Past Imperfect: The Long Road To HumilityPosted by JWeill on January 27th, 2011
Past Imperfect is a new series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: in a week BYU and San Diego State meet for a top 10 matchup, a look at two key figures in each school’s basketball history.
It’s June 1991, and Steve Fisher is in a good mood, a really good mood. It may seem odd, given he’s just emerged from coaching Michigan to a 14-15 record, his first losing season in his brief stint as a head coach. To add to it, he’s just graduated his leading scorer and captain. And yet, here is Fisher, serene and smiling in his bespectacled, professorial way. If it looks as if he knows something the rest of us don’t, that’s because he does.
What Fisher knows is that he’s just signed the best freshman class in school history – maybe in NCAA history. Combined, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King will go on to win 97 games for the Wolverines, coming within reach of back-to-back national titles. It’s also a crew that will have most of its wins expunged. But Fisher doesn’t know any of that yet. All he knows right now is that after a trying season, the cavalry is coming in baggy shorts and tall black socks, a group of young men who will change college basketball and the coach who brought them together. Forever.
* * *
It’s July 1991, and a 7-foot-6 Mormon basketball player – one of the tallest men on the planet, probably the world’s tallest Mormon — is giving up the game that is going to make him a millionaire someday. Well, maybe not exactly giving up, because what Shawn Bradley is really doing is taking a break to spread the word of God. For two years.
That he’s just finished an All-American freshman season in which he set an all-time record for blocks in a game is immaterial right now. The game-changing giant is heading to Australia to take a break, not knowing if he’ll ever play the game he’s loved his whole life again. It will be a confusing, often frustrating time, but one that will change him. Forever.
* * *
In many ways, Fisher is an unlikely spark for the basketball revolution that’s coming. A former high school coach in Park Forest, Ill., Fisher was on the slow track. For 10 years an assistant coach, Fisher was never the lead guy. Like all college assistants, he was the brains and hard work behind the scenes. He went on recruiting trips, sure, but the glory, and of course the headaches, ultimately went to the man in the seat beside him.
Then came March 1989, and the man in the seat beside him, Bill Frieder, was fired for taking another job before Michigan’s season has come to an end. The NCAA tournament is one day away and now Fisher is the one responsible for wins or losses. Of course he is nervous. So what does the accidental head coach go out and do? He wins the whole damn thing. In a matter of three weeks, there’s more glory than Steve Fisher ever imagined, and all after just six games. It’s a story too remarkable to be believable, but believable because it is true. Six games and Fisher had just reached the pinnacle of the job he’d only just joined by accident. Six games and a mountain of glory you can only tumble down from.
Because what can Steve Fisher do to follow up six-and-oh my God?
* * *
Humbled. That’s what the seven-and-a-half foot redhead feels after giving up his hoop dreams for his Mormon mission. What Bradley went through during his two years in Australia was life-altering. Never mind the heat, the leeches, the sick, the dying he took to helping as part of his mission. What Bradley learned was nothing less than the value of his life. Far away now were the cheers of the crowd when he sent a lazy shot – hell, most any shot – hurtling back toward the face of some guy a foot smaller than he was. Long gone were the interviews and adulation that came with being very good at being very tall.
Also a lifetime away was home. Castle Dale, Utah, is a small place, only about 1,700 people in 1990. That was the year Shawn Bradley was one of the nation’s best high school basketball players, a McDonald’s/Parade/everything All-American who had his pick of the best basketball programs in the country. But Castle Dale is a small place, perfect for a giant kid. So it wasn’t a surprise when the world’s tallest Mormon chose the most prominent Mormon college in the world that just so happened to be a few hours from home.
It also wasn’t a surprise that the long, lean Bradley was an immediate factor for his college squad. Despite weighing in at a paltry 205 pounds, Bradley averaged almost 15 points and over seven-and-a-half rebounds a game that one season in Provo. But it wasn’t his scoring or rebounding numbers that intrigued everyone. It was the way a giant, regardless of his weight or lack thereof, changes the game. This is especially true when that giant is nimble enough to run the floor and athletic enough to pitch for his high school baseball team.
More than anything, it was that agility that had pro scouts drooling, then chortling when Bradley chose to honor his commitment to his Mormon mission rather than continue his basketball career unabated. There were times that summer before Bradley left for Australia that he wondered whether being the most watched basketball-playing Mormon in the world wasn’t in its own way his mission. Wasn’t he sharing with the world his religion just by being as good as he was on the court? But he went. And once he was there, basketball became before. It would eventually, after two years, also be after. But right now, what Shawn Bradley is mostly is humbled. That’s what surrendering yourself to the world can do to a man. And maybe that, too, is what the whole experience has made Bradley into: a man.
* * *
Fisher’s class of freshmen, the ones that had him grinning back in ’91, was better than even he could have expected, and sooner. The crown jewel of the class, Webber was a pro talent playing against college kids, a sweet passing big man with unlimited potential. Howard was skilled and tough, a rare combination at the college level for any player, much less a freshman. Languid and lethal, Rose was the leader of the pack as its point guard, slicing through the lane and with a knack for tossing in a dagger from deep. The others, Jackson and King, were great complements to the three stars, possibly future pros themselves.
It all added up to a first season that was beyond anything anyone had ever seen. The “Fab Five” swaggered into arena after arena showing no fear, and more times than not, walking out with a ‘W.’ By the time Fisher and his boys headed south to face Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March of 1992, the team was primed for primetime. In a few short weeks, everyone would not only know the name Fab Five. They would love them. And hate them.
Michigan’s youngsters would go on to finish second in that year’s tournament to Duke, a team chock full of experienced upperclassmen. But all that did was make the Fab Five hungry. So they’d all return, enter the season ranked No. 1 and dominate the Big Ten. It all was happening so fast. That’s the way it is with precocious kids. By the time Webber’s infamous timeout gaffe finished off the Fab Five forever in the 1993 title game, a lot had happened to Fisher, the accidental coach. Three NCAA finals in five years. One title. It was that mountain of glory all over again. And, eventually, when you have to come down the mountain, you hope it’s on your own two feet. But Fisher and the Fab Five wouldn’t be so lucky. In a few years, Fisher, the accidental coach who’d done the impossible, would be tossed down from his perch. All the way down.
* * *
They made him eat. And eat. And when he threw up during workouts, they brought him more food later. Back in the world, Shawn Bradley was working with his new professional team every day on one thing: gaining weight. He ate things no one should probably eat. Then he ate some more.
Bradley returned from his Mormon mission with 40 pounds added to his frame. Forty pounds of nothing. Now his new employer, the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him No. 2 overall in the 1993 NBA Draft, wants him in shape. It wants him stronger. It wants him leaner. But mostly it wants him bigger. Big enough to bang with Shaq and David Robinson and, every day now in practice, Moses Malone. For Bradley, who last year at this time was going door-to-door spreading the Mormon gospel, it’s all a dream. A big, fat, greasy, butter-coated dream.
He’s a basketball player again.
* * *
It turned out that the old cliché wasn’t true. What Steve Fisher didn’t know could hurt him after all. What Fisher didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, was that some of his boys were taking money from a booster. What he didn’t know was that the Final Fours and the winning and the glory was going to be taken away from Michigan. Maybe they couldn’t take it away from Fisher, but they would make sure everyone knew what had happened. Now Fisher knew, and it hurt.
But like all coaches, Fisher is a basketball fiend. Behind the ruddy cheeks and the placid exterior, the coach never stops coaching. Banished from the place he’s called home for 16 years, Fisher must find a new challenge. And after some soul searching and NBA assistant coaching, he finds it in an unlikely but beautiful place. San Diego State is coming off its 13th losing season in 14 years. They haven’t been to an NCAA tournament in 17. Fisher, with his three Final Fours and a national championship, will try to change that. He will change it.
The sting of his exit from Michigan won’t easily go away. So he’ll make it history by beginning again. Wouldn’t it be nice to come full circle? To show that whatever the players did or did not do when he wasn’t paying attention, it was still about basketball once you got down to brass tacks. And Fisher knows basketball as well as anyone in the game. It will take a few years, and there will be some losses – a bunch of them – to get through. But Fisher has been there before. Like when he signed that class of fabulous freshmen after a losing record in his third year at Michigan. Back then, getting back to the top seemed tough, too. Wouldn’t it be nice to get there again?
* * *
Maybe he didn’t exactly change the game forever. He did his best. For 12 years, Shawn Bradley blocked shots and grabbed rebounds and dunked the best he could. Some would say he was a bust because he wasn’t a legend. That’s OK. Bradley has seen what life could be like if he never played basketball, and it wasn’t so bad. Basketball was what he did, but he found out it wasn’t what he was. That’s one of the things he learned in Australia, maybe the biggest thing.
Now that basketball is gone, there are new challenges to undertake. Like raising six kids and being the tallest dad on the block. Maybe he’ll run for office. That would be a way to get things done for people who need it. Kind of like Australia back then, the last time there was no basketball. People remember Bradley mostly for the thing that is most obvious about him: he is really, exceptionally tall. They probably watch highlights of him dunking and being dunked on. That’s fine. It’s what happened. They probably don’t remember the things he did for kids in Dallas, the courts he helped build for them. But that’s what happens when you look like Shawn Bradley looks.
It’s been 20 years since a gangly freckly redheaded Mormon became one of college basketball’s biggest (literally) stars. Back then he was a novelty, a very tall BYU basketball player. Now he’s a father, a businessman, a role model. He was just a kid before he left for New South Wales. Now he’s a man.
BYU is in the top 10 again. There’s a new star, albeit a much shorter one, in Jimmer Fredette. The game sounds the same, though. The cheers and the hoots that rise like a tide across the packed arena. If he closes his eyes, it sounds a little like it did way back then during that amazing freshman season. It sounds like BYU basketball.
* * *
Thanks to recruiting, Fisher’s 2010-11 San Diego State Aztecs are the best team he’s had since the Michigan days. Sophomore Kawhi Leonard was a recruiting steal, and nabbing him showed Fisher still has the touch that brought him the Fab Five. It wasn’t a fluke. Seniors Malcolm Thomas and D.J. Gay are great players, leaders and key upperclassmen. It’s funny to think back now to all those freshmen running things for the Wolverines. But it worked. Fisher doesn’t think it’ll ever happen that way again. Maybe it won’t. Too hard.
What’s working mostly right now is Fisher’s coaching. Undefeated heading into their toughest game of the year, on the road at BYU who is also having a magnificent season, San Diego State is the talk of basketball. And so is Steve Fisher. For Fisher, it’s nice to be back in the spotlight. Once upon a time, the glare was blinding. Now? It’s just nice to be noticed for doing a good job. Sure, with the attention come reminders. The Michigan stuff still comes up, as is to be expected, but after all these years, it’s more of a historical thing than anything else. All those players are retired or have become basketball footnotes.
Today, there is only Fisher still at it, the accidental champion, doing what he’s always done, teaching kids how to win basketball games. Maybe this time, if things go well for the Aztecs, he can walk down the mountain on his own terms.