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Anybody who has ever stepped onto a basketball court has tried sinking a shot from well beyond half-court, usually as some imaginary clock has counted down, “Three…two…one…,” and with an equally make-believe championship or lotto-size bounty on the line and a fictional crowd roaring. Jeff Marx entered a long-range shooting contest held in conjunction with the Hoop-It-Up basketball tournament that closed off so many downtown streets the weekend of Sept. 20-21. Up for grabs was a huge, real-life payoff: $25,000 in cash. Assured that the money would be his if only his aim was true, Marx stood about 70 feet away from the hoop and, as a real clock ticked, in front of scores of live witnesses, let fly.

And then he watched as the ball hit nothing but net.

“I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I had just done,” recalls Marx, a Capitol Hill resident. “Everybody was going crazy.”

In the weeks since his shot, some level of craziness has remained. But whatever joy Marx got out of his improbable deed is long gone. The grand prize that he feels is rightfully his hasn’t yet come his way. Not a dime of it.

It may never come: Officials at Southwest Airlines, sponsor of the long-shot contest, claim that Marx didn’t win, that he misunderstood the rules of their game. To them, he’s not a whole lot closer to a payday then he was before his big-time, if not big-money, heave.

Marx, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author as well as a basketball fanatic, knows a good sports story when he hears one. He just wishes he weren’t the protagonist—or victim, assuming the continuing tale doesn’t end happily.

Marx spends a lot of time running mental replays of everything that took place that Sunday. He spent that fateful day walking around downtown with friends who were down from New York, and after a buddy heard an announcement over the Hoop-It-Up public address system that the long-shot contest would be over in just 15 minutes, they all walked toward the temporary basketball court that had been set up on 11th Street off Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the end of the event. Along with a crowd that gathered three-deep around the court, they saw one entrant after another try the heave without a single contestant even hitting so much as the backboard. But before Marx could stop him, Mike Woodrow, a friend from Rye, N.Y., had signed the whole gang up for what was officially dubbed “The Southwest Airlines $25,000 Long Shot,” and paid their $1 per person fee.

Marx’s out-of-town friends went before him and were among the airballers. So when it came time for Marx’s attempt, with the contest all but over, neither he nor anybody else in attendance thought much of his chances.

“When the guy running the contest handed me the ball, I said to him, ‘This is too easy!’ as a joke,” Marx says. “And the guy says back to me, ‘That’s right, go ahead and make your shot and you’ll get your money.’”

Marx then held up his end of the deal, sparking a spontaneous street festival.

“People I’ve never seen in my life are running around and high-fiving me and each other, and I look around and see my buddies going nuts,” he says. “It was like 90 seconds or two minutes of absolute euphoria.”

The jubilee ended, however, when the very same contest official who Marx asserts promised him the $25,000 payoff killed everybody’s buzz by telling him that despite making the shot, Marx hadn’t won any money from Southwest. Instead, he’d won a T-shirt and the right to come back in a half-hour to try a three-quarter-court shot again. If Marx should nail that second shot, too, well, then he’d earn the $25,000.

“I was shocked. There was nothing about any second shot in the PA announcement,” Marx says. “And this was the same guy who gave me the ball and told me I’d get my money if I made that one shot! Everybody there was jumping up and down, so you could tell they didn’t know about any second shot. But this guy says, ‘Sorry, you should have read the rules when you signed up!’ I thought he was teasing me. But I could deal with it if I really had screwed up.”

Marx walked back over to the sponsor’s table to read the sign-up sheet, where, he had been told, the rules were laid out. On it, he saw a lot of verbiage about who was eligible to enter, and an injury waiver, and an oath that he hadn’t played college or pro ball in the last five years. But any and all allusions to a second long-range shot were missing.

“After I told the guy that the sign-up sheet didn’t mention a second shot, he admitted that he never even read the sheet before,” Marx says.

As Marx reiterated the absence of second-shot mentions, a second Hoop-It-Up judge appeared on the scene, pulled a beer cooler out from under the sign-up table, and produced a piece of paper that he contended made reference to the consequential second shot. Marx refused to even glance at the second rule book.

“I told them they could keep their beer-cooler rules. I mean, how was I or anybody else in the contest supposed to know about something they kept under the table in a cooler?” says Marx. “That’s when I started getting pissed off.”

He wasn’t alone. Members of the crowd began directing obscenities at a balloon shaped like a Southwest jet that floated above the contest court and indicating that they were up for exacting a little street justice, if Marx wanted some backing.

“All these people we didn’t know started yelling, ‘Show him the money! Show him the money!’” laughs Woodrow. “For them, like for me and Jeff and all of us, there was absolutely no question that he was shooting for the money, and we were all sure he’d won.”

The chanting caused Marx to worry that his newfound comrades were on the verge of pummeling the hapless contest organizers. Marx told the at-risk duo that he understood that they were only acting under somebody else’s orders and assured them he’d be in contact with their supervisors within the week.

Then the journalist in him took over. Marx asked for a Xerox of the rules-free sign-up sheet and began taking down notes and names from as many witnesses as he could round up. He grew more and more convinced that he’d been wronged.

After calls to Southwest’s corporate headquarters proved fruitless, Marx retained an attorney and is currently contemplating a lawsuit.

Southwest officials stand by their contest, even the way it was conducted in D.C.

“Mr. Marx didn’t win. He qualified to win. We have to investigate all the details, but to date we’re confident that we’re doing the right thing, that we did everything we were supposed to do,” says Ed Stewart, director of public relations for Southwest Airlines.

“From what we hear, the rules for the contest were posted,” so that all D.C. contestants could read them, adds Annmarie Masters, senior attorney for Southwest.

During his beef with Southwest, Marx has often referred to Nuts, a best-selling book detailing the nonconformist airline’s history and growth. One of his favorite passages tells how Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s eccentric CEO and self-proclaimed all-around stand-up guy, in 1992 settled a $500,000 lawsuit by arm-wrestling an opposing litigant rather than going to court.

The book also quotes Kelleher: “If one of our employees commits Southwest Airlines to doing something, we stand behind that commitment—even if it’s a bad business decision.”

“It’s one thing for Kelleher to say that,” says Marx. “But it’s another to back it up.”—Dave McKenna