Move over Chaminade, college basketball has a new Cinderella. And she’s cuter.
Sure, Chaminade had a great run as the plucky winner of the Greatest Upset Of All Time, but George Mason is the new best story. Sure, you could argue that the difference between Virginia and Chaminade was greater than Connecticut and GMU. I mean, Chaminade was NAIA school that no one had ever heard of and UVA was undefeated, #1 in the country and was led by Ralph Sampson, one of the greatest college players ever. While no one outside of northern Virginia has ever heard of George Mason, it is a D1 school who had just won three NCAA tournament games, including triumphs over powers Michigan State and North Carolina.
But consider the circumstances. That Chaminade game was played in an non-air-conditioned shoe box in front of a tiny crowd. Not only did nobody see the game, but no one even knew it was being played. Virginia was on their way back from a trip around the world – they had traveled to Japan to play a couple of games, including one against Akeem Olajuwon and the rest of his Phi Slamma Jamma brethren. Several of the Virginia players got sick on the trip. In fact, Sampson didn’t even play against Houston, but Virginia won anyway. When the Cavaliers arrived in Hawaii, they were tired, sick and jet lagged. They still should have beaten the Silverswords, of course, but you can understand how and why they didn’t have their hearts (or legs) in it.
Last Sunday’s game was a NCAA Tournament Regional Final. Huge stakes. A packed stadium. A national TV audience of millions. UConn may not be ranked #1 in the AP poll, but they were the prohibitive favorites to win the tournament. Not only that, but in recent years the Huskies had become the closest thing to a sure thing that there is. Once they got close the end, they always closed the deal. Facing a team that until ten days previous had never won an NCAA Tournament game? With no fewer than six legit NBA prospects in their lineup versus a bunch of guys who will have to get passports to collect money to play basketball? It should have been a blowout.
Then consider the way the game went. UConn opened a decent early lead – exactly what you’d expect a superior team to do. The Patriots were game and held tough until the Huskies got serious at the end of the half and opened up a 12 point lead. I thought that was it. Mason was a great story, but they were done. But they weren’t. They fought harder in the second half and in front of millions of disbelieving eyes, opened what seemed to be a late, insurmountable lead. But they blew it. Cinderella tripped on her way down the stairs. When Denham Brown’s shot hit the rim fourteen times and fell through while the horn was still echoing, I was sure that was it. The better team had all the momentum and surely they were alert by now, right? Nope. Cinderella got back up, and beat the pumpkin back into a stagecoach.
George Mason – the greatest Cinderella of all time. Don’t talk to me about Chaminade ever again.
While Jim Larranaga is everybody’s newest bestest friend, I’ve actually known him for over 20 years. Well, sorta. Way back in the early 80s, 1981 maybe, I attended the University of Virginia basketball camp. I wasn’t much of a basketball player, but the chance to meet and rub elbows with Ralph Sampson, Jeff Lamp and others was too great.
Head coach Terry Holland ran the camp, but just like in real life, the assistant coaches actually did a lot of the work of running drills. Of course, I had no idea who the assistants were, but everyone in camp quickly learned who Jim Larranaga was. He was loud, brash, cocky and mean. He had that unmistakable New York accent and it seemed like he was always yelling at someone. Everyone quickly came to hate him. Maybe that was his role. Holland was the southern gentleman and Larranaga was his attack dog, always ready to do the yelling that Holland tried to avoid.
But even then, as everyone cowered from him, it was clear that Larranaga had a lot of charisma. I don’t remember any of the other assistants, and I probably didn’t even learn their names then. He had a lot of presence (and a lot more hair than he does now).
I remember one session late in the week when the whole camp was together, maybe sitting in the bleachers at University Hall. Coach Larranaga had everyone’s attention and for once he wasn’t yelling at us to get in better defensive position or to box out. He was just telling a story. A story about a high school player who couldn’t quite dunk, but kept trying and trying. It was a hokey story, but it worked. Like I said, Larranaga had charisma. That one story almost redeemed him in my eleven-year-old eyes. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. But I stayed away from him just to be sure.