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Mike Downey

A Rough Weekend for Legends

March 22, 1987|Mike Downey

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Dean Smith is another of those grown men who makes a living teaching grown-up boys how to bounce a ball, and because of this gets treated like a living legend.

When a 21,444-seat arena was built in North Carolina for $38 million, it was named for Smith and decorated with a large black bust of his likeness, as if he were Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln and not some guy who spends his weekends worrying about how to score more points in a basketball game than Wake Forest does.

The university where Dean Smith works proudly informs its public that of the former lettermen who played for the coach, 14 are now attorneys, 11 are now doctors, 23 are coaches or teachers, four are officers in the armed forces, 16 play professional basketball and 76 are businessmen. One is a pastor, the list says. One, unspecified, is an "other."

Under Dean Smith's guidance developed such play-for-pay National Basketball Assn. sensations, past and present, as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Walter Davis, Sam Perkins, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jones, Mitch Kupchak, Mike O'Koren, Al Wood, Brad Daugherty, Charlie Scott and Phil Ford.

Players such as these sure can turn a coach into a legend.

But he is just a man, when you get right down to it, worthy of admiration, perhaps, but not particularly deserving of blind devotion and awe.

For a while there, it looked as though a whole bunch of legends were going to get together at next week's NCAA basketball tournament Final Four at New Orleans. Dean Smith, John Thompson, Bobby Knight and Jerry Tarkanian appeared likely to be on the premises at the same time.

Thompson is the giant gentleman from Georgetown who brought his players to New Orleans for a Final Four just a few years ago, by way of Biloxi, Miss., where he established a fortress and repelled all invaders.

Knight is the graying panther from Indiana who hasn't been to the Final Four with a team since the Monday in 1981 when Isiah Thomas led the Hoosiers to the national championship a few hours after a pathetic creep named John Hinckley put a bullet in President Reagan.

Tarkanian is the rumpled gambler from Las Vegas who listens to a different drummer than other coaches hear, recruiting outcast athletes and inviting them to shoot the basketball pretty much whenever they feel like it.

Different men, different methods.

It could have made for an interesting Final Four, all right. Coaching chess with flesh-and-blood pieces. Indiana's disciplined passing offense in the same building with UNLV's two-passes-is-too-many thundering herd. Georgetown's reed-thin, real cool Reggie Williams swapping baskets with Carolina's rugged J.R. Reid, a wide-bodied jet with a thatch of flat-topped black hair on his head that looks exactly like a $9.95 toupee.

Alas, forget it.

North Carolina is not going to be there, and neither is Georgetown. Instead, Syracuse and Providence have qualified for the Final Four, and will bring with them a couple of coaches whose identities are as well-kept a secret as those arranged by the FBI's Witness Protection program.

Anybody who says he thought all along that Syracuse and Providence were good enough to reach the Final Four is a liar on the order of that guy on TV who sells Japanese cars, Joe Isuzu.

Syracuse lost the last game of the season to Georgetown by 10 points, giving the team an 0-3 record versus Thompson's team for the season.

And Providence already has lost twice this season to Syracuse.

The neat thing about the national basketball tournament is that although certain men might be considered legends, it doesn't mean their teams will be permitted to win important games with the wave of a magic wand.

Providence's triumph over Georgetown Saturday was a thing of beauty, simply because the Friars, full of picks and vinegar, came to the game and gave it everything they had. Effort is very much appreciated these days, and upsets are always welcome.

The conquest of North Carolina was equally delightful, not because the Tar Heels are ever anything but classy, but because it is nice to see hard work rewarded.

Besides, it's good to see some fresh blood in the Final Four. It gets boring to see the same old teams, same old schools, same old coaches.

When Dale Brown, the man who came to coach Louisiana State after leaving his native Pluto, brought his LSU team to the Final Four a year ago, he was fun to be around for a couple of days, because Dale is wild and crazy and unpredictable and totally full of beans. It was nice to see him.

But a little of Dale lasts a long time. We got Dale last year; don't need Dale this year. Yeah, Indiana.

Dean Smith? Well, it wouldn't have been so bad to see the man who got an arena named after him returning to another Final Four. This one was Dean's 15th season with 25 wins or more, and no active coach has nearly as many.

It was a bad weekend for legends in New Jersey, though. A few miles from the Meadowlands, where Smith's team was beaten Saturday by Syracuse, police picked up some, uh, raincoat-openers Friday night at a nearby turnpike rest stop. It was, to be specific, the Vince Lombardi Service Area.

Maybe it's better to wait until legends are no longer living to name things after them.

Although it's hard to imagine the Indiana basketball team ever playing in something called the Knight Dome.

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