By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Contrary to what most people in the Miami East community might believe, the biggest shot of Vincent Littlejohn’s career — and the biggest moment of his life — did not come on March 21, 1996, in front of 10,000 screaming fans at Ohio State’s St. John Arena when he sank a buzzer beater in the Division III state semifinals that would propel the Miami East boys basketball team on to a state championship.
Compared to what he does now, that moment — magnificent though it was not only in school history, but in the history of Miami County basketball — is a mere blip on the radar.
When Littlejohn connected on that shot 18 years ago, a game was on the line. These days, when Littlejohn makes a connection, lives are on the line.
Littlejohn currently is a member of of the United States Air National Guard as a boom operator. He spends his days laying face down in the tail section of a KC-135R aerial refueler, peering through a small window while maneuvering a refueling boom into an awaiting aircraft.
“After graduation, I played for a year at Clark State, then I joined the Ohio Air National Guard and worked in Springfield for five or six years,” Littlejohn said. “In 2003, I moved to Utah as a part of my job with the military. I’m a boom operator, which means I refuel planes in midair. I just got back from my seventh deployment in early February.”
In the world of sports, there are moments frozen in time when an athlete makes a play that forever defines his or her athletic career. Often times, these serve as cautionary tales of athletes who peak at one moment — when everything seemingly falls into place — and they forever struggle to recapture that moment.
The list of one-hit wonders is seemingly endless:
• In 1976, Detroit Tiger rookie pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych went 19-9, pitched 24 complete games, won American League Rookie of the Year honors and became a national sensation with his quirky on-the-field behavior. He made only 27 starts the next three seasons, going 10-11 before retiring.
• In 1988, Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Ickey Woods rushed for more than 1,000 yards, scored 15 touchdowns, led the Bengals to the Super Bowl and created an end zone celebration that captured the imagination of the country. A knee injury derailed his career the following year, eventually ending his football and dancing career on a quiet note.
• In 1990, boxer Buster Douglas stunned the world with a knockout of seemingly invincible heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in Tokyo. He then lost the unified title in his first defense against Evander Holyfield, his weight ballooned and he would never get another whiff of a title fight.
Unlike so many athletes who peak early and flame out, however, Littlejohn’s game-winning shot as the buzzer sounded — or, some would argue to this day, after the buzzer sounded — in East’s 68-66 win over North Adams in the state semifinals was not the end, but merely the beginning of a life lived in full.
“Vince has gone on to a lot of great things in terms of his valuable service to our country,” Miami East coach Allen Mack said. “I know that ‘The Shot’ impacted his life in a huge way — which people can react to either negatively or positively. Fortunately for Vince, he’s gone on to do a lot of other really needed things in his life.”
But oh what a beginning it was.
The fact that East was even playing in the state semifinals at all was nothing short of a minor miracle in and of itself. After finishing the regular season 13-7, never putting together more than four wins in a row and finishing behind both Springfield Catholic Central and Versailles in the Southwestern Rivers Conference, the Vikings showed no signs of a team primed to make a deep postseason run.
Once the tournament began, however, the Vikings quickly caught fire, peeling off five wins to reach the state semifinals and a matchup with North Adams.
“I think our entire run was so completely unexpected,” Littlejohn said. “So many amazing things happened during that run. I felt like the whole county was behind us — I was just a part of that. Looking back now and seeing how the whole community was behind us, it was a lot of fun.”
And on a team no one expected to reach the state tournament, Littlejohn turned out to be the most unlikely of heroes.
“I was never one of the most vocal guys on the team,” Littlejohn said. “All I did was what coach said to do.”
Mack would agree with that assessment.
“He was definitely not quite as front and center as maybe some of the other guys on the team were,” he said.
As the game against North Adams wound down, however, he quickly became front and center.
With 3.3 seconds left to play in the game, North Adams hit a pair of free throws to push its lead to 66-65. Miami East called a timeout to set up a “three-second play” it had been working on all season.
That’s when Littlejohn had a premonition.
“When the kid made the two free throws to go ahead, I absolutely knew we were going to win the game — and I knew I was going to take the last shot,” Littlejohn said.
There was, however, one slight problem — he was merely the third or fourth option for teammate Aaron Chivington, who was to inbound the ball. In fact, he likely wouldn’t even have been an option at all, had starting point guard Preston Elifritz not already fouled out of the game and Littlejohn had to slide over into the point guard role.
Chivington’s first option was to throw the ball deep. His second option was to get the ball either to Casey McKinney or David Konicki, both of whom were playing wings for the Vikings.
Littlejohn, however, had other ideas — and just needed to get Chivington on board.
“Once we left the huddle, I went up to Aaron Chivington and said, ‘I know coach just called the play, but you need to get me the ball.’ I think I may even have had to ask him twice,” Littlejohn said. “I must have made a convincing argument the second time. I went up to him, put my arm around him and said, ‘Aaron, buddy, this has got to happen.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s kind of odd, because that was out of character for either myself or Aaron not to do what coach said.”
Chivington got the ball to Littlejohn, who dribbled past a pair of defenders and got off the shot, which swished through the net as the buzzer sounded.
As pandemonium broke loose throughout St. John Arena and fans rushed the floor, many in attendance thought Littlejohn hadn’t released the shot until after the buzzer had sounded. Referee James Marquette, who had been trailing the play on the left side of the court, raised his hands in the air, signaling the shot was good.
North Adams coach Dave Young disagreed.
“Absolutely not,” Young told reporters after the game when asked if he thought the shot was good. “I’m in a direct line with the scoreboard. All I saw, there were zeroes everywhere. There was no way it was good. It was zeroes everywhere.”
Mack said at the time, he wasn’t watching the scoreboard to see if Littlejohn got the shot off in time — he was more concerned with whether the ball was actually going in.
“I was on the bench at the time, so I wasn’t really thinking about whether he got it off before the buzzer — I was more concerned whether or not the thing actually went it,” he said. “It was a very challenging shot. When they said it was good, we all just assumed he got it off before the buzzer.”
Littlejohn has said he has since watched replays of the shot — but remained coy when asked, nearly two decades later, if he thought he got the shot off in time.
“I’ve got the video, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they said it was good, so it was good. I’ve got a ring that says it was good.”
While many in attendance — and even more in the media — would make arguments whether the shot was good, Mack made sure his team remained focused on its goal of winning a state championship.
Often lost in the legend and lore surrounding “The Shot” is that even after Miami East had knocked off North Adams in such stunning fashion, it still had a state title game to play two days later, much like many forget that after the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team upset the powerful Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics, it still had to come back and defeat Finland to capture the gold.
“I think our kids were a little bit sheltered from that,” Mack said. “When you go to state, you have an itinerary that you follow. We went to practice on Friday, we watched some of the other games, we ate at the Spaghetti Warehouse — you have to focus on what is still ahead of you. We still had to play a 27-0 Archbold team that was ranked No. 1 in the state in the state championship game.
I know a lot of people still view that shot as the climax, but I think a lot of people forget that we still had another game to play to win a state championship.”
Littlejohn’s shot, however, seemed to confirm the Vikings were, in fact, a team of destiny. Two days after “The Shot,” unranked Miami East rolled to a win over No. 1 Archbold that lacked all of the drama that had taken place just 48 hours earlier.
Perhaps because they were underdogs — or perhaps because of the dramatic fashion by which they won in the semifinals — the Vikings became heroes both within the Miami East community and around Miami County. There were countless parades, championship rings and jackets and appearances at schools around the county.
All of which caught the normally soft-spoken Littlejohn by surprise.
“It was definitely a culture shock for me,” he said. “I had never really had any sort of fame before. That all changed. I remember a year after high school, I was applying for a job at a shoe store. When I went in and was getting ready for my interview, a kid came up and asked me for my autograph. To have things like that happen was a huge culture shock. The final three months of high school were an absolute blur for me.”
Eventually, however, the cheers died down for Littlejohn. Rather than constantly replay that moment over and over again for anyone who would care to listen, he’s gone on with his life. He’s happy serving his country and living in Utah and rarely talks about that moment anymore — unless, of course, he comes back to Ohio to visit his parents, who still live in the area. His mother actually serves as a secretary at Miami East Junior High School, where Mack is principal.
“I don’t get asked about it much anymore, but when I do come home, it comes up every now and then,” Littlejohn said. “I still get together with some of my friends when I come home and we’ll chit-chat about it. But it really doesn’t translate well across the country.”
And that’s just fine with Littlejohn.
“Absolutely, I am living a dream life now,” he said. “I’ve been to every continent other than Antarctica. The deployments are not so much fun, but that’s all a part of the job. I get to travel abroad and I can ski every day if I want to.”
Contact David Fong at (937) 440-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong