DETROIT -- Please don't call it some rite of passage, an inspiring comeback story. Don't fall into the trap of A.J. Price's mom who told reporters, "He became a man."
That would be dumb and shallow. Price did it all in reverse. Columnists and scriptwriters like it when a college star commits a crime first, then drives the lane for redemption. Connecticut's senior guard screwed everybody -- himself, his coach, his team.
When a promising guard/valued teammate/your son throws it all away with the world watching, you want to do more than shake your head. Maybe shake the clown who threw it all away.
"It's been a great journey with A.J.," coach Jim Calhoun said. "To tell it could take hours."
That's fitting because that's all Price and UConn have before their national semifinal meeting with Michigan State here on Saturday night.
Price is the team's go-to guy in many ways in this Final Four. He's a great quote, the lockerroom philosopher. When Calhoun needs a big shot, a play will be run for him. A.J. Price also represents the best and worst about college basketball. Now in his fifth year, he is a mature player and adult leading his team to the Final Four. But it's when explaining himself that the go-to guard turns you inside out.
"Now, this is my last chance," he said.
The kid knows last chances. You have to give him that much. Four-and-a-half years ago you couldn't give A.J. Price a basketball. He woke up Oct. 4, 2004 and couldn't get out of bed. A few days later doctors discovered a brain hemorrhage. He was in ICU for a while, missed his 18th birthday.
There was surgery. Price had to learn how to walk again. It was seven months before he could play any basketball, but he made it. Then he tossed his life and his career in a garbage can.
Three months after being cleared to play again -- three months -- Price was caught stealing laptops along with a teammate. Suspended for the entire 2005-06 season, Price worked construction -- and thought.
"There was a time when I didn't think I'd have this chance to play basketball again at this level," Price said.
This wasn't redemption, it was idiocy. A teenager who had looked the GFR (Grim Freaking Reaper) in the eyes took his second chance and flushed it.
The worst part might have been the fact that he disgraced his family. Inga, Price's mother, was the one wearing the No. 12 jersey leading cheers last weekend at the West Regional. His dad, Tony, well, that's another story.
"My mother, she was always on my side, always behind me," A.J. said. "My father? A different story, kind of tough love."
Tony Price has been here. That's what hurt the most. In 1979 his Penn team got to the Final Four with one of the most inspirational runs in NCAA tournament history. Back then it was a 40-team tournament. The big dogs came up right away. After beating Iona, the Quakers stunned North Carolina, Syracuse and St. John's.
You probably don't remember much about Penn because 1979 was the same year Magic and Bird played for the national championship. Michigan State ripped the Quakers 101-67 in the semifinals. For 30 years Tony Price has worn the watch that he got for participating that year.
Over the years, the father would have given anything to trade that watch for a ring. Then his son did all he could to throw his chance in the dumpster.
"He wouldn't speak to me much, wouldn't talk to me, sent me off to work," A.J. said. "That was the biggest thing ... I almost had to prove myself to get back in his good graces. He told me things like, he loved me, I was my son, but he didn't like me as a person."
|'There was a time when I didn't think I'd have this chance to play basketball at this level,' Price said. (AP)|
"Until I got myself right," A.J. said cryptically. "Until I righted the ship."
Calhoun was just as unforgiving. West of Stoors, they may not understand his sometimes-brusque manner, that trigger temper, but the man is fair. He didn't sit around and console Price, he suspended him.
The same goes for Stanley Robinson. The Huskies forward wasn't "focused" as Calhoun put it. Late for practice or class. Robinson said he was academically ineligible. The coach set the conditions. Sit out a semester and get yourself right. So Robinson worked at a sheet metal factory for a semester and earned his way back on the team in December.
There are still conditions, academic or not. Stanley Robinson might be one of the more talented walk-ons in Final Four history.
By now you know that Price got back on the team and became a star before Robinson hit his own skids. Sitting out the 2005-06 season seemingly set straight the Amityville, N.Y. native. In his career the numbers have reflected his life -- always trending upward. He has averaged 9.4, 14.5, 14.7 points in successive seasons.
The last few weeks, though, have shown his real worth. Before Jerome Dyson went down on Feb. 11, Price was averaging 12.2 points and 4.2 assists. Since then Price has led the team averaging 19.3 points and 5.4 assists.
You're seeing it in the numbers and in Price's face. This is my last chance. Before last month, UConn hadn't won a postseason game in two years. Price's entire NCAA experience consists of five games -- this season's four wins and ... well, when Price went down with a torn ACL in his left knee in a first-round game against San Diego in 2008 the Huskies were shot.
Venerable UConn assistant George Blaney talked in a respectful tone about Price, who drew a media horde on Friday.
"He didn't talk about (the crime)," Blaney said. "It was the way he carried himself. I think that the time for saying something was past. He needed to show and he showed. He's become an amazing leader.
"You can count on him to talk, you can count on him to react, you can count on him to make plays."
In case you haven't noticed this Final Four should be decided by the guards. That should be no surprise. Backcourts have dominated the game for years. The best big guys are in the pros out of high school or before they can make an impact in college.
Price's counterparts in Detroit include Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and North Carolina's Ty Lawson. A wise man could make a few dollars betting on one of the four to become the Final Four most outstanding player.
It's an attitude. Missouri guard Zaire Taylor prides himself on being from Staten Island, N.Y., not exactly a hoops Mecca when it comes to comparisons with the other boroughs.
When notified that UConn's West Regional final star Kemba Walker was from the Bronx, Taylor's shoulders almost slumped. He shook his bowed head.
"I knew him and Price had to be somewhere from New York, just things they were saying on the court," Taylor said.
It was the fact that Walker and Price were able to outplay the Missouri backcourt that got the Huskies here. Price ended up as the regional most outstanding player. Soooo, what kind of trash was being talked, Taylor was asked?
"It's just inside stuff, I knew he was from New York," he said.
It's an attitude. With his team's lead slipping at the end of the first half against Missouri, Calhoun called for a clear-out for his senior guard. Taylor clapped his hands and smiled in anticipation as he guarded Price.
Price stood out beyond the key and waited for the clock to run down to about eight seconds. A couple of crossovers, a drive and Price somehow found his way to the rim for a driving layup as the clock was running out.
It was a significant basket in a game that was UConn's by six points at halftime and by seven in the end.
"Huge," Blaney called it. "He's not afraid of the moment. He has an arrogant confidence. You use the word arrogant and it sounds bad but it's a positive with a basketball player."
Tony Price wouldn't call it arrogance. Not after what he and A.J. have been through. Tony might call it a respect he has for his son again as a person. After regaining his spot on the team, A.J. went on to get a 3.5 GPA for a time. If it comes down to a last shot against Michigan State on Saturday night, the ball will likely be in his hands. Thirty years ago after the father lost to the Spartans in the national semifinals, maybe the son can beat them.
That freeze out? It's over. It really lasted a matter of months. It just seemed like a lifetime.