Don't Put Me In, Coach (10 page)

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
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Perhaps the best example of this happened at one of our open practices at the Georgia Dome. We were forced to have open practices at every stop in the NCAA Tournament, but at the Final Four these practices generated a lot more fan interest and were more for show than they were during the first few rounds of the tournament.
Since it was basically just an exhibition for the fans, Coach Matta, who was mic’d up by ESPN, decided not to show too much from a strategic or conceptual standpoint and let us just shoot around the entire time. Midway through the practice, he walked over to me, covered the microphone that was clipped on his shirt, and told me he wanted to have some fun. He said, “I like to think that there’s some guy in a trailer outside the arena right now closely listening to everything I’m saying. Let’s confuse the hell out of him.”

This sounded like a great idea, so I told him I’d play along with anything he said. A few minutes later, Coach Matta called my name.

“What’s up, Coach?” I asked as I approached him.

He put his arm around me. “Listen, Mark, we’ve already established that you’re our secret weapon and we’re gonna play you at least 30 minutes on Saturday. But if you keep shooting this badly, I’ll have no choice but to play Oden over you. I mean, I’ve watched your last 10 shots and I honestly can’t tell if you’re trying to shoot a basketball through a basket or if you’re trying to put your dick in your own ass. Well, I got news for you. You gotta pull your head out of your ass before you can put your dick in there. Now get your shit together, go back out there, and make a shot.”

Is that exactly what he said? Probably not. But he definitely hinted at a plan to play me most of the game instead of Greg, he said something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, he cursed a lot, and he calmly scolded me for being terrible. So that’s close enough. Either way, I remember verbatim what he said when practice was over and all the players gathered around him for his standard post-practice talk.

After we all congregated at half-court and waited for him to share his thoughts on how practice went or whatever else he had on his mind, Coach Matta (still mic’d up) stepped into the middle of the group and said with a straight face, “All right, guys, let’s go ahead and start our usual post-practice routine. Everyone drop your drawers to your ankles and let’s get this circle-jerk going.”

THIRTEEN

B
y the time our game against Georgetown rolled around, nobody on our team seriously thought we had any chance of losing. Georgetown was good and had a handful of solid players (led by Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who now play for the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, respectively), but they were methodical on offensive and we were confident that we understood their system well enough to stifle them. Heading into the game, all the focus was on the matchup between Greg and Hibbert because both guys were seven-footers who could defensively dominate the game, but Greg picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and sat on the bench for pretty much the entire first half. It wasn’t looking good for us early on, but the rest of the guys on the team stepped up, and we took a four-point lead into halftime.

The second half played out a lot like the first, with the big exception being that Greg was back on the floor. To be honest, most of the game was pretty boring to me because of the combination of Georgetown’s style of play and the fact that I never once thought we could possibly lose. Thankfully, though, Greg made
things exciting for a brief moment in time when he trailed a fast break, caught a pass from Jamar as he was steamrolling his way toward the basket, and proceeded to execute the greatest missed dunk I have ever seen in my life. Greg caught the ball just inside the free throw line, collected himself, jumped from about six feet away from the basket, and tried to put his testicles in Jeff Green’s mouth as his head rose above the rim.

It was such an impressive missed dunk that Ohio State fans still use the picture of Greg at his apex with our entire bench rising in anticipation as their computer background picture or their Facebook picture, which suggests that they’ve decided to reject reality and just pretend that he actually made the dunk. (It should be noted that although Greg missed, a foul was called on Jeff Green.) Anyway, other than that missed dunk and the fact that it put us in the National Championship for a shot at redemption against Florida, there isn’t much I remember about that game.

Heading into our rematch with Florida, I had a weird sense of confidence. They were the defending national champions, they had beaten us earlier in the year by 26, and they were led by the greatest women’s basketball player of all time in Joakim Noah, but for some reason I honestly thought we had a legitimate chance to win because they would be overconfident or something. During the pregame warm-up, though, my confidence quickly vanished thanks to Daequan. While the rest of the team was getting prepared for the biggest game of their lives, I stood on the sideline to let the real players have enough room to do whatever it was they had to do to get ready. Daequan noticed me standing off to the side and decided to come talk to me instead of focusing all of his attention toward warming up, because of course he did.

“Well, Bru,” he said (he always called me “Bru” or “Brutus” because he thought I looked like Ohio State’s mascot—whatever that means), “looks like this is going to be our last game together.” After being teammates for the previous five years, I took this statement as Daequan’s way of telling me that he was going to go to the NBA instead of returning to Ohio State for his sophomore year.
Forget the fact that I thought it was a bad decision for him to leave early. I was more concerned with him telling me about his decision 10 minutes before the National Championship game was set to tip off, which was a pretty good sign that he didn’t have his priorities lined up all that well.

It’s okay, though, because he surprised everyone and played out of his mind once the game started. Wait, never mind. He actually scored two points and only played nine minutes because he screwed up on so many inbounds plays that his mental errors directly led to 10 Florida points and Coach Matta couldn’t risk playing him any more after that. Sorry about that mix-up.

Other than Daequan not being mentally prepared for the game, the other fatal mistake our team made was Coach Matta’s decision to keep me on the bench. You see, right after the starting lineups were announced, I approached Coach Matta and explained to him that I had five fouls to give and they’d go to waste if I didn’t use them, so if he should need me to go in and violently foul Joakim Noah or Al Horford, just to send a message, I was more than ready. I mean, Temple coach John Chaney used this strategy against St. Joe’s in 2005 (when he infamously referred to his player as a “goon”—which makes it sound like the kid should’ve been playing for the Monstars), so it wouldn’t have been a completely unprecedented move. Nonetheless, Coach Matta just laughed and told me he’d “keep that in mind.” But here’s the thing: he didn’t keep it in mind. At all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he had his mind made up all along that he wasn’t going to play me. I’m not saying that this is why we lost, but then again, I’m not saying it’s not.

After we lost by nine in a hard-fought game, I walked off the court with a hanging head as orange and blue confetti fell from the rafters and thousands of Florida fans did their Gator Chomp. We came so close to achieving something I had dreamed about my entire life, but we were stopped short by a team featuring a guy whose ponytail looked like a wad of pubes. It was, without a doubt, the most demoralizing feeling of my life.

As I took one last look at the throngs of Gator fans cheering, I
couldn’t help but think that our season wasn’t supposed to end this way. It felt like I was watching a terrible finish to an otherwise great sports movie. Like if Jimmy Chitwood airballed what would have been the game-winning shot, fell into a deep depression, and died a week later on his bedroom floor with an empty bottle of painkillers in one hand and a half-full bottle of Jack in the other. Or if the Giants were destroyed by the Cowboys in
The Little Giants
because Icebox realized she wasn’t a lesbian and decided to stay on the cheerleading team. Or if Rudy didn’t get to play in the last game because he was mouth-raped by the team captain in an act of hazing and decided to quit a month before.

Yeah, that’s exactly what it felt like.

I walked into the locker room, sat next to my locker, put my chin on my chest, and thought about what just happened. Everyone else on our team pretty much did the same thing. The collective mood was as somber as could be, and the silence was deafening. Coach Matta made the first move and gave a quick speech about how he had no regrets about the game, about how much he’d miss coaching our team, and how he’d remember that season for the rest of his life. We all “brought it in” and did that obligatory “team on three” thing that every sports team in the world does, then went back to sitting by our lockers in silence. Even though Coach Matta insisted that we “keep our heads up,” nobody was interested in what he had to say. This wasn’t a time for reflection. It was a time for pouting.

The mood was so dismal that when I looked to my immediate right I noticed Danny had started to tear up. Under any other circumstances, he would have been berated by everyone on the team, but the truth is that we all felt like crying that night, even if our tears didn’t actually materialize. For most of us, losing the National Championship wasn’t what was so upsetting. No, what really made us so emotional was knowing that, because of graduation and a few guys leaving early for the NBA, our close-knit group would never get to all play together or regularly hang out ever again. Every one of us had the time of our lives that season, and
now it had all come to an end. And so, we all just sat still, blankly stared at nothing in particular, and felt sorry for ourselves.

Even when the coaches and staff left the locker room, we remained frozen next to our lockers, unsure of when or if the time would come where we would feel like getting up. After what felt like an eternity, Greg saw Danny crying from across the room and stood up from his chair. As the leader of our team and really the only reason our game with Florida was relatively close, Greg apparently felt obligated to come talk to Danny to try to console him. He walked toward Danny and me with the same dejected look on his face that all of us had. When he reached us, he pulled up a chair, sat next to Danny, and put his arm around him. Then he said something to Danny that is the best advice I’ve ever heard in my life:

“It’s only a game. Stop crying like a little bitch.”

In the end, Florida was one of the best college basketball teams ever and was certainly the best team in the past 15 years, so it’s hard to get too upset about the loss now. But in that moment, I’d never been more upset about something that didn’t involve death or my junior high girlfriend refusing to show me her boobs. Not only had we come so close to achieving a dream, but now our season was over and consequently the brotherhood we all had was pretty much over, not to mention the fact that I’m pretty confident our team would’ve easily won the National Championship in just about any other year. Wow, never mind—I guess that really is depressing to still think about. Let’s just move on.

About a week after we lost the National Championship, we held a rally for Ohio State fans at our arena that looked back on one of the best seasons of Ohio State basketball ever and gave people a chance to say good-bye to Greg and the seniors (and, of course, Daequan). Even though everyone had a pretty good idea that Greg was going to go to the NBA, Ohio State fans figured it was at least worth a shot to try to persuade him to stay. As the team was introduced, the few thousand people in the stands burst into a “One more year!” chant that drowned out whatever was being said by
whoever had the microphone. Once the chanting subsided, the interview portion of the rally started, with Danny and me as the first players interviewed.

Ohio State basketball legends Bill Hosket and Ronnie Stokes conducted the interview, and since the entire thing was scripted, I knew going in that these two guys were just going to toss us one or two questions so they could quickly get to interviewing the good players without making us feel left out. Hosket said, “Both of you guys started the season in a unique way, as team managers. And then obviously became an integral part of this basketball team.” I still can’t tell if this was meant to be a joke—for his sake, I hope it was. “Tell us a little bit about that transition.”

Danny and I had already planned for me to field the first question, so I leaned into the microphone and went for it: “First I’d just like to make an announcement real quick. I hear the fans chanting, ‘One more year,’ and I just wanted everyone to know that after sitting down with my family … we’ve decided that I’ll be back next year!”

I stood up and waved to the crowd as they ripped into a perfect combination of applause and laughter for 10 to 15 seconds. The next day all sorts of articles appeared online and in our local newspaper about the pep rally, and I was the focal point of seemingly every one of them. Everywhere I went for the next week I was recognized as that basketball walk-on who said he’d be coming back for his sophomore season. My announcement received infinitely more attention than I ever anticipated it would, and the people of Columbus and the Ohio State fans were eating it up.

And just like that, my “legend” was born.

PART THREE

I was going to vote (in the 2008 presidential election), but it was raining and I was wearing new Jordans
.

—Danny Peters, my teammate from 2006 to 2010

FOURTEEN

I
don’t mean to come across as a philosophical hippie or something, but I like to think that the world is a perfectly balanced place that always finds a way to restore its balance should it ever be disturbed. The way I see it, just about everything in life has a built-in punishment for when things are taken too far and enjoyed in excess. In other words, with respect to Daryle Singletary, I actually do believe it’s possible to have too much fun and bad things happen when that “fun threshold” is reached. (By the way, if you are one of the nine people who got that Daryle Singletary reference, pat yourself on the back for being such a die-hard fan of the greatest genre of music of all time—’90s country.)

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
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