(Editor's note: Our intrepid correspondent Toro Grande was at the Verizon Center last night in the small group of Bulls fans directly behind the USF bench. It's long and filled with adrenaline, but I'm sure you'll enjoy this.)
You might not believe this, but as a diehard USF basketball fan for 16 years now, I tend to be a bit cynical about our successes. With membership in the Big East in ’05, the opportunities to occasionally pick off a team clearly superior in talent, history, and tradition became far more frequent. But those rare bright spots are usually akin to an enjoyable date night out with your bitter nag of a wife; a rare bright spot along the dark existence that is your relationship.
In sports fandom, as in romance, one can only have their heart broken so many times before the walls build up around you. Emotional walls are built for multiple reasons, but the most common is to insulate yourself from hurt, and to hide the pain. The diehards realize the most meaningful trophy we’ve won since our Certificate of Participation in the ’92 NCAAs (a loss to ‘Zo Mourning and Georgetown by the way) is from an eight-team Thanksgiving tournament in 2001 where we beat the likes of Robert Morris and Duquesne. That’s it. No regular season titles. No division crowns. Nada. Sure, a couple of NIT banners hang, but those are like the towels you have to use because your in-laws bought them… a nice accessory, but nothing you’re pointing out during the Southern Homes Tour.
I can name every conference tournament win since ’95 on one hand (I attended all but one of them). Since joining the Big East five years ago, we’re 0-1 at MSG in March. And if the Lords of Providence didn’t have mercy on our karmically neglected souls last year and allow all 16 teams to join the party, we wouldn’t even have that L.
This isn’t losing. This is William H. Macy as The Cooler. This is Rodney Dangerfield, not as loveable loser in character, but as performance art. For nearly two decades, we’ve made the Cubs look like the Yankees. We are the abused. We say "yes, dear" so she’ll stop nagging. We eat the crappy cooking because it’s easier than trying to say "I hate your meat loaf." We take it, and we take it, and we take it. And we build the wall higher and higher.
But, because we are fans, we always have Hope.
The Walls… Come Crumblin’ Down.
This was not the season that Hope was supposed to rear her head. Since Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon graduated in 2002, we really haven’t seen her in any capacity. The guy projected to be the best player is currently riding the pine with a gimpy ankle. The point guard has had two ACL surgeries, and seems to be challenging Dione Smith and Tristen Webb for the longest and most star-crossed basketball career in Bulls history. There’s a freshman from Tampa’s own King High School, not exactly DeMatha, MLK Chicago, or Oak Hill, getting actual rotation minutes. This is the team I take a day out of life for and get Amtrak tickets from Philly to D.C. for? It is, and it’s because Hope has found her catalyst. He’s wearing #20, doing everything you see and even more you don’t.
The Secret Lies Within
The basic tenet of Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" is that an individual’s focused positive thinking can have life-changing results. But to achieve those results, you must overthrow your cynicism, and begin to tear down the walls. You need to have a reason to believe tomorrow will be better than today.
He is listed at 6’4", but I’ve stood next to him and that’s a lie. But his best basketball quality is that he doesn’t have a best quality. When someone asks the current G.O.A.T. of poker, Phil Ivey, about his style, he says, "I don’t really have a style. I just see what you do and adjust." That’s how Dominique Jones plays basketball. He can do everything you can ask a perimeter basketball player to do, and he does whatever is needed to win that game. The Secret doesn’t take over a basketball game as much as he controls it. Sometimes that’s by doing big things like rubbing off a double-down screen for a big three, or getting to the rim against an inferior defender one-on-one, but what makes him transcendent are the little things. He deflects more balls than any player in team history. He taps rebounds to teammates, and makes the skip pass that leads to the assist. He’s the leader on the floor, and he understands the strengths and weaknesses of the four guys wearing the same color uniform. He plays to their strengths, because he doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. He meshes so seamlessly into the rhythm of his teammates and their system that even tonight, I looked up at the scoreboard with about two minutes left and asked "how does he have 25 points?" And he had seven at halftime, so it’s not like they all came early.
I’ve had a basketball crush on him since his freshman year, because it’s been clear his hoops IQ is Mensa standard. He sees the game the way I’ve always wanted every player with obscene talent like his to see it. He also has the physical talent to execute everything that mind can visualize. I’ve often called him a poor man’s Dwayne Wade. That’s not fair. He’s a middle class version with a matched 401k and stock options. Before the last two weeks I wondered about his size, quickness, and ability to compete at the next level. But I think I let my wall color what my eyes did see. I couldn’t believe that a player this good would actually play for my alma mater. "If he really was that good, he wouldn’t be at USF."
No more. He really is that good, and he really is at USF.
So after the Miracle of Providence (which might end up as our Jordan over Ehlo/Dave Roberts steal/"Doering's got a touchdown!" moment), and two impressive wins over two different types of teams in shoot-and-stretch Seton Hall and bang-the-block #17 Pitt last week, you start to think the wife that’s emotionally abused and failed you for years might be starting to turn a corner. You’re starting to see the reasons you married her in the first place. Her stories are funny again. During these last three games, she’s lost 15 pounds, starting wearing heels again, and that new perfume is really working. It might be a phase… but you never mess with a streak.
Taking the train down to D.C. from Philly was an easy call given the circumstances. Front row seats behind the bench are an amazing incentive as well. The best part of those tickets (when you aren’t screened by the Gatorade coolers at the end of the bench) is getting to see how this team interacts. I’ve sat as an Honorary Coach on the Bench at USF Basketball games under our previous two coaches. They are both wonderful gentlemen, and I was proud to have them represent USF. But a Stan Heath bench is different. There is enthusiasm, but it isn’t to the point of chaos. There is passion, but still a focus on the task at hand. There is organization, as assistant coaches know their roles and make sure the players in their stead know them as well. That was a well-prepared basketball team tonight, and it showed in their poise down the stretch.
There is also a great chemistry. Fitzpatrick came out after getting beaten by Monroe on the block, and sat down near assistant Reggie Hanson. But his teammates said "hey, come here," and made sure to give him a pound to keep his spirits up after a tough stretch. This team likes each other. There was no panic down nine at halftime to a top ten team on the road. All of us behind the bench are sweating bullets, but the guys in the jerseys had no doubt they could pull this off.
You see these things, and you start to believe. Four straight Big East wins. Two in a row against Top 25 teams. The Secret willing his team to victory night in and night out. And the thing with more grip on my soul than any other… being a part of Bracketology in February for the first time in my 16 years.
The Walls… come crumblin’ down.