Time of their lives

IT WAS DURING a closed scrimmage two seasons ago when Creighton head coach Greg McDermott first saw in his son the man he would become. Doug McDermott had joined him weeks earlier in Omaha, an unorthodox, late-blooming forward who, like his father, was looking for the right place to call home. Greg had just escaped Iowa State after four losing, mostly miserable years; Doug had played beside Harrison Barnes at Ames High School but had been largely invisible to recruiters. Now the new Bluejays found themselves in an otherwise empty gym, tipping off against Colorado. Doug had 16 points and seven rebounds by halftime. "My plan had been to redshirt him," Greg says today, his son now a first-team All-American and Creighton a mid-major darling. "That's when I realized he was more ready than I thought."

All that shared blood and history makes it nearly impossible for fathers and sons to see each other for exactly who they are. They either idolize or underestimate each other, as though their only choices are pedestals or shadows. Greg McDermott had long tried to be only a parent to his son, supportive but removed, never coaching a single one of his childhood games. He didn't think Doug -- "one of those kids who always had a ball in his hands," his father remembers -- would be comfortable at Iowa State; he also knew his own days there might be numbered and wanted to protect his son from the fallout. Doug had tried to find his own way instead, signing a letter of intent to play at the University of Northern Iowa. It was as though the McDermotts were following separate basketball lives despite living under the same roof, the distance somehow a product of their proximity.

That's when Greg got an offer to coach Creighton. The two of them, along with their wife and mother, Theresa, sat around the dinner table and talked about whether their paths should finally cross on the court. Greg couldn't get past the idea that if Doug went to UNI, he would see his son play only when they faced each other. Even though Creighton felt like a lifeline, Greg didn't think his heart could stand a Missouri Valley Conference rivalry within his own family. "I'm not sure he would have taken the job if I hadn't agreed to come with him," Doug says. "But for me it was a no-brainer."

Greg soon sought advice from the basketball-playing children of famous fathers: Pat Knight, Tony Bennett, Saul Smith. They told him about the messy politics of family, about how hard it was to draw the right lines between father and son, player and coach. It would be easiest, they told him, if Doug were either the best or worst player on the team. Happily for both McDermotts, Doug has become the best, a skilled, efficient forward and legitimate player of the year candidate. The occasional nationally televised blowup between them notwithstanding -- "He's called me a couple of words I haven't appreciated," Doug says -- they've found an elusive balance between love and expectations.

The only other father-coach to help turn his son into a first-team All-American was Press Maravich, whose boy was Pistol Pete, and the gifts and curses of that relationship remain legend. So far, the McDermotts have enjoyed mostly gifts: In fact, Doug, now a junior, is the only AP first-team All-American to return this season. "I'm having the best time," he says. "I've always flown under the radar, but I don't feel like we're flying under the radar anymore." In March, Creighton won its opening game in the NCAA tournament against Alabama, the first such win for Greg in his career and for the school in a decade. After, they stood together at halfcourt, and Greg had one of those throat-closing moments that fathers live for. "I just kind of caught myself," he says. "How in the heck did we end up here?"

When fathers coach their sons, the usual narrative sees the son as the undeserving beneficiary -- playing shortstop and batting cleanup when he should be riding the bench. The McDermotts are different. Doug has done as much for his father as his father has done for him. He's maybe even done more. He's maybe even saved him. They both talk about these being the best years of their lives, but only Greg also talks about how these years could have played out so much differently, how close he and his family came to a less happy fate. He's become that rare father who can rate his son perfectly. He can see him exactly for the man he is.

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