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The Wink of Infamy

by Lucinda Trew

The Wink of Infamy

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Picture by AP Images

March 26, 2012

If you blinked you might have missed it – the wink that launched a thousand boos in Greensboro the other night.

Going into game, the only anticipated drama was seeing former high school teammates Doug McDermott (Creighton) and Harrison Barnes (UNC) square off as collegiate rivals. That would have been enough: two strong teams competing for a coveted seat in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, connected by stars who wore out the high school gym court together.

But how things change.

In the wink of an eye, the high school reunion fell by the wayside, and we graduated to ugly maturity – skipping right over college hoops and landing in the jaded zone of NBA egos and attitudes.

Early in the first half, Tar Heel forward John Henson was fouled by Creighton’s Ethan Wragge. Fair enough, as all’s fair in love, war and basketball. The ugliness came when Wragge’s teammate Grant Gibbs delivered two chopping blows to Henson’s injured left wrist.

To many, it appeared that Gibbs deliberately targeted Henson’s taped up wrist. But appearances can be deceiving, and those judgment calls rest with the refs. What was unmistakable, however, was the sly wink Gibbs delivered to the Creighton bench afterward. No matter how many times you view the clip, there’s no other way to read the wink. It’s cool, cunning and calculated – like watching Dick Cheney decked out in long shorts.

Gibbs clearly communicated his pride of hurts-manship. The wink may not have been meant for the cameras, but with 10,000 YouTube hits and climbing, it’s destined for infamy. No, I expect Gibbs meant the squinty-eyed high-five as a stealth moment between himself and his team. And if that’s the case, those on the receiving end, coaches included, are inextricably complicit.

There’s a classic Monty Python bit called ‘Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge – Know What I Mean?’ I’m afraid we do know what Gibbs meant: ‘Look at me guys. I got him where it hurts. Count on me, Coach, I hit my aim.’

College basketball is full of billboard-size gestures. They’re borne of the emotion of the game, pure, raw and relatable. Those outsized gestures are the stuff of great highlight reels: chest-thumping, fist-pumping victory displays; the slumped, towel-over-the-head stance of defeat; even angry, technical-slapping confrontations. Those are the spontaneous moves and grooves we expect of the NCAA dance – and of the long-limbed athletes who dance, not always graceful, but for the most part, guileless.

Until the wink.

To see that insidious gesture was like an icy dousing of Gatorade. We were startled, chilled – and feeling the need to wash the sticky ickiness away. No amount of Monday morning denial could shellac the smarminess we all witnessed. Your lips may say no to culpability, but your winking eyes tell us otherwise.

John Henson is by no means schooled in restraint; he wears his heart on his sleeveless bicep. When his wrist was slapped for the second time, he grimaced, puffed up and got up in Gibbs’ grill. He earned a technical for that, and stern coaching from Roy Williams. Gibbs might have benefited from some coaching at that point, too. But it seems he delivered what was expected: Win by any means – and if you can’t win clean, go down dirty. No one expects a team to play around the injuries of its opponents. Players get hurt. But to take pride in the hurting is about as low as you can go in a game of awesome stature.

Basketball is a tough sport. Just rewind that highlight reel: Players take elbows to the chin, knees to the nose; they get pummeled under the net and topple into the stands. The crowning highlight, of course, is when players from rival teams lean down to help their fallen opponents up. That crown of sportsmanship was tarnished Sunday, with a fleeting smirk and wink.

Henson’s wrist will heal. So will Kendall Marshall’s. Their fractures are physical – and mendable. The wink, on the other hand, signals a character flaw, and that’s a deeper and darker fissure that may be well beyond repair.

If I were a coach, I’d show that sobering clip to my players. I’d show it to my recruits, too. And there wouldn’t be room on the bench for anyone who could watch that infamous wink without feeling a pang of discomfort.

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Tags: basketball, unc, tar heels, John Henson, Creighton, Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs

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