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It Might Turn Out to Be a Short Ride, but They're Sure Not on Cruise Control

March 22, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

PHILADELPHIA — Booked my ticket four days ago.

Booked it for Friday morning.

By 10 tonight, USC will be cheese steak.

By midnight, UCLA will be cracked.

A couple of hours later, I'll be flying home.

"What kind of fare do you want?" my travel agent asked.

"Nonrefundable," I said.


You know it. I know it. Everyone living between the netless rims of Carson and the sport courts of Calabasas knows it.

We have no chance.

Tonight, in arguably the biggest college basketball happening in the history of our city, we're throwing up an airball.

In the first East Regional semifinal, USC against Kentucky looks like a plastic spoon against an antique tablecloth.

In the second semifinal, UCLA matches up with Duke like a muscle shirt with a blazer.

They're combined 17-point underdogs.

Nobody is chanting, "Beat L.A."

The silence is strange, the disrespect unsettling.

Two domineering stepsisters suddenly transformed into you-know-whos.

Southern UCLA State and USConzaga.

Ugh. Liked them better the other way.

Went to Wednesday's final practice looking for midnight.


USC and UCLA work out first, followed by Kentucky and Duke.

The junior varsity followed by the varsity.

USC takes the First Union Center court at noon in front of a couple of dozen fans and several reporters.

Somebody asks about the number of combined national championships in this regional semifinal. Somebody answers 20.

"Does that include USC?" the first guy asks, and everybody laughs.

Then something happens on the court that makes everybody stare.

Brian Scalabrine, during a routine post drill, smashes into assistant coach Damon Archibald, fights him for position, nearly knocks him down.

Scalabrine does not smile. You then realize, none of the Trojans is smiling.

They barrel and sprint and shoot through practice as if it weren't practice at all, as if they want Kentucky in a Philadelphia minute.

"I'm happy to come here and have people not think too much of us," Coach Henry Bibby says. "Here, we're like the little spoke in the wheel that's broke. I like that."

UCLA takes the floor next. The Bruin locker room is only 57 steps down a hallway from the Trojan locker room, yet because there are a few minutes between practices, the teams don't pass each other.

Eventually, though, Trojan trainer Tom Mallete wanders out to visit with Bruin trainer Mark Schoen.

Together they are chatting about what everybody back home is chatting about--wouldn't a UCLA-USC regional final be something?--when Earl Watson approaches for water.

Mallete moves a cup in front of him.

Watson refuses it.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't know what was in there," Watson says later. "I'm not taking anything from a Trojan."

No sooner than Watson applies his game face, so does Steve Lavin.

The coach suddenly stops practice to make the team run 17 times across the width of the court. The crime? Making too many turnovers during a drill.

Longtime observers cannot remember a team that was so openly punished during a public NCAA tournament workout.

"That's what happens when we're bouncing balls off our heads and stuff," Billy Knight says with a smile.

Can't vouch for the condition of the Bruin jump shots or defense tonight against the nation's top-ranked team. But guaranteed, their palms will be dry.

"It's great being underdogs, because all of the pressure is on Duke," Knight says. "They're the ones who have to be uptight. Not us."

Kentucky takes the floor next, with so many players and coaches, it's amazing they can find room to dribble.

Cameramen fill the baseline. Reporters are filling the press table.

Fans cheer layups. Autograph seekers line the rails.

In the middle of a neighborhood game of H-O-R-S-E, it seems, a Final Four has broken out.

"[The Trojans] play six or seven guys who are pretty athletic," announces Keith Bogans, Kentucky guard. "And we play 12."

Finally, up steps Duke, mighty Duke, with even more fans, and louder cheers, and numerous clapping assistant coaches, and glaring players.

Now, it seems, an NBA game has broken out.

"We know UCLA is a talented team," Shane Battier sermonizes. "And a very loose team."

The session ends and you realize, they have no idea.

Can Kentucky, or any of us, understand the passion that has brought USC to the verge of its greatest basketball triumph?

Can Duke, or any of us, understand the relief with which UCLA has taken the court every day since the program nearly imploded?

The Trojans might have only seven athletic guys, but Bibby pushes them into appearing to be twice that many.

The Bruins might be loose, all right. Loose like that doorknob that breaks off into your wrist and slices into your skin.

Really, can any of us say that neither hometown team has a chance?

Late Wednesday afternoon, I make one more attempt at discovery.

A colleague and I drive through the freezing rain to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Yeah, the place where Rocky Balboa ran up all those steps.

If there is any place in the world where one can seek understanding about underdogs, this surely is it.

We button up our coats, trudge through the blowing storm to the base of the steps, and begin to jog up.

My pace quickens. My throat thickens. I begin to pump my arms and sing the "Rocky" theme song.

I arrive at the top, raise my fists, peer down at an aging, mist-draped city designed with courage and built on faith.

And it finally hits me.

This is really, really stupid.

As I splash back to my car, a cold, soaking rube, I decide on the novel approach of just waiting for the games.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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