Someplace else, somewhere up the road, the big tournament was in full gear, sold out, bands blasting, CBS cameras zooming in. Here, inside Crisler Arena, the air was full of unfulfilled wishes, and the building was less an arena than a gym, tickets sold on a walk-up basis, nearly open seating, the place, at best, half-full.
There was noise — but not the noise you hear on wild Big Ten nights, not the noise you hear in the Big Dance. This was a looser rumble, a raucous, devil-may-care applause, like open mike night at a comedy club after a few drinks.
In this unusual atmosphere, the Michigan basketball team sought to lose itself for a few hours Thursday night, to put on shorts and lace up sneakers and get back to sweating and away from the other swirling problems, the charges of a booster passing money to players, the photos of players’ expensive cars in the newspaper, the specter of an NCAA investigation.
In the shadow of all that, the hardwood floor became a sanctuary, and it really didn’t matter whom Michigan was playing, or for that matter, whether it was the NIT or the ABC.
“It was just fun to run,” center Robert Traylor would later say.
And run they did. Oh, for a while, they seemed to run in place, a truck spinning its wheels in a ditch. Their opponents, the Miami Hurricanes, were outrebounding them and out-hustling them. As Steve Fisher, their coach, would put it, “We looked like we were playing because we had to.”
But as the sweat began to drip, the enthusiasm began to return. And soon Louis Bullock was drilling long jumpers and Maurice Taylor was hitting his first three-pointer of the season and Maceo Baston took a pass from Taylor with just over four minutes left and slammed the ball through the rim so hard, one-handed, that his body seemed to break into two sharp angles, like a hanger that just snapped.
“Have you ever practiced a dunk like that?” he was asked after the 76-63 first-round victory over Miami (Fla.).
“No,” Baston said, “I just did what came naturally.”
A win is a win
Wasn’t that the theme of the night? Do what comes naturally? Play basketball? It was strange enough to see Michigan in the also-ran tournament at this time of year. It was even stranger to see it labor under the shadow of some very serious allegations. Although Michigan has since distanced itself from the supposed candy man — the mysterious Ed Martin — the program is still on the line because Martin once was considered under the umbrella, a booster, and, under the rules, he could drag down everything.
“Were you distracted by all that?” someone asked Fisher.
I needn’t print his answer. Of course, he was. Who wouldn’t be? Fisher, and the whole Michigan athletic department, now have to wonder whether his players told him and NCAA investigators the whole truth. They have to wonder whether Martin, who, according to recent charges, regularly passed money and improper favors to players, will ever come forth and talk to the authorities. As long as he doesn’t, it is possible that this whole thing will remain a smoldering crater, a big smoking hole with no closure.
Meanwhile, had Fisher been listening to the radio Thursday afternoon, he might have been sickened to hear his former assistant, Perry Watson, now the head coach at Detroit Mercy, telling the world that he barely had an association with Martin, trying to wash himself clean of any suggestion of guilt. Barely knew him. Told him to stay away. Ha! What Watson said included some minor exaggerations and some flat-out lies. He pretended Martin was no more than a casual acquaintance when Perry was coaching at Southwestern High. He said, “I saw a red light when Eddie started coming around my players.”
What garbage. Without going into details here — some other time, I promise — let’s just say Watson claiming he had no relationship with Ed Martin is like Sonny saying he didn’t know Cher.
But old friends swimming away is the least of Fisher’s worries. He has to juggle investigations, media and, oh yes, a basketball team that is playing in a tournament it never intended to grace. So never mind that Thursday night was not a thing of beauty — more of a run and gun and strip and dunk — it was still a victory.
“Someone once told me the fun is in winning,” Fisher said, after the victory that ensures at least one more game in U-M’s quixotic season. “And he was right. I liked our spirit tonight. But you usually have more fun when you win.”
A brief shining moment
So now Michigan goes back to practicing, trying to stay normal in a very un-normal environment. In the locker room, players were asked how the spotlight of the latest news was affecting them. Answers ranged from “We’re just trying to play basketball” to Traylor’s “I ain’t got no comment on that.”
Someone asked Travis Conlan whether he could bring himself to watch the NCAA tournament games earlier in the day.
“I did watch,” he said. “I watched Purdue win. That’s good for them. I was happy. Like I’ve said, we’re rooting for the Big Ten teams to do well.
“We’re not angry with anyone but ourselves.”
For a few moments Thursday, they managed to lose even that anger. After Baston’s rim-rattling slam, Taylor grabbed him and hugged him and they both smiled. Then Taylor lifted Baston into the air, squeezing him, as the crowd, which barely filled the lower-half of the arena, stood and applauded.
It was not where they wanted be, but, briefly, it was how they wanted to be. Winning a basketball game in March. A hug. A smile. A hoist against the troubles behind them and the ones that may still be ahead.
Never mind the rainbow. For a moment, it was nice to be out of the clouds.