When Tracy Webster arrived at Wisconsin four seasons ago, the basketball team had become such a perennial Big Ten doormat and local joke that whenever a basketball player approached, the hockey-loving Badger faithful would politely avert their eyes. To play basketball for Wisconsin—the land of the fore-checking cheeseheads—was to be rendered all but invisible.
So it seems only natural that Webster, the team's point guard and emotional leader, would make an invisible little friend for himself. During games, he frequently consults with his imaginary friend—named Li'l Shawn, but also referred to as Willie Lump Lump—which is what he was doing with just over seven minutes to play and the Badgers clinging to a three-point lead over Purdue last Saturday night in Madison. "Li'l Shawn told me it was crunch time and they were going to try to get the ball to Glenn Robinson," Webster revealed later, "so he said I should run to the weak side because I might be able to steal the ball."
Which he did. Webster picked off a pass intended for Robinson, then streaked up the floor and converted a three-point play. On Purdue's next possession junior Matt Waddell tried to force a pass into Robinson. At that moment Purdue coach Gene Keady was bobbing and gesturing on the sidelines so violently that his head nearly came unstuck from its comb-over. Webster sliced in front of Robinson again, made the steal, then lobbed a perfect alley-oop to freshman center Rashard Griffith for a crushing dunk that put Wisconsin ahead 61-53.
Even after the previously undefeated and ninth-ranked Boilermakers had finished taking their lump lumps in a 75-69 defeat by the 12th-ranked Badgers, Webster was still picking up signals from the Twilight Zone. Assessing Robinson's 5-for-26 shooting performance, Webster wondered if Purdue's 6'8" All-America forward wasn't talking to himself now too. "The way he looked tonight, he could have used an imaginary friend of his own," Webster said.
Second in the nation in scoring with a 28.2 average through Sunday, Robinson has national Player of the Year written all over him. Except on his chest, where he has a tattoo of a dog. Robinson's nickname is Big Dog, which takes on a whole new meaning when you heave up eight straight bricks with the season's most important game to date on the line.
The Boilermakers went into the game with the longest winning streak in the nation (14, a mark they shared with St. Louis) and left with the longest faces in the nation. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was coming off a disastrous 90-53 loss at Minnesota earlier in the week, which had brought its 11-0 season-opening run to a thudding halt. The Badgers did have the advantage of home ice, however, with a game-time temperature in Madison of -12°. The windchill factor, whipped up by Robinson's frosty 19% shooting, made it seem even colder than it actually was inside Wisconsin's drafty old Field House. And there was also a distinct nip in the air because of a chill in the relations between Keady and Wisconsin coach Stu Jackson.
Earlier in the week Jackson had repeatedly said that Robinson should have turned pro last year after he became the first player in 22 years to lead the Big Ten in scoring in his inaugural season. "Glenn Robinson is a joke, he's so good," Jackson said. "He's a man playing among boys, and where he belongs is in the NBA."
Keady, evidently hoping the idea of turning pro had not yet occurred to Robinson, took it hard. "I don't think it's ethical, and I don't like it," Keady said. "I don't go around saying [Wisconsin junior forward] Michael Finley should turn pro just because he's ready."
Finley certainly looked ready against Purdue. He scored 25 points, and his quick-footed defense repeatedly flustered Robinson into hurrying his shots and making a team-high eight turnovers. "Mike played Glenn like he'd been waiting all summer to do it," Jackson said. And, in a way, he had been. The two became friends playing against each other during summer league games in Chicago.
If Robinson has become the best college basketball player in America, Finley is surely the best player almost nobody has heard of. Last season, playing in the same conference as national Player of the Year Calbert Cheaney of Indiana, Finley topped Cheaney in scoring, three-pointers and steals in league play, yet he disappeared nearly without a trace when the All-America teams were announced. Last Saturday he came in from the cold, turning Robinson's mistakes into layups at the other end of the floor. "Our defense anchored our offense," Finley said. "We were stopping one of the premier scorers in the country, and that got us excited."
The Badgers had been stunned by their 37-point loss at Minnesota, and they looked as if they might be going into their annual winter-carnival slide. So last Thursday, Jackson met individually with six of his players to talk about the game and about "going forward." When Jackson took the Badger coaching job two years ago, his first order of business was to persuade Finley and Webster that their teammates were not a bunch of stiffs. "They were two players with real ability," Jackson says, "and I think their outlook on their teammates was not a positive one. The players' perceptions of themselves had to change. Everybody had negative things to say about the players who were here. They would tell you what nice people they were but that they were nontalented."
There had been some question about whether Jackson was nontalented himself when, in 1989, he became the youngest head coach ever hired by the New York Knicks and then, two seasons later, the youngest coach ever fired by the New York Knicks. Still, the Wisconsin coaching job was considered such a dead end that when it was offered to Jackson, he consulted with several of his friends in the coaching ranks before making a decision. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was "very skeptical," Jackson recalls. "He told me he did not think it was a great job and that I should get a really long contract. He also pointed out that Wisconsin had not been in the NCAA tournament since before he was born."
The Badgers had, by way of depressing illustration, won an NCAA boxing championship more recently (1956) than they had played in their last NCAA basketball tournament (1947). Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson, who coached the Milwaukee Bucks for 11 years, laughed and told Jackson, "You know you're not going to win."
"That got me interested," Jackson says. "If people thought the job was that bad, I felt I had to find a silver lining. It's like when you pick a stock. You've got to buy low." He has been selling high ever since. He once spent four years selling computers for IBM, and he remains a great salesman to this day. "We're in the age of marketing," he says. "The way I coach is to assess the situation, come up with a plan, then strategize on how to make that happen. I really do live by those buzzwords."
As a collegian, Jackson played basketball at Oregon but badly injured his knee in a motorcycle accident in 1976. He was told by Duck coach Dick Harter that his career was over, but instead of simply accepting that, Jackson transferred to Seattle University and played another season.
Last week he turned his considerable powers of persuasion on Griffith, the heavily recruited 6'11" center from Chicago, who had taken a beating and scored only three points against Minnesota. After Gopher fans serenaded him with the chant "O-ver-rated," Griffith claimed to have reached the end of his rope-a-dope style of play. "I'm going to play more physical," he vowed before the Purdue game. "If they do it, I'm going to do it."
Whatever "it" was, he did indeed do it to Purdue, finishing with 18 points and 16 rebounds. "He just took over the game," Jackson said. "In the second half he was virtually unstoppable." Keady didn't put quite so fine a point on it. "The kid kicked our ass tonight," he said.
Griffith, Finley and Webster (and any accompanying imaginary little friends) had eaten dinner together last Thursday night at a Badger hangout called Delaney's. They talked about wanting more national recognition, whereupon one of the locals almost immediately mistook them for high school prospects in town on a recruiting visit. "We get no respect here," Griffith said. "But we want to start a tradition at Wisconsin. We're going to earn some respect, and it's going to start on Saturday." And at that point Griffith, Finley and Webster all reached toward the table in unison and knocked on wood. From under Webster's place, something seemed to be knocking back.