|Leave the ghosts and head West, Tubby|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
I like the way this Kentucky team plays. So do most people who love hoop, and a few deities, too, including Dickie V., Ashley Judd, Hunter S. Thompson, John Wooden, God and Mrs. Tubby Smith, not necessarily in that order.
If you understand basketball, you basically have to like it.
You might like it while muttering under your breath, or, stopping to watch them, appreciating the ball movement, the mature awareness, then rolling over clockwise in your grave. Figuratively, of course. Nobody actually rolls over in their grave, including Adolph Rupp ... especially not him, not with the way Kentucky is playing right now. If he loved the game more than the power it brought him, he stops rolling over to watch them pass, always on inside angle, always closer to the hoop, always on time, always at the moment of recognition if not slightly before, no hesitation. Then Rupp starts rolling over counter-clockwise, until they play again.
"It's a beautiful game, when they play like that," Smith said after Kentucky ran the table at that charming made-for-TV revenue event, the Pretty Meaningless SEC tournament.
The Wildcats ran the table during the regular season SEC, as well. No Kaintuck team had done both since 1952.
If Rupp loved the game more than the power it brought him, then the game itself, its basic structure, its theory, its notes, maybe mostly its rhythms, are above all, above all social rules, concerns, strictures, Jim Crow laws, whether on the books or in the minds. We are good for hurting each other, we puny humans. It is only when we conceive of and play something beautiful by performing it together can we and do we rise to the level of angels. Beethoven symphony. "Kind Of Blue." Motion offense. Only in basketball among the big team sports we love so much do actions of five playing as one outweigh the collective brutality of more powerful individuals. The Kentucky team is not made up of LeBronian stars. Even its coach isn't considered one.
It took Tubby Smith a while to figure out how to handle Kentucky, how to play the game. I don't mean play the game the way O.J. or Kirby Puckett learned to play, to cater to the whims of the easily flattered. I mean to be true to the beauty of the game, implement it, while helping family and being straight with people while doing it. I can remember when a black female editorial page columnist over at the Lexington paper in print outright warned Tubby Smith against coming there; she said he could never, ever, win over the Kentucky fandom, that they would hurt him and his family, the people of Lexington, just for being a black man coming to coach the college team made legendary by the Man in The Terrible Bown Suit, Adolph Rupp. White men had merely failed in his wake. Tubby would be butchered. And the paper ran the column, too. Knowing editorial practices, that was a statement in itself.
No wonder it took Tubby a minute to figure out how.
Gotta like him. Put his son Saul at point, put family before everything, played Saul even when the people calling into the radio talk shows said Saul was a real mutt ... and they named their dogs after him to prove it. When they were being kind, they said that. Tubby played him anyway. Oh, Tubby had won the national championship his first year in, only with Rick Pitino's players, or so it was said. Anyway, he won.
Which meant he could get away with playing Saul.
Sometimes you can win with the best horses, and that's all. You can play the game well, but there are many different gradations to it -- a simple swing down against a switching help defense is pretty basic. The worst team in the NBA can do that -- well, maybe not Cleveland, but, other than that, I'm saying. They swing it in the NBDL. Hickory High could swing it. The Dunbar High Poets could swing it. But rarely does a team pass the ball with such precision, so incisively as this 2003 Kentucky team, at any level. It has to do with the mentality and skills of the players -- they all have good hands and a good idea. Kentucky plays a bruising defense and gets a hand in front of all looks, but they play a game not seen since Wooden with the offensive interior passing. They can cut you to pieces, but not with hacking motions. They stick you to pieces. It's done so adroitly it's pretty, it charms, it doesn't hurt, until you look down and see the blood pooling at your feet.
But it couldn't have been simple for Tubby Smith to figure out how to play the game -- at Kentucky. There were going to be people who hated him no matter what his record was. There are people who hate him still. I still recall a columnist named Tom Callahan being moved to write in 1978 that Kentucky fans were happy to have won the national title under Joe B. Hall -- the only drawback was the hand that had dropped 41 points that night, Jack Givens', happened to be black.
Those people are there. But as long as they weren't C.M. Newton, the old 'Bama coach and the Kentucky A.D. who recommended Tubby be hired, Tubby got a chance at it.
First, Tubby had to figure out that all 18-year-olds' heads swell up when Kentucky or Duke or Carolina pick them; it's how you handle it. Tubby began to identify who could help him, who was composed, contained, and who would even be around for three years, maybe four; talented, but not so outrageously talented that they could declare for the NBA draft, be in the lottery, then physical their way onto an NBA roster, if not into actual NBA playing time ...
So Tubby began weeding them out -- those outside the program who would never forget what color the hand was on the rudder, who would never like him anyway and so wanted to distract him by talking about non-issues, their own likes and dislikes, instead of something productive or creative. And, those players he had brought in to play, who wanted to play him or the corrupt college system instead.
Most of these stories we don't know. Some we do.
Marvin Stone was a boy in a man's body. The first time I saw him, watched him move and saw him react, I thought "Tom Payne." Just in a basketball sense. Not even talking law, or NCAA rules, or rule-breaking. A count too slow, feet and upstairs. Tubby found he couldn't utilize him.
Pitino, starting over at L'ullvull, could use the size to bridge him over until he got the train rolling. So Marvin Stone went there. Let's hope he goes to school, because his basketball ... let's just say he stops the ball. When he is on offense. Which is not a good thing. It is not the Way.
The Carruth kid, a shooter, but that's all he wanted to do, mostly all he wanted to do, that was his self-defining sense of worth, that made it all better, only they don't all go when you shoot, live by it, die by it, the good player always looks first for the layup, no matter who gets it, or its more atomic offspring, the slam dunk. The Carruth kid's instinct wasn't to always advance the ball closer to the basket; he didn't kill himself on D, because he could always outscore them. Plus, all these guys are 18 at first, and, like us, once upon a time, are subject to bouts of lunacy. Carruth. Gone.
Tubby kept Fitch, even though Fitch didn't start out so well, co-existing-wise. Trying to be what was out there instead of what he could be. Trying to fit in. Wise-ass. Tubby hung in with Fitch. Fitch had all kinds of game, Tubby saw Fitch defending, horsing hard on the offensive glass, helping, then recovering on perimeter D with Hawkins and Bogans ...
... if Bogans stuck around.
Keith Bogans was a sleeper, in this way. He stuck around.
Stuck around. Learned. Matured. Became a man. And then balled. Learned how to play the game that way.
The first clue I got wasn't from watching Kentucky play this season; I didn't see them until January. This is my habit. Usually, if I watch college basketball before March, it's to see who might be good enough to make the league one day. The clue I got came from the newspapers. It was from something unassuming Dave Odom said. Odom is the head coach at South Carolina. He coached Duncan at Wake Forest. You all know Duncan. After Kentucky eviscerated his team at Columbia, Odom unassumingly said he hadn't seen a team like Kentucky in a while, that they played the game how it should be played -- the ball zipped through four sets of hands and always seemed to end up in Estill's, at the rim.
I began to check them out. Tubby plays Fitch and Bogans out high, Daniels, Hayes and Estill are low, but all parts are flexible, and they can and do invert the offense in their flow -- in five of the five, the ball moves through them, like water. They have talent, no question about that, and they are not small. Estill, Hayes and Daniels all play quick, to the size of 6-foot-10, though they fluctuate 6-8 to 6-10 in actual height.
Jules Camara off the bench plays taller than that; pointer Cliff Hawkins plays 6-10 horizontally, on the perimeter, quick to the quickest, and that's their rotation. Seven. Just like coach Wooden's template. They hold their spots and flash and cut when they are supposed to, and the ball flows through them like water downhill. On D, they jump out and contest all shots and help and recover. They can be beaten. Any team can be beaten, but you cannot beat the way they play -- it's what people mean when they say, "They don't beat themselves." They reflect How To Play The Game.
And so does Tubby Smith. The son of a dirt farmer and sharecropper in rural coastal Maryland, with his double dose of learned patience and observation, became the latest possible deity by not only instructing How to Play the Game, but figuring out who could best receive and implement that instruction, and learning himself.
Still, such is the nature of people, there were some in Kentucky who hoped the Wildcats won the national college championship again so then maybe he would move on -- to where, they didn't care, just move on so they can get Billy Donovan or somebody in there, and recruit 'em some good whahte players for a change. Tubby's hands were brown like his daddy's; the hands in his seven-man rotation were brown and black, and isn't that too bad? Hey, hard enough to find anybody who can play the game, really, without trying to beat Coack K and Roy Williams to the best of the few good young American white boys. What did Kentucky expect of Tubby? Miracles? No. They expect him to move on. Not all of them. But enough. They might get surprised. May be Donovan who ends up in the NBA. Remember, Pitino left Kentucky. Where'd he leave for? Shangri-La?
From Kentucky, there's only one place to go in college ball and still be going up, in the sense of basic career challenge -- the UCLA job, since coach Wooden has ground up and spit out some good men and coaches. But after dealing with the living aspects of the legacy of Adolph Rupp, not just the basketball coach, but the way of life, and coming out smelling like a whole tournament of roses, in what can be a sneaky, dirty business to begin with, you'd have to say that if there was one man for the job, it would be Tubby Smith.
It's up to Tubby. Kentucky, UCLA or the NBA?
Which would you choose?
Right now, for three weeks, he doesn't have to choose. In a true subversion of a paradigm, Tubby Smith has the luxury of coaching a Kentucky team playing beautifully. Once UK was the keeper of the flame, an all-white team coached by a gruff white man who became legend coaching against half the competition, comfortable with that separation. Smith's team plays the game as beautifully and, unintentionally, this season, as monochromatically as Rupp's teams did.
Tubby Smith could consult with coach Wooden about the Way to Play the Game From Here On Out, and possibly coaching it that way, at UCLA.
Then Tubby could take it to an even high authority. Higher authority? Who? The ghost of Adolph Rupp? Ashley Judd? Hunter S. Thompson? Mother Nature? God? Dickie V.?
No. Mrs. Tubby Smith.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."