USC Coach Andy Enfield talks to his team during the Trojans' first… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Waiting for Dunk City …
It's another slow night at the half-filled Galen Center, no lines at the gleaming concession stands, desolation on the wide concourses, the referee's whistle audible even in the men's restroom.
The hearty few USC fans occasionally cheer, sing and even dance to the sort of energetic music and announcing that reminds one of a hot summer night in a desolate minor league ballpark.
But, mostly, they just wait.
They are waiting for fireworks promised with the arrival of new Coach Andy Enfield, who was hired last spring after winning two NCAA tournament games with unknown Florida Gulf Coast University. They are waiting for his Trojans to emulate the breakneck, slamming style of play that briefly made Enfield a national cult hero and gave his FGCU team the nickname Dunk City.
They are waiting for, you know, dunks.
Before this evening's game against California, the Trojans were 9-9 overall but winless in five Pac-12 games, with each of those losses coming by at least 18 points. They had occasionally looked promising, but mostly looked terrible, and Enfield had seemed quietly pensive.
The Trojans fans haven't really booed, because they know Enfield was hired too late to recruit his style of players. But the fans haven't completely bought in yet, either, as they surely wonder whether Enfield's two seasons in small and remote Fort Myers, Fla. — his only college head coaching experience — could have prepared him for this.
Politely and supportively, they wait.
They are entertained by the unique public address stylings of Petros Papadakis, the radio-TV personality who has been the best thing about USC basketball for the last 10 years. He screams, he laughs, he speaks in the warm informal tones of someone holding the microphone at a family reunion. He even narrates the Kiss Cam, urging couples to smooch and commenting on the personal lives of those who grant his wish — "Aw, the love is still there!"
"I try to hit a celebratory yet slightly irreverent tone,'' says Papadakis. "We can do that here."
They can do that because the fans deserve to have fun while they wait, and heaven knows they've waited forever, the Trojans having never won a national championship and not even reached the Final Four in 60 years. It's one of the great paradoxes of all of college athletics that a major university basketball program located in the middle of an area populated by the best high school basketball players in the country is virtually invisible.
Enfield, 44, was supposed to change all that. So far he's made news only off the court. This season he caused a stir with derogatory comments about former Trojans coach Tim Floyd that nearly started a coaching staff brawl in the Bahamas. He has also ripped UCLA's formerly slow pace of play. In both instances, he wasn't speaking directly to reporters, yet reporters were present. Dunk City, welcome to Big City.
"I think he now understands USC better, understands the press better," says Athletic Director Pat Haden.
It is halftime, with the Trojans stunningly leading the conference-unbeaten Golden Bears, 41-32. Speaking in an empty back hallway, Haden is firmly standing behind a hire that some thought was more trendy than thoughtful.
"Andy has a certain style of play … we have some great recruits coming in … there's no reason we can't be a very good basketball program given some time," Haden says. "And we're going to give Andy plenty of time."
That time is clearly not now, so the Trojans fans wait.
They wait while watching a frightening new mascot, a giant white horse walking on two legs wearing a wrinkled USC basketball uniform. They wait while listening to a disc jockey who not only takes requests but turns down the music so everyone can sing. They wait among students wearing yellow "Welcome to the EnZone shirts" in honor of the new coach. They wait along with the coach's famous wife, supermodel Amanda Marcum, who sits two rows behind her husband.
It seems as if Enfield is waiting too. Even though his team is slowly pulling away from Cal during what will eventually be its biggest win of the season, he watches quietly from the bench or strolls deliberately along the sideline. Watching Enfield coach this team is like watching a teacher quietly gesturing to someone else's students with an abbreviated lesson plan.
After the Trojans' 77-69 upset of the Bears, he acknowledges that while he loves this team, the journey to Dunk City won't really speed up until after he brings in as many as seven new players next season.
"There is our guys, I love these guys, this is all I care about right now," he says. "But we've tweaked our system to fit our personnel. There are some things we might like to do … we can't do."
Enfield knows some people think this is too big for him. He doesn't want to defend himself with his several years as an NBA shooting coach and assistant coach, and his five years as a Florida State assistant. He knows if he wins and entertains as promised, the questions — and the waiting — will end.
"Winning comes first, but my teams are going to win in a certain way, and you saw some of that tonight," he says.
Indeed, with 2:05 remaining Wednesday, freshman Nikola Jovanovic throws down the Trojans' first impressive slam of the game, hanging on the rim and twisting to the ground, giving USC a clinching nine-point lead.
The crowd roars instantly but settles quickly.
It is one dunk. It is not Dunk City. The wait continues.