By Mike Wise
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
You have to love a coach who, before the biggest game of his life, dead-eyed his team in the locker room and, in Kiefer Sutherland-like seriousness, told the players they belonged to a special, secret organization.
"You are part of the CAA," Jim Larranaga said to his George Mason players on Sunday before the Patriots' NCAA tournament run was certain to be devoured by the beast of the Big East, U-Conn.
As anyone who has a television now knows, Larranaga wasn't talking about George Mason's conference, the Colonial Athletic Association. No, the most genuine goofball coach in America pulled his hands from the front pockets of his wool trousers. He pretended they were six-shooters. "The CAA," Larranaga said again, "The Connecticut Assassin Association!"
Every George Mason player expecting a slay-the-giant Biblical verse began busting up laughing. "I about rolled to the floor," Gabe Norwood said. "Coach is so corny, but it always works. It did its job." Larranaga then began a bad rendition of the "Mission Impossible" theme, intoning, "Your mission, should you decide to accept it . . . "
The kids kept laughing, all the way to Indiana -- the womb of small-school Cinderella basketball lore.
Cornball State 86, U-Conn. 84.
Larranaga, a coaching lifer who makes one-ninth the salary of Florida's Billy Donovan -- his counterpart in Saturday's national semifinal -- will coach a game to determine who will play for the national title.
His homegrown starting five, each of whom was plucked from the Division I recruiting scrapheap, will take every underfunded and overlooked program's dream with them onto the court at RCA Dome. They will play a game a few miles from Butler University, where they filmed the final scene of "Hoosiers," in which Jimmy Chitwood hits the winning shot.
Did we mention sophomore guard Folarin Campbell thinks his back-court mate, Lamar Butler, is the Jimmy Chitwood of the Patriots? "It's gotta be him," Campbell said. "Yep, definitely Lamar."
Some Fairfax fairy tale, no? Once upon a time, there was a man, Larranaga, the Bronx-reared, Italian American coach brought to the suburbs of Virginia to build something out of nothing. Of course, when he got the job nine years ago, he used the same techniques to teach his children as he would his team:
He lied to them. Well, more like he fibbed.
"One of the things I did with my boys was I tried to teach them through stories, parables I made up," Larranaga said. He imparted one to his son Jon about Zorro, something to do with listening to teachers to improve and grow.
"The Zorro character is in California, but he was educated in Spain," Larranaga said. "So while he's in Spain, he's being taught by his uncle. And I'm trying to think of a Spanish name. I had 'Sergeant Garcia, Gonzales.' So I come up with that his uncle is teaching the art of swordplay and knife-throwing and using a whip and riding a horse. His uncle's name is Don Quixote. Yeah, that's it. Of course, the boys believe all these stories."
Later, when Jon is in ninth grade at St. John's Jesuit High School in Toledo, his English teacher brings up the musical, "Man of La Mancha," and says, "Does anybody know who Don Quixote is?"
"Yes, I know," his son said.
"Tell everybody, Jon."
"He taught Zorro everything he knows."
Said Larranaga: "Well, the class just started roaring and going nuts. The teacher said, 'Who told you that?' Jon was like, 'What, it's not true?' "
It's like Larranaga's CAA, stretching the truth with good intentions. Big deal. It worked. Larranaga and his wife, Liz, believed in parenting and raising their two children. They grew up with integrity, humor and heart, too. They're all part of the fable, which, let's be honest, would probably fail in a pitch to a studio executive.
Think about it: There's this schlocky, 56-year-old coach who doesn't swear because his still-active Archbishop Molloy High School coach in Queens doesn't swear. This coach, he recruits the kids nobody wants. His first assistants lived out of the basement of his house.
One of his players is a slab of steak short of 300 pounds, a 6-foot-7, 44-inch waist beefcake of unimaginable girth and power who sometimes who goes by the nickname "Giggles" and averages two dunks -- per season.
Jai Lewis has these character teammates, including a bear of freshman whose favorite movie is "Scarface" and whom every woman on campus wants to meet. "First, you get the money," Sammy Hernandez said. "Then, you get the Final Four. Then, you get the woman."
They have a guard, not a center, nicknamed Shaq. But because Folarin Campbell kept bringing Little Debbie Cakes and Honey Buns onto the team bus last year, they changed it to simply "Snack."
Their boyishly exuberant senior, Butler, who must smile in his sleep, has the courage to admit he used to be called Elmo " 'cuz when I was younger, I had a high-pitched voice and I use to laugh like Elmo. Turtle was another one because my head ended up in a point."
One of most articulate and affable among them has a tattoo on his leg that reads "Ohana," Hawaiian for family. Gabe Norwood's father, Brian, is a Penn State defensive backs coach. His brother Jordan is a Nittany Lions wide receiver. His extended family lives in the Mason locker room, where 35 minutes before tipoff on Sunday afternoon they swayed back and forth in unison to "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It" by Dem Franchize Boyz.
Sports Illustrated puts Butler on the cover, but some of the players refuse to believe the magazine is authentic. They believe Chris Caputo, the assistant who lived in the basement, super-imposed Lamar's head and a Mason jersey on a player and team that actually made SI's cover. After all, that's what Caputo did to recruit them, right?
"No more putting John Vaughn's on Emeka Okafor's body anymore," Caputo said in the basketball office on Monday afternoon. "This is going to save so much paper and work."
The movie would also feature Larranaga driving around Fairfax in his black Chevy Tahoe, loaning it out to some random reporter who forgot his computer bag at McDonald's. There is a half-eaten bag of Lay's potato chips in the middle console competing for space and time with a small rubber basketball dangling from the rearview mirror and an empty carton of Diet Cherry Coke. His cellphone rings.
"Stick!" he said.
It's Ralph Sampson, the three-time national player of the year whom Larranaga coached as an assistant at Virginia. Larranaga apologizes for not attending the closing of University Hall. "I was hoping I could be down there, but we played that night."
"My boys are all grown," he said. "They'll be out there. They'd love to see you. Thanks, Ralph."
At lunch, Larranaga talked about a motivational speech he gave to the business club on campus, asking two coeds to snap a single pencil in half. They complied. Then Larranaga took a rubber band and wrapped it around 14 pencils, representing each player on his team. "Now see if you can break that."
This time the coeds tried but failed. "Of course, I didn't pick the strongest guy in the class," he said, laughing. "But when people pull together, when you're a close-knit group, it's very, very hard to break someone's spirit. I told them we needed them to fill up the Patriot Center, to create something special."
Fireworks boomed into the night on Sunday as the team bus rolled into the arena and 8,000 undergraduates embraced their heroes on campus as the band blared the school's adopted theme song, Bon Jovi's cheesy but infectious, "Livin' on a Prayer."
Two games till the national title. Two games till the greatest sports story of the new millennium is complete, about the cornball coach and his personable and talented players that nobody wanted.
No studio executive in his right mind would buy this Fairfax fairy tale.