Down two points with a second consecutive berth to the Shark Basketball League playoffs on the line, North Indian Ocean Angel Sharks forward Carl O’Connor didn’t have time to think. He just knocked the ball toward the hoop with his broad pectoral fin, like he’d done in practice time and again.
And with that, the Angel Sharks punched their ticket to the playoffs for the second consecutive year with an 85-84 win, an impressive feat for an expansion club that just four years ago finished last in the Northern Hemisphere Conference.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was good,” O’Connor said. “What a feeling. Playoffs, baby!”
Though it was O’Connor who hit the final shot, it was a team victory for the Angel Sharks, who got 25 points out of its bench and had four players reach double digits scoring.
The defeat marks another setback in what has been a disappointing season for the Caribbean Tiger Sharks, a talented squad of 16-foot long nocturnal predators which fell to the Atlantic Hammerheads in the Finals last year, but has struggled offensively this season.
“It was just one of those nights,” Tiger Sharks coach Orlando Collins said after the game. “I thought we had some good looks, out of our motion set especially, but they just weren’t falling for us. What can you do?”
The Tiger Sharks shot just 34 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers, as rookie point guard Darius Miller, a 1,200-pound phenom from the water surrounding Jamaica, appeared to struggle mightily.
“I just have to do a better job getting my teammates involved, cut down on the turnovers a little bit,” Miller, the second overall pick in last year’s draft, said. “I was gripping the ball a little too hard in my mouth. I think my teeth might have punctured it at one point.”
Often called the rays of the shark world, it was long thought that angel sharks, which rarely grow longer than five feet, were unable to play basketball at a high level. For years, the SBL has been dominated by Great Whites, Hammerheads, Makos, and Bull Sharks, all of which dwarf Angels in size, athleticism, sense of smell, and electroreception.
They may be harmless-looking bottom dwellers, but this year’s Angel Sharks have turned that stereotype on its head, succeeding with a mixture of stingy zone defense, outside shooting, and powerful jaw action.
“We know we have doubters, but that just makes us want it more,” Angel Sharks guard Antonio McCloud, who finished with 12 points and six assists, said. “We like to think we inspire all the Angel Sharks who are marginalized, bullied, and pushed around by bigger species.”
Recently, the SBL itself has been under criticism from activists, who claim that the species-based nature of the league’s teams is backwards and promotes race-based prejudice. A consortium of 16 major non-profits and activist groups presented an open letter to shark Parliament last week protesting the discrimination of the species-based teams.
“My son grew up idolizing the South Pacific Great Whites. You mean to tell me that even if he practices hard and becomes a good player, he can never play for them?” Sandra Patterson, a lemon shark and a co-chairwoman of Sharks Standing Against Racism in Sport, said in a news conference.
Other critics have argued that the league’s 50 teams leave too many of the 440 shark species without a squad to cheer or play for. Still, the SBL, a league steeped in tradition and history, is unlikely to change anytime soon.
“This is how it’s always been,” Great Whites swingman Coltrane Hammerfist, last season’s MVP, said. “We’re stronger, longer, and our teeth are sharper. We’ll always be the best.”
With 17 championships, ten more than any other team, the Great Whites have dominated the SBL for much of its 80-year history.
O’Connor, McCloud, and the rest of the eighth-seeded Angel Sharks hope to buck that tradition in the first round of the playoffs, where they will be matched up with the top-seeded Great Whites.
“Bring ‘em on,” Collins said after the game. “The way this team is playing now, we feel like we can beat any species, apex predator or not.”