Oops, we did it again.
Made another season of achievement by young-adult athletes all about their old coaches, that is.
We sports scribes do it all the time, especially when it comes to college football and basketball. Why write about the 19-year-olds out there spilling blood and guts as they entertain us for peanuts when we can instead write about 59-year-olds standing with their hands on their hips while banking six figures per game?
Not that it has anything to do with the money. Why, then, do we do it? Speaking on behalf of all oldish-white-male storytellers, let me just say that I have no earthly idea why we seem to so enjoy writing about coaches, especially the ones who are oldish-white-male storytellers themselves. Hmm, it’s a real mystery.
Anyway, I’m as guilty of it as anybody, a thought that occurred to me Monday night after watching Kansas beat North Carolina 72-69 in the men’s national championship game.
Correction: It occurred to me only after I’d already imagined the column I would have written had I been there in New Orleans to cover the game. And that column would have been all about Jayhawks coach Bill Self winning his second title less than three months after losing his father and basketball mentor, Bill Sr., and while still under NCAA investigation and facing five allegations of major violations. Where do I pick up my pretend Pulitzer?
The Final Four at first seemed to be all about Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski being in the championship chase right up to the finish line of his incomparable career. Who or what could top that angle? North Carolina’s Hubert Davis beat Coach K and became a hugely compelling figure himself. And then Self? If he wasn’t a superstar coach before the weekend, he sure is now.
Upon further review, though, this particular Final Four delivered on so many levels that were entirely about the players. Where to begin? How about with a spurt of vomit? The title game was so good, so brutal, that North Carolina’s Puff Johnson actually dropped to his knees and retched. Talk about leaving it all out on the floor. Now that, folks, is one shining moment.
Tar Heels teammates Brady Manek, Caleb Love and Armando Bacot gave even more to the cause. No team in the entire tournament leaned on its starters as much as UNC, whose bench pretty much consisted of Johnson and that’s it. Manek took a crushing elbow to the face early on. Love went most of the way after turning his ankle twice. Bacot went the whole way despite spraining an ankle in Saturday’s semifinal win, then sprained it even worse in the waning moments of a gut-wrenching defeat. Just imagine the pain of losing a 15-point halftime lead piled onto all that.
The Heels were worn out, used up, torn up. Exhausted, broken-hearted kids just like Illinois’ in 2005 or Loyola’s in 2018. As those Ramblers were trucking to the Final Four, blowing our minds in the process, the star of the show was coach Porter Moser. Along for that ride, I couldn’t seem to write about him enough. But what one thing sticks with me most from that run? Easy answer: Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer walking off the court after losing to Michigan in San Antonio. Best friends since boyhood, the guards held on to each other and cried. It was a thing of beauty.
And what about the Jayhawks? Whatever role Self had in rallying them from 15 down at the break, it was the players — Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, Remy Martin — who did all the heavy lifting. They couldn’t have done it if they weren’t willing to put everything on the line for one another, for love and friendship, an essential characteristic for the last team standing just as it surely was for South Carolina’s women’s squad.
A smart thing Self did at halftime was ask his players if they’d rather be down 15 with 20 minutes to go or down nine with 2:12 to go. They picked the former scenario, of course. The latter one is what Self’s 2008 team overcame to beat Derrick Rose and Memphis in 2008. So this was possible.
But McCormack had already been smiling; had, in fact, walked into the locker room smiling. Teammates had asked the powerhouse center, “Aren’t you upset about the score?” McCormack, who would make the winning basket in the end, had said, “Nope.” He was happy because the Jayhawks were going to win. He didn’t need a halftime speech from a coach to know that. This is what changed all the momentum Monday night. Self’s message was merely reinforcement.
In a postgame press conference, Agbaji, the All-American guard and projected NBA lottery pick, was asked about winning the award for most outstanding player of the tournament. Know what he said? That McCormack, his great friend, should have won it.
Little things are everything.
And young people really are the goods.