24 February 2015
One could be forgiven for thinking that the Cognitive Science Department, with its squat beige building and relatively small population, was filled with meek scientists with their eyes fixed only on computer screens and inked pages. Truly, enough fantastic scientific work comes out of the department to make a casual observer wonder if anyone does anything but churn out science. However, beneath this calm veneer of scholastic drive lies a competitive ferocity that would make a rabid wolverine give pause. Competing for a win in the first round of the men’s basketball playoffs this past Sunday, these traits would find themselves perfectly embodied in Richard Gao.
For those of you who don’t know, the intramural athletic office at UCSD is not the most conscientious nor communicative of offices. In fact, this past year they moved nearly all of their administrative duties to a website which automated most of it for them; this made signing up easier, but communicating with a real person in charge of league schedules and win/loss records more difficult. This is what placed the Cognitive Science basketball team –Uncle Weasel & the Strenf – in the dire straits they found themselves in Sunday. After finishing the regular season, all the teams awaited hearing about a playoff berth; that announcement would come Saturday night in the form of a pop-up alert to their out-of-town captain that their game would occur in 24 hours. After a mad, failing scramble to contact the league, the opposing team, attempt to reschedule, to simply scrounge up enough players to maintain a team, Uncle Weasel & the Strenf were left with one heroic player – Richard Gao – available to play and advance the team.
Richard arrived at the courts hoping that due to the poor communication of the IM Office, the other team would also be a no-show, and his mere presence would be enough to advance UW&tS to the finals. This would not be the case. Emerald City, the evening’s opponent, had mustered their full force and arrived ready to play. Faced with an ignominious forfeit, Richard set events into motion that would become CogSci sports lore. With time ticking down to a forfeit, Richard used his charming demeanor to recruit 4 random players from another court to the UW&tS banner. The game would be played.
Hardly with time to learn each other’s names, the game began. Emerald City took a commanding lead through the first half, and would find themselves ahead by 15 points as the first half ended. Deciding that he had not come all this way to lose, Richard began helping his rag-tag crew climb back into the game; however, with five minutes to go in the half, they were still down by 10 points. Seeing their time ticking down, the team dug deep and clawed closer, bringing themselves to within four points with 60 seconds remaining on the clock. Attempting to use basketball strategy to their advantage, Richard and his recruits would begin fouling to stop the clock, relying on their opponent to miss free throws and make poor plays. The fouls mounted, but too much time was passing, and Richard hadn’t had enough chances to score. With hope for UW&tS’s season flickering as the final seconds flashed on the scoreboard, Emerald City inbounded the ball to a player in the corner, who turned to fire a celebratory 3-point attempt as the last few seconds ticked off the clock. His attempt was premature however, and did not even touch the rim, instead falling into the hands of Jeff, one of the four recruits. Jeff, glancing at the clock, sprinted from one end of the court to the other, laying the ball in the hoop as he was fouled by a now slightly unsettled Emerald City player. Down by 2 points, with single digits left in the time column, Jeff lined up for a free throw. His attempt arced to the rim, bounced first on one side of the rim, then the other, and teetered out toward the ground.
That is when Richard would move from hero to legend. Nine sets of eyes in stationary bodies watched as the ball fell from the rim, but in a move that has since become one of his signature plays, Richard charged into the lane to rebound the ball, securing it and exploding back up through heavy blows toward the basket. Fouled in his shooting attempt, Richard was granted two free throws with no time left on the clock; the game, the season, resting on those two shots.
With sweat pouring from his brow, adrenaline surging through his veins, Richard would control his movements with the grace and calm control more often seen in master painters. He sank both free throws, sending the game into overtime. Riding the courage and tenacity of their leader, the 5 men on Uncle Weasel & the Strenf that day would run away with the game, putting up 74 points in total, and winning in the most improbable series of events in recent basketball memory.
The echoes of that final buzzer have long since faded, but the incredible fortitude of that team lives on, inspiring the next Cognitive Scientist to take on a foe that might seem impossible to overcome. Some say that throughout the game, Richard would at times seem to be playing alone, his teammates made into existence entirely by his own will to stop at nothing to succeed. As time moves on, we may never be sure if Richard recruited other players of flesh and blood that day, or instead created a team from within his own soul, besting the other team by himself. But what is certain is that without him, there would be one fewer story of incredible heroism in the world today, one fewer moment in time spoken only in hushed whispers by those lucky enough to witness it, and Uncle Weasel & the Strenf would not be moving on to the basketball finals.
***Editor's note: Richard would like to give a major shoutout to his recruits: Stephen, Anthony, Rance, and Jeff, without whom none of this would have been possible.