SEATTLE — I comb my hair until it is just right. I pull on my Reeboks. I carry my speakers to the window and turn up the music, real loud, so the whole dorm can hear it.
I am collegiate.
“Wait a minute,” says a voice from the past. “Go Blue? You mean the Michigan Wolverines? The same team you criticized earlier in the season for being so inconsistent? That Blue?”
“No, a different Blue,” I say, stuffing my record albums into plastic milk crates. “That was the old Blue. This is the new Blue. The new Wolverines.”
“The new Wolverines?”
“Yes. The new Wolverines. Here. Which do you like? Jethro Tull or Springsteen?”
Everyone knows of the new Wolverines. Not to be confused with the old Wolverines. Not to be confused with the team that was always back in class by this point in the NCAA Tournament. No. There have been changes in the cast of this post-season drama. The role of “Coach” is being played by Steve Fisher. The role of “Superman” is being played by Glen Rice. And Bo Schembechler is in there somewhere in a cameo role. I think he plays God.
“It’s a new deal,” I say, unraveling the Budweiser poster and sticking it above my bed. “This team is as fresh as baby powder. As giddy as a tadpole. If Michigan were a car, it would still have its window sticker.”
“The Wolverines?” says the voice.
“The new Wolverines,” I repeat. “Hey. You ever read this? ‘Catcher In The Rye’? Good book.”
This is the team that is suddenly playing like The Fantastic Five. This is the team that is suddenly living up to all its recruiting notices. This is the team that is 4-0 since Fisher took over, undefeated, unbridled and unfazed. After last weekend’s 102-65 blowout of Virginia in the Southeast Regional final, a TV reporter ran alongside Rice.
“Glen, you guys were incredible! You looked like you could finish third in the NBA’s Central Division right now.”
“Third? Oh. Thanks a lot.”
Confidence? Suddenly there is confidence. Poise? Suddenly there is poise. It is as if a fairy godmother flew around the Wolverine locker room, tapped each player with a wand and said, “Be all you can be, be all you can be. . .
Of course, she might have been followed by Schembechler saying, “Or else I’ll kill you, or else I’ll kill you. . . . “
Hey. Whatever works. New expectations
“How could they have changed so much?” says the voice from the past. “How could a team that got blown out in its final regular-season game suddenly be playing with such intensity?”
“New coach, new attitude, new expectations,” I say, grabbing a Frisbee.
“Who knows? Maybe it’s just their destiny. Here. Catch.”
Maybe it is their destiny. Has there ever been a team like this in the Final Four? A team that got a new boss, a pep talk from the football coach and a plane ticket all in 24 hours? A team that began its first game with fewer expectations than its fifth?
A team that is going to win the national championship.
Did I say that?
Well. Why not? Have you watched U-M play in this tournament? Here is the statistician keeping track of Rice’s scoring: “Three . . . six . . . nine
. . . 12 . . . missed one . . . 15 . . . 18 . . . 21 . . . 24. . . . “
Sure he shot well before. But now he is shooting as if the fate of the free world depended on it. And Sean Higgins? Have you watched him? It’s like watching a baby chick emerge from an egg. Suddenly he is hitting these long three-pointer jumpers. Suddenly he is hustling back to the bench. Suddenly he is into the game.
And that is not all. Terry Mills. Look at his development. In four games he went from playing like a soldier to playing like a general. General Mills. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
“I’m telling you,” I say, taping a Spuds MacKenzie message board to my front door, “it’s like watching a whole new team.”
“OK,” says the voice, “but what about the other three teams?”
What about them?
Illinois. Let’s begin with Illinois. First of all, no team with that much orange should win anything really important, other than maybe the Citrus Bowl.
Secondly, the Illini already have played their best games against Michigan.
Thirdly, I have one question for the Illini. I direct it at their coach, Lou Henson. Here is my question: Lou, buddy.
What’s with the hair?
“OK, OK,” says the voice, “even if they can get by Illinois. What makes you think they can beat Duke or Seton Hall?”
“Be serious,” I say. “Seton Hall does not sound like a college. Seton Hall sounds like the place where they give the chemistry exams. Seton Hall sounds like the women’s dormitory. ‘Where ya goin’?’ ‘Seton Hall. See my baby.’
“And Duke? Well, Duke is a good name. For a dog. I had a friend whose dog was named Duke. Got run over by a car.”
Duke was good with a cowboy hat and spurs. Duke was a master musician. Duke was Earl. Duke was Hazzard. But the last time Duke, the basketball team, played in a championship game against a supersonic opponent, it went away empty.
And Michigan is supersonic right now. Bill . . . “SHHH!”
I comb my hair again. I slap on a little Old Spice aftershave. I rub a finger across my upper lip. Hmm. Wonder if I could grow a mustache?
“Aren’t you a little old for all this college stuff?” says the voice.
“Nobody is old during the Final Four,” I say. “Everyone is back in school, hitching rides, sleeping outside the arena, painting our faces and begging for tickets.”
“That’s a lot of spirit. It didn’t used to be that way when Bill Fried–“
“We don’t say the F word.”
Not anymore. These are the new Wolverines. Two games from the national title, potential unlimited. They are clicking. They are licking their chops. Their coach is Fisher now, an apple-cheeked man with a squeaky voice and a kinder and gentler approach.
Never mind that he is still “interim.” Never mind that this new era is only 2 1/2 weeks old. Never mind that some of the former hard-core critics are suddenly, curiously, rabid Wolverine boosters. Never mind that a tournament is not a season, or that Michigan has not beaten Illinois yet this season. Never mind.
This is freshman week, when everything is possible. Speakers in the windows. Beer at the parties. Grab a letter sweater and head for campus.
“Just remember,” I say, glancing in the mirror, making sure my hair is just right, “the new Wolverines. The new Wolverin–“
Hey. What’s that? Oh, damn!