March Moment: A Pearl of Wisdom

Posted by jstevrtc on March 17th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, RTC contributor and bracketologist-in-residence Zach Hayes illustrates one of the many reasons why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest event in American sports — a good deal of the time, it’s not just about basketball:

There’s something different about growing up rooting for a mid-major.

It’s elementary rooting for perennial powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Michigan State, teams that may experience hardship once a decade but can always be counted on to reload sooner than later, similar to playing the Rookie level on Madden.

When that special season comes along for a mid-major, the urgency is palpable, the intensity unmatched, the hope for that perfect slipper fit lingers. Fans of mid-majors often see their small, unknown program wallow in the depths of obscurity playing in front of 1,000 fans for years, unable to migrate up the standings. Then that miracle-working coach comes along, diamonds in the rough begin to fill out the roster, and finally the school faces that one opportunity to achieve the previously unthinkable.

For me, that team was the 2002-03 Milwaukee Panthers. For me, that coach was Bruce Pearl.

As any college basketball fan knows, the conference tournament is the be-all and end-all for mid-major programs. A team can suffer through a losing regular season, reel off three straight wins and find themselves in the Big Dance. But on the flipside, a team can coast to the regular season title, play one bad 40-minute stint and miss out on a chance that may never present itself again.

That was the situation facing the Panthers during Pearl’s second season at the helm and my first season with season tickets at THE MECCA, the downtown arena that Kareem and Oscar formerly patrolled for the Bucks back in the early-70s. The middling Horizon League program had been lingering in the shadow of Marquette in our own city and Butler in our own league for the bane of our Division I existence.

Then the perfect concoction came together for that 2002-03 season. We found a legitimate post player in Dylan Page, a sharp-shooting 2-guard in Clay Tucker, a steady point guard in Ronnie Jones and complimentary players like Jason Frederick and Nate Mielke that executed Pearl’s patented full-court press to a tee. It was a team incredibly easy to get attached to at 12 years old. Just me, my dad, our favorite coach and a mid-major trying to make a name for themselves.

Our Panthers ended up toppling mighty Butler in the Horizon finals. The court filled in a matter of seconds with gold-clad students lifting players into the air. The previously unimaginable had been accomplished. But all I remember from that moment is hugging my father and the beaming smile that covered his face. He’s taught at Milwaukee since 1982 and had experienced the lowest of lows with the program. It was for him.

We ended up losing to 5th seeded Notre Dame in the first round nine days later after Page missed a game-winning layup at the buzzer. The game ended around 11 PM on a school night, but of course my father let me stay up for the end. When Page’s miss trickled around the rim and out and the Irish celebrated at center court, I remember expecting the tears to stream down my face.

Instead, a smile of appreciation broke out. I looked over at my dad and he began to applaud.

We were too proud of them to do anything different.

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Pete Newell: A Basketball Legend

Posted by rtmsf on November 18th, 2008

We felt bad giving such short shrift to Pete Newell yesterday in our ATB wrapup, so we wanted to take an opportunity to give our condolences to the Newell family and also educate young readers on just how influential a figure Coach Newell was in this game.  The vast majority of Newell’s career was before our time as well, but his sphere of influence reaches down through the decades to this very day.  Every time a young big man utilizes a drop step or seals his defender in the post, Newell’s innovations and techniques are showing their relevance and timelessness.


Consider some of the interesting facts and highlights of this man’s career:

  • Like the founder of the game, Dr. James Naismith, Newell was Canadian by birth.
  • He won an NIT championship at University of San Francisco in 1949, when that tournament meant something.  He developed and instituted a successful zone-pressing defense at USF that was widely copied over the years.
  • He won four straight Pac-8 titles at Cal in the late 1950s (neat stat: the last eight times Newell faced legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, he was 8-0 against the Wizard of Westwood), culminating in trips to the championship game in 1959 and 1960, the former year of which he won the NCAA title against Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati.  In 1960, the Bears lost to John Havlicek/Jerry Lucas’ Ohio St. team, who employed a defense that Newell had taught OSU coach Fred Taylor the previous year.   It’s widely known that Newell’s Cal teams were vastly inferior in talent to their F4 opponents, which belies Newell’s ability as a teacher who can get the most from his players.
  • He was the NCAA COY in 1960 and also led the US Men’s National Team to the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in Rome, making him one of only three coaches to have won an NIT, NCAA and Olympic titles (Bob Knight and Dean Smith are the others).
  • To reduce the stress and demands of coaching on his body, he retired from Cal in 1960 (at a mere age of 44) with a 234-123 (.655) lifetime record.  He spent the next 16 years working as an AD at Cal, then as an NBA scout and later as a GM for the Lakers.
  • In 1976, he opened his Pete Newell Big Man Camp, which sought to provide training in footwork and fundamentals for professionals entering the NBA and others seeking to improve their post game.  The camp was free, and it worked with such notable HOFers (and future HOFers) as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Shaquille O’Neal (who said, “he’s the best teacher there is”).
  • He was elected to the HOF himself in 1979, and his legacy is that coaches and players alike believe his contributions to the game to be at the highest possible level.  Bob Knight in particular has stated on the record that Newell had more influence on college basketball than any other person in history.

Since we never met Pete Newell, it would be an injustice for us to describe him, so we’ll leave you with a few of the better pieces we’ve found about his life and career in basketball.  RIP, Pete.

  • Ric Bucher from ESPN the Magazine writes about his visit to Newell’s camp in Hawaii a few years ago.
  • Newell’s biographer relates a great story about trying to get John Wooden to admit that Newell flat-out had his number in the late 1950s.
  • The LA Times questions whether UCLA would have become UCLA had Newell continued coaching through the 1960s.
  • Deadspin’s Rick Chandler had the privilege of learning techniques under Coach Newell.
  • Pete’s adopted hometown paper has a nice writeup on his life and influence.
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06.18.07 Fast Breaks

Posted by rtmsf on June 18th, 2007

With the draft withdrawal deadline looming…

  • Should I stay…  Cal’s DeVon Hardin, Marquette’s Dominic James, Nevada’s Marcelus Kemp, Illinois’ Shaun Pruitt, Texas A&M’s Joseph Jones and GW’s Maureece Rice will stick around another year to play for free.
  • Or should I go?  Georgetown’s Jeff Green, Georgia Tech’s Thaddeus Young, Nevada’s Ramon Sessions, Oklahoma State’s JamesOn Curry have all decided to keep their names in the draft.
  • In case you missed it, Florida guard Brandon Powell was arrested last week.
  • We thought this was kinda cool: Kareem‘s commencement speech at UCLA last weekend.
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