This is the time of the year when things get serious. Sure, there will be plenty of competition on the court, but the real battle will be on the media front as all the big guys compete for all the human interest stories that they can find. If your emotions aren’t jerked around like Tiger Woods in a Perkins, then what good is March Madness?
So, rather than read another Mark Coury/Kentucky story today, here are a couple of feel-good stories you can brace yourself for in the coming days:
Gerry McNamara (Syracuse): Carmelo Anthony will always get a hero’s welcome in Syracuse after a miraculous run to the title in 2003. It’s another member of that storied recruiting class, though, that has the hearts of Orange fans everywhere – and he’s back in town. After a career that started with a title and ended with his coach defending him against those who called him overrated, Gerry McNamara’s basketball career continued to be up-and-down after leaving Syracuse as he bounced from Europe to the NBDL to NBA summer league to even being the top pick in the USBL Draft. He was even a passenger on the USAirways flight that crashed in the Hudson River . So, no one could blame him if he wanted a little stability in his life.
So, in the fall of 2009, McNamara decided it was time to return to where everyone knows his name and signed back up with the Cuse and Coach Jim Boeheim – this time as a graduate assistant. And he brought magic with him. How else would you explain what happened in the Carrier Dome this year? This team lost three star players, lost to LeMoyne and then tore through the regular season. Coaching? Player development? Please. It’s that old McNamara Magic.
1-7 FA (Kansas State): Sports are often compared to war (see: Winslow, Kellen), though no one in their right mind would ever classify them as such. But, if you were pressed to pick out a school that best represents a tough military mindset, it would be Kansas State. And, with good reason.
Frank Martin's team formed a partnership with the Field Artillery Battalion of nearby Fort Riley Military Base in 2008 when he took his young team to the base for a team-building day of full-on military training sessions, including firing guns and cruising around in Humvees. A few weeks later, the 1-7 FA returned the favor and sent troops to go through a Frank Martin workout and a bond was formed. When the unit was deployed to Iraq, players sent care packages and started wearing a patch on their jerseys every game honoring the soldiers . They also started forcefully taking over rival Big 12 cities with a tough brand of basketball that was a little Frank Martin and a little Fort Riley.
Bobby Plump (Butler): Though his name might make you assume that he’s using an assistant coach’s tickets to sit front-row at a Kansas game, Bobby Plump is actually possibly the only true Mr. Basketball. He is as pure of an American basketball story that exists and I guarantee you know who he is. Even if you don’t. Plump is a 6’1”, 150-pound 73-year Indianapolis restaurant owner who is probably known to those outside of the Hoosier State by another name. Jimmy Chitwood.
In his younger years, Plump was the sharp-shooting hero of 1954 Indiana high school basketball state tournament champion Milan High School, which inspired the greatest film of all-time and made every nobody think they had a shot to be the hero long before Freddie Prinze Jr. was around. And, after he and Milan beat Oscar Robertson in the playoffs and he a state-championship winning buzzer beater at Hinkle Field House, Plump decided to just play his entire college career there as a Butler Bulldog. After winning team MVP honors in 1957 and 1958, Plump settled into the real world. But, if you’re lucky, you can still catch the Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer at his restaurant, “Plump’s Last Shot”.
Sister Rose Ann Fleming (Xavier): Frequently in sports (and life in general), the only time you look to a cleric, it’s because you’re in a little too deep and you need some spiritual guidance and some prayers to be answered. At Xavier, Sister Rose Ann Fleming makes sure it never reaches that point.
As the Musketeers’ Academic Advising Coordinator, Fleming has avoided losses as deftly as Xavier’s football team, which, as the school proudly boasts in its cafeteria, is undefeated since 1973. Under her watch, every senior basketball player of the last 22 years has earned a college diploma and, in 1998, Xavier had a graduation rate of 100%. She’s already starting to get a little media attention this week, making her an early favorite to be the subject of Sister Act III and put on a basketball clinic slightly more impressive than when Seth Davis practiced with Michigan State. But, rest assured, that's not what it's all about with Sister Rose Ann Fleming. Although, she looks like she can dance. And I know she can beat Seth Davis in basketball.
So, make sure when you saddle up for some college basketball this weekend, you grab the tissues too. It's going to an emotional and likely repetitive ride.