By John Feinstein
Sunday, March 1, 2009
One minute, Jimmy Patsos's Loyola basketball team -- or, as he constantly refers to it, his "young team" -- was working down the clock for a final shot in a 75-75 game against Rider on Thursday night at Reitz Arena in Baltimore. Then, in an instant, the game was over and all hell was breaking loose.
With less than five seconds left, Loyola point guard Brian Rudolph, who had been superb getting to the basket all night, drove the lane and -- double-teamed -- forced up a shot that never had a chance. A scramble ensued, and Rider's Justin Robinson grabbed the ball and flipped it to midcourt, where Ryan Thompson picked it up in full stride with the clock ticking down.
Thompson steamed toward the hoop, leapt in the air and flipped the ball off the rim and through the basket, the buzzer sounding either just before or just after he released the ball. Both benches went crazy -- Rider celebrating, Loyola screaming that the basket shouldn't count. The referees consulted. The basket was good. Because the game wasn't televised, there was no replay to uphold or overturn their decision.
Patsos ran to protest while the Rider players turned to the Loyola student section, taunting them with the latest obnoxious celebration tactic: the uniform pop, holding their jerseys up to say "look at us." As the handshake line formed, there were angry words. Someone threw a punch. Suddenly, players were all over the court pushing and pulling at one another as the coaches from both teams and a couple of overmatched security guards pulled them apart.
A full-scale riot was avoided. The Rider players left the court while the frustrated Loyola players waited, because there is only one staircase leading to the locker rooms.
"Right there," Patsos said, still pouring sweat, voice hoarse from shouting all night, "is our season in microcosm."
Young team. Young coach. A learning experience, no doubt, for all.
* * *
It has been five years now since Patsos left Maryland after 13 turbulent seasons working there under Gary Williams. He was a part of two Final Four trips and a national championship and was probably "fired" 569 times -- give or take -- for misdeeds committed on the court by the Terrapins.
Patsos was 37 when he arrived at Loyola, taking over a program that had won one game the previous season and 16 over the previous four seasons. He threw himself into the job with manic passion, following very much in the footsteps of his mentor at Maryland.
"Maybe I've tried to do too much at times," he said Thursday evening. "I love what I do; I love interacting with the students, talking to alumni, promoting, helping sell tickets, all of it. Gary was probably better at compartmentalizing than I am. He would sit down and say, 'Today we need to do this.' I tend to try to do 12 things at once."
His work ethic produced steady improvement: six wins followed by 15, 18 and 19. A year ago, with a veteran team, the Greyhounds went 12-6 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and had a 17-point lead on top-seeded Siena in the MAAC tournament semifinals before losing, 65-63.
"I guess I think about it every day," he said. "We had chances to win the game and who knows what happens if we do."
While his young team was struggling this season, Patsos was receiving national attention -- but not the kind he wanted. During a game against Cornell on Nov. 18, he left the bench at one point to sit in the stands with Loyola Athletic Director Joe Boylan, telling people afterward he had been reciting the Serenity Prayer to calm himself down because he was upset with the officials. Patsos said he later received an apology from Big East officiating supervisor Art Hyland, who had assigned the officials for the game, because of the calls that angered him.
Like Williams, Patsos can obsess about officials. Like Williams, his conversations with them can be riotously funny.
On Thursday, he told referee Jeff Janosik that he had missed a call at the far end of the court.
"It's okay though, Jeff, because we all make mistakes," he said. "I make plenty of them. You missed that one; I forgive you for it. But I think you'd feel a lot better if you just admitted it."
Janosik opted not to cleanse his soul.
Later, after the students had chanted in protest of a call made by Earl Walton, Patsos waved him over to the bench and said: "They're all smart kids. They get good grades. You should listen to them."
A week after the Cornell game, following a discussion with Williams, Patsos opted to double-team Davidson's Stephen Curry on every possession. Curry took three shots in the game and didn't score -- and Davidson won by 30. After the game, as Patsos was leaving his news conference, someone asked what he would remember about the game.
"Mostly I'll remember that we lost," he said. "The kid outsmarted me, give him credit. But I was a history major, and I guess history will always show that he didn't score tonight."
The back half of the quote was what made national news. Patsos understands.
"I'm not going to be Bill Belichick when I talk to the press," he said, laughing. "I'm going to tell people what I think."
The Patsos of 2009 looks a lot different than Patsos who arrived on campus in 2004. His hair has gone gray but he looks much fitter, having dropped from 260 pounds to 215 pounds after giving up beer last summer.
"I just decided I needed to lose weight," he said. "I was never a big drinker, but when I had a couple beers, I didn't ask how much the next hot dog cost; I asked how much the entire hot dog stand cost."
His young team, which is 11-19 entering today's regular season finale at Iona, really is young. Guard Marquis Sullivan is the only senior who plays serious minutes, and with 6-foot-10 Maryland transfer Shane Walker eligible next year and Georgetown Prep's Robert Olson -- "the steal of the D.C.-Baltimore area," Patsos said -- joining the team, Loyola should be a serious MAAC contender next season.
"If this season leads to two really good years then it was all worth it," Patsos said. "I think it can."
One thing Patsos will never be is your standard-issue coach. Before the Rider game, he asked his players if they remembered who the only African American member of the Supreme Court is (they did); quoted from the movie "Milk" (which he took them to see as a team while in San Francisco in December); mentioned that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is a Republican in a Democratic administration; and finished by quoting from the movie "Heaven Can Wait," to remind the players that a win, "here tonight, in this moment, is something that can never be taken away from you -- ever."
If giving heart and soul can get you where you want to be in life, Patsos will get there. And he will bring his young team right along with him.