This was shortly after 10 o’clock Monday evening, heretofore the most thrilling, dramatic, tension-packed and anticipated night of the year.
At least ever since I’d learned the terrible truth about Christmas as a kid (and no, I couldn’t handle the truth about the faux fat man) and, a few years later, once I’d stayed up late to watch Loyola of Chicago deny Cincinnati a three-peat in ‘63.
Why is this night different from all others? Monday was the greatest night on the calendar. The night of the NCAA Men’s Championship Game. The culmination of our greatest sporting event: three weeks of, to use the most hoary, overused cliché in sports, March Madness. A real reality TV mini-series. A Rust Belt “Survivor: Ford Field.” The Final Four down to two: the imperial, baby-blue Tar Heels of North Carolina, and the blue-collar, people’s-choice Spartans of Michigan State. You go, Sparty.
I couldn’t wait. Of course, like you, I had to wait, due to the interminable “Prelude to a Championship” that CBS foists upon us each Final Four. Never mind that the telecast begins at 9 p.m. Never mind that the, uh, “Prelude” (what’s wrong with “Countdown” anyway? If I want a prelude, I’ll listen to Mozart, not Jim Nantz, and certainly not Clark Kellogg) lasted nearly a half-hour — the better to air more commercials, my dears. Come the opening tipoff, finally, and even that was a do-over.
And then the game began. Oy.
It was shortly after 10 p.m. By then, Janet and Jack (our dog Jack, not me — and no, we didn’t name him; the mutt came with that coolest of names when we adopted him) had left the couch in the den and headed upstairs to our bedroom. Mind you, Janet is one of the great sports fans of the 20th and 21st centuries. She loves the Braves. She loves her Georgia Bulldogs. She still loves Duke (as did I, before finally wising up about five years ago).
Janet was watching TV upstairs when I cried out the unthinkable:
“Dear? Is ‘Medium’ on tonight?”
I can’t believe I said those words. I can’t believe I’m typing them now. Here it was, barely midway through the first half, and already this was an NCAA final foregone conclusion. Here was Michigan State — champion of the Big Ten, slayer of No. 1 seeds Louisville and UConn to reach the title game, incomparably coached by the great Tom Izzo, playing for an economically devastated city (Detroit) and state (Michigan) — here were the Spartans, already out of it.
The Little4-Cylinder Engine That Couldn’t.
And here I was, checking to see if “Medium” — and the magnificent Patricia Arquette — was on another channel (Note: We Tivo it; I was just making sure). Still … Father, forgive me. I knew not what the hell I was doing.
Actually, I did know, and that was the worst part of it. You know how you can size up certain games, certain situations, certain people, and you just KNOW? I knew. So, I’m sure, did many of you. Sparty wouldn’t party. Not this night.
Not with Ty Lawson — Carolina’s quicksilver point guard and the reason the Heels won their second NCAA championship in five years, and fifth overall — making seven steals in the first half alone. SEVEN!!!
Not with UNC hitting five of its first six shots.
Not with MSU, America’s Dream, enduring a two-hour nightmare.
Right from the start? Bad news on the doorstep. I couldn’t take one more step taken by Tyler Hansbrough and yet he STILL wasn’t called for walking. Midway through the first half, the Heels were up 20.
It brought to mind the first time I’d covered Michigan State in a Final Four: in 1979 in Salt Lake City. No, not the memorable Magic Johnson-Larry Bird final. Rather, the Spartans’ semifinal vivisection of poor Penn, when Magic and Greg “Special K” Kelser soared to a 50-17 halftime lead and won 101-67.
In a post-Final Four column, after Michigan State handed Bird and Indiana State their only loss of the season, 75-64, in the title game, Deseret News columnist Lee Benson wrote, “In a Final Four that will always be remembered for the phrase ‘Timeout, Pennsylvania’ … .”
There weren’t enough TO’s in the world for Izzo to use Monday to stanch the Heels’ fast-break bleeding and save his Spartans. I did keep changing channels — usually during a commercial following another foreboding nightmare by Ms. Arquette, a/k/a Alison DuBois — and looking in on the title game. Just in case. But each time, little had changed.
Later in the second half, Michigan State did draw within 14, perhaps even with the ball. But Carolina, which set NCAA title game records for most first-half points (55) and largest halftime lead (21), was as non-stop as Clark Kellogg’s verbiage. I mean, does this guy ever shut up? Will he ever shut up? Oftentimes, he makes the village vidiot Vitale sound tongue-tied. Or, even worse, illuminating. Oh, for the days of Billy Packer’s color commentary. If not — and OK, that’s never going to happen again on CBS — then forget Barrabas. Give us Jay Bilas, CBS. Please. He’s the best color man out there.
“A perfect storm.” That’s how Izzo — in this fifth Final Four in 11 years, whose 2000 Spartans won the NCAA title — described North Carolina’s first 10 minutes, when it built that 20-point lead.
Afterward, Izzo was gracious in defeat. He knew, better than anyone else: The best team in the country — especially once Lawson took charge in the second half of the Feb. 11th game at Duke — had won.
And Roy Williams? The Carolina coach was, well, Ol’ Roy. Once, Williams wept famously, and annually, every time his Kansas teams were upset throughout the ‘90s and early this century. Now, as he did Monday, he affects an “aw-shucks” post-game Carolina twang even Andy and Opie — if not Barney — would envy. I still want to know, though, why there’s a sizable number of coaches out there who aren’t exactly enamored of Ol’ Roy. But that’s another mystery for another time, maybe one that my favorite medium can help solve.
Other questions, if not answers, and observations at this, the best time on our sporting calendar: the confluence of college basketball’s wind-down and baseball’s Opening Week: So Detroit is in dire economics straits. So the NCAA decided six years ago — this, from NCAA president Myles Brand, as told to The New York Times — to award the Men’s Final Four to Motown, to help the economy. And this was way before our economy crashed. And the event, and Michigan State’s unexpected run to the championship game, helped financially but also in a karmic sense. MSU, yes. The NABC, decidedly no.
That’s the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the collegiate coaching fraternity’s association, which always holds its annual convention in conjunction with the Men’s Final Four. There aren’t a ton of top-shelf hotels in Detroit these days, and most of the assembled media, administrators and sponsors were sequestered in the Renaissance Center. So where did the coaches stay? In Canada.
Yes. In Windsor, Ontario, right across the river and international border from Detroit. Of course, in Windsor, a good neighborhood town, there weren’t enough good hotels to house the coaches. So the NABC, making its own arrangements, decided to put up its coaches in … Caesar’s. Yes, a grand hotel with a casino.
Imagine how much that impacted Detroit’s battered economy. Beyond that, wonder what the NCAA — which is vehemently anti-gambling — thinks of its men’s basketball coaches staying in — and surely gaming in — a hotel-cum-casino.
One more thing: another prime revenue-producing industry in Windsor is … strip joints. Nice. Again, wonder what the NCAA thought of that? Lap dances, anyone? For shame.
In between Clark Kellogg’s ramblings (please tell me he’s not from Battle Creek. OK, I know: Ohio), CBS aired a clip of its Turnaround Play of the Tournament. Or something like that, some nonsense that viewers can vote on. The winner: A Wisconsin Badger, sinking the winning shot to oust … Florida State in the opening round. Please.
Badgers? We don’t need no stinkin’ Badgers. Wisconsin didn’t even belong in the tournament. The most memorable play of the 2009 tourney: Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds’ last-second, catch-and-dribble-drive floater in the lane to upset Pitt, the East’s No. 1 seed, in the regional final.
That not only returned ‘Nova, the lowest-seeded team ever to win an NCAA championship (over defending champ Georgetown in 1985), to the Final Four, it also precluded the one matchup I wanted to see: Hansbrough, in the semifinals, versus Pitt’s Dejuan Blair. Wonder how Psycho T would’ve handled Dejuan’s derriere, which Blair uses so well to his ample advantage? I suspect Hansbrough would’ve ended up where he belongs: on his butt.
Now, outside of Izzo’s sensational work in the NCAA’s, and the masterful job Villanova coach Jay Wright did in taking the Wildcats to the Final Four, the best post-season coaching job this post-season? Ed DeChellis, whose Penn State team won the NIT.
Full disclosure: My late brother, Tommy, was Penn State’s starting point guard from 1977-80. Tom’s last two years — including his senior year, when Tom was a co-captain and the Nittany Lions went to the NIT under an abusive coach, the aptly-named Dick Harter — one of the team’s student managers was a western Pennsylvania kid named … Ed DeChellis. Ed and Tom were good friends then; they remained so once Ed went into coaching. Tommy finally introduced Eddie and me at the 2004 Final Four in San Antonio. We hit it off immediately.
By then, Eddie had served as an assistant at Penn State and later a very successful head coach at East Tennessee State before returning to his alma mater. Tom was a staunch supporter of Ed’s, at a school where football is religion and basketball a relative afterthought. Tommy lobbied hard within the athletic department to give Eddie the necessary means to make Penn State basketball not just a hoop dream, but a success.
This season, DeChellis delivered. Big time. Even if the RPI-impaired NCAA Selection Committee disagreed. The Nittanies finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten. They split with Michigan State — winning on the road in East Lansing against the Big Ten regular-season and tournament champs—, split with runnerup Purdue, swept third-place Illinois and split with Tubby Smith’s Minnesota team — one of three Big Ten schools, along with Wisconsin, who finished tied with or behind Penn State yet got at-large NCAA bids.
No matter. After the initial shock and deep disappointment, DeChellis made sure his players channeled that anger. Led by senior Jamelle Cornley — the bruising forward who played much of the NIT with a slightly dislocated shoulder — and sophomore guard Talor Battle, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, Penn State won twice at home.
Then the Lions had to play in The Swamp: at Florida. Not a problem.
They beat the run-and-gun Gators at their own game to advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. There were 16 busloads of students who made the four-hour trek to New York City to watch Penn State outmuscle Notre Dame in the semis. Then all — or most — hopped back on the buses for the late-night return trip to Happy Valley.
Yet not before Bill Raftery, the ex-Seton Hall coach-turned-TV color commentator and basketball bon vivant extraordinaire wondered aloud on air: “I wonder how many of them will be staying in the city tonight instead of going back to campus? I know what I’d do.”
Two days later, 36 — yes, count ‘em, 36 — student buses headed east on I-80 to return to “The Magical World of Madison Square Garden,” as the late, great John F.X. Condon, the Garden’s P.A. announcer, always called what was rightly dubbed The World’s Most Famous Arena.
Three more buses — for a total of 39 — carried administration, staff, boosters, supporters, sponsors, schmoozers and anyone else over 21.
Last Thursday night, with Joe Paterno again in attendance, the floor in the Garden literally shook as Penn State beat resurrected Baylor for the NIT title. Even Joe Pa, who once played in the old Garden as a high school hoopster, roared. I cried, watching on TV, thinking of Tommy, watching Eddie climb a ladder to cut down the last net. The same Eddie who, while his fellow Big Ten coaches selected Tom Izzo as the Big Ten Coach of the Year, was honored as the Big Ten Coach of the Year by the media. Proving, yet again, that we sportswriters aren’t the dumb asses you think we are.
A footnote: Too many coaches are peacocks. Not DeChellis. If ever any coach deserved to preen at the Final Four, or at least just accept the accolades from his coaching brethren, it’s Ed. Instead, he skipped the Final Four, he and his family spending a well-deserved vacation at their beach house.
Somewhere, Tommy’s smiling.
Baseball? Did someone say baseball? The Braves opened the season in Philadelphia in style Sunday night: Eight sensational sinkerball innings from Derek Lowe, the new No. 1 starter. I watched on TV, keeping score in my BBWAA official scorebook, as Atlanta torched Brett Myers for three home runs in the first two innings of a 4-1 victory over the world champion Phillies.
Jeff Francoeur’s new stance and remodeled swing yielded one homer. Brian McCann smacked the first dinger, a two-run, first-inning, second-deck shot that set the tone. Jordan Schafer, the rookie kid center fielder, had a night to remember: A homer in his first major-league at-bat (the, what, 99th player in major-league history to do so?), followed by a single, then an intentional walk with a runner on third and two outs, and finally … a swinging strikeout.
Schafer, who has an abundance of talent yet has never played above Double A, is the new center fielder. That 50-game suspension last season for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy be damned.
Never mind that he looks like he should be playing high school ball in Georgia. Never mind that he’s an inordinately cocky kid with an often prickly personality. He’s the new Andruw in center. We’ll see about that.
We’ll also see the Braves back home this weekend. Before Friday night’s series opener with Stan the Man Kasten’s Washington Gnats, Pete Van Wieren will be honored at Turner Field. Three months after his broadcast partner Skip Caray died last August, the Professor announced his retirement after three-plus decades of nonpareil work. Now, come Friday, the Braves and the fans will get to honor, and thank, a voice that belongs in Cooperstown. And one whose name belongs on the TV broadcast booth in the Ted.
And, speaking as an old-time Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and later an original Mets fan (so sue me) who can’t wait to see the new Citi Field later this season: it warms my heart that apparently the Yankees, who spent a mere $1.5 billion on their new Bronx palace, apparently have a problem in their new digs: a horrendous high-home TV camera angle for their broadcasts. Seems there’s too much netting — the protective screen behind home plate — that interferes with the telecast. Such a shame.
And, while two of the Yanks’ three obscenely over-priced free-agent acquisitions — C.C. Sabathia and ex-Georgia Techie and Brave Mark Teixeira — bombed in their Opening Day debut loss in Baltimore, let’s be thankful for small favors:
The NCAA Women’s Championship Game is tonight. And even if UConn, as expected, wallops Louisville, at least Clark Kellogg won’t be calling the game.