Saturday, March 10, 2007

When Is a Scholarship Offer a Scholarship Offer

One of the best parts of Pat Conroy's My Losing Season is his scholarship offer or lack thereof to the University of South Carolina. Like thousands of high school basketball players across the country Conroy dreams of playing for his large state institution. In his case, it's the University of South Carolina.

As a 17 year old senior, Conroy is naive, innocent, manipulative and stupid. His season is complete and he is pulled from a class and introduced by his high school principal to Dwayne Morrison an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina.

"'How'd you like to play fo Carolina, Pat?' Morrison asked me. Stunned by this unexpected news, I stared at Coach Morrison with my jaw loosened and my mouth agape as I hunted for the proper words.

'More than anything in the world, Coach.' I told him... Coach Morrison made me feel like I was the best basketball player he had ever talked to, and he made me believe in every single aspect of Chuck Noe's program. He talked about "redshirting" me for a year, sending me to summer basketball programs for extra seasoning, and teaching me all the tricks of the trade that a point guard would need to know in the highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference at the time South Carolina still held membership in it... When he talked about his university, he made it sound like some grand easement into paradise...He could've talked me into walking across burning embers or a live minefield. When he left me that day he said, 'We're going to try to make this work, Pat. I can see you in a Gamecock uniform. We've got a couple of other kids we're going to look at. But I can practically guarantee you, you're the kind of guy we're looking for. A good point guard's worth his weight in gold these days...It's you we want, Pat. You. Got it, buddy?'

'Yes, Sir," I said.

Conroy raced home slipped up and told his father who then began making reservations for the ACC tournament the next year. When no scholarship offer ensued, The Great Santini dubs his son with a new nickname -- "ACC."

Much of this cite has followed the season of Jaycee Carroll. When Carroll was a senior at Evanston High School, I was a high school basketball official in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I had the privilege of officiating one of his games against either East or Central High School in Cheyenne. I do not recall which. I do recollect that he was tremendous, scoring close to fifty points on a series of dazzling runners, leaners and knifing shots. I could only compare him to Jay Burson who starred at Ohio State University during the early 80's, small, but with an uncanning ability to score. I remember walking away from that game thinking, "If that kid isn't good enough to play at the University of Wyoming then no one ever will be."

I have not spoke with either Coach Steve McClain or Jaycee Carroll himself, besides the words that a referee and player exchanged on that Friday night years ago. I have spoken to Jaycee's parents, relatives, and assistant coaches at the University of Wyoming at the time. Carroll himself has indicated that he received only one scholarship offer out of high school to Utah State University. One assistant coach at Wyoming at the time told me Carroll was too small. Another told me that Wyoming offered him a scholarship. McClain himself has been quoted as saying Carroll had the same offer he had from Utah State. It does seem that both parties would like to move on from the situation.

That's not possible on March 10th 2007. Both teams play simultaneously in venues separated by hundreds of miles, but at the Portocall sports bar in Salt Lake City the games are inches apart on two televisions. No one could have attended both contests, but I am coming as close as a basketball aficionado can. Wyoming loses to BYU 96-84 in one Mountain West Conference semifinal. The loss drops Wyoming's season record to 17-15. It is likely Steve McClains's last game as head coach at the University of Wyoming. Only inches away Carroll is leading Utah State past the 10th ranked team in the country - Nevada, 79-77, by scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a Western Athletic Conference semifinal.

After the games, my thoughts are on Conroy's wonderful portrayal of his possible scholarship to the University of South Carolina. I suspect Jaycee Carroll's story is much the same.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Championship Week

Championship week has 30 conference tournaments. Teams scramble for NCAA tournament bids. In approximately 20 of those conference tournaments the entire season comes down to the tournament. The only team that will receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, the only school that will see their name in the bracket across the country over the next week is the tournament champion. The notoriety and prestige of an NCAA tournament birth render the regular season nearly meaningless in these exclusive conferences.

Far and away the best formatted tournament isn't in the Big 10, SEC, ACC, or Big 12. It's not in the Big East or any major conference. It's in the Big Sky. They Big Sky takes only six teams into its tournament. It eliminates two teams based on the regular season. Additiionally, the winner of the conference gets to host the semifinals and finals. They get the homecourt advantage. The second place team receives a buy into the semifinals. I have now attended two of the last three Big Sky tournaments and each year I walk away knowing I have seen what midmajor college basketball is all about.

This year, Northern Arizona tied with Weber State for the Big Sky crown. Weber swept the Lumberjacks, wins the tiebreaker and is therefor the tournament host. Both teams receive a buy. In the first game, NAU scratches and claws to a seven point win over last year's NCAA Cinderella Montana.

The nightcap is March Madness at it finest. Weber State's crowd is raucous, but Portland State is determined. Like Conroy's alma mater, The Citadel, Portland State University has never been to the NCAA tournament.

A part of me is still emotionally invested with Portland State. At one point in my life I spent 6 months trying to be a part of this program. I wasn't paid, but I volunteered, hoping that somehow I could get this team to the NCAA tournament - a glorious place they are only two wins away from right now. As if that would be the fulfillment that would make my life complete. I find myself rooting for Portland State because of it. As I do, I realize that I am the only fan in the building that Portland State has. There still isn't enough interest in the program in Portland, Oregon to get any fan support for this Big Sky semifinal. It's as if somehow something that I did then would be a scintilla of the reason Portland State's name might appear in the bracket come selection Sunday.

Intensity is not a strong enough word to describe what is happening on the court. Every shot is contested. Every call is scrutinized. Both coaches have their jackets off midway through the first half. As an official myself, I wonder how any official could actually want to call this game. Ultimately, I know that this game, the last college game that the seniors on one of these teams will ever play is going to come down to one or two late calls or noncalls.

It does. With under ten seconds to go and Portland State trailing by a point, Delonte Huff who scores 20 points, comes out of the pack for Portland State with the ball. He dribbles in the open court going for the go ahead basket. Just past half court Juan Pable Silviera of Weber reaches and knocks the ball away. "I'm glad they didn't call a foul." Silviera says after the game. Weber State gets the ball in the ensuing scramble. The non call goes Weber State's way.

"If you do not think that contempt of home crowds does not file down the rough edges of a referee's psyche, then you know little of the game of basketball." Pat Conroy.

After the game Weber State coach Randy Rahe says, "The crowd was our MVP tonight."

Perhaps the regular season wasn't so meaningless after all.