The memories March on
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

If knowing that you don't know what will happen -- knowing that some Kent State or UNC-Wilmington will surprise you -- is the best part of watching the NCAA Tournament every year, remembering great moments in the past is the second-best part.

Terrell Taylor
Terrell Taylor's heroics in 2002 might remind you of Harold Arceneaux or Harold Jensen.
Every time I fill out a bracket, and try to guess (and I'm usually way off base) the matchups where luck and hunger will add up to tourney magic, or spend another four days in front of the TV saying "give me a live look-in, give me a live look-in!," I can't help but replay memories of tournaments past at the same time.

I'm watching Brett Blizzard, but I'm thinking Bryce Drew and Rolando Blackman. Terrell Taylor reminds me of Harold Arceneaux or Harold Jensen.

I remember U.S. Reed's bomb from beyond half-court, not just Laettner's last-second shot against Kentucky but Tate George's shot against Clemson, too, Danny Ainge's drive against Notre Dame and Tyus Edney's against Missouri, the UCLA team of 1980 with "Rocket" Rod Foster, "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison in the '86 title game, those sweet Marquette unis in '77, the Fab Five's black socks and back-to-back finals in the early '90s, and I remember

Len Bias' Smile

"This has, of course, been almost entirely reconstructed ... written from memory, (it) reflects both the author's memory's limitations and his imagination's nudgings." -- Dave Eggers in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

Some friends and I were playing two-on-two in my backyard the morning Len Bias died.

Our buddy Wayne came through the house, onto the back porch and said, "Len Bias died," just like that. It was weird.

Len Bias
Len Bias' half-smirk of a smile was on display on draft night in 1986.
We didn't believe him at all -- there was a lot of "shut up," "that's not funny," and "f---." It had nothing to do with how his death signaled a crisis in college sports or American culture or anything; it just sucked.

I haven't gotten a handle on the news since that morning -- it kind of lingers back there, all strange shapes and rough edges.

But I remember bits of watching Bias play -- three months before he died, I had seen him play two games in three days in the NCAA West Regional at the Long Beach Arena.

His shoulders were huge. When he bent over at the waist, it looked like he had three bald heads.

He walked and dribbled with a slight sway, an understated version of what Magic used to do.

He stood near the players' seats, talking to an assistant coach or a booster before the game, and palmed a ball without thinking about it, for maybe five minutes.

During warmups, he took baseline jumpshots from both sides of the basket, landing just a bit to the right of where he took off each time. He made 14 in a row at one point and nine at another stretch. Then he lifted a short shot over the front rim from maybe three feet, stepped back two steps and took another, stepped back for another, and so on. Before long, he was practically at midcourt, draining set shots as if they were free throws.

I can't seem to remember much of the first game against Pepperdine. Bias might have jumped center, and he might have tipped the ball to a teammate, slipped behind the defense, gotten a pass back, and laid it in for the first two points of the game. But I might be making that up.

Len Bias
Bias' athleticism often left fans doubting what they had witnessed.
This part, I swear, is true: In the second game, against UNLV, he came around a pick to catch the ball at the top of the key. Two guys collapsed on him, and then he disappeared. What I'm saying is, he dematerialized -- millions of sub-atomic particles scattered throughout the arena, thin air, wisps of smoke where his arms and legs used to be. The Vegas players ran into each other. It looked like that scene in "It's A Wonderful Life" when Burt the cop and Ernie the cab driver try to grab George Bailey, and end up in a bear hug on the stoop in the snow. Anyway, it was all quiet for a drawn-out instant, until Bias reappeared, fully-formed, above the rim, and dunked with two hands. My friend Aaron was sitting next to me, giggling. He saw it all.

There were several jumpers with defenders hanging on his back, and a handful of muscle put-backs -- one up-and-under and high off the glass, I think -- but the only other specific play I remember was a breakaway dunk. Bias stole a perimeter pass and headed the other way. A UNLV guard -- Freddie Banks? maybe Mark Wade? -- gave chase, but only for a few steps. It was a gimme, so Bias slowed just enough to get his dribble right, planted his feet and jumped backward for a reverse.

I watched the play through my camera lens. He scissor-kicked his legs, the right one extended and the left one bent behind him, and tucked the ball over the rim and behind his head. The ball came through the net and bounced off his bent back leg and into a cheerleader's lap. He hung up there half a second, looking back at the other end of the floor. I swear he was smiling. It was a stiff, sheepish-looking thing -- it might even have been a grimace -- but I think it was a smile.

When I developed the film, even after I blew up the shot, it was hard to tell for sure.

... and I remember Duke's Dog Days

Gene Banks
Gene Banks and Duke were underdogs to Kentucky in the 1978 NCAA title game.
In the fourth grade, my best friend and I played ball together, stayed over at each other's houses on weekends, and wore the same shoes -- Nike Wimbledons, with the light blue swoosh. We were obsessed with sports. In fact, I can't remember us ever talking about much of anything else.

He loved Dr. J. so much he wore kneepads like the Doctor to play ball, even over his long pants. I was dedicated to Spencer Haywood, because I'd met him once and was fascinated with the idea that his fingers were double-jointed, and to Tiny Archibald, because, like us, he was small.

Aside from our favorite players, we rooted for underdogs. We pulled for the Dodgers against Reggie's Yankees in the '77 World Series, which was natural enough since we were living in Long Beach, Calif. But we also rooted for Denver's Orange Crush team in the Super Bowl that year, and we were crazy for Leon Spinks after he upset Ali in February 1978. I've always felt bad about that, sorry that I came along too late to be a full-fledged Ali man and that I caught the brief, crashing Spinks wave instead. At the time, though, Leon was everything we wanted in a hero: He won when he wasn't supposed to win.

I can't say for sure why we were so attached to underdogs. I think now that it must have had something to do with the fact that we were both incredibly thin and none too strong, and that we took the court every school day afternoon against fifth and sixth graders who were bigger than we were. Each of us was being raised by a single mom, too, and there was something brave and unlikely about the way our moms managed to not only care for but indulge us every day -- maybe that had something to do with it.

Jim Spanarkel
Jim Spanarkel and the Blue Devils fell one step short of the title.
Whatever the reasons, in March of '78, we became Duke fans when Duke played Kentucky for the NCAA championship. We'd never heard of Duke. We couldn't imagine a school without a state or city in its name. I don't think we had any idea it was in North Carolina. The Duke players were all young and gangly, and they had funny names like Gminski and Spanarkel. Their best player, Gene Banks, was a freshman. They had no business being in the finals. We loved them.

Saturday night, after Duke beat Notre Dame in the national semifinals, we went out to the courts in the park near my house and pretended we were Blue Devils, running give-and-gos, tossing up fadeaway jumpers.

Kentucky we'd heard of. They were the overest of overdogs. My grandfather used to tell stories about Adolph Rupp and great Kentucky teams of the past. He said they were a basketball factory, all business. Rupp died in the winter of 1977 and their coach in '78 was Joe B. Hall, a purse-lipped efficiency expert who managed a team expected to win. Their big man, Rick Robey, was a less mobile version of Gminski and point guard Kyle Macy seemed a dull imitation of Spanarkel, but Kentucky played a relentless, steady game, and the Wildcats usually won.

The game against Duke was a business-as-usual win for Kentucky. I barely remember watching the game, though I have vague recollections of small forward Jack Givens's name being called again and again. Givens scored 41 points that night.

Mike Gminski
Mike Gminski was one of the stars of those early Duke teams.
My friend and I were disappointed but not surprised -- Kentucky was supposed to win.

I look at the record books now and see that Banks, Gminski and Spanarkel all had terrific games for Duke, each scoring 20 or more points. But I don't remember that either. What I remember is the way we thrilled to them that weekend, and the way the name "Duke," even after they lost, became a sort of rallying cry for us on the courts that spring and summer. It was a code word celebrating what they'd almost done and looking ahead to what they might do the next year. When we shouted it out -- "Here comes Duke, baby! Here comes Duke!" -- it felt like we were sharing in their power.

It's strange to think of this now. Duke has been a power for a long time and, though I respect Mike Krzyzewski, I'm not very fond of his teams -- they win too many big games they're supposed to win. But the first memory I have of March Madness is of a weekend when Duke was an underdog.

... and I remember Drawing Magic and Bird

I don't do it much any more, but I used to draw a lot. I worked from photographs, in pencil first and then ink. I drew people -- faces, hands, the slope from the neck to the shoulders.

Athletes were my favorite subjects because their bodies were always in such fantastic positions. I remember doing a picture of Billy Sims making a cut where his right foot was way over to the left and every other part of him was bolting right -- it looked impossible.

I took forever on a single drawing. I'd worry about getting lines just right, about shading shadows enough but not too much. If you looked close, you'd see smudge marks from an eraser all over the paper. It was the work of an obsessive sports fan, totally dedicated to reproducing what he saw.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, I did a lot of posters. The first one was right after the Washington Huskies upset Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl. Warren Moon ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. I was a Husky fan because my dad was a professor at Washington, and the long-shot win engineered by a black quarterback most of the world had never heard of had me all jacked up. After the game, I was running around the backyard, throwing the football to myself, diving on the grass and balancing on my toes for imaginary sideline grabs.

The next day, not wanting to let the buzz of the win go, I laid out newspaper photos of Moon over my bedroom floor and started recreating them on white poster board. I had him throwing on the run, shouting signals over center, holding the ball over his head -- and one, in the middle of the page, of him laughing on the sidelines near the end of the game.

The Moon poster was the beginning of a brief tradition. It was followed by a Super Bowl XIII piece that featured Rocky Bleier's leaping catch in the end zone and my version of a Sports Illustrated shot showing Hollywood Henderson taking the ball from Terry Bradshaw. There was an NBA Finals poster in the late spring, when the Bullets won the title. It had a drawing of Bobby Dandridge shooting a one-handed floater in the lane and one of Elvin Hayes grabbing a rebound with two hands and a shout; but I was a Sonics fan, so I gave more space to Freddy Brown floating out of bounds as a he shot, and to the elbows and angles of Jack Sikma's funky jumper.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, center, mesmerized a TV audience in the 1979 NCAA title game.
In April of '79, I did a poster of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird after the Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA title game. I didn't know much about either player going into the game, but the buildup was intense, and my grandfather sat next to me pointing out the things that made them special. By the end of the night I was a fan for life.

"Keep your eye on Magic -- see the way he opens his off-shoulder just enough to see the left side ... that's how he knows what's behind him," my grandfather said. "Watch the way Bird's hands sit soft and ready, like they were in vest pockets," he said. "From there, he can pass just as quickly and easily as he can shoot."

I watched Magic and Bird closely that night, more closely than I'd ever watched any other players, and I was fascinated with the way they seemed so in control of themselves. They knew how to move in open space and in traffic, how to breathe into the game. I found myself trying to think along with them. I tried to imagine myself being as smooth, smart and creative as they were.

As a player then, I often felt like I had to jump out of another guy's space or needed to strain to get free of someone else's reach. But just sitting there on the couch, and for weeks afterward, Magic and Bird had me thinking from the inside out, being more aware of where my arms and legs belonged, focusing on where I was and where I wanted to go.

I remember I drew Magic's eyes, working from a picture in the paper. He dribbled with one hand and pointed with the other, and his look was hopeful, like he saw something others didn't see yet.

I drew Bird's arms, trying to get the slight bend his elbow before he shot, and I copied the balance in his knees.

In the end, the poster looked like a page in an anatomy textbook, all isolated body parts and disconnected, half-drawn images. I worked at it every day for a week because I wanted to understand the mechanics and the flow of their games. I wasn't commemorating the title game, like I had with Moon and the Huskies, I was trying to figure something out.

Some Eastern philosophies talk about the Chi, the energy that flows through your body, and its connection to how you move and feel. Drawing Magic and Bird I was after something like that, some beneath-the-surface knowledge of what made them great. I can't say I actually captured it -- that sort of thing is elusive and ultimately private, I guess -- but as long as I kept the pencil in my hand, and kept translating pictures and memories into lines on the page, I swear I could sense it.

***** ***** *****

I was thinking about all of this stuff and a dozen other visions of the past, watching Southern Illinois handle Texas Tech and then Georgia last weekend, and wondering what I'll remember from this year's tournament.

I was thinking about kids who are watching games like these for the first time, too, and envying the way certain names and plays are going to become their loves and obsessions for a while, before they become their March memories.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.




CRITICAL MASS

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