Shortly after 5 o'clock Friday, Nick D'Antoni looked around Richmond Coliseum and felt a slight chill go through him. The building was almost empty and wouldn't come close to filling up before evening's end, but the bottom four teams in the Colonial Athletic Association were going to take part in college basketball's most dreaded event: play-in games. This is the unseen corner of March Madness, the games among teams whose seasons are likely to be over before the big-time leagues even begin their tournaments. In the case of the CAA, two teams would be going home before most of their own conference teams even began play.
Nick D'Antoni knows all about play-in night. In three years at William & Mary, he had played in three play-in games. Each time, his team went home on Friday night.
"I'd never seen a Saturday," he said. "Last night, I was lying in bed thinking, 'This could be the last night I go to sleep as a basketball player.' To be honest with you, the thought terrified me. When I looked up in the stands during warmups, I realized this could be the last game I ever play in that matters. Basketball has been the most important thing in my life for as long as I can remember. The notion that this might be the last time I ever play with people watching me was a scary thought."
He didn't play scared. With fewer than 1,000 people in the stands, D'Antoni, a slender 6-foot point guard with a silky jump shot, opened the game by swishing a three-pointer. By game's end he had scored 26 points, and the Tribe was celebrating a 68-54 victory over James Madison. Yes, celebrating.
"If you were to ask me the highlight of my college career, right now I would say this is it," D'Antoni said, a wide smile locked in place 30 minutes after the game ended. "I know I'm not going to be playing basketball anymore when this is over and that's going to be really hard for me. But at least I'll have this memory. That will make giving it up a little bit easier."
D'Antoni and fellow senior Reid Markham are the kind of basketball stories that fall through the cracks because they are lacking in wins and glamour. D'Antoni grew up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he played high school ball for his dad, Dan D'Antoni, who once played at Marshall. His uncle, Mike D'Antoni, played in the NBA and now coaches the Phoenix Suns. Markham's father, Reid Sr., played his college ball at Louisville.
Both came to William & Mary hoping to be part of a turnaround in a program that has had two winning seasons in the last 20 years, last played in the postseason in 1983 and has never been in the NCAA tournament. D'Antoni was a star as a freshman, scoring 30 points in his fifth college game, starting all season and making the CAA all-rookie team. The next year, his playing time dwindled almost to zero because then-coach Rick Boyages thought he had recruited a better point guard. Markham played little as a freshman, more as a sophomore, missed almost his entire junior year with mononucleosis -- taking a medical redshirt -- then broke an arm last year.
"They gave me a scholarship and I thought I owed it to the school to play as hard as I could for as long as I could," Markham said. "I'm just happy I've got at least one more chance to do that. I told Mike last night, 'We can't go out of here without a win in the tournament.' There was pressure tonight. From here on in [Saturday the Tribe will play top-seeded Old Dominion] it's all just fun."
D'Antoni gave some thought to transferring after scoring 10 more points in his entire sophomore season than he had scored in the fifth game of his college career against The Citadel. He stayed when Boyages left and Tony Shaver replaced him. Now, with his college career perhaps hours away from ending, he admits he has thought a lot about both the past and the future.
"There are times when I wish I'd been more aggressive as a scorer," he said. "But most of the time that hasn't been the role I've been asked to play. I can honestly say, though, that most of what I'll remember about playing basketball won't be about the games. It will be about hanging around with my teammates, sharing the good times and the bad."
He shook his head. "I guess I'd have to say about my career, 'Regrets, I've had a few,' but I've still loved it. All my life, the thing that has fulfilled me has been basketball. Now, I'm going to have to find something else that will do that for me. I don't expect that to be easy. In fact, I expect it to take awhile."
Markham, his roommate on the road, agreed. "We were talking about that last night," he said. "There will be a void because competition becomes so much a part of your life. We'll have to find something else to fill that void."
Markham is a psychology major but wants to get into investment banking or real estate development. D'Antoni's degree will be in accounting and he's been accepted into a master's program in tax accounting at South Carolina. "Right now, that's the plan," he said. "But then I wonder if maybe I want to coach."