Has a basket scored by a team trailing by 55 points ever been more scrutinized?
It was on Nov. 15 that Monmouth junior George Papas, his team trailing 110-55, stole the ball from Kansas' Tristan Enaruna, who had his back turned to the action and was attempting to dribble out the clock. After completing the dunk to a chorus of boos from the Allen Fieldhouse crowd, Papas was whistled for a technical foul, presumably for taunting Enaruna after the play. The viral highlight provoked a very mixed reaction, followed by a debate. Was what Papas did outside the bounds of sportsmanship? Or was he just doing what every player is taught the first time they lace 'em up and playing until the final buzzer sounds?
The player at the center of the controversy, Papas, has not spoken directly about the incident -- Monmouth spokesman Gary Kowal told ESPN the school had declined most interview requests while emotions over the incident subsided -- but more than a month since the moment, Papas (6.5 PPG, 2.1 APG) and the school agreed to talk about the dunk, the reaction to it and Papas' evolution from a walk-on with no Division I scholarship offers to becoming a key part of the Hawks' (5-5) rotation:
ESPN: OK, first things first. Take us through the infamous play, from your vantage point.
George Papas: It's really hard to explain. The best way to say it is just "heat of the moment." I saw the dude just dribbling lackadaisically, and I think what I said to myself is if I wanted to just take this and dunk it, I could. And that's exactly what I did. I took a couple steps toward him like I was about to walk toward the bench and then I just had a burst at the ball, took it, took off and dunked.
ESPN: You looked angry. Were you angry?
Papas: Yeah, I was. There were a couple factors to it. Of course, we lost, so that was a big motivation behind it. But also [Enaruna] actually tried to block it, so that kind of pissed me off a little bit. If he didn't block it, there probably would have been no reaction and no big story. But because I felt him try to block it ... and I actually thought they blew the whistle for an and-1, so that's the whole reason I looked pissed, and started flexing and stuff.
ESPN: You got T'd up on the play, right?
Papas: I did, yeah. After I dunked it and stared him down, that's when the camera caught me turning around and saying those [profanities], but that's because right where I was looking, the ref was giving me the tech signal. I guess [the tech] was just for taunting, but they never told me exactly why.
ESPN: How tuned in were you to the crowd reaction?
Papas: All I heard was boos, I couldn't hear myself think. It was probably a top-two atmosphere I've ever played in. ... Between that and John Paul Jones Arena at UVa, those were the top two places I've ever played, and I really struggle determining which one I liked more. Two different feels to it, but two awesome places. It was such a crazy and historic place to play, and the fact that it was a sellout was pretty awesome as well. But after the whole thing, I just couldn't hear anything.
ESPN: What did your teammates say to you, and what did your coaches say to you?
Papas: My teammates, besides the 50-point loss, they were pretty excited. It was like "we played to the whistle, we're walking out of here with a smile." Coach [King] Rice was upset about the tech. He explained to me that that's just not what we do. But he also told me he had no problem with the dunk, it was just the aftermath of it, how I handled it. He had no problem with me playing to the whistle and dunking, it was just me getting a tech.
ESPN: Bill Self seemed to defuse it as well, saying afterward that the play "doesn't bother me at all. ... We've been on Tristan the whole time about being casual, and that's a prime example of what happens when you're casual. I told the team afterwards he may be on ESPN twice for two dunks: One on him and one he got." Did you see those comments?
Papas: I did. When they were shooting the technical free throws, Coach Rice brought us in and explained to me what I did. At the moment, when I was thinking about dunking it, I wasn't thinking anything about the repercussions, but after it happened I was like, "Oh my god, I really just did that. Is what I did a terrible thing?" And then as soon as the buzzer went off and we started shaking hands, Bill Self was the first person there. I apologized to him, and I said it wasn't sportsmanlike. And he said, "Oh, forget about it," and was absolutely cool.
ESPN: What about Kansas' players?
Papas: Uh ... not really, not really. I got a lot of no handshakes, they kept their hands at the side or not even looked at me. One person I'm not going to name exchanged a couple of words with me, but I just kept walking.
ESPN: Can you understand that side of it, the people who found it unsportsmanlike?
Papas: I can understand it, but I don't agree with it. They didn't stop dunking on us when they were up 40. So I can understand it, but in all honesty if I could do it again I would 100 percent do it again. Just not act the way I acted after the fact.
ESPN: How about your parents? What'd they say?
Papas: Both of my parents were actually there. My mom was super excited, of course. (He laughs.) I talked to my dad after the game. We had a talk about the way I acted and stuff. As soon as we got back to locker room, my phone was blowing up. I didn't know what to do. I was receiving a lot of hate, so when I was talking to my dad I was a little shook. I didn't know what was happening next.
ESPN: Were you surprised, given some of the active scandals and other unsavory stories in college basketball at this moment, that a dunk at the end of a 55-point blowout provoked the reaction that it did?
Papas: I did not expect it to get almost 3 million views on [the] SportsCenter [Twitter feed]. (Editor's note: It's now more than 5 million). I did not expect that one bit.
ESPN: And the guy behind college basketball's most-watched dunk of the year started his career as a walk-on?
Papas: Yeah. Well, I was originally supposed to walk on for four years at George Mason. And then before recruiting ended, Coach Rice came to me and said, "Listen, I can't give you a scholarship your first year but after that you have a full scholarship." It was a no-brainer to take it.
ESPN: Who else recruited you?
Papas: I did a fifth year, I went to prep school at Gould Academy [in Bethel, Maine] under coach Cory McClure. He helped me a lot out of high school. I was probably like 6-[foot]-2 out of senior year, really, really skinny. He helped me a lot. I was talking to a lot of D-IIIs out of high school, but throughout prep school I was talking to a lot of low-majors, America East schools, Patriot League schools, some Ivy League schools, but a whole lot of Division II schools were interested, specifically in the [Northeast-10 Conference.] But after some visits, no Division I schools wanted to give me an offer out of prep school, except for Coach Rice.
ESPN: What made you feel like you could play Division I basketball?
Papas: I always thought I could. I'm from Plainfield, New Jersey, and my older brother, Tommy [a former player at William & Mary], and I grew up in Plainfield rec being the only two white kids [on the team]. Where I'm from, we just fight. Me and my best friend from home, Devine Eke, who plays at Radford, when we're home in the summer all we do is play basketball. We go all over New Jersey and play, so I had no doubt, even when I was a 6-2 skinny kid, I could play at the highest level. I was always playing up [in age group] in AAU. I never thought I couldn't. My confidence level's just really high, and I just didn't want to settle for anything less.
ESPN: What did you learn in rising from a walk-on to a scholarship contributor to a key member of the rotation this season?
Papas: Originally I was supposed to redshirt my freshman year, but throughout preseason, Coach Rice and I talked a lot, and he left the decision up to me. I thought I was ready to play, and to start my freshman year I was playing around 14-15 minutes a game and we were pretty deep, so that wasn't bad. Then I twisted my ankle. That held me out for about two and a half weeks at the end of nonconference play and the beginning of conference play, and a couple games back in I got really sick and I was out for basically the rest of the year. I caught maybe the last five games. And then sophomore year, I was just in my own head, couldn't find a rhythm. And then this summer was really big for me, changing my body, changing my mental [approach] and really just forgetting about the ups and downs of my freshman and sophomore years. And really just being the best player I could be for this Monmouth team.
"I did what I did. I gotta live with it."George Papas, on criticism he's faced on social media.
ESPN: Monmouth finished last season one win away from the NCAA tournament, losing to Iona in the MAAC championship. Is reaching the Dance something this team talks about?
Papas: Absolutely. We tasted it, we just couldn't get the whole meal. We're really together this year. This is one of the most together teams I've been on, and we all know what we have to do to bring it home in the MAAC.
ESPN: Did this team learn anything about itself in the Kansas game?
Papas: Definitely. This is my third year here, and we've played a lot of high-major games. That was the biggest beatdown I've ever received. It's just you can't take teams for granted. We played Kansas State two nights before, the game was a lot closer than the score showed [73-54, in a game Monmouth led by nine points at halftime], so I guess our confidence from that game helped hold us down going into the Kansas game, the way we got beat down. If we could play them again, I really don't think the score would be the way [the first game] ended. I know this sounds crazy, but we beat a Radford team by 17 who lost to a UNC Greensboro team by 2, who only lost to Kansas by 12. So that wasn't the Monmouth Hawks that I know. The country has a different idea of what we are than what we really are.
ESPN: So what would change if you saw Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament?
Papas: For me it would just be having a tougher chin, being able to take a couple punches, because that's what Kansas is going to do. They're one of the best teams in the country, we have to live with that. They have the best talent in the country, one of the best coaches in the country, we just gotta be able to take their punches and keep fighting.
ESPN: In the meantime, have your social media mentions calmed down a little bit over the past month?
Papas: The most abuse came within a week of the dunk. I had to delete my Twitter at first, because it was just out of control. My Instagram blew up, a lot of DMs. There was a lot of hate within the first few weeks, but I still get DMs to this day either saying "you're the G.O.A.T., you're a legend," or "you're a clown, you're a bum." I've gotten a lot of those messages. But I don't really care, it's just opinions. I did what I did. I gotta live with it.