It is no longer enough, in these complex times, for a college
hoopster to have a thorough knowledge of his team's motion
offense and a firm grasp of the principles of man-to-man
defense. He must also master the chronometry of as many as six
time zones in order to know when to call his girlfriend. He must
be able to recognize a riptide and have the good sense never to
come between a moose cow and her calf.
We were reminded of this last week when six of the top eight
teams in the nation took leave of the continental U.S., half of
them bound for the Maui Invitational, the other half for the
Great Alaska Shootout. Because these tournaments ran
consecutively and offered the opportunity to watch Arizona open
its national title defense, to view the unveiling of Duke's
fabulous freshmen, and to see Kentucky and North Carolina as
they sallied forth without their departed larger-than-life
coaches--and because we thought it would be easy to get a direct
flight from Hawaii to Alaska--we decided to cover both events.
It was a difficult trip for which to pack.
Along the way we learned that Hawaii is home to 20 species of
fruit flies, all of which were well represented on and around
the media-room buffet at the 2,500-seat Lahaina Civic Center in
Maui. We learned that gee, to a sled dog, means right, and haw
means left. We learned, sadly, that there are no commercial
flights between the 50th state and the 49th. It was, as
first-year North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge put it, "an
As for the week's basketball-related revelations, we learned
that despite its assurances to the contrary, Arizona is feeling
the strain of defending its NCAA championship. We learned that
callow Duke, with its eight underclassmen, has completed its
orientation period and is ready to kick some tail. We also
learned that Kentucky's fans rank among the most
far-ranging--and the most impatient. The day after Arizona
schooled Big Blue 89-74 in an anticlimactic reprise of the 1997
NCAA title game, Maui's Kahului Airport looked like Saigon just
before the fall. Faced with the choice of sticking around for
Kentucky's third-place game against Missouri (whose plodding
45-42 first-round win over DePaul was described by one observer
as "a cow paddy in paradise") or splitting early, many Wildcats
fans scrambled to get home for Thanksgiving.
December 8, 1997
The truth is, these far-flung hoops expeditions are not so much
holidays as they are ordeals. UCLA coach Steve Lavin, whose
Bruins were routed 109-68 by the Tar Heels in the first round of
the Shootout, freely admits this. The delayed flights, the
rubber-chicken dinners, the circadian-rhythm-scrambling
time-zone changes, "studying for finals while you play three
games in three days and your girlfriend breaks up with you--all
this pays off in March," says Lavin. "It gives you the mental
toughness you need to get deep into the NCAA tournament."
Tubby Smith, who took over at Kentucky after Rick Pitino left
for the NBA, will need all the toughness he can find just to get
through the regular season. He inherited a sorely depleted
roster--gone is 51.7% of the Wildcats' scoring from a year ago.
It was evident in Hawaii, however, that Tubby has created a
reservoir of goodwill that will sustain him through the
rebuilding. While Kentucky fans--distinguishable in Maui by
their toad-belly-white skin and HULA HOOPIN' WITH THE WILDCATS
T-shirts--will always be grateful to Pitino for rescuing their
program from probation and then delivering a national title,
it's surprising how little they seem to miss him. Pitino, of
course, never pretended to be anything but a visitor in the
Bluegrass State, cracking wise about Lexington's "international
cuisine" and poking fun at the accents of his homegrown players.
He inspired more respect than affection.
The inside cover of this season's Kentucky basketball media
guide quotes Herky Rupp, the son of legendary Wildcats coach
Adolph Rupp, as saying, "Dad would have been very pleased" by
the hiring of Smith, Kentucky's first black men's basketball
coach. One wonders about that. It was during the 41-year reign
of the Baron that Kentucky basketball earned a reputation as a
bastion of racism. The fervor with which Wildcats fans have
embraced Smith suggests an eagerness to prove they are
It helps that Smith is so embraceable. "You can put your arm
around him," said Chiquita Nauert, a Louisville resident
interrupting her Wednesday walk on the beach to discuss Smith.
"You couldn't do that with Pitino."
"The only way to get close to Pitino was if you paid two grand
to play golf with him in Ireland," said Del Combs of Lexington.
"Tubby's the salt of the earth." Smith is the sixth of 17
children raised on a Maryland farm, so he has little trouble
relating to Kentucky's rural fan base. Says Combs, "Tubby was 14
years old before he found out a chicken had anything but
gizzards and wings."
"I've had my share of pig's feet, too," Smith said when that
comment was relayed to him.
Smith would be the first to concur with Lavin about the value of
these early-season trips. "Right now, I'm still learning about
them, and they're still learning about me," he said after his
players bounced back from the loss to Arizona to beat Missouri
by 22 points. All in all, he seemed to count the journey a
Arizona travels more frequently but less happily. Asked how he
was enjoying Hawaii, Wildcats point guard Mike Bibby said, "I
love it." Had he been in the ocean? "I don't like saltwater," he
said. "Or pool water." The fact was, Bibby and his backcourt
mate and fellow accidental tourist Miles Simon spent quite a bit
of time holed up in their hotel rooms, competing against one
another on a Sony Playstation. Asked if they had seen the sights
in Lahaina, the nearest town, Bibby said, "We have no way to get
there. We don't have a car."
"We have no way to get to McDonald's," added Simon, forlornly.
If the Arizona players are sick of travel, you can't blame them.
The day their final exams ended last spring, the Wildcats set
off on a 19-hour journey to Australia, where they spent their
23-day barnstorming tour complaining about homesickness and the
Arizona guard Jason Terry was in better spirits in Maui.
Strolling along the beach one day last week, he spied in the
distance a pair of swimsuit-clad coeds. "Hey, it's our
cheerleaders," he said. "They look a little different, don't
The Wildcats, for their part, look very much the same. All five
starters are back, as is Terry, one of the most talented sixth
men in the country. Among the first things Arizona coach Lute
Olson did after winning his first NCAA championship--and after
combing his hair, which had been memorably mussed by forward
Bennett Davison in the waning moments of that win over
Kentucky--was to unveil a full-court press. This so-called
Cat-astrophe Defense wreaked havoc in the win over Kentucky.
Arizona forced 18 turnovers, seven in the first quarter, and
coasted to a 15-point win in which it exposed Kentucky's
conundrum: It isn't a stellar outside-shooting team, yet outside
shots are what its offense is designed to create.
Kentucky will improve. Would Arizona? It was hard to imagine
Olson's team playing much better. At a press conference after
that lopsided victory, Bibby was asked to account for the bond
he and Simon share. Said Simon, under his breath, "Light skin."
The remark got a big laugh. The next night, as Arizona broke its
huddle before the tip-off of the final against Duke, Simon said
something else that cracked up Bibby. Everything about them
said, Pressure? What pressure?
Their cockiness didn't survive one quarter. With torrid
half-court defense and huge contributions from a trio of
teenagers, the Blue Devils beat the Wildcats like a Pahu
drum--to which the Old Lahaina Luau Dancers swiveled uncannily
at halftime. By then Duke led 51-34, en route to a 95-87 win.
More than any other team in Maui, the Blue Devils had been all
business. The tournament championship celebration would be
different. Said senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski, who was
named tournament MVP in large part because of his dervish play
on defense, "I'm going to have a drink with an umbrella in it."
While Wojo transformed Bibby into a nonentity (eight points on
2-of-10 shooting) and Duke senior forward Roshown McLeod had a
Pippen-like night with 18 points, eight boards, three blocks and
two steals, the Blue Devils' real eye-openers were their
underclassmen. Freshman center Elton Brand, who is 6'8" and a
very solid 248 pounds, gives Duke the inside presence it lacked
the last two years. He scored 13 points and pulled down eight
rebounds, the same number of boards as forward Shane Battier, a
fellow freshman. Another newcomer, point guard William Avery,
led all Duke scorers with 21 points. The Blue Devils' ACC foes
won't enjoy thinking about how good Duke could be in two months,
let alone two years.
While Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski soft-peddled the
victory, telling reporters that he didn't think Duke was the
best team in the country just because it had just beaten the
nation's top team, the Blue Devils fans in this bandbox gym were
less gracious. With a minute left to play against the Wildcats,
they trotted out their all-purpose malediction: "Go to hell,
Carolina, go to hell."
The Tar Heels, of course, had traveled to a much colder place.
On our 14-hour journey from the Aloha State to the Last
Frontier, we covered 4,265 miles, made two connections and one
implacable enemy--the guy behind us who stashed his caged feline
under our row of seats, where it's panicked yowling on the
red-eye to San Francisco ruled out the possibility of slumber.
The cat courier was unamused by our wee-hours offer to
euthanize--quickly and humanely, with a little blue airline
pillow--his tabby. It would have pleased him to learn that on
the Seattle-to-Anchorage leg of our journey, we were seated
directly behind a serial windbreaker.
Excluding passengers, the only thing more breathtaking than the
sight of the forbidding Chugach Mountains, as one descends into
Anchorage, is the $3 charge to use the airport's ATM. This
larceny notwithstanding, Anchorage prides itself on its
hospitality, a quality that also imbues the Shootout. Since the
tournament's inception 19 years ago, local families have invited
teams into their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. Shootout
participants are almost forced to be active tourists. To do
otherwise would be to hurt the feelings of their eager hosts.
Purdue's players visited the Portage Glacier, 30 miles south of
Anchorage. "It was, you know, this, like, great big chunk of
ice" was how Boilermakers guard Mosi Barnes described it. The
Tar Heels went dogsledding early in the week, with mixed
results. All-America junior forward Antawn Jamison wound up
strapped into a runaway sled that flipped. Somehow, the musher
had fallen off--he said gee, the dogs heard haw,
perhaps--leaving the 6'9" Jamison in charge. Jamison learned
that huskies don't respond to such commands as "Yo, slow down."
He eventually made his way back to his teammates but not before
having to make an unscheduled mile-long hike through scary
terrain. "They've got moose and wolves and bears out there," he
said, "but I kept my composure."
(His misadventure recalled that of Kentucky's junior point guard
Wayne Turner, who got lost on a snowmobile for three hours
during last year's Great Alaska Shootout. It was for this reason
that Smith was reluctant to let Turner rent a Jet Ski in Maui;
he feared his floor leader might inadvertently return to Alaska.)
While checking out the Anchorage Museum of History and Art,
UCLA's players saw pictures of the devastation wrought by the
1964 earthquake, which measured 8.4 on the Richter scale. They
may have recalled that exhibit the following night, when North
Carolina junior forward Vince Carter threw down a series of
savage, temblor-inducing jams and the Tar Heels won by 41
points, the Bruins' second-worst defeat ever. Without 6'10"
center Jelani McCoy and 6'4" forward Kris Johnson, both of whom
were suspended by Lavin in September for breaking team rules,
UCLA was small and vulnerable. Every time the vertically
challenged Bruins walked through the lobby of their hotel, they
were mocked by a nine-foot bruin--a stuffed brown bear--who
resides in a glass case.
After the Tar Heels crushed Seton Hall by 30 points in the
semifinals, the question became: Can anyone give Carolina a
game? In the same week that saw Indiana lose big to Hawaii,
Wisconsin fall to Pacific and Illinois get dusted by St. John's
in other offshore holiday tournaments, Purdue was out to salvage
some honor for the sadly diminished Big Ten. The Boilermakers
gave the Heels all they could handle in the final. With 8:05
left in the third quarter, Carolina--suddenly unable to hit the
side of a glacier--trailed 40-29. Also, the Tar Heels were
getting butchered down low, as Purdue center Brad Miller set
about scoring a game-high 29 points.
Despite decisively winning the battle of the big men--poor North
Carolina forward Ademola Okulaja took several elbows to the face
and spent more time on the deck than Michael Moorer--the
Boilermakers let the game get away down the stretch and the Tar
Heels escaped with a 73-69 win. After the game, Carter, the
aerial artist, asked to see a score sheet. "Your line is ugly,"
he was warned.
"I don't care about my line," said Carter. "I want to see the
line of the guy I guarded." He had held Purdue guard Chad Austin
to four points, shooting guard Shammond Williams had filled it
up from outside, and Jamison had merely looked like the best
player in the country. The Tar Heels appeared to be in good
shape even without Dean Smith on the sideline.
Why then the look of concern on the face of John Kilgo? It was
time for Kilgo, a TV broadcaster, to host the first Bill
Guthridge Carolina Basketball Show. Kilgo seemed concerned that
Guthridge's lack of emotion might make for bad TV. "He's only
stood up once in six games," Kilgo said worriedly before going
on the air. "It was in last night's game. He said to the
official, 'He tripped him,' then he sat right back down."
Guthridge did just fine on the show. Although he tended to speak
in an actuary's monotone, his insights were good, his sense of
humor arid. This, after all, is the man who one summer asked
Michael Jordan what Jordan had been doing since he left Chapel
Hill. While Guthridge taped his show, Carolina's next NBA star
sat in the dressing room, examining the Golden Pan he was
awarded as the Shootout's MVP. When it was explained to Jamison
that prospectors used such hardware to pan for gold, he said,
He seemed a bit distracted. Had he had about enough of Alaska?
"It's been a very exciting trip," Jamison said, "but, yes, I'm
ready to go home." In his mind, he had gone to Carolina.
After tens of thousands of miles had been traveled, countless
calls questioned, untold amounts of fast food eaten, the two
best teams at the end of the week were North Carolina and Duke,
who face off in Chapel Hill on Feb. 5. When the Duke team bus
pulls up to the Dean Dome on that day, anyone who cares to can
look at the odometer and see that the Blue Devils have come all
Kentucky fans are grateful to Pitino for rescuing them, but it's
surprising how little they miss him.
We learned that despite assurances to the contrary, Arizona is
feeling the strain of defending its title.
Jamison learned that sled dogs don't respond to such commands as
"Yo, slow down."