Don't Put Me In, Coach (7 page)

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
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Greg dropped the darts in horror and disgust, stormed out of my room, and never once tried to shoot me with his Nerf gun again after that. As great as my initial victory was, the fact that he took it to another level by licking the dart that was attached to my scrotum made the victory that much sweeter (which is funny because judging from the look on Greg’s face, my nutsack was actually really, really salty).

What that story has to do with the team chemistry concept I was originally talking about in this chapter I’m not sure, but does it really matter? Greg Oden indirectly licked my balls. Don’t act like you won’t think about this story every time someone brings up Greg’s name in conversation or you see him on TV, which was pretty much my only motivation in telling the story in the first place. Besides, the prank war that was ignited between us shortly thereafter had to have helped our team chemistry somehow, even if it was entirely one-sided and basically consisted of me being a dick by putting a bunch of packing peanuts under his bedsheets or hiding an alarm clock set for 4:00 a.m. in his room and him not really retaliating at all. (Some would argue that he was just being nice, but I subscribe to the theory that he wasn’t creative enough to think of any good ways to get me back—either that or he was too busy being the most dominant center in college basketball in over a decade.)

Nonetheless, whether Mike was in my room playing me in H-O-R-S-E on the little goal attached to my door, or Kyle Madsen was begging me to do his math homework for him, or Daequan, Jamar, and Ivan Harris were trying to get me to serve as the judge in their debate concerning who “gets with the baddest bitches,” there was always something going on at the dorm to keep me entertained. And while it got exhausting at times to have to be around the same people all day every day, I’m glad we all lived on the same floor because I seriously do think that our team’s collective camaraderie was that much better because of it.

NINE

F
ollowing our domination of the BCA Classic, we took care of business in home games against Eastern Kentucky and the two-time national champion San Francisco Dons, who everyone knows as the alma mater of NBA great Bill Russell but very few people know as the alma mater of NBA not-as-great Bill Cartwright. After playing the Dons, our next game was against Youngstown State, which I thought was an interesting coincidence considering that a “don” is obviously a mob boss and Youngstown is sometimes affectionately referred to as “Murdertown, USA” because of its history of car bombings orchestrated by the Mafia. So there was that. Anyway, the game was played at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus because our on-campus arena was probably hosting a Hanson concert or something else much more important than a college basketball game.

Luckily, this didn’t affect fan attendance all that much—there was still a great turnout for the game, if for no other reason than that, after years of futility from the Columbus Bluejackets, the people of Columbus were finally excited to actually see a good local
team play in Nationwide Arena. Either way, the game was a complete blowout and was pretty much over from the start, which is to say that I knew before the game that I had a pretty good chance of playing. And I was right.

With a minute left and us up by about 30, I checked into the game and did a quick stretch to help prevent my ice-cold hamstrings from exploding. Since I had played in a handful of games before this one and, as you know, already had two career points to my name, I wasn’t nervous this time around and was instead actually pretty excited to get in the game because, after missing my first career three-point attempt in the San Francisco game, I was anxious to redeem myself and get my first three under my belt. I wasted no time doing just that.

Following a missed shot by Youngstown State just a few seconds after I checked in, I put my head down and sprinted back toward our basket to spot up by the three-point line. But before I could get completely set, Jamar threw a pass to me while I was in midstride and messed up my rhythm. Instead of making the smart basketball decision and collecting myself before shooting, I was so desperate to score that I just caught the ball, turned my body toward the rim, and let a shot fly, all in one motion, even though I didn’t really know how far away I was from the goal until right as the ball was leaving my hands. That ultimately didn’t matter because, by some act of God, I made it. When the ball went through the rim, the crowd went crazy and my adrenaline took over as I sprinted back on defense because I was so excited.

After I got situated on defense, though, I looked into the stands and noticed that of the 17,000 people who were there for the first half, maybe a couple thousand had stuck around until the end of the game. What’s worse, I realized that the only reason the people cheered so loudly when I scored was because they thought it was cute in a Jason McElwain sort of way that someone as bad as me could actually put the ball in the basket instead of tripping over his own feet like they expected. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the over-the-top cheering, but there wasn’t much I
could do about it. The fact of the matter was that I really
wasn’t
anything but a novelty human victory cigar to Ohio State fans, and that was just the way it was going to be for the rest of my career. I can’t overstate how big of a wake-up call this was for me, as it reshaped how I viewed my role as walk-on for the rest of my four-year career.

After my three polished off our dismantling of Youngstown State, we took our show on the road for the first time and played sixth-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Even though we had vaulted to a number-one ranking shortly after the Youngstown State game, North Carolina was actually favored, not only because they were playing at home, but also because our star center was out with a wrist injury while their star center, Tyler Hansbrough, was the Tim Tebow of college basketball (which is my way of saying that he was portrayed as the greatest college basketball player of all time in the history of the world ever).

Heading into the game, everyone knew this would be our first big test of the season, including Coach Matta, which is why he organized an impromptu film session the night before the game. Now, our typical routine was to watch film the night before every game, so that part wasn’t unusual, but when a few managers knocked on our hotel room doors and told us to meet in a conference room downstairs for film in five minutes, we could sense a sincerity surrounding this film session that wasn’t there when we prepared for our first six games.

When we walked into the conference room, we were greeted with dim lights and a blank projector screen surrounded by all of the coaches. Once the players got situated, Coach Matta stood up and with a serious look on his face said, “I don’t need to tell you how big tomorrow’s game is. This is no doubt a great test for this basketball team, but you gotta believe me when I tell you that the game will be won between the ears. Understanding what North Carolina is going to try to do is essential to our success, so pay attention and don’t be afraid to ask questions.” He then sat down and pushed Play while the rest of us focused our attention on the screen.

Instead of clips of North Carolina, though, the projector showed the legendary meatloaf scene from
Wedding Crashers
, when Owen Wilson’s character meets Will Ferrell’s character, Chaz, at Chaz’s house. Being the huge Will Ferrell fan that he is, Coach Matta thought that showing this clip would be an effective way to keep the team loose, and judging from the fact that the entire room burst into laughter when Will Ferrell stepped out from the shadows with nunchucks around his neck and said, “What the fuck do you want?” to Owen Wilson, I’d say that he got exactly what he was after. (Yes, we watched actual game tape of UNC after that.)

Fast-forward to the next night when, ten minutes before the tip-off, our team gathered in the locker room for one last pep talk. This meeting typically never lasted much longer than a couple minutes and usually consisted of Coach Matta going over strategy one last time before saying a few encouraging words to get us pumped up. But this time around we sat silently in the locker room without having any idea where Coach Matta even was.

With less than five minutes until tip-off, the door opened and Coach Matta slowly walked in holding each end of the towel that he had draped around his neck. He calmly made his way to the front of the room, stood pat, and only moved when he turned his head to look each and every player square in the eye. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can say that the serious look on Coach Matta’s face made me more than a little nervous about what he was going to do.

Finally, after a few beats of silence, Coach Matta finished staring down all the players and opened his mouth for the first time to say, “What the fuck do you want?” in the exact tone Will Ferrell used in
Wedding Crashers
. The entire locker room lost it. To this day I think this was Coach Matta’s finest moment in coaching. After the laughter subsided, he just said, “All I want from you guys tonight is to just go out there and have fun. All right, now bring it in for the real thing.”

It was quite possibly the greatest pregame speech in the history of coaching and no doubt helped calm the nerves of our
freshman-laden team. And even though we ultimately came up a little short and lost the game by nine, pretty much every college basketball fan around the country agreed that giving the sixth-ranked team a run for their money on their home court without our best player was a sign that we were going to be a team to be reckoned with once we got Greg back.

TEN

D
espite initially being told that he wouldn’t be able to play until January 1, Greg was given the okay by team doctors a month early and made his debut in our next game against Valparaiso on December 2. As bad as this news was for Valpo players and fans, it was good news for Kyle Madsen, who had transferred to Ohio State from Vanderbilt in the off-season and was relatively shy and timid because he was still trying to figure out how he fit in with his new teammates. Since he had just transferred and was therefore ineligible to play for the entire season per NCAA rules, Kyle had been given the assignment of playing Greg one-on-one on the side court every day in practice until Greg was cleared to scrimmage with the rest of the team, which was a role that basically just consisted of Kyle getting violently (and often hilariously) dunked on over and over again. So when Greg finally healed up and led us to an easy victory against Valpo, and consequently let Kyle off the hook for the rest of the season, well, I guess you could say Kyle was slightly pleased.

After Valpo, we rattled off three more blowout wins against Cleveland State, Cincinnati, and Iowa State to improve our record to 10–1. While all three of these games were largely uneventful, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Cincinnati game was played just a few miles from my hometown right outside of Indianapolis and, even though I got to play in the final minute, the block of people from my hometown who had been chanting my name all night didn’t get the chance to see me do anything of any importance on the court because the other walk-on on our team, Danny Peters, followed in Daequan’s AAU footsteps by airballing a shot instead of passing it to me. (Consider this my retribution, Danny.) But alas, we got the win and that’s all that matters (or whatever other cliché phrase athletes use when they’re secretly pissed at a teammate but don’t want the public to know). In fact, that win and the victory over Iowa State gave us four straight wins and helped us climb back up to third in the polls, setting up a top-five matchup in our next game against the fourth-ranked defending national champion Florida Gators.

Leading up to the game at Florida, neither the college basketball experts around the country nor Doug Gottlieb had any idea of what to expect. We had obviously shown that we were a very talented team, but there was no denying that Greg wasn’t yet back to full strength, which raised a lot of question marks. Meanwhile, Florida was the defending national champion with pretty much everyone back, but leading up to the game their star center, Al Horford, had been battling a sore ankle, which had brought his effectiveness into question too. Seemingly no one could make a confident prediction about who would win, but despite all of the unknowns surrounding the game, the one thing everybody could agree on was that this was the game of the year in college basketball up to that point.

For 23 minutes, it was everything everyone expected it to be. After being down by nine at halftime, we put together a nice comeback to knot the game at 40 with 17 minutes left to play. But then
Florida suddenly kicked it into high gear, beat us like we were an NFL wife, and consequently made the game a bigger letdown than
Saved by the Bell: The College Years
. When it was all said and done, we had lost by 26 points, which was such an ugly beat-down that I could’ve sworn I heard Digger Phelps describe it on ESPN later that night as an “ass raping.” I still have no explanation for our monumental collapse, mostly because everything happened in such a blur that I can barely remember anything from that game. And by that I clearly mean that I stopped paying attention when we got down by 10 and decided to check out Florida’s cheerleaders for the rest of the game instead.

We took our frustration out on Coppin State a week after the Florida loss by beating them by 37 points in what was our last nonconference cupcake game. I checked into the game with two minutes left and, with the Youngstown State game fresh in my mind, decided I wasn’t going to shoot no matter how open I was. This almost proved to be a disastrous decision when, following a Coppin State miss, one of my teammates secured the rebound and threw a pass down the court to me, as I was running back toward our basket, and in doing so triggered a fast break that I had total control over yet wanted no part of.

Not really knowing what I should do, I took a few dribbles toward the basket as the Ohio State fans all yelled “Shooooooot!” in unison, and for a second I came
this close
to giving in to their request. But when I got to the three-point line and picked up my dribble to go up for a shot, the lone Coppin State defender who had been back on defense during the entire sequence ran toward me to challenge my shot. As this happened, I saw out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a black guy in a white jersey streaking toward the basket and instinctively made the decision to just throw the ball up toward the rim and hope like hell whoever I was throwing it to could complete the alley-oop. What I failed to notice, though, was a second defender trailing behind my teammate. As the ball left my hands the defender caught up to my teammate and
jumped in the air to steal my pass, but through some sort of divine intervention, he was a little too late and slapped Dave Lighty on the arm right as Dave caught the pass and stuffed it through the rim.

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
5.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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