It’s Tournament Time and I Miss My Friend

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Some say that basketball is just a game. This is true. However, that game has the power to move people to tears, evoke unbridled joy, bring friends, teammates and even strangers together and create heart-warming memories that last a lifetime.

The 2003 championship game of the NCAA Tournament between Syracuse and Kansas left an indelible impression on me. I watched it with my friend Gary. In a sense, we were like millions of other basketball fans around the country taking in the game with their buddies, but it felt different. Gary was sick.

In March of that year, doctors found a cancerous tumor in his brain. They removed as much as they could and Gary underwent radiation treatment. The outlook was bleak, but you would not have known it from his demeanor.

My friend refused to let the tumor or the fatigue caused by radiation slow him down. He had too much living to do. Gary reconnected with old friends, went to ballgames, attended cultural events and inspired his friends and family with his optimism and enthusiasm.

Gary and I met as students at the University of Michigan. I knew early on that there was something special about him. He was a passionate person who loved people and experienced life on a deeper level than most. We were friends, but not extremely close. That changed when he got sick.

Barriers melt away when a person is facing death. There were no secrets between us. No need to put on airs. We talked about life, love, death and friendship in ways I never had before.

In early April, he invited me over to watch the Syracuse-Kansas game. I distinctly remember being depressed on my way to his parents’ house. I was worried about my friend and sad that he and his family had to deal with such a horrible illness. The night played out like every other time I visited Gary during that period: I was intent on lifting his spirits, but inevitably he lifted mine.

He greeted me at the door with a big hug and a sparkle in his eyes. Gary wore his emotions on his sleeve and I could see that he was excited about something. “Have you seen this freshman Carmelo Anthony on Syracuse” he asked, “He is unbelievable. He can shoot, post up, pass. And he’s just a freshman.”

I was surprised by his enthusiasm for Anthony and the Syracuse team. Gary preferred the NBA to college basketball. It was one of the things we had in common. We shared a devotion to the New York Knicks.

I told him I knew of Anthony, but admitted that I had not seen him play very much. That made Gary even more excited. He knew I was a big hoops fan and could not wait to share the experience of watching Anthony with me.

Gary’s father Mario watched the game with us. We shared laughs and enjoyed great basketball. The game went down to the wire and Syracuse pulled out an 82-78 victory. Anthony scored 21 points despite a sore back and every time he did something special Gary smiled at me, as if to say “I told you so.” Anthony was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Gary and I hung out together several more times over the next six weeks. He joked about his hair falling out and shared his deepest fears. His spirits were high. He was enjoying life and remained optimistic about his future.

Shortly after Memorial Day I received a phone call from a mutual friend informing me that Gary had slipped into a coma. He passed away on October 1. It broke my heart.

I recently watched the latest film from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, “Survive and Advance” about the miraculous 1983 NC State basketball team and their coach Jim Valvano, who waged his own courageous battle against cancer. In the film, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski referred to the period when Valvano was sick as “four of the most beautiful months I’ve ever had of friendship with anyone.” That is how I feel about Gary.

I still think about my friend often. Little things trigger memories, like driving past Mario’s Pizzeria in Syosset or hearing certain Grateful Dead songs. I thought about how excited he would have been when Carmelo was traded to our beloved Knicks, and he is always on my mind when the former Syracuse star has a big game.

However, I think about Gary most often during the NCAA Tournament. I am still moved by the thought of that 24-year-old with so much to be fearful of and angry about receiving so much joy from a basketball game.

Ten years later, Syracuse is back in the Final Four. But Gary would not be pulling for the Orange this time around. They are facing our Michigan Wolverines. I can imagine him gushing over Trey Burke the way he once did about Carmelo. It makes me smile. Thinking about Gary always does.

Another Mountain to Summitt

by Paul Knepper

Summit   sum·mit / [suhm-it]

noun

1. the highest point or part, as of a hill, a line of travel, or any object; top; apex.                                                                                                                                                   2. the highest point of attainment or aspiration: the summit of one’s ambition.                                                                                                                                        3. the highest state or degree.

verb (used with object)

1. to reach the summit of.

Pat Summitt climbed to the pinnacle of her profession and secured a legacy as one of the greatest coaches ever, in any sport, at any level, male or female. In 37 seasons as the coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols she’s amassed a Division I record 1,071 wins and eight National Championships.

Her career so embodies the meaning of her last name that years from now it will be fair to wonder which came first, the person or the word.

Now at the age of 59, Summitt faces a mountain steeper than any she’s climbed before. The Lady Vols coach announced on Tuesday that she’s been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a devastating illness which leads to a gradual decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and normal emotional reactions, and is eventually fatal.

Summitt said she didn’t feel like herself at times last season and experienced a lack of confidence on the sideline – a foreign feeling for the decisive coach with a take charge attitude – so she underwent a series of tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in May. She received her diagnosis in June.

Summitt’s coaching style has always been one of a tough disciplinarian, an in-your-face, feisty motivator who demands the best from her players. Since she revealed her diagnosis, several of her former players have spoken about how their coach instilled in them a belief that they can handle any situation. She taught them to dig down deep and find their inner strength in difficult times to be greater than they thought they could be.

Now the coach has to heed her own lessons.

She has plenty of life to live and hearts to touch. This illness provides her with an opportunity to introduce the wisdom she has preached to her players for 37 years to a much broader audience. Many athletes and coaches have experienced their finest hours while battling illness.

Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest baseball players to ever live, is best remembered for the courage and dignity he displayed in the face of death before a packed house at Yankee Stadium.

Magic Johnson won five NBA Championships, though I’m fairly certain he would say his greatest achievement has been living a healthy and fulfilling life for 20 years with HIV. He’s brought awareness to the disease and served as a role model for countless others who are suffering.

Former N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano brought tears to our eyes with his heart-wrenching speech at the 1993 ESPY’s. His body riddled with cancer, he inspired millions with his message of hope, and he lives on in the foundation for cancer research which bears his name.

Valvano famously said of cancer, “It cannot touch my mind. It cannot touch my heart. And it cannot touch my soul.” The difference with Summitt is that her disease is one of the mind. That poses a different set of challenges, especially for a woman so accustomed to being in control, though many of the same principles apply. By facing her illness with dignity and grace Summitt can inspire so many.

She stated that she intends to continue coaching and will attempt to keep her mind sharp through daily mental exercises, though she conceded that she’ll need to rely on her assistant coaches more than ever. Tennessee’s interim athletic director Joan Cronan has supported her decision. The coach sounded like her old self on Tuesday when she told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”

She called a team meeting that afternoon to inform her players of her condition. Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was business-like, with Summitt calmly telling the Lady Vols that nothing would get in the way of their quest for a ninth national title this season.

”More than anything she just emphasized that she’s our coach and that she wanted us to have complete confidence in her, and we do,” Spani told the Associated Press.

Summitt’s son Tyler, a walk-on member of the Tennessee men’s basketball team, said his mother initially had difficulty accepting the news. He said, “And there was anger. “Why me?” was a question she asked more than once. But then, once she came to terms with it, she treated it like every other challenge she ever had, and is going to do everything she possibly can to keep her mind right and stay the coach.”

John Wooden, the only college basketball coach to win more championships than Summitt ( with 10) said, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” The same can be said of illness.

Pat Summitt’s character has been on display for the past 37 years. She’s a fighter, a teacher, a leader and a winner. Somehow, the Lady Vols coach will find a way to summit this mountain as she has so many others in her life and blaze a trail for others along the way. That’s what she does.

Tractor Traylor Was Larger Than Life

by Paul Knepper

Robert “Tractor” Traylor was a freshman at the University of Michigan the same year I was. The six-foot-eight, 300 pound center was literally and figuratively the big man on campus. His career was marked by disappointment and scandal, but the Michigan faithful loved him any way. He died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 34.

Traylor was a McDonald’s All-American during his senior season at Murray-Wright High School in Detroit. He stepped on campus in the fall of 1995 as the coach Steve Fisher’s prized member of a stellar recruiting class. The year before, Fisher landed five freshmen, including Jerod Ward, Maceo Baston and Maurice Taylor, who were touted as the next Fab Five. Michigan fans thought another trip to the Final Four was imminent.

On a team replete with pro prospects Traylor stood out from the pack. My eyes were always drawn to him when he was on the court. He had tools that can’t be taught and make scouts drool; quick feet, soft hands and tremendous agility for his size. It was awe-inspiring to watch this mammoth of  a man pick a guy’s pocket, scurry after the loose ball, then dribble down the court and finish with a thunderous dunk. His combination of size and athleticism reminded me of a young Charles Barkley.

Traylor dunked so hard that you half expected the backboard to come down. One night it did. During Michigan’s 1996 season opener against Ball State he shattered the backboard at Crisler Arena on a breakaway dunk. The big man didn’t run for cover. He stood in the paint admiring his work as the glass rained down on him.

Traylor’s size, talent and marketable nickname quickly made him the face of the Wolverines. His love for basketball and infectious exuberance endeared him to his teammates and fans. Number 54 smiled often during games and I recall on more than one occasion him literally skipping down the court to embrace his teammates after a big play.

Midway through his freshman year, Traylor was behind the wheel when a few Michigan players and high school senior Mateen Cleaves got into a car accident during Cleaves’ recruiting visit. Traylor broke his wrist in the accident, though the damage had only just begun. Reporters began asking questions about how a poor kid from Detroit could afford a pimped out Ford Explorer. A six-year investigation revealed that Traylor and other Michigan players accepted in excess of $600,000 from a booster named Ed Martin. The school received two years probation and was stripped of NIT and Big Ten titles won during Traylor’s time there.

Traylor and his teammates were also disappointing on the court. Their greatest accomplishment was winning the NIT tournament in 1997 – Traylor was named tournament MVP – hardly a crowning achievement for a school with Michigan’s expectations. The Wolverines did win the inaugural Big Ten Tournament in 1998, but failed to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

On a personal level, Traylor had a very impressive junior season and declared for the 1998 NBA draft. The big man averaged 16.2 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 58% from the field. He would have scored more had there not been several other scorers on the team. During his three years in Ann Arbor he learned to use his size more effectively and developed some semblance of a post game.

NBA scouts took notice. Most believed that based on his rare combination of size and athleticism he had plenty of room to continue to improve. The Dallas Mavericks selected Traylor with the sixth pick in the draft and immediately traded him to Milwaukee for Pat Garrity and the ninth pick, some German named Dirk Nowitzki.

Traylor was a bust in the NBA. He averaged a measly 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game over seven seasons with Milwaukee, Cleveland and the Hornets. He lacked the work ethic to go along with his talent and never took conditionally seriously. Tractor Traylor would have always been a big man, but he could have slimmed down significantly, like Celtics forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis. He also never developed the post-game or jump shot to necessary to become an offensive threat. His NBA career is best remembered as the answer to the trivia question: Who did the Mavs trade for Nowitzki?

After the NBA Traylor played pro ball in Europe for a few years. Over the past couple of seasons he took his game to Puerto Rico, which is where he died. He left behind a wife, two children and a complicated legacy. Tractor Traylor ignited a scandal which my alma mater still hasn’t fully recovered from and his career was a tremendous disappointment, but I’ll always remember him as a uniquely gifted athlete who enjoyed playing basketball as much as I enjoyed watching him.

Darius is Dreaming

by Paul Knepper

University of Michigan point guard Darius Morris confirmed yesterday that he will remain in the NBA draft. The sophomore point guard was Michigan’s best player last season and nearly led the Wolverines to a second round upset over Duke in the NCAA tournament. He has an NBA body, great talent and has grown by leaps and bounds over his two seasons in Ann Arbor, but he’s not ready for the NBA.

The vast majority of kids entering the NBA draft aren’t prepared to play in the league. Most haven’t mastered the basic skills necessary to excel at their position and many aren’t emotionally mature enough to handle the rigorous day-to-day life of a professional athlete. More than ever, the draft has become a talent grab, with emphasis placed on natural physical ability. Who has the quickest first step? What’s his wingspan? How’s his vertical leap?

The first 14 selections, known as Lottery picks are typically used on superb athletes with at least a decent skill level. In the mid to late first round teams snatch up unpolished or unathletic big men and highly skilled perimeter players who lack the explosiveness of lottery picks. Morris doesn’t fit into any of those categories.

There’s a lot to like about Michigan’s former point guard. At 6’4 he’s tall  for his position and quick and long enough to defend point guards and shooting guards at the next level. He’s quick off the dribble, a crafty finisher in the paint and has learned to create shots for himself and his teammates.

Michigan Coach John Beilein has been outspoken about Morris’ work ethic. The sophomore may have been the most improved player in the country this season, raising his scoring and assists per game from 4.4 and 2.6 to 15.0 and 6.7. His shot selection and accuracy also vastly improved.

Morris became a leader on and off the court. When Michigan was struggling midway through the Big Ten season and appeared to be on its way to another NIT bid, he spoke up at a team meeting and took responsibility for his poor play. From that point on he elevated his game and led the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament, where he played his finest basketball, knocking down a slew of clutch shots.

Yet, anybody who watched Morris on a regular basis knows that he still has major flaws in his game. His outside shot is inconsistent at best and lacks range. He connected on just 25% of his three-point attempts this past season. Teams can just sit back and let him shoot. Think Rajon Rondo, but unlike Rondo he’s not quick enough to make up for it. His decision making has improved, but he still forces too many shots and commits costly turnovers. He’s years away from being able to run an offense in the NBA.

Morris initially declared for the draft in April, but didn’t hire an agent, allowing him to maintain his amateur eligibility and return to school. He met with the NBA advisory committee, which provides underclassmen who are considering entering the draft with feedback from general managers in the league as to where they may be drafted. Morris was reportedly told that he’d likely be selected in the second round.

Unlike first round picks, second round picks aren’t guaranteed money and often don’t even make the team. Morris may believe that he’ll impress the scouts enough between now and the draft to work his way into the first round, but the flip side is that he may not get drafted. He only needs to look at his former Michigan teammate Manny Harris. Harris went undrafted last year after leaving school following his junior season. He was fortunate enough to sign on with the Cavaliers, but few undrafted players make a roster.

Harris is one of countless players who left school early only to be passed over on draft day. The local cautionary tale is Omar Cook, a highly touted point guard from Brooklyn who declared for the 2001 draft after a stellar freshman year at St. John’s. The shifty point guard was originally projected to be a lottery pick, but slipped to the second round because like Morris he couldn’t shoot. He was drafted by the Magic, who immediately shipped him to Denver, where he failed to make the team and was never heard from again.

If Morris stayed another year his stock was almost certain to continue climbing. Given his work ethic and the arc of his progression as a player he would have been in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year next season. If he continued to improve his jump shot and assist to turnover ratio he almost certainly would have been a first round pick next near, maybe even crept up towards the lottery. That would mean a lot more money than he’ll make as a second round pick and most importantly, it would have been guaranteed. The prospect of a lockout looming over the NBA would seem to be further incentive for him to return to Ann Arbor next year.

It’s never clear to outsiders who a kid listens to or what he bases his decision on when pondering whether to enter the draft. Morris said he discussed it with Coach Beilein and his family. Beilein knows better than anybody how much room Morris has to grow.  He hasn’t said whether he agrees with Morris’ decision as coaches sometimes do. You wonder who else was in his ear, friends, agents, maybe a girlfriend. Perhaps his ego led him to believe that he’ll be drafted in the first round, yet even if he is, he won’t go nearly as high as he would have next year.

Morris appears to be a good kid who’s worked hard for the opportunity to play in the NBA. I hope he makes it. After announcing his decision to remain in the draft,  he said, “Playing professional basketball has always been a dream for me.” Omar Cook had the same dream.

VC WHO?

by Paul Knepper

Basketball fans generally embrace Cinderella stories in the Big Dance. George Mason became the darling of the 2006 tourney, when they shocked the nation by advancing to the Final Four. Last year’s bracketbuster Butler captured the hearts of fans during their magical run, which fell a few inches short of a championship.

Oddly, this year’s Cinderella VCU hasn’t conjured up the same emotion. The dark horse Rams are an 11 seed and had to beat USC in a play-in game just to get into the tournament. Then they won their next four games, culminating in a stunning upset of #1 seeded Kansas on Sunday, which landed them in the Final Four.

Second year coach Shaka Smart built the team around defensive ball pressure and ball movement. Ignited by their scrappy, diminutive point guard Joey Rodriguez, they play with an intensity that is all too uncommon in today’s collegiate game. They have a legitimate inside-outside threat in forward Jamie Skeen and Smart has instilled the confidence in his team that they can beat anybody.

One would think that basketball fans and reporters would be climbing over one another to jump on the Rams bandwagon, but since their victory over Kansas all I’ve heard is negativity and cynicism about their success. It seems as if most fans are annoyed that VCU is in the Final Four, for any number of reasons.

America likes to root for David against Goliath, but in this case the Rams are playing another David in long shot Butler, take two. The drama and intrigue surrounding an underdog requires a nemesis in the form of a national powerhouse like Duke or Ohio State. VCU already beat their Goliath in Kansas. Two David’s clashing doesn’t carry much sizzle.

Many members of the media have speculated that VCU’s presence in the Final Four will lead to low TV ratings and merchandise sales. According to Darren Rovell of CNBC, since this past weekend’s games the average price for a three-game ticket strip on StubHub for the two Final Four games and Final game has dropped from $748 to $631.

There’s also a chorus of voices arguing that the Rams didn’t deserve to be in the tournament in the first place. They point to their underwhelming 23-11 record in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and that they lost five of their last eight games prior to the tournament. ESPN “bracketelogists” were stunned when the Rams were selected to participate in the tournament and some analysts like Jay Bilas were outraged by the decision. Shaka Smart was surprised himself. His team didn’t even watch the selection show because he didn’t want the disappointment of not being selected to be the defining moment of their 23 win season.

There are also fans and analysts who are rooting against VCU because they opposed the addition of eight teams and four play-in games to the tournament. They believe that the tourney was perfect with 64 teams and fear that VCU’s success as a play-in team will propel the push to expand the tournament to 96 or even 128 teams.

Several members of the media have sought to minimize the Rams accomplishments on the court during this stellar Final Four run. Certain analysts contend that VCU’s success is evidence that the quality of play in college basketball has deteriorated. Others argue that reaching the Final Four this year wasn’t that impressive because there weren’t any great teams in the tournament.

The most blatant disrespect thrown VCU’s way has been attacks on the quality of the competition they’ve faced. Many people believe that their first round opponent USC didn’t deserve to be in the play-in game. Georgetown, who they met in the second round, had been in a free-fall since losing their best player Chris Wright to injury.

The Purdue team they defeated in the third round was also playing without their star Robbie Hummel, though critics failed to mention that the Boilermakers played well enough to earn a #3 seed and were still one of the best defensive teams in the country without him. Plus, VCU didn’t just beat Purdue, they trounced them. The Rams then “squeaked by” a mediocre Florida State team in the fourth round to advance to the Elite Eight.

Even after beating Kansas, the #2 overall seed in the tournament, the Rams received minimal credit. Postgame analysis focused on why Kansas lost, not how VCU won. Rather than discussing the Rams sensational three-point shooting, analysts zeroed in on Kansas’ inability to make shots and their lack of rhythm offensively, as if VCU’s pressure defense had nothing to do with it.

Soon after VCU’s victory over Kansas, Las Vegas released the odds for each of the four remaining teams to win the tournament. Not surprisingly, VCU’s are by far the highest, at 13-2. If I were a betting man I’d jump all over that. You know the Rams are going to bring it on the defensive end, they’re not turning the ball over and if they remain hot from behind the arc, where they’re shooting 44% for the tournament, they’ll be very difficult to beat.

The funny thing is, Shaka Smart loves every one of these disparaging remarks about his team. It’s fuel for them. Smart’s been playing the underdog card all tournament. Now with people rooting against VCU, they’re not just an underdog, it’s them against the world. In yesterday’s press conference Smart summed up VCU’s situation by quoting another underdog, Jake Taylor, from the movie Major League:

“There’s only one thing left to do. Win the whole f-ing thing!”



This Fish Knows How to Dance

by Paul Knepper

San Diego State was the surprise team in college basketball this season, compiling a 32-2 record and securing a two seed in the NCAA tournament. Of course, Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher is no stranger to success, having coached in three NCAA Tournament Finals while at Michigan in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But this time around is different because Coach Fish is the one in the spotlight.

Fisher’s foray into big time college coaching was rather abrupt. He replaced Bill Frieder as Michigan’s head coach just days before the NCAA Tournament in 1989. Frieder had announced that he would be leaving Michigan for Arizona State at the end of the season and Michigan’s Athletic Director Bo Schembechler responded by famously stating that “a Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.” He fired Frieder immediately.

Fisher was handed the job on an interim basis and Schembechler intended to hire a big name coach after the season. Nobody expected Michigan to advance very far in the tournament after changing coaches days before it started, but a funny thing happened. The Wolverines won the whole thing  behind the sweet shooting of Glen Rice and two clutch free throws by Rumeal Robinson and Bo removed the interim tag from Fisher’s title.

Still, the ’89 championship team was viewed as Frieder’s guys and after two disappointing seasons Fisher’s job was believed to be in jeopardy. Then he landed perhaps the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, five extremely talented and athletic kids who came to be known as “The Fab Five.”

Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson all started as freshmen and shocked the college basketball establishment by advancing to the finals of the NCAA Tournament before being trounced by a more experienced Duke team. The following year they returned to the championship game only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of North Carolina, in a game best remembered for Chris Webber‘s ill-fated timeout call.

Despite recruiting the Fab Five and leading them to unprecedented success, Fisher received more criticism than credit for their tenure in Maize and Blue. It has often been portrayed, as was the case in the Fab Five documentary which recently aired on ESPN, that Fisher got Howard to commit and then Howard took care of the rest, convincing the other four to join him in Ann Arbor.

Fisher also never received any credit for the team’s accomplishments. Their wins were attributed to the players, yet he took a large share of the blame for the losses. There was a common perception that the Fab Five were undisciplined and that Fish just rolled the balls onto the floor and told the talented youngsters to play. Anybody who follows basketball closely knows that’s ridiculous. No matter how much talent a team has that talent must be directed and molded into a cohesive unit on the court.

Very few sportswriters addressed the unique challenges that Fisher faced in dealing with five freshmen starters or praised the coach for channeling their creativity, individualism and swagger into production on the court rather than stifling it as many coaches would have. The only time the media discussed Fisher’s coaching ability was in the context of explaining why the Wolverines fell short of that elusive National Championship, especially in the game against North Carolina.

After the loss to the Tarheels, Webber left for the NBA. The following year the remaining four members of the Fab Five advanced to the “Elite Eight”, then Howard and Rose followed C-Webb to greener pastures. Fisher recruited several more highly touted freshmen over the next few years, but they yielded mediocre results on the court, the pinnacle being an NIT Championship in 1997.

In light of a growing scandal centered around Michigan booster Ed Martin, Fisher was abruptly fired prior to the 1997-98 season. The investigation continued until 2003, when the NCAA concluded that Martin had given over $600,000 total to Webber and three other Wolverines coached by Fisher, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Louis Bullock and Maurice Taylor. The NCAA’s report indicated that Fisher had left complimentary tickets to a game for Martin and that the coach failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program. The university removed the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners from the ceiling of Crisler Arena.

After being fired by Michigan Fisher took a year off and then worked as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings for one season. In 1999, he took over as the head coach of San Diego State where he inherited a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 17 years, suffered 13 losing seasons over the previous 14 years and won just four games the season before.

Coach Fish quickly turned the program around, building them into a .500 team in his second season. In his third year on the job the Aztecs won 21 games and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament. Since then, they’ve made four appearances in the NIT and returned to the Big Dance in 2006 and 201o. Still the school has never won an NCAA tournament game, though that may be about to change.

San Diego State returned five starters this season from a team that came within three points of knocking off Tennessee in the first round of last year’s tournament and were considered the favorites in the Mountain West Conference, but nobody expected them to be this good. The Aztecs won 32 games and lost just 2, both to BYU, and they avenged those losses in the finals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. That earned them the second seed in the West Region, where they’re set to open with a first round matchup against the University of Northern Colorado.

Unlike, Fisher’s Michigan teams San Diego State’s roster isn’t replete with bluechip prospects. The Aztecs are comprised of kids that other teams didn’t want and Fisher has coached them up. They’re tough upfront with Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game and Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. The Aztecs also have the balanced scoring, depth and coaching experience to make a run deep into the tournament.

Steve Fisher’s head coaching career started with a blast, morphed into a national phenomenon and then crash landed in scandal. Now, at 65-years-old, he has a major player in the Big Dance once again and this time there’s no star on the team for the media to shine the spotlight on. The name mentioned in the lead-in to Aztec games is the coach’s. This is Steve Fisher’s team.

The Beneficiary of B-Ball’s Biggest Blunders

by Paul Knepper

Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time. He won 879 games, 17 regular-season ACC Championships and made 11 trips to the Final Four, winning two championships. Strangely, both championships were won on two of the greatest blunders in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith’s first championship came in 1982, when his Tarheels defeated John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas 63-62, in what is commonly known as Michael Jordan’s coming out party. The game was replete with star-power, with Sam Perkins and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player James Worthy joining the freshman Jordan in the starting lineup. Georgetown countered with a freshman phenom of its own, seven-footer Patrick Ewing, and slick point guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd.

The game was tightly contested from start to finish, with the lead changing hands several times. Floyd put the Hoyas ahead 62-61 with just over a minute to play. Then as a foreshadow to a legendary career to come, Jordan swished a shot from the wing with 17 seconds remaining to give the Tarheels a one point lead.

Hoyas guard Fred Brown brought the ball into the frontcourt and dribbled for a few seconds before he threw the ball right to James Worthy, on the other team. Worthy had been overplaying the passing lane and his man went back door. Brown didn’t realize and thought Worthy was his teammate. Georgetown fouled Worthy, and though he missed both free throws, the Hoyas were out of timeouts and had to heave a desperation three, which was off the mark at the buzzer.

Brown’s gaffe was the most memorable blunder in college basketball lore until eleven years later when Coach Smith and his Tarheels once again found themselves in the Championship Game. This time Carolina faced a brash Michigan team coached by Steve Fisher, known as the  “Fab Five.” Led by All-American Chris Webber, the Wolverines were anxious to atone for the drubbing they received in the Championship Game the previous season at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils.

Carolina was an experienced team led by Donald Williams, Eric Montross and George Lynch and they jumped out to an early lead, behind Williams hot-shooting, but the Wolverines slowly clawed their way back. T
he Tarheels led 73-71, with 19 seconds remaining when Webber grabbed  the rebound off a missed free throw by Carolina’s Pat Sullivan. What happened next remains indelibly embedded in the memory of every college basketball fan.

C-Webb didn’t know what to do after he snatched the board. He looked like he was about to call time out and then clearly traveled as he looked to the bench for guidance, but the referees didn’t call it. Unable to get the ball to point guard Jalen Rose, he dribbled into the frontcourt and then signaled for a timeout. The problem was the Wolverines were out of timeouts. They were assessed a technical foul, giving Carolina two free throws and the ball. That was the game. Eighteen years later, Webber hasn’t lived it down and the average basketball fan doesn’t remember anything about that game other than his timeout call.                                                                         

Brown and Webber’s blunders in the closing seconds of those two championship games in no way tarnish the accomplishments and legacy of Dean Smith or those Carolina teams. The Tarheels deserved to win both games. Smith’s good fortune is just an interesting quirk in college basketball history for you sports conspiracy theorists out there to ponder as we dive head first into another year of March Madness.

The Game is Back in the City

by Paul Knepper

Basketball may have been invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, but for nearly a century it’s been the city game. From the blacktops of Harlem to the Mecca on Seventh Avenue, the beats and rhythms of the game have embodied the hustle and bustle, ingenuity and artistry that is the very pulse of New York City. Residents take great pride in their basketball, from the legendary street ballers at Rucker Park, to the collegiate game, to their beloved Knicks.

Over the past decade New Yorkers have been brooding as the city has tumbled to the depths of irrelevancy in the hoops world. Two events took place this week which changed that: St. John’s cracked the top 25 and the Knicks landed Carmelo Anthony.

St. John’s success seems like small potatoes compared to the Melodrama which has dominated sports talk shows for the past few months, but don’t underestimate the city’s love affair with college basketball. For years the college game ran through New York, beginning with the NIT at Madison Square Garden, initially the biggest tournament in college basketball. The city always had an elite team – from LIU and CCNY to St. John’s – comprised of New York City kids.

When the Big East ruled college hoops in the 1980’s, St. John’s was a national powerhouse. The Redmen (now Red Storm) played the majority  of their home games before sellout crowds at the Garden and produced stars like Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson. However, they began to tail off after the retirement of legendary coach Lou Carnesecca in 1992 and the past decade has been disastrous for the proud program.

SJU has been marred by scandal and unable to recruit the top New York City talent, resulting in many losing seasons. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and prior to this week, hadn’t been ranked since the closing polls of the 1999-2000 season. The Garden grew barren during Red Storm games, even when top programs were in town.

Last March, the university fired coach Norm Roberts after six unsuccessful seasons in Queens and replaced him with former UCLA Coach Steve Lavin. Lavin inherited a team of nine seniors and he has them playing a brand of rugged, unselfish basketball which New Yorkers can relate to. More importantly, they’re winning again.

The Storm are 17-9, including 9-5 in the Big East, and have made a habit of knocking off top teams. They thumped third-ranked Duke in January, followed it up by pounding a talented Connecticut team, then beat #9 Notre Dame and #13 Georgetown. Their most recent victory came over the #4 ranked Pitt Panthers on Saturday, when guard Dwight Hardy tip-toed the baseline before laying in the game-winning basket. Notably, most of their signature wins have come at the Garden and there was a real buzz in the crowd during the Pitt game Saturday night.

This week, the Red Storm were rewarded with their first national ranking in 11 years, coming in at 23 in the Associated Press poll and 25 in the coaches poll. Barring a complete collapse, SJU should make the tournament for the first time since 2002. Though most of the team are seniors, the squad will be replenished with the second ranked recruiting class in the country, leading many New Yorkers to believe that the Johnnies are back.

Of course, the Garden faithful will have something else to cheer about tonight when Carmelo Anthony makes his Knick debut in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks, like St. John’s, fell on hard times over the past decade. And like the Red Storm, they’re rising again.

New York fell in love with the champion Knick teams of the 1960’s and early ’70’s, comprised of Reed, Frazier, Bradley, Monroe and DeBusschere. Then the franchise struggled in the early to mid ’80’s, before climbing back into contention when a ping-pong ball with Patrick Ewing’s name on it bounced their way. The Knicks went to the playoffs fourteen consecutive seasons from 1988-2001, including two trips to the NBA Finals (1994 and 1999).

New York is a passionate sports town. The fans are dedicated and very knowledgeable about their teams. Whenever the Yankees, Mets, Giants or Jets make it to the playoffs they’re the talk of the town, but they don’t capture the entire city. Most New Yorkers aren’t fans of both baseball and football teams. The city is split between them. When the Jets are losing, football is still alive and well in New York if the Giants are winning. The same goes for the Yankees and Mets.

Basketball is different. This is the Knicks town. The Nets are a Jersey team. When the Knicks are winning the city rallies around them more than any other New York team. When they’re bad it feels like pro basketball is dead. And prior to this season, they were bad for a long time.

They made the playoffs just once over the past nine seasons and haven’t finished with a winning record since 2001. Worse yet, a sexual harassment suit, horrendous personnel moves and the Isiah Thomas saga made them the laughing stock of the NBA. Knicks fans were devastated.

The ship began to change course three years ago, when the team hired Donnie Walsh as President of Basketball Operations and Mike D’Antoni as coach. Walsh spent two years unloading Isiah’s overpaid players and cleared enough cap space to sign superstar Amar’e Stoudemire last summer.

With Amar’e leading the way, the Knicks are much improved this year, sitting at two games above .500. Stoudemire represented the team as a starter in the all-star game this past weekend and fans have been serenading their new star with chants of “MVP.” The Knicks were respectable again, but still not legitimate contenders.

That changed Monday night when they landed Carmelo Anthony in a blockbuster deal with the Denver Nuggets. It’s not hyperbole to say Melo is the best natural scorer in the world and the most talented offensive player the Knicks have had since his idol Bernard King. He and Amar’e together will put on quite a show and be nearly impossible to stop. Add former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups to the mix – he was part of the Anthony trade – and the Knicks have the nucleus for a championship contender.

New Yorkers were starving for competitive basketball for a decade. Suddenly, the Johnnies are knocking off one top ten team after another and the Knicks two superstars are the talk of the town. Fans are making pilgrimages to the Mecca of basketball once again. The game is back in the city.