In practice, a decade ago, the Mayor would match up with Spree. They were shooting guards for the Timberwolves and they were Midwesterners. Their biographies diverged from there. Fred Hoiberg, the backup, was an archetypal sharpshooter and a hero back in his hometown. The write-in votes he received in Ames's 1993 mayoral election while he was starring for Iowa State inspired his nickname. His father was an associate dean of ISU's College of Agriculture. Latrell Sprewell, the starter, was a misfit and a nomad. He left Flint, Mich., as a child after his father was jailed for possession of a controlled substance, then went to high school in Milwaukee, junior college in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and college at Alabama before being drafted by the Warriors, for whom he was a sinewy ball of fire in the open court. It was at Golden State, during a 1997 practice, that Sprewell combusted. He will be forever defined as the guy who choked and punched his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
Hoiberg formed a different opinion. "Sprewell," he says, "was one of my favorite teammates of all time. I found him fascinating." Hoiberg loved the contradictions of Sprewell's character -- how on team flights he would dominate Stanford grad Mark Madsen in chess, a patient, tactical game, then play basketball with maximum energy and emotion. How Sprewell, who'd once been labeled a chemistry problem, catered in postpractice meals so the T-Wolves would eat together.
Now the Iowa State coach, Hoiberg has a framed grid of photos from his 10-year NBA career in his office, and in the top-left image he's being embraced by Sprewell for hitting a big shot in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals. Sprewell looks even more ecstatic than Hoiberg. "He had a bad rap, but he just wanted to win," says Hoiberg. "He was ultracompetitive."
When Hoiberg's playing career was cut short, at 32, by the discovery of an aortic aneurysm, he moved to Minnesota's front office and then took over at Iowa State in April 2010. Hoiberg wanted to win fast at his alma mater, and what he did not do was fill his roster with little Freddy Hoibergs from the Great Plains. He went looking for Latrell Sprewells -- transfers with bad raps in whom he saw some good, and who might help themselves and the Cyclones by starting over in Ames.
The first was Royce White, a 6' 8" five-star player who was suspended at Minnesota after pleading guilty to theft and disorderly conduct, but also had interests ranging from existential philosophy to music production. White became the centerpiece of the 2011-12 team that got Iowa State back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since '05, and then was drafted by the Rockets with the 16th pick.
On a Tuesday in January, White, who now lives near Philadelphia, was a visitor at Iowa State's practice facility. His NBA career was derailed by disputes with Houston over how to accommodate his mental-health issues, namely anxiety, and for him Ames remains a sort of sanctuary. White also wanted to watch film with the Cyclones' latest transfer-turned-star, to get a deeper understanding of his game. "I'm a DeAndre Kane superfan," White says of the 6' 4", 24-year-old senior point guard. "Are you here to write about how he's the best guard in the country?"
The case can be made. Until he suffered a severe left ankle sprain at Oklahoma on Jan. 11, Kane was the nation's only player averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists (16.1/7.1/6.3), making even bigger all-around contributions than Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, a similarly built Big 12 floor general who was a consensus first-team All-America in the preseason. Kane refused to sit out to rest his ankle, toughing through losses to Kansas and Texas; at week's end he was putting up 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in Big 12 play for the 16-4 Cyclones.
But to appreciate Kane's success at Iowa State, you have to grasp that he was once so bull-headed that he quit his high-school team as a freshman because he refused to carry older teammates' bags. He suffered through a family tragedy at Marshall, cultivated a bad rap of his own and had his scholarship pulled. Asked why he thinks Kane has flourished in Ames, White offers this: "Coach Hoiberg is good at dealing with unique personalities."
In the moments before the Cyclones' tip-off against Kansas on Jan. 13, Kane was the star around which his teammates orbited, swaying with their arms interlocked.
"Who ride?" Kane yelled from inside the huddle of yellow jerseys.
"We ride!" his teammates answered.
After the third call-and-response, they all yelled, "Let's ride!" Kane had revived this chant from his days at Schenley High, the now-closed Pittsburgh school at which he won three straight city titles and a 2007 state championship with his childhood friends DeJuan Blair (who went to Pittsburgh and is now with the Spurs) and D.J. Kennedy (St. John's). There was no formal parade to celebrate the state title, so the starters packed into a car and rode through the Hill District -- the historically black neighborhood where the they lived -- holding the trophy out the sunroof until the cops shut down the celebration. Ask Kane when he was happiest playing basketball, and he says, "Back at Schenley, when we were winning and my dad was there to see me."
The national anthem is when Kane believes his father is listening. It is when Kane tells him, I never imagined you'd be gone so fast, and every time I step out there it's for you. I love you, and I miss you.
Calvin Kane, nicknamed Pookane, was a stocky, pass-first point guard who won a state title at Schenley in 1978. He went off to play for Lamar, and in his freshman season, '79-80, the Cardinals made a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16. Calvin transferred to North Idaho Community College the next season, and there is no record of his playing college basketball after '80-81. He served jail time twice during DeAndre's youth -- in '90 and '96, both times on drug-possession convictions -- but he was close to his son, training DeAndre on courts in the Hill District. Calvin's friends knew they could get under his skin by arguing that DeAndre was a better teenage player than his father. Calvin thought that might be true, but he'd shape his reply to rile up DeAndre: "He ain't got the heart I had. He ain't got the toughness." They always watched the NCAA tournament together, and Calvin would tell him, "That place right there is special. You've gotta get there."
DeAndre figured it would happen at Marshall. He arrived in Huntington, W.Va., after a prep year at the Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., sat out 2009-10 as a partial academic qualifier, and averaged 15.1 points and 3.4 assists as a redshirt freshman. When Kane went into a sophomore slump, with his three-point percentage slipping into the mid-20s, Calvin scheduled a two-week visit to Huntington starting the weekend after the Super Bowl. He'd use that time to get DeAndre's jumper fixed. But on Feb. 6, 2012, just weeks before turning 51, Calvin suffered a brain aneurysm. During the late-night, four-and-a-half-hour drive to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh with Thundering Herd graduate assistant Josh King, DeAndre remained uncharacteristically silent. When he saw Calvin was on life support, DeAndre leaned in close and said, "Pull through this, we love you," but the doctors told him that Calvin was too far gone. The family had kept him alive so that DeAndre could see him one last time. In a quiet rage DeAndre walked out of the hospital room and punched a wall.
Kane nearly quit basketball after that, but his mother talked him into playing -- and pursuing a business degree -- in honor of his father. Although Marshall once again missed the NCAAs, Kane delivered his signature performance for the Herd that March, scoring 40 points in a triple-overtime win over Tulsa in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament. The next season, he switched his jersey to number 50 in Calvin's honor. Johnson calls Kane the fieriest, most vocal teammate he had at Marshall. But Kane's passion went both ways, says another teammate. "When Kane had a positive vibe, we almost always won, because we fed off that energy," says one former Herd player who wished to remain anonymous. "But when he was negative, we almost always lost, and eventually, he was so negative that it was hurting the team."
Self-control issues plagued Kane at Marshall. He led the NCAA in technical fouls as a freshman and sophomore, with seven each season. In February 2011 he and Johnson were charged with misdemeanor battery after Kane allegedly punched a man outside a Huntington bar, just hours after the Thundering Herd upset Memphis. The case was dismissed in '12. During a closed scrimmage against Miami (Ohio) in the '11-12 preseason Kane -- according to three witnesses -- became so upset with the way teammate Robert Goff was playing that he punched him in the face, causing RedHawks coach Charlie Coles to pull his squad off the floor while the Marshall staff got the Herd under control. Kane denies punching Goff; Goff acknowledges it happened but blames himself, saying, "I wasn't focusing enough on the game."
The same three witnesses also described an incident on the bus after a March '13 game at Houston, when Kane (who also denies this) threw a nearly full bottle of Gatorade at an undergraduate manager for allegedly screwing up his food order. Because Kane was the leading scorer, teammates said he rarely faced punishment from coach Tom Herrion for his transgressions, which included late arrivals, missed buses and verbal altercations. But Kane clashed so much with coaches and teammates during that season that, according to multiple sources, one assistant coach threatened to leave if Kane wasn't dismissed. Herrion declined to comment on Kane's behavior, but says that in an April 23 meeting, "I informed [Kane] that I had withdrawn his scholarship and he would not be able to return to Marshall the next season." Herrion adds that Kane had violated athletic department policies on and off the court.
"Marshall's just trying to make me look bad," Kane says. Because they let a good player go? he is asked. "Basically," he replies, "and for no reason."
Before leaving Huntington, Kane wrote a thank-you letter to fans that was published in The Herald-Dispatch. He apologized for not leading the Herd to the NCAA tournament and called the city his second home. Asked why he wrote it, Kane says, "I came in there with great hype, and I wanted to give them the tournament [trip] they deserved after spending money on tickets and cheering their lungs out. We didn't do that, and I felt like most of it was my fault." Because Kane had graduated -- making him the first member of his family to earn a college diploma -- he was eligible to play immediately as a fifth-year transfer.
Iowa State's connection to Kane was through assistant Matt Abdelmassih, who'd been a manager at St. John's, where Kane's old Schenley running mate Kennedy had played. Carol Robinson, DeAndre's mother, came along on his campus visit in May. "I saw all those cornfields and hardly any people," she says, "and I thought, 'This is it, DeAndre. This is where you can focus on just being you.' " Hoiberg was satisfied by Kane's willingness, in a face-to-face discussion, to take accountability for his past. ("We looked for that," he says. "If he would've blamed everybody but himself, that's a red flag.") The Cyclones had just lost starting guards Korie Lucious and Chris Babb, so Kane could work with elite, versatile forwards Georges Niang, a 6' 7" sophomore, and Melvin Ejim, a 6' 6" senior, in creating a Big 12 contender.
Kane committed before leaving Ames. Niang texted him to say he was happy to have him aboard, to which Kane replied, "I just want to win. Let's get it going." Iowa State opened the season 14-0, and Kane has been helping Niang (16.4 points per game through Sunday) and Ejim (18.1) have their best seasons. The Cyclones have been resilient, pulling off four double-digit comebacks, and Kane has lost his cool just once, when he was ejected for eye-gouging BYU center Eric Mika on Nov. 20. "Our guys have found ways not to panic and get frustrated, and stay together," Hoiberg says. "When your point guard has the ability to stay composed, everybody else follows it. DeAndre talked about how he really learned from what he did in the past, and didn't want to repeat it."
Kane is also making an impact on much bigger stages than he ever had at Marshall -- including a 30-point, nine-assist, eight-rebound, five-steal tour de force in a win over Baylor on Jan. 7. "No one's ever put up numbers like that at Iowa State," Hoiberg says.
Not even Hoiberg. And not even White, who needed just one year in Ames before declaring early entry for the draft. "It would be fair to say, though," Abdelmassih says, "that without Royce's example [of second-chance success], we wouldn't have gotten DeAndre."
White and Kane are slumped in side-by-side chairs in the office of the Cyclones' video coordinator, with a DVD of the Kansas game cued up on a wall-mounted TV. Iowa State's coaches seem amused by what might happen in this impromptu film session, given that White and Kane are, to put it one way, unique personalities. They've clicked well with Hoiberg because he's not an overbearing coach. His message to Kane and this year's veterans has been, "You need to be able to police yourselves, to be able to talk to each other and take criticism."
White turns to Kane, with the game paused in the beginnings of a transition situation. "What are you thinking right now?" White asks. "I'm not in your body, so I don't know when you're like, 'Go! Kill! Kill!' or when you're like, 'Right now, it's about running offense.' "
"I'm thinking," Kane says, "go get a bucket."
Kane has been smart about hunting buckets this season, as the pilot of the fourth-fastest offense in the country, according to kenpom.com. Hoiberg, with his NBA background, has helped Kane better identify mismatches that either lead to him posting up smaller guards or getting Niang and Ejim isolated against less mobile big men. "He's seeing the game a step ahead," Hoiberg says of Kane, "and that's a heck of a gift when you're a point guard." Hoiberg drove opposing defenses mad by using White as a 6' 8" point man on the break, and Kane has been a powerful force in transition too, even though he's no speed demon. When White started studying Kane, on television during a Nov. 17 win over Michigan, his favorite moments were watching Kane flow with his teammates in the open floor.
"It takes special basketball eyes to see it, but the pace he's moving at is in sync with each possession," White says. "It's not too fast, not too slow. Commentators might go, 'It doesn't look like he's moving that fast,' because no -- he's moving at a perfect speed."
There was a time, not long ago, that Kane had fallen out of step. He had lost his father, his association with winning and his love for basketball. But in his last chance, in Ames, he's found a team he can ride with to the place Calvin always said was special: the NCAA tournament. DeAndre Kane is back in sync with the game.