Jim Calhoun stepped off the Verizon Center court after practice Wednesday, graciously signed a few autographs for fans who watched his Connecticut Huskies practice and then began shuffling down the same arena corridor he shuffled down five Marches ago in an NCAA region final, the day the noise and the sound and the score — especially the score — kept reverberating:
George “Mid-Major” Mason and A Couple of Guys That Later Played Overseas, 86.
No. 1 U-Conn. and future NBA all-star Rudy Gay, 84.
“What do I remember from that game?” Calhoun says, two days before he coaches his first tournament game at Verizon since Mason’s monumental 2006 upset. “My biggest question was, ‘How’d it happen?’ That’s really it. How’d it happen?”
Five years later, one man’s scene of the crime is another’s indelible moment in time.
“How often do I think of that game?” Jim Larranaga asks rhetorically. “Every day.”
He gathered his current players in a circle Tuesday afternoon on the Fairfax campus, about 20 miles from where his kids shocked U-Conn.
Addressing the best collection of George Mason Patriots he’s had since Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis, Will Thomas, Folarin Campbell and Tony Skinn became the lowest-seeded team to advance to a Final Four, America’s cornball coach asked one of his players to repeat the thought of the day printed out on 8x11 pieces of white paper:
“Before you can become a great team, you must first become great teammates.”
“Hands in. Let’s go!”
Thankfully, Larranaga remains a cutting protest to the litany of paranoid coaches fearful of celebrating past success because they superstitiously believe a dangerous road toward complacency lies ahead.
“I thought about playing it down and putting it behind, but my wife said to me one day: ‘What if one of your friends like Dave Odom or Bob McKillop or Seth Greenberg made it to the Final Four? How would you feel?’ I said I’d be ecstatic. I’d feel so great for them. Then she looked at me and said: ‘Well, you know what? You need to feel that way about yourself and what you did.’ She’s right.”
For Calhoun, the game remains a personal window into what can happen when an underdog team is made to feel very good about itself by the very team that was supposed to win handily.
“We couldn’t defend their inside game,” he says, standing near the visitor’s locker room at Verizon. “I still can’t figure out how their big guys were able to do that to our big guys.”
Connecticut’s 2006 front line didn’t just intimidate other teams. Mike Gminski was CBS’s sideline reporter that day, and the 7-foot former Duke star and NBA center couldn’t fathom George Mason competing, let alone winning.
“That was the most physically imposing team I ever saw up close — all NBA-sized,” Gminski said. “They were just massive and they even looked mean. I thought it was going to be a public execution.”
If you’re 14th-seeded Bucknell today and the unguardable Kemba Walker awaits you Friday in the first round — if you’re UC Santa Barbara or Long Island University today and you’re looking for belief that Florida or North Carolina can go down — you have proof of the impossible.
Heck, if you’re U-Conn. today, you have the greatest cautionary tale imaginable, related by the man who lived the nightmare on F Street.
“I was hoping George Mason would win that game,” admitted Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, the Huskies’ sophomore forward on this year’s team who was rooting for the underdog in 2006. “That’s just a great example, all that talent on that U-Conn team, losing to a lesser talented team. So that’s why we’ve got to bring it from the tipoff.”
Larranaga and his 2011 crew are not playing the role of Philistine this year. Well, yet.
As the first Colonial Athletic Association team to earn a higher seed than their first-round opponent since David Robinson’s Navy squad, the No. 8 Patriots wear their home white against ninth-seeded Villanova Friday afternoon in Cleveland.
If they triumph, it’s almost certainly back to playing giant-killer on Sunday against the top seed in the tournament, Ohio State.
And all those schmaltzy, slipper-fits adjectives will begin anew, tumbling exponentially from the mouths of announcers. And we will write about how the Little Team That Could had placards on the court all season that Larranaga labeled “The Ten Commitments,” including No. 7, “We Will Share The Ball.”
And their fans will buy up all the T-shirts from the campus bookstore that read, “We ARE this year’s GEORGE MASON,” like Robert Handerahan, the team’s strength and conditioning coach now and then, was wearing during practice Tuesday.
And, depending on your perspective, either the misery or the majesty will return from that wild, surreal day five Marches ago — the day George Mason slung the stone for every small school.
“Hey, let’s face it, it was an amazing game,” Calhoun says now. “But someone had to be on the other end of it. And that’s the way it is. There are many times people have said, ‘I can’t believe U-Conn. won that game.’ Or, ‘How did Christian Laettner beat them with that shot?’ But you’re still part of history, either way.”
Asked whether he and Calhoun ever talk about the game, Larranaga said: “It’s kind of died off since that first year. I see him on the recruiting trail and we talk, but not really about that anymore.”
“But I got one story,” he adds.
“We were at Michael Jordan’s Fantasy Camp that summer in Las Vegas and we were all addressing the campers and everyone there. Tom Izzo gets up first, says: ‘Michigan State had a great season, we went to the tournament and we were beaten by George Mason and that man there. Congratulations, Jim.’ And then Roy Williams gets up. ‘North Carolina had a great season, we went to the tournament and were beaten by George Mason. Congratulations, Jim.
“Then Jim Calhoun gets up.
“He looks out in the audience and says: ‘I don’t know why in the world you guys are congratulating Jim Larranaga. He ruined my life. He cost me thousands of dollars. He is the reason I get hate mail all the time.’ Everyone started laughing.”
You really think about it every day?
“Every day,” Coach L said.