get very far.

"I put a stop to that," Sullivan said.

McCoy was the first of the Washington players to make it back to the lockers. The Continentals had to share the locker room with Pike High, which was getting ready to play Ben Davis in the second semifinal. Ed Siegel, the Pike coach, could hear the commotion out in the gym. As soon as he saw McCoy, Siegel asked him what had happened.

"We hit a last-second shot," McCoy recalled saying, "and got beat."

Basil Sfreddo, Washington's coach who died in 2010, put his arm around Carter and walked him to the locker room. Carter was "bawling his eyes out," Skaggs remembered. Every one of the team's players and coaches had tried to console him, but nothing was working. Carter, Skaggs said, "was just beyond himself."

"You know," McCoy said, "we’re talking about a kid here."

Carter finished out his final few months of high school, but he could never get out from the shadow of his mistake. He took a lot of shit from his fellow students and others in the community. "Wrong Way Willie," they called him, and even today the name is still shorthand for people who want to talk about Carter's gaffe without having to explain the whole story. Some of his former teammates suggested to me that Carter held up well in the months that followed, but Sullivan and Donald—who knew him best, and who remain friends with him to this day—said the embarrassment took its toll on him.

"He wasn’t the only one," Donald said, referring to himself. "We were the only two seniors on the squad who played."

Carter did not give up basketball after high school; he went to have a solid college career at Baker University, an NAIA school in Kansas, where he scored 2,033 points, a school record at the time that now ranks third in school history. In 1980-81, he scored 815 points and averaged 24.7 points per game, which are still school records.

Carter now lives in Amityville, N.Y., out on Long Island, where Donald said he runs group homes for children with behavioral disorders. He's married, with one son who recently graduated from college and another who recently started college and runs track—a sport in which Carter also once excelled. He's proud of his boys. Sullivan said Carter often brags about his sons on Facebook.

Donald called Carter his "best friend." They still talk. Donald has visited him on Long Island, and the two have gone together to see the Yankees play. They've never really lost touch in all these years. But they've also never discussed what happened that night during the last high school basketball game they ever played. Not once.

"We both were too hurt," Donald said.

In college, Sullivan wrote a three-page paper for an English class about Carter's wrong-way basket. The story earned him an A-plus, as he recalled. After he got the graded paper back, Sullivan's professor stopped him on his way out of class. "Wow," the professor said. "Did that really happen?" Today, he still thinks about writing a book. The biggest reason he hasn't thus far, he said, is that he doesn't want Carter to think he's trying to profit off his embarrassment.

Carter does return to Indianapolis a few times a year. His mother, sisters, and a third son all still live there. Sullivan and Donald usually see him when he makes the trip. And when Carter's back in town, there's one thing those who gather to see him make sure to bring up in his presence. "Basically," Sullivan said, "everyone lets him know they love him."

***

Why did Willie shoot? Did he think the game was over? That's what Donald believes, and as the inbounder he was closest to him on the court. But no one has ever asked him, understandably, and the matter has remained a mystery even to the players on the court that day. "Why Willie decided he wanted to shoot the ball," Skaggs said, "I'll never know."

On Wednesday, I drove out to Amityville to try to find Willie Carter. He hadn't responded to my emails and voicemails, but I wanted to meet him, to talk to him in person and assure him I wasn't out to mock him. Morbidly, maybe cruelly, I wanted to know why he'd taken that shot, but I also wanted to know about his life since then. If he didn't want to talk about the game, maybe he'd want to talk about his work or his sons.

Carter lives on a quiet residential street that empties onto a much busier road. There's a basketball hoop in the backyard that's visible from the sidewalk. I could hear music playing inside as I approached, and a dog began to bark when I knocked.

A young man answered—perhaps one of Willie's sons. He was holding the dog. He told me Willie wasn't home. He asked what I wanted. "I'm a reporter for Deadspin," I said, "and I wanted to ask him about a basketball game he played in high school a long time ago." The young man said Willie would be home in an hour or two, and that I could come back. It was awkward. I decided not to press him and went back to my car to wait.

I knew what Willie looked like from seeing photos of him on Facebook. A couple hours later, a man pulled up in a dark-colored Chevy sedan and backed it into the driveway to the right of the house. Same stocky build, same closely shaved head. This was Willie. It had to be Willie.

He got out and opened the hood and began looking at the engine. I decided to walk over. "Excuse me, sir, are you Willie Carter?" The man said he wasn't. His name was Brian, he said. We made eye contact. I asked if he knew when Willie would be home. He was standing between the house and me. He turned away and looked toward the house. "I live downstairs," he said, "they live upstairs." Without looking at me, he went back to working on the engine. I thanked him and walked back to my own car. A few minutes passed. He closed the hood, got back in the car, and drove off.

Team photo and newspaper clippings courtesy Donnie and Katie McCoy.