Published March 8, 2018
Alumni Arena saw it all this basketball season, with packed crowds, exciting games and a quality basketball product in the form of UB’s men’s and women’s hoops teams. And on Feb. 27, the men took down the University of Akron in their final home game of the season, 80-68, to clinch a program-first Mid-American Conference regular season title.
But somehow, that wasn’t the biggest story of the night for the UB community.
Enter Kyle Hughes, a UB senior and vice president of True Blue, the school’s premier student pride organization.
Over the past four years, Hughes has been at nearly every home athletic event, rooting on the Bulls, rallying the crowd with a cowbell and doing his part to grow the sports culture at UB. The Bulls’ matchup with Akron was his last chance to root on UB in his second home of Alumni Arena.
On that night, he was selected to take part in UB Athletics’ half-court shot promotion, getting three chances to hit the shot and win a prize. Ready for the opportunity, Hughes made his way onto the court as the Bulls went to the locker room with a 38-32 lead.
“Basically, my biggest goal when I went out there was to not air-ball it,” Hughes joked. “If I air-balled any of the shots, or even all three, True Blue would never let me live it down.”
With a goal of putting up three at-least-respectable shots, Hughes tossed up his first shot and slammed the top-left of the backboard. The shot was so far to the left that he elected to move about five feet to the right for his next. Shot number two then followed, sinking into the basket with ease.
The crowd at Alumni Arena went berserk.
Hughes put on an exciting victory celebration as the arena roared with cheers of disbelief — an appropriate reaction considering the odds of hitting a half-court shot are 1 in 100. Pumping his fist and spinning around while doing so, Hughes made his way back to the student section, where his friends were just as excited.
And his prize for hitting a shot that’s difficult even for top basketball players? Twelve medium pizzas.
“In the past, we’ve done promotions where we have given away things like free tuition, $10,000 or a BMW car for the weekend for making the shot in one attempt,” says Dan “Boone” Enser, associate athletic director for communications and broadcasting. “None of those winners had a reaction like Kyle did."
UB fans at first didn’t bat an eye at the 12-pizza prize because it’s been that way ever since Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill began sponsoring the promotion. But, once the folks at ESPN heard about it, they were flabbergasted. For perspective, a student at Duke University nailed a half-court shot recently and won $18,000.
“One of my friends from a past internship is one of the screening guys [at ESPN] and was trying to get me on [SportsCenter’s Top-10 Plays of the Day],” recalled Hughes. “He texted me shortly after and said, ‘Hey…change of plans: Scott Van Pelt is losing his mind over your reaction right now.’”
Later that night, Van Pelt, a host of the midnight edition of “SportsCenter,” pumped the brakes on his regular “Best thing I saw today” segment. After showcasing Hughes’ half-court miracle, Van Pelt asked his co-host, Steve Levy, what he thought Hughes had won for hitting the shot.
The pair then went back and forth on live television about the prize of 12 medium pizzas as the ESPN studio broke into hysterical laughter.
“They couldn’t give him large pizzas? They had to give him medium pizzas?” Levy asked, unable to contain his laughter. “Tuition is overrated, really. Times are tough, he’s in college.”
After Van Pelt and company picked up the story, Hughes’ life turned upside down. He was interviewed the next morning by Randy Scott on “SportsCenter AM,” where the two broke down everything that happened, from the shot, to the celebration dance, to Hughes being corralled by his friends in the rowdy student section.
“Seeing myself on SportsCenter was just amazing,” Hughes said, still nearly speechless almost a week after hitting the shot.
As the week went on, Hughes’ shot was shown on such highly rated sports programs as “Pardon the Interruption” and featured in several news articles. Hughes even garnered some international fame, with TV stations in London and Paris picking up the story.
What most media outlets couldn’t believe was Hughes’ energetic reaction to winning 12 pizzas. However, there was more to his reaction than just the pizzas.
“It was a sold out Alumni Arena, True Blue was packed, all my friends were there and it was senior day,” Hughes said. “It was just a lot to take in and I just lost it.”
Hughes also received a lot attention on social media from friends, family and figures throughout the sports industry. It was common for people on campus to stop and congratulate him for the shot as well.
Since the unbelievable spurt of attention, more good news has come his way. After being teased on national television several times, Santora’s upgraded the prize to large pizzas with a side of 10 wings as thanks for the free publicity.
That wasn’t the only perk Hughes has received since. The Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino gave him and three friends a free dinner, and Brew Bus Buffalo — a brewery tour service opening its doors this summer — is reserving a spot for Hughes on its inaugural tour.
Although Hughes thought the attention he received was bizarre, it was a storybook ending to his time as a student fan at UB. True Blue organizers say very few people have put in as much effort as Hughes to grow UB’s sports culture within the student population.
“Kyle’s passion for UB Athletics has radiated to a lot of the students at the university,” said Kevin McCormick, a UB junior and treasurer for True Blue. “The energy he brings to games is one that you dream of everyone bringing, and I think when a leader of the student section leads by example like him, it’s going to show growth long-term for the sports culture. He’s a dedicated worker and all his hard work is reflected in the culture.”
The attention has been fun, but now Hughes says he’s ready to put it behind him and cheer on his Bulls as they compete in the MAC Tournament — with NCAA bids on the line.
“I won’t shy away from it if “SportsCenter” wants to keep mentioning [the shot],” said Hughes. “But my week of fame is in the past, and now it’s all about the men’s team and the women’s team winning MAC titles.”