Great rebounders have a way of referring to themselves in the third person. Moses Malone does so almost exclusively; on occasion, so does Charles Barkley. Maybe it's a way to acknowledge that there's something else, some spirit beyond the physical self, that impels them to go to the boards. To box. To pound. To 'bound.
Whatever, it seems that Jerome Lane, Pittsburgh's glass-master, has gone third person, too. In leading the Panthers to their first outright Big East title, with an 85-84 win over Syracuse on Sunday in the Carrier Dome, Lane displayed an intensity that had been lacking in his desultory performances in recent games. He offered a simple explanation: "I hadn't been playing the way Jerome Lane is capable of playing."
Lane's 15 rebounds and 29 points covered all the prepositional phrases his surname suggests: in the, around the and down the. Especially down the. His swooping drive from the foul line in the final minute put the Panthers up by four and the Orangemen down for the count. "There was that drive down the lane at the end," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, "but pretty much the whole game Lane got what he wanted."
Pitt, 22-5 going into this weekend's Big East tournament, couldn't have wanted much more than what it got in its regular-season finale. Here was a rejuvenated Lane playing 40 astonishing minutes, most of them with three and four fouls, taking charges and taking charge. Here, too, was stoic senior center Charles Smith picking off the afternoon's most meaningful rebound and making the two winning free throws. And here were the Panthers' Four Freshmen, each playing his own substantial role.
All in all, it was that rare pleasure, a Big East megatilt not decided by the 10-point must system. No fists between players and no fits between coaches. In fact, Boeheim is the only one among the conference's original coaches—the others are Georgetown's John Thompson, Villanova's Rollie Massimino and St. John's Lou Carnesecca—whom Paul Evans, Pitt's arriviste coach, likes.
Evans has been something of a scourge this season, first suggesting that Thompson intimidates officials and then allowing that Massimino was a nice enough guy "until he won a national championship and fell in love with himself." And when the conference's coaches named Lane as their preseason choice for Player of the Year over the more celebrated Smith, Evans suggested it was a ploy to sow dissension between the two stars. And you thought all Big East paranoia was Hoya.
As it happened, the only ill will that developed at Pitt was between Evans and the independent-minded Lane, a 6'6" junior power forward from Akron, who last season became the first man standing less than 6'7" to lead the land in rebounds since 1957-58. This season Lane became what is thought to be the first collegian to shatter a backboard since the advent of the breakaway rim. But he slumped after his shard shower in late January. Why? "A lot of people say it's 'cause 'Rome's gotten cocky," said Pitt freshman center Bobby Martin. "But 'Rome's always been cocky." Ah, yes. Here's 'Rome on Barkley, the Round Mound of Rebound: "Don't get me wrong, he's a great player. But I have more agility than he does."
More likely, Lane's poor play could be laid to auditioning. If he sees more than one NBA scout seated at courtside, he'll start showcasing the medium-range jumper he doesn't yet have. Snapped Evans last week, "If you could figure out what's wrong with Jerome, you could make a lot of money, because you could go to the pros with him."
Lane rededicated himself after the Panthers' March 2 loss to Seton Hall. "For a four-day span, I was just thinking about Syracuse," he said. "I'm driving down the street, all I'm thinking about is, What can I do in the Syracuse game to win?" After he did just about everything, Evans sniffed, "Nice to see him playing for us again."
Evans is entitled to get a little sarcastic. The team he inherited two seasons ago was a crew of coach-ripping, class-skipping banditos who jacked up shots whenever they pleased. When Coach Roy Chipman quit, Pitt lured Evans away from the U.S. Naval Academy to make the Panthers shipshape. He instituted mandatory tutoring sessions and didn't look back this season when academic shortcomings weeded out two key players, point guard Mike Goodson and small forward Rod Brookin. Yet signs of recidivism crop up from time to time. "A week and a half ago," Evans said before the game against the Orangemen, "this group thought it had the Big East won and got that fat-cat feeling."
Smith agreed. "Syracuse is just like us. The only difference in our abilities is emotion—whether our heads are in it or not." Before the Panthers left for Syracuse, someone, taking no chances, wrote on the chalkboard in the Pitt field house locker room: PACK YOUR SNEAKERS.
But the Panthers were the tougher team Sunday, taking their cue from Evans. While rarely abandoning his aggressive man-to-man defense, he left Lane in the game with four fouls over the final 13:48. As they say in Annapolis, "Damn the foul trouble, full speed ahead." When Syracuse ripped off a 13-3 run midway through the second half to make the score 66-64, Evans brought back Smith and freshman point guard Sean Miller—each with four fouls—though more than nine minutes remained. "It was awful early," Evans said, "but the kids needed to realize that if we weren't going to do it then, we weren't going to do it."
It was as if Evans had dared his team to face down the officials, the very Big East zebras who allegedly won't cut the new coach on the block some slack. Lane clearly relished the two charges he drew while saddled with foul trouble and asked, "Do I get the Academy Award?" Sure. "And Jerome Lane would like to thank Sean Miller...." Before the game, Lane specifically asked Miller to look for him. Miller obliged. With a minute left and Pitt leading by two, Miller called a high-post clear out, leaving Lane free for a foray to the hole past Syracuse's Derek Brower. "I'm not taking nothing away from Brower," Lane said later, "but no big man in the country can guard me on the top. Period."
Smith's moment was yet to come. After Earl Duncan sank a three-pointer to bring the Orange to within one point, Syracuse fouled another Pitt freshman, guard Jason Matthews, with 19 seconds left. His one-and-one shot kicked straight off the back rim, whereupon Smith stuck his left arm up to spear the ball and was fouled. After Orange center Rony Seikaly said to him, "No way you'll make 'em," Smith swished both free throws.
With the Big East title in hand, the Panthers are thinking bigger. Lane has said that he'll go pro if Pitt wins the national championship. "I like that tradeoff," says Evans. Yet if Lane sticks around for his senior season, he'll have on his side four extraordinary sophomores—Miller, Martin, Matthews and guard Darelle Porter—plus Proposition 48 sitout Brian Shorter, a forward. Once more, he will have a Pitt sports publicity machine primed to flog him as Player of the Year. This is the office, you'll recall, that in 1957 tried to pose All-America candidate Don Hennon with Pitt faculty member Jonas Salk. The billing: THE WORLD'S TWO GREATEST SHOTMAKERS.
Salk, considering himself above such vulgar hype, demurred. But with Lane the possibilities are limitless. How about the Pitt Bull Terror? The Akron Rubber Company? The Square Bear of Snare? Take your time: 'Rome wasn't billed in a day. Of course, the final arbiter of what to call Jerome Lane will be Jerome Lane. Period.