It was not long after the Michigan men’s basketball team won the Big Ten tournament this month when the moment arrived for the Wolverines to claim their polyester scalp: to bring out the ladders and let each player, coach and staff member take part in cutting down the nets.
When the assistant coach Billy Donlon’s turn came, he made his snip, retreated down the ladder and handed off the scissors to his fellow assistant Jeff Meyer – gripping the blades and offering the handle, the way he and everyone else were taught in kindergarten. But when Donlon looked down moments later, he recalled last week, he saw his palm covered in blood.
Donlon blamed “adrenaline” for his injury, a combination of his holding on to the scissors too tightly and Meyer’s grabbing them too forcefully. The wound required three stitches.
Cutting down the nets is one of college basketball’s distinctive traditions, a rite of spring. When teams win a conference tournament, a regional title or a national championship, the scissors come out, the ladders go up and the nets are cut down.
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Television viewers saw the process play out multiple times this past week as four men’s and four women’s teams punched their tickets to the Final Four. Nike-sponsored teams even wore shirts printed with “CUT THE NETS.”
Yet the ceremony also has built-in (if rarely evident) danger, combining as it does excitement and a feeling of indomitability with a ladder and a sharp object. And just as Michigan’s Donlon emerged with a cut this March, North Carolina coach Roy Williams suffered a similar one during a regional championship celebration last year.
Williams is back in the Final Four this week, only two wins from his third national title – and yet another net-cutting.
“I’ve got some vertigo issues and I was up there on the ladder, and I felt like it was sort of moving a little bit as I was trying to cut the net,” Williams recalled last week in Memphis of his experience last year. “And I missed the net and cut my finger, and then I tried to macho it real well and hide it from everybody. And it was bleeding like crazy down there, and they ended up putting four or five stitches in it in the locker room.”
The striking thing about the net-cutting ceremony may be not that there are injuries, but that there are not more. Officials who have spent many years with the Connecticut women’s basketball team – which has cut down a few nets given coach Geno Auriemma’s 22 conference tournament titles, 18 Final Fours and 11 national championships – could not, for instance, recall a single injury from its previous celebrations.
Phil Knight, the 79-year-old Nike co-founder and Oregon benefactor, who took his turn after Oregon beat Kansas last weekend, acknowledged the risks when he told a reporter afterward, “They waited till I was really old, and it was scary up there.”
But the Oregon sophomore Tyler Dorsey, who is also more than a half-century younger than Knight, brushed off concerns. He has partaken of two ceremonies with the Ducks: last year after winning the Pacific-12 tournament, and again Saturday night after booking a Final Four trip.
“There’s so much enjoyment, excitement – you’re not really worried about the scissors,” Dorsey said. “You handle scissors all the time.”
The tradition has roots in Indiana high school basketball, according to Tim Peeler, the self-described “unofficial historian” of North Carolina State sports who now works for the university. When the Wolfpack won the Southern Conference tournament in 1947, Peeler said, their coach, Everett Case, a Hoosier, exported the tradition to Tobacco Road, where it spread throughout the college game.
(Decades later, another NC State coach, Jim Valvano, famously had his players practice cutting down the nets in order to condition them to being winners – a tactic that perhaps paid off in their unlikely run to the 1983 national championship.)
Those with more neurotic temperaments will be relieved to know that some precautions have been taken.
During the net-cutting, the NCAA restricts the area inside the 3-point line to members of the team and its travel party, according to a spokesman, “so that we keep the crowd by the basket as small as possible.”
It also should come as little surprise that the NCAA has official scissors and ladder suppliers. This is the ninth year that Fiskars has supplied the official net-cutting scissors for the NCAA men’s and women’s championships (its trademarked orange-handled ones). A spokeswoman noted that the company includes consumer warnings on all of its packaging, which advise keeping the blades “away from fingers and body” and “out of reach of children.” Presumably, 18- and 19-year-olds no longer qualify.
But it is Werner, the ladder manufacturer also in its ninth year sponsoring both championships, that really appears to have gone above and beyond for the cause of safety this season.
“Being in the ladder business for as long as we have, climbing safety and climbing safely is part of our DNA,” said Chris Filardi, the company’s vice president of marketing.
Werner offers consumers a Podium series with an extended guardrail and a large platform for standing, but the version used in this year’s tournament is not for sale.
“We worked with the NCAA and did some averages of player height and size and weight,” Filardi said, “and our engineers worked with it.”
The result is a ladder optimized for college basketball players – that is, exceptionally long-legged young men and women. The custom model also comes equipped with scissor-storage options, Filardi said, in the form of a magnet and a toolholder. No one seemed to take advantage of those safeguards over the weekend, though, and more than a few Oregon players here could be seen passing scissors to each other blades first.
Ultimately, for the lucky teams that cut down the nets after winning national championships, there will be little excuse for injury.
Not that injury is automatically a deal-breaker.
“If we get a chance to cut down the nets,” said North Carolina’s Williams, “I won’t give a flip if I cut my finger halfway off again.”