The catwalk and scoreboard were shaking. Bolts rained down from a ripped-open panel of the roof, and insulation fluttered in the air like snow. For a brief moment, the lives of 20,000 people inside the Georgia Dome depended on the direction of the wind.
“There was about a 5-second period where I thought this was it, the roof is coming down and 20,000 people, including me, are dead,” said Creg Stephenson, then an Alabama beat reporter for The Anniston Star, and now a sports writer for AL.com.
Eleven years ago this week an EF-2 tornado, one of about a dozen tornadoes that wreaked havoc on Atlanta on March 14 and 15 of 2008, struck the Georgia Dome. It was a Friday night during the men’s Southeastern Conference (SEC) Basketball Tournament with Alabama and Mississippi State locked in a close game that had gone into overtime. Tornadoes in a downtown area are rare; in fact, this particular one was the first in the recorded history of Atlanta to hit the downtown tourism district.
Arguably the scariest part of the deadly storm was the total lack of advanced warning, at least for the thousands inside the Georgia Dome. No one knew what was happening until it would’ve already been too late, a harrowing thought in an era before social media-dominated news and constant smartphone alerts giving you plenty of advanced notice about severe weather.
“Today you know a month out that you’re going to have a tornado,” said Gregory Ellis, then a Mississippi State beat writer for the Tupelo Daily Journal, who now works for the Tupelo school system. “It was surprising that we didn’t have any type of advanced warning. It just came out of nowhere.”
“We had no idea there was a tornado and there was no warning,” said Joel VanMeter, a high school basketball coach in Oxford, Alabama, who attended the tournament in 2008 as a fan. “All of a sudden it came over top of us. There wasn’t an announcement or anything like that.”
Only a select few in attendance knew immediately what was happening when they heard the noise, an unmistakable locomotive-like sound for anyone who has been unfortunate enough to be close enough to a tornado to hear it. For most, though, this was their first experience and thoughts varied on what was happening from innocuous things such as the loud stomping of feet from fans, to the MARTA subway system running through Atlanta, to more extreme thoughts, with some attendees fearing a terrorist attack or plane crash.
The tornado shook the Georgia Dome at about 9:40 p.m. EDT that night with 2:11 remaining in overtime as Mississippi State led Alabama by three points. It was a miracle that no one was hurt, as the Georgia Dome proved to be safe harbor from the deadly storm for all those on the inside. It’s a miracle that none of the falling debris, which varied from bolts to chunks of metal, struck anyone in the stands or on the court.
The real miracle, though, happened about 10 minutes prior on a shot that would have been instantly forgotten had it not very likely spared the lives of thousands in attendance by simply extending the game. Mykal Riley’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to tie the game for Alabama and force overtime was a big shot at the time in that it extended Alabama’s season for 5 more minutes; looking back, the shot went far beyond the scales of a basketball game.
“If Mykal Riley doesn’t hit that 3 at the end of regulation, there would have been a bunch of people walking into a tornado,” Stephenson said.
“I didn’t realize it until after the game was over,” Riley said about his game-tying 3-pointer. “Actually Brandon Hollinger (his Alabama teammate) pointed it out during the delay that maybe if I didn’t make that shot people could have been outside in the tornado.”
The impact of Riley’s 3 is the surviving memory of a wild SEC Tournament that ended with the most unlikely of champions. An SEC Storied documentary was made about the life-saving buzzer-beater, and how tragic the outcome could have been with the slightest change of circumstances. What if Riley had missed? If Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State’s head coach at the time and currently head coach at Western Kentucky, had his way, Riley would’ve never had the chance to attempt it.
“We were supposed to foul,” Stansbury said. “Riley came off of that baseline, and we were supposed to foul him. He caught that thing, and Ben (Hansbrough) sort of froze and didn’t want to foul him in the act of shooting, and he made that shot.
“It wasn’t until after the game, especially after we won it that we got to thinking that if we fouled and won that game in regulation what could have happened. Could you imagine 10,000 people walking out of that dome at that time? After we won we looked back at Ben not fouling at what a blessing it was.”
Call it luck, call it divine intervention; Riley’s shot didn’t alter the outcome of the game or save Alabama’s season, but it almost certainly saved the lives of thousands of fans who would have filtered out into the streets right at the time the tornado came roaring through.
It’s Riley’s lasting basketball legacy for a career that has continued overseas playing in Italy, France, and Venezuela. He’s a six-time champion in France, but he remains humbled by the droves of people who still send him heartfelt messages about how his shot altered the fates of the thousands in attendance. He was just doing his job at the time, executing the play-call by his head coach Mark Gottfried by coming off of a screen and firing a shot he hoped would extend his team’s season for 5 more minutes.
“I’m flattered that people to this day still talk about that shot,” Riley said. “Every year I receive messages from people telling me thanks for saving their life and how they still remember the shot to this day.”
The storm and Riley’s shot reduced what normally would have been the biggest story from the SEC Tournament to a mere footnote.
Georgia, having won just four SEC games all season long and finishing in the conference cellar, miraculously won four games in four days—including three in a span of 30 hours—to win the tournament and shockingly earn the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia was slated to face heavily favored Kentucky on Friday night following the Alabama/Mississippi State game. With the damage done to the Dome and the more than an hour delay for the ending of the previous game, however, the decision was made to postpone that matchup until the following morning. Then the tournament would pick back up at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Coliseum, a venue that held a fraction of the seats of the Georgia Dome.
In a mostly empty arena, save for family, friends, and credentialed media, the Bulldogs upset Kentucky with a 60-56 overtime win. In the rarest of basketball doubleheaders, Georgia returned to the court that night and knocked off Mississippi State 64-60. For the cherry on top of the March Madness sundae, Georgia defeated Arkansas 66-57 on Sunday to win the tournament.
“That’s about as good of a story as there ever was, a team playing two games in one day,” Stansbury said. “Not just a team, but a team that wasn’t very good during the regular season. They were on a mission. I don’t know if anyone can put any weight on what emotion can do for a team and what it means to get on an emotional roll, but Georgia was on an emotional roll.”
Despite Georgia’s emotional roll and improbable run through the tournament, the lasting memory for all those in attendance is the Riley shot and a tragedy averted.
It was an experience that didn’t fully set in for most until the aftermath, when they emerged from the damaged Georgia Dome to see the destruction the tornado left in its path. The streets were littered with debris and the windows of the nearby Georgia World Congress Center had been mostly shattered. Short, two-mile drives back to hotels took nearly two hours.
It was the closest of close calls, a thought that led many there to pick up a piece of rubble or insulation to keep; not so much as a souvenir, but as a reminder of what happened and how it could have been far worse, with a far more tragic denouement.
“I kept (a bolt) as a reminder to how lucky we were,” Ellis said. “It could have been catastrophic. You could have had 20,000 people instantly gone. It’s still to this day crazy to think about now 11 years later.” H&A