Ryan McMahon isn’t supposed to be here. In this particular case, “here” could mean a hundred different things.
He’s not supposed to be here playing Division-I basketball.
He’s not supposed to be here playing Division-I basketball on scholarship.
He’s not supposed to be here playing Division-I basketball for one of the sport’s elite programs.
He’s not supposed to be here playing a key role for one of the best teams in all of college basketball.
At this point, McMahon’s origin story might be the most well-known in the history of Cardinal basketball. If you’re unfamiliar, the fine details should be easily attainable through a fairly simple Google search. If you’d prefer the Cliff’s Notes version (Is Cliff’s Notes still a thing? Shoutout to PinkMonkey), a Hall of Fame broadcaster convinced a Hall of Fame coach to come take a look at an un-recruited sharp-shooter from Sarasota at the 11th hour of the 2015 recruiting cycle. The result was McMahon’s lone Division-I scholarship offer coming from Rick Pitino two years removed from the coach’s second national title.
One of my favorite things about McMahon’s fast and furious recruitment during the February of 2015 was that he and his family never tried to play it off like it was business as usual. They were fully aware that this was an unusual story for this modern era of basketball and were honest and upfront about the stunning nature of all this.
On the night that McMahon was officially offered by Louisville, his father, Dave, was asked by then-Courier Journal reporter Steve Jones if U of L was now the favorite to land his son. His response is still one of my favorite recruiting quotes of all-time.
“Oh, God, yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely.”
No point in acting like you’ve been here before when everyone is fully aware that you haven’t. It was refreshing.
Equally refreshing has been the opportunity to see McMahon change and grow firsthand over the last five years. Even for a program that hasn’t had a single freshman declare for the draft during the one-and-done era, the gift of observing a player evolve over the course of a four (or 67 in Ryan’s case) year career has become more and more of a rarity at U of L than ever before.
Because of this, seeing McMahon transform from the babyfaced redshirt on the doomed 2015-16 squad into an invaluable piece whose outside stroke could easily be the difference between Louisville advancing and not advancing in March has felt even more special than it would have 10 or 20 years ago. The earlier the seed is planted, the deeper the roots are. There’s a relationship that stretches through three coaches and the most tumultuous period in the history of the program here.
The relationship hasn’t always been rosy, because they never are. When you’re a basketball player who’s earned the reputation of being a specialist and you have an off night in your area of expertise, like the kicker who shanks the game-winning 30-yard field goal, you’re going to hear about your shortcomings more than the other guys on your team. It isn’t fair, but you don’t last at a place like Louisville if you let something as small as the inequity of the player/fan relationship get you sidetracked.
Ryan McMahon is perpetually unbothered. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
The defining moment of McMahon’s redshirt freshman season of 2016-17 came in mid-February at Syracuse. Despite having played less than a minute in regulation, McMahon was trusted to be on the floor for nearly the entirety of the overtime period after a couple of his fellow guards had proven themselves incapable of getting the job done. He responded with seven points in the extra frame, including an and-one and a pair of late free-throws to put the Cardinal victory on ice.
In a phone conversation following the game, Rick Pitino told your humble narrator that he had no problem inserting McMahon into that type of situation because Ryan “has balls as big as church bells.” The already strong relationship between McMahon and Pitino never got to run its course, and the reasons why will always play a large part in defining his Louisville legacy.
Ryan McMahon will always be the guy who was here through it all. He arrived when the program was rolling like an unstoppable machine under Pitino, he persisted through the ceaseless drama of his first two seasons and the gap year under David Padgett, and now he leaves after helping set the program back on course under Chris Mack.
Just how firmly “on course” that is will be largely determined by the weeks ahead.
Through all of this, McMahon has remained unbothered. When Louisville was at its lowest, he played with endless confidence and brought an unrivaled level of passion and energy both on the court and from the bench. When Louisville has been at its highest, he has played with endless confidence and brought an unrivaled level of passion and energy both on the court and from the bench.
All we ask of our Cardinals has been fully embodied by No. 30 for the last five years. On Sunday, we’ll all show our appreciation for that ... and then we’ll spend the month after watching that confidence, that passion and that energy help take this team as far as it can go.
Having elite shooters is a lot like having an ample amount of money: When you’ve got either, you tend to take them/it for granted over a period of time, and your mind starts wandering into the “yeah, but it could be even better” territory. When you lose either, your mind obsesses over just how comforting it was to have them/it, and can’t believe your past self could be so foolish as to not show proper appreciation for what you had.
We do this with non-shooters as well.
“He’s too much of a bully to be a true leader” with Monrezl Harrell has morphed into “what this team needs is a Montrezl Harrell presence” after every Louisville loss where it seems like the team may have been outphysicaled.
“I’m sick of these tiny point guards who can’t shoot, we need some NBA guys to run the offense” with Peyton Siva becomes “this team would be top five if it had a true point guard who could take care of the ball and distribute like Peyton Siva.”
And so forth and so on.
For years, maybe even decades, some of the same Louisville fans who have been among his harshest critics will be serving up “what this team could really use is a Ryan McMahon” anecdotes in the midst of every bad shooting slump a future Cardinal team goes through. He will become the face of the scorched nets of years past, and his memory will be one of a man who shot 93.7 percent from beyond the arc and only missed when he was fouled but didn’t get the whistle.
Let’s not wait for the poor shooting performances of years to come to show our proper appreciation for Ryan McMahon.