Monday, March 22, 2010

My Brush With Greatness

In the spirit of the season (March Madness), I thought I would recount the story of my encounter with one of the greatest college basketball coaches of our time, Rick Pitino. Travel with me now back to the year 1992. Right Said Fred was too sexy for their shirt and apparently anything else, the first President Bush barfed in the Japanese prime minister's lap and I was a paranoid, persecuted 8th grader.

The spectacle of the Final Four arrived in the Twin Cities for the first time that year. (The men's NCAA Division I college basketball championship had been played here once before, in 1951, but it wasn't nearly the spectacle back then.) As a college basketball-crazed adolescent, I was beside myself with glee. My dad took me out of school early on Friday to watch the teams' public practices at the Metrodome. That was the biggest thrill of the weekend. The practices were free and there was no assigned seating, so we kept moving down until we were within maybe 50 yards of the court. That might not seem very close, but, for a basketball event of that magnitude in a football stadium, it's like sitting courtside.

Michigan practiced before we got anywhere near the court, although seeing my favorite team, the fabled Fab Five, from a distance still gave me a chill. The confirmation that these superhumans were real, and I was in the same building as they, was exciting and disorienting. I enjoyed the practices most, because it was the first time I'd been in a Final Four venue and it was an exhibition. The competition in the games is what drives the sport, but basketball's aesthetic sets it apart. In the practices we could see the camaraderie of the teams as they joked around. Although the highlight was the layup line, when the players could show off their dunking prowess. What other sport puts such a high premium on style points that will never be counted?

On Saturday morning my dad took me to a high school where the NCAA was conducting a basketball clinic for kids. I signed up and got some freebies for my trouble, including a cool poster commemorating the centennial of basketball's birth. (Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented the sport at the Springfield, Mass. YMCA to keep his young charges entertained during the winter of 1891-1892.) We were divided into groups of 5-10 kids, each one overseen by a Golden Gopher men's or women's basketball player. Mine was led by Randy Carter, an elite recruit who'd been hobbled by knee injuries. He was pretty quiet and reserved, not what I'd call a "people person."

There were quite a few coaches who ran us through basic drills, including Tony Barone of Texas A&M and Joe Harrington of Colorado. Not exactly top-flight programs, but they were still in D-1, and major conferences at that, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. We all assembled in the bleachers when they brought out the big-name coach to talk. Exactly one week earlier, Rick Pitino had lost what was already being called the greatest college basketball game ever played. He resurrected the once-mighty Kentucky program and brought them to the brink of that year's Final Four. Only a miracle had denied them the opportunity and kept alive Duke's drive to repeat as national champions. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Grant Hill threw a three-quarter-court-length pass to Christian Laettner, who faked left, turned right and hit a jumper from the free-throw line as time expired.

I admired Coach Pitino for showing up to the clinic after what must've been a crushing defeat, even a week later. The content of his speech escaped my memory a long time ago. All I remember is lining up with maybe two dozen other kids to run through a drill with the coach. It was extremely basic. At the top of the key, behind the three-point line, each kid would fake right, take a dribble left and shoot. My first time up the shot seemed to fall about 2 feet short. Performing under pressure was not one of the strengths of my game.

My second time up Coach Pitino stopped me and tried to clarify the drill. Apparently, I was doing it wrong. Unfortunately, his clarification didn't sink in. If he had tried to explain to me how to open a door at that moment, I would've been trapped forever in whatever room I found myself in. I was so hypnotized by his aura nothing he said would've gotten through. So I did the drill exactly the same way I'd done it a few seconds earlier. I looked at him to see if I'd executed the maneuver to his satisfaction. He just shook his head while a faint smile drifted across his face. As I took my place at the back of the line, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I'd improved slightly on the first attempt. My shot had only fallen about 1 foot short this time.

People talk about how meeting their hero changed the course of their life. The hero said something to them that cleared the chaos in their mind and unlocked their true potential. They don't talk about when they met their hero and, instead of changing the course of their life, the hero merely confirmed what they had always suspected about themselves, namely, that they have no idea what the %#@$ they're doing. I hope that, with this story, I've done my part to correct that imbalance.

Epilogue: Michigan won their semifinal later that Saturday, as did Duke. On Monday, however, Duke put a 20-point hurt on the Fab Five to capture their second straight national championship, becoming the first school in 19 years to repeat. It would be another 15 years before another school, Florida, won back-to-back titles. To put it another way, I watched in person as my favorite college basketball team of all time got blown out by my least favorite college basketball team of all time in a game that cemented the latter's place in my favorite sport's pantheon. To put it yet another way, it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.

Epilogue II: I was also at the '93 Final Four. Chris Webber's timeout probably condemned me to a life of melancholy.

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