Sabatino Chen says he hasn't dwelled on what might have been, and you have to take him at his word. But in his quiet moments, you wonder if human nature doesn't make him wonder.
On Jan. 3, 2013, Chen hit The Shot that would have made him an iconic figure in University of Colorado basketball. That The Shot was disallowed offered him short-lived celebrity status on ESPN and has made him a top five interview request this week as the Buffs prepare for their rematch with No. 9 Arizona.
But this week, as did the week of Jan. 3, will pass. Chen has his place in CU hoops history, but probably as the answer to a trivia question. Iconic status will have to wait.
In the final tick of regulation play of CU's Pac-12 Conference opener, Chen banked in an improbable three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Buffs an apparent 83-80 over then-No. 3 Arizona. Chen had drained a shot for the ages, but it didn't last nearly that long.
After initially signaling his basket good, officials went to the replay monitor, conferred among themselves and ran a reverse. Other replays shown everywhere for the next 24 hours seemed to indicate the first call was right, the second wrong. But it was too late to prevent overtime and a bitter 92-83 Buffs loss.
Chen's parents were at the game and were "heartbroken - just like we were," he told me this week. "It was just a weird feeling that I think none of us have ever gone through. It felt like we won the game, but then we didn't. I got texts saying, 'You made the shot' and 'We got ripped off.' But it was all about us; we lost and we went on a little down streak after that."
That "little down streak" shoved the Buffs toward a 1-4 conference start. They've finally dug themselves out, going above .500 (6-5) for the first time this season in the Pac-12 following a 72-68 win at Oregon State on Sunday night. They've won five of six entering Thursday night's rematch at the Coors Events Center (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Chen, a 6-4, 190-pound guard, remembers hitting at least one game-winning shot while at Louisville's Monarch High School, but none since. The disallowed trey in Tucson, he conceded with a grin, "would have meant a little bit more . . . I don't think it was difficult (to get over) because I was the one who made the shot; it was difficult because it was on the road against the third-ranked team in the country. That stings."
Still, in the month and half since, he claims to be at peace with what happened: "None of us can hold that against anybody. We've had a ton of games since then. We haven't had time to think about it."
That's about half-way true, but sophomore guard Askia Booker said he didn't see Chen's frustrations spill over that night in desert nor has he seen it since.
"I haven't seen that when I'm around him," Booker said. "I think Sabatino is so mature and is such a leader on this team that he doesn't need to look at it or remember it. He thinks if the refs didn't count it, then it didn't count. Some people say it did, some say it didn't. At the end of the day it's what the ref says. They said it didn't count and I don't think Sabatino is thinking about it at all.
"He was a little frustrated (after the game), but again he's very mature. You're not going to see the frustration for very long. He's going to get over it; he's a senior, he's been in certain spots in close games. I don't know if he's ever hit a game-winner, but he's been in close games. I think him just being who he is, he moves on."
Booker's starting backcourt mate, sophomore Spencer Dinwiddie, said Chen and the Buffs couldn't help but review The Shot during "locker room talk. But he's taken it in stride and continued to play."
What's been said in the locker room?
"Nothing that hasn't been heard before," Dinwiddie answered. "We all thought the shot was good. That's been said a thousand times over; it's no secret. Those are just our feelings about the game."
Chen, who transferred to CU from the University of Denver three seasons ago, is as soft-spoken and probably as reserved as any student on the CU campus. Almost all attention drizzled on him is deflected. He might have raised his voice during the two seasons he's played for the Buffs (he sat out his first season per NCAA transfer rules), but teammates struggle to remember the occasion.
Said Booker: "I'm learning from Sabatino that you can get your point across without yelling; it's something I can take from him forever - whether it's in a relationship or on the basketball court. You don't have to yell. It's not always necessary to yell to get your point across. That's one thing he does very well - stay calm."
Even so, if a strong, silent presence during Chen's junior year was sufficient, CU coach Tad Boyle wanted more words from Chen as the Buffs' only senior. And the words have come, even if that runs contrary to Chen's personality.
"He's taken ownership (and) become more vocal, which is not Sabatino's nature," Boyle said. "But I've heard his voice more in huddles, I've heard his voice more talking and encouraging his teammates. Leading by example is way overrated. I mean he does that and sets a great example and a great tone because he works so hard. And because of that he's got his teammates' respect. But you can't be a leader without being vocal. He's doing a much better job of that - both he and Andre (Roberson) are."
Said Chen: "I feel more comfortable every game (as a leader). This is my first year in college really having that leadership role. It's been a learning experience, and I've definitely learned from it. I've learned from the losses, the Arizona loss especially. You never relax anytime, but never at the end. Nobody on the team can be complacent."
Booker said Chen "does a lot of things (the media) never sees. Like in the locker room or in games, he'll let you know when you mess up. But it's not yelling. He'll come up to you and tell you what you did wrong. And there's no way you can argue with him - it's pretty much right on. He's been here almost three years; he knows what coach Boyle wants and expects. So when you hear it from (Chen) it clicks in your head."
Both Booker and Dinwiddie said Chen's final season has offered them a template for their last two seasons with his "consistency, the steadfastness he brings and his blue-collar mentality, that work ethic," noted Dinwiddie. "He's steady, he's our rock. On a team that has a lot of different personalities, he's our steady guy."
At Arizona last month, despite The Shot being discounted, Chen had what Boyle called "a hell of a game, a breakout game." Coming off the bench for the first time this season Chen scored 15 points. He hit six of his 10 field goal attempts, including two of four from beyond the arc. (Had he been three-of-five from that range . . . never mind.) He also hit one of three free throws, had one rebound, two assists and a steal in his 29 minutes.
As happened in Tucson for matchup purposes, Boyle said freshman Xavier Johnson again will start in place of Chen Thursday night. Chen has started four of 11 conference games, averaging 5.3 points and 2.4 rebounds. He has 16 assists and 16 steals, four of the latter made Sunday night at Oregon State and moving him into seventh place in the conference in that category. He also scored 10 points against the Beavers, hitting two of his four three-point attempts.
Said Boyle: "When he's aggressive and making baskets for us we're a lot better."
Boyle isn't big on revenge as a motivator, but Chen - the one Buff who could be more vengeful than any - quietly talks about "getting them back." He still hears about The Shot "not every day, just once in a while," he said. "We don't focus on that, though. It's in the past. We want to win the next game and because they're ranked No. 9 in the country it would be a big home win for us."
Of course, he's understating almost everything about Thursday night. But that's just him and that's OK. I'm thinking even if The Shot had counted, you'd see very little different about Sabatino Chen.