KANSAS CITY — Joel Branstrom figured he was about to be the butt of some kind of joke when he was blindfolded at a pep rally and told he would win tickets to the NCAA's Final Four if he could hit a half-court shot.
But the popular girls basketball coach played along and sent the Olathe (Kan.) Northwest High School gym into a frenzy Friday by hitting the improbable shot.
"I've been around long enough and done these kinds of practical jokes," said Branstrom, who also teaches biology at the suburban Kansas City school. "I figured they were trying to punk me."
Before launching the shot, Branstrom figured he was about to be hit in the face with a pie, so he held the ball up as protection for a few seconds.
"I knew they would cheer regardless to make me think I hit it," Branstrom said. "I let it go, they cheered, I heard laughter. I seriously didn't know I made it for a while."
The shot, which was recorded on video by the school's multimedia department, made it onto the Internet over the weekend, and by Monday the former University of Kansas basketball walk-on was something of a celebrity.
Branstrom was a senior on the Kansas basketball team in 1997 when the Jayhawks got beat by Arizona 85-82 in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Final Four time is his favorite of the year — other than his children's birthdays and holidays such as Christmas. This year's NCAA semifinals and finals are being played in Indianapolis.
"I would love a chance to go there," he said.
No such luck. The students never had the promised tickets, so they wound up buying him a gift card to a Mexican restaurant.
"Some of the kids felt absolutely horrible that they didn't have tickets," Branstrom said. "But that's not what it's all about. We got some smiles, it was a feel-good moment."
Brad Keepes, a senior at Olathe Northwest who helped organize the prank, said Branstrom has a great sense of humor and the students knew he could take a joke. He said he has been told several people are offering to donate tickets so Branstrom can go to the Final Four.
"I could not pick a better person that deserves to go," he said.