Haskins's Heroes

You knew Quincy Lewis was going to miss the free throws. The gingerly way he handled the ball, the stagestruck half-smile on his face as he stood at the line with the chance to seal the game for the Minnesota Golden Gophers against Clemson on Thursday night: You could almost see him saying to himself, Don't choke. And so the first shot was long and the second one was short, and Clemson got the rebound and scored a quick basket in the last few seconds to send the game into overtime.

Lewis may have choked, but his team won the game. It's the kind of reprieve that usually makes a player more humble and more confident at the same time. A coach can preach teamwork and unity all he wants, but when your teammates save your ass from personal embarrassment, that's when you gain a gut-level appreciation that there is something bigger and more important than your own performance. At that point, two very good things happen to your psyche. First, you realize (perhaps only subconsciously) that it doesn't always necessarily matter if you choke or not; and, since choking is really nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of dread, you choke less. Second, and more tangibly, you are grateful and abashed and you want to atone. Highly motivated, you rededicate yourself to the bigger and better thing: the team.

How else do we explain the so aptly named Golden Gophers? This is a team that gives no fewer than nine young men enough playing time to make an impact on the outcome of the game. Eight of those nine (the exception being guard Bobby Jackson) cannot be counted upon to play even two or three good games in a row. And yet, as rife as they are with individual inconsistency, the Gophers have won 31 out of 34 games, and stand just two victories away from a national championship.

Conventional wisdom says that the more raw talent a team possesses, the greater their margin for error. Minnesota's 1996-97 season offers a compelling rebuttal. Time and again the club's dearth of pure ability was exposed, forcing coach Clem Haskins to shuffle his lineup and reconfigure his team's match-ups with opposing players. If three or four of the starters on most highly talented teams are having an off-day, the team is likely to lose. Haskins and the Gophers simply plug in different parts--players who know their roles, are familiar with being thrown into action on a moment's notice, and are trusted by their teammates to help the club win. The base level of talent doesn't automatically improve, but it probably becomes more complementary. Plenty of mistakes are made, but they are almost never fatal: At one point down the stretch of the Big Ten season, Minnesota won six games in a row, and five or them were by three points or less. During this time, some players invariably faltered, and, just as invariably, others came to the rescue. As the close calls continued to be tallied on the plus side of the ledger, the players' confidence became more and more formidable.

Now that the NCAA Tournament is upon us, the team's collective sense of itself is impeccable. When point guard Eric Harris crumpled to the floor with a shoulder bruise in the second half of the game against Clemson, the Gophers bailed themselves out with clutch outside shooting by Jackson and Sam Jacobson. While the national media analyzed and stewed over how Minnesota could compensate for Harris's severely diminished capabilities against ultra-athletic UCLA, the Gophers barely seemed ruffled by the prospect. Who would raise the level of their game enough to fill in the void?

There were at least eight possibilities. By the end of the game it was apparent that backup sophomore guards Quincy Lewis and Charles Thomas had sparked a controlled transition offense--part fast break, part half-court sets--that UCLA's defense had trouble calibrating during Minnesota's decisive rally. Another hero was 270-pound power forward Courtney James, who followed his subpar game against Clemson by blending shrewd, graceful interior passing with a bullish intensity going after rebounds. Meanwhile, the physically gifted UCLA squad lost its blue-collar rebounder to an injury and fell to bickering and complaints as the game slipped away from them. The contrast was striking, and it served as a reminder that Minnesota stands on the brink of a championship simply because it is the most resourceful and resilient college basketball team in the nation.

There are more than a few longtime hoops fans in Minnesota who whisper disparagingly that Clem Haskins thinks he's God. But for the last 14 months or so, Haskins has had just cause. Clem's divine winning streak began when Gopher fans booed doltish 7-foot center Trevor Winter during a home game in the middle of last season. In an angry press conference after the game, the coach offered up a free-form screed in which he implied that talk-radio listeners were too lazy to get a job and demanded that the public leave his beleaguered players alone. If they had to be cruel to somebody, they could pick on him. Of course, one of the reasons for Haskins's snit was that the talk shows were picking on him. As for Winter, the hypocritical economics of major college sports--which makes millions of dollars off unpaid student-athletes--was far more disrespectful to his person than a few caustic fans. Given Haskins's enormous ego and chivalric sense of martyrdom, the entire flap was obviously designed to draw the fans' ire away from the team and on to him personally. And it worked like a charm. While the coach proudly bore the heat, his suddenly energized, steadily maturing young team ripped off a number of impressive wins over the latter part of last season.  

Manufactured or not, the rift between Haskins on one side and Gophers fans and media on the other contained enough real rancor to indicate that the relationship was wearing thin. During his previous 10 years as Minnesota's coach, Haskins had hyped his team's minor accomplishments and downplayed their obvious failures to a ridiculous degree. (Sensitive to the criticism that his teams couldn't win away from home, he claimed a victory at Target Center to be a road game because it wasn't played at Williams Arena.) During games, his frequently dizzying pace of substitutions and his penchant for combining a rugged, clutch-and-grab defense with an over-deliberate offense made the Gophers a bore to watch at times. Last but not least were the matters of personal style and social circumstance. Like no Minnesota public figure since Gov. Rudy Perpich, Haskins is fiercely proud of his non-urban roots (in the off-season he is a Kentucky hog farmer) and deep-down fearful that he is regarded as a rube. Being the black coach of a predominantly black sport in the whitest major metro area in the country must only add to his sense of dislocation.

Over the past few years, however, the planets have inexorably been lining up in Clem's favor. Lured by the riches of the professional game, the most talented collegians are leaving school sooner and sooner. This phenomenon benefits Haskins because he generally eschews the blue-chippers to concentrate on slightly less talented but more malleable kids, often from conservative, rural families whose roots are similar to his own. You don't build resourceful, resilient teams--Clem Haskins teams--with hot-shot All-Americans who have one eye on the pros. You get loyal players willing to sublimate themselves for the good of the team.

For 10 years, Haskins had watched his teams with the pride and patience of man who gratefully takes what the weather and the soil provide. The Gophers' strong finish in the second half of last season must have convinced him that he finally had the right mix of scorers and grinders, veterans and youth, passers and penetrators, all with the selflessness and discipline to execute his vision. The coach then stunned his critics by proclaiming this edition of the Gophers a legitimate challenger, first for the Big Ten title and now for the national championship. And the prophetic character of his optimism this year adds credence to the caution he displayed in the past. It won't get any better than this for Clem Haskins.

Except, perhaps, for the next one or two games. First up is Kentucky, the defending national champion and the perfect symbol of everything Haskins has battled to overcome. The land-grant school in his native state, it did not take black ballplayers when he graduated from high school; Clem instead attended Western Kentucky. The current coach of UK is Rick Pitino, a smart, dashing young whippersnapper from New York City who recruits the cream of the high school cream and generally hangs on to the them for two or three years before they jump to the pros. Pitino currently has a 6-7 sophomore small forward named Ron Mercer who is expected to be the second or third player drafted when he heads to the NBA after this week is over. The Gophers have put the defensive clamps on big centers and quick guards this season, but if the team has a match-up weakness, it is with a mobile, semi-big player like Mercer, who can score inside and outside. Pitino's UK clubs also favor a smothering full-court press on defense. The Gophers' best ballhandler, Eric Harris, still has that shoulder bruise, and the team is pretty thin after that.

On the other hand, the heaviest Kentucky player goes 238 and the Gophers have three guys at 270 and up; expect Minnesota to bang the ball inside to the big men. Another advantage is veteran leadership. While Minnesota is led by seniors Jackson and John Thomas, Kentucky had three sophomores and a freshman among its five starters in last Saturday's win over Utah. Pitino also favors the three-point shot; his teams gamble on the quick knockout, and have the talent to make it happen. But if the Gophers are ahead--or even within 10--midway through the second half, you'd have to like their chances.  

The next likely opponent would then be North Carolina, with the winner becoming national champion. Success here would indeed complete a heavenly script: Haskins and the Gophs would have knocked off the three most prestigious programs in NCAA history--UCLA, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Is a championship likely? No, it isn't.

But bank on this: Minnesota won't choke. Near the nail-biting end of the UCLA game, Haskins sat down Sam Jacobson and brought Quincy Lewis into the game. Almost immediately, Lewis was fouled. Standing at the free throw line, you knew he was going to make his foul shots. Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, the whippet-thin sophomore told a national television audience after the game, "I came up [to Minnesota] for the same reasons all of us came: to be with Coach Haskins."

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