Even by final game standards, last night’s NCAA basketball championship was an ugly affair, as sloppily played as an unsupervised pre-season scrimmage. But no matter. With the Final Four now as overwrought as a Super Bowl, it’s no surprise that the last of its three games will find participants staggering and mentally wrung out. The team that puts together five minutes of passable play wins. Plus Maryland was clearly superior physically, its Lonny Baxter a double-man among Indiana’s slender boys.
For the Washington area, Maryland’s win, its first ever, is a big, big deal. Georgetown had won in the past, but that school lacks genuine local roots. Unfortunately, Maryland may be too local. The post-game “celebrations” last night and last Saturday night in nearby College Park generated enough rowdiness, bottle throwing, and destruction of property to warrant intervention by riot police in no mood to celebrate. All it takes is a few score jerks and a larger much contingent of hangers-on to make society seem sick.
Local news coverage of the post-game tension captured a creepy “disconnect.” On one hand, it was all-smiles about the Terrapins’ victory. On the other, as cameras panned the near-riots one saw bonfires and huge crowds of mainly young adults milling about College Park’s main thoroughfare, not really celebrating so much as standing around like sheep with nothing to do, nowhere to go and nothing to chew on. Mass mindlessness? The tawdriness was visible to everyone but the local TV anchors, who kept smiling.
So-called fans long ago forgot that the game is the thing: the players, the coaches, the competition, in a live, unscripted performance. Is that asking too much?
Media coverage this time focused especially on Indiana University and its second-year coach Mike Davis. It was a great Cinderella story, and pretty soon everyone was replaying “Hoosiers” on the home video. But no one, say, bothered to follow up on defeated Oklahoma coach’s observation that Indiana’s players, for all their seeming unathleticism, were really good basketball players. It was almost as if the IU team played five Larry Birds at one time.
In certain quarters Davis’s unexpected success was used to bash his predecessor one more time. That would be Bob Knight, whose story need not be repeated here. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post hailed Davis for his rags to riches rise — without bothering to note that it was Knight who had thought enough about Davis to hire him in the first place. Instead, he implied that Davis had done Knight a favor by landing key recruits for him.
That was probably Wilbon’s subtle way of responding to claims — endorsed by authoritative CBS announcer Billy Packer — that the current Indiana team was still Knight’s. Well, it was and it wasn’t. IU star Jared Jeffries, for instance, for all his potential and occasional brilliance, had too many lapses in concentration and effort to be mistaken for a Knight player. Of course the claim this was Knight’s team was based not just on style of play but on its having been put together by Knight before his firing less than two years ago. It remains one of basketball’s tragedies that Knight wasn’t allowed to try his luck with this group.
As always, Knight has the last word — not out of arrogance but because, true to his credo, he prepared well and thus knew what he was talking about. In his truly delightful new autobiography, Knight: My Story (co-written by Bob Hammel, the finest sports writer you may have never heard of), Knight describes this group of players and then makes what turns out to be a prediction. Remember, this was written months ago. Here’s what he said:
“I had high hopes for this team; I felt we could win more than sixty games over the next two years with a real shot at the 2002 NCAA championship.”
Well, they had that real shot. One thing is certain: if Knight had been coaching last night, they would have had a better shot. He never lost an NCAA final and he never coached better than in an NCAA final. After the way Indiana played last night, it won’t be mistaken for Knight’s team again.