by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEW ORLEANS — A huge electronic TV screen hovered over the Superdome floor Monday night, like God’s eyes, and the players below in this NCAA championship flashed across in glorious motion. This was basketball of the 80’s, instant-instant replay. Look up and see yourself dribbling. And as the final minutes evaporated before nearly 65,000 crazed spectators, there was only one question in the house: Who would be the star? Who would be the final face on that massive screen, looking down at us all? No one knew. For this was, after all, a great game, a hell of a game, and everybody on both Indiana and Syracuse seemed to have done something by the end, some basket, some rebound, some steal. So when hysteria set in, the final minute and a half, it was a crapshoot, because the score was tied 70-70 and anybody could grab the hero’s halo. Who would it be? Who would be that face?

First it was Syracuse’s Howard Triche, a senior forward who had played a terrible first half, but he leaned in and sunk a basket to make it 72-70, and then, on the next possession, he was fouled and he went to the line to ice it with a one-and-one. Only 38 seconds left. Here came Triche’s giant face, high above the highest seats, looking down at himself. His first foul shot went in. But his second clanked away — and so did his glory.

And Indiana came back with a short jumper.

SO NOW it’s 73-72, and a pass goes to Derrick Coleman, the lanky Syracuse forward, and he’s fouled. Just 28 seconds left. Up he walks. Up comes his face on the electronic screens, larger than life. Will it be Coleman? Will it be he? All game long he had played with a swagger beyond his years, a freshman showing no more nerves than if someone had phoned him and said “Come on down, we got a game going here at the schoolyard.”

Dribble, dribble. Stop. Shoot. The ball clanked off the side of the rim. Glory would have to wait until Coleman grew older. Indiana grabbed the rebound, and now it trailed by a point, and the clock was down below 10 seconds. Who would be the star? Steve Alford, the IU scoring machine, the best shooter on the team? It would be Alford, right? It would be him?

It would not be him. The ball worked around, and Keith Smart, a junior college transfer and the shortest man on the floor, took the ball to the corner, leaped into the air, and bucket! 74-73! Five seconds left, four, three, two, one. Time out! And Syracuse, with one second left, tried a desperation pass, and who should intercept it but Keith Smart, who squeezed the ball, leaped into the air, and hurled the thing into the stands as the buzzer sounded. Look in the sky! The eye in the sky! It was Smart. It was very Smart.

“What were you thinking? What were you thinking?” reporters screamed at Smart as the mob rushed the floor in celebration. “What was in your mind on the final shot?”

“It just came to me,” he screamed, “it just came to me and I hit it!”

OH, DID he hit it! Smart had been the catalyst in this, yet another Indiana comeback — its tightest championship game ever. Bobby Knight’s first two championships (1976 and 1981) had been over long before the final seconds. Not this one. For a while it looked like this would be his first defeat, for Syracuse looked strong, played a great inside game. But when the Orangemen needed their free throws at the finish, they didn’t get them. They had been missing them all year. And with everybody looking for Alford, it was Smart who stole the thunder.

“He’s been doing it all year!” screamed Alford, his arm around the 6-1 guard. “Whenever they have me covered, Keith’s the guy who gets it.”

Smart grinned. He had been overlooked somewhat in the hoopla of this contest, the scribes focusing on Alford and Knight, and Rony Seikaly, Coleman and coach Jim Boeheim for Syracuse. Smart had actually been benched midway through the game by Knight. But when it became apparent that this would be an athletic contest, speed and quickness and leaping ability, Knight turned to his best athlete. Smart. Very smart.

“I can’t describe how I feel right now! Smart said. “This is the dream. I can’t describe it.”

Perhaps Knight can. He should describe it this way: Thank God for junior college. Knight, who had always combed the high schools for his talent, changed his pattern with Smart and Dean Garrett, his center. And the move paid off.

“This is nothing for me,” said Knight, “I’m the coach. It’s these guys, these players, this is so great for them.”

Great for them. Great for the spectators As the Indiana players stepped up to the hoop to cut the net, the throngs of IU fans went wild.

“Hoooosiers!” They chanted. Hoooosiers!”

AND IN the middle was Keith Smart, voted the star of this Final Four. Why not. he had 21 points, he had the critical points. He had it all.

So here was the finale of a college season that was otherwise dunked in mud, a barrel of recruiting violations, a cover story of a drug scandal, tarnished reputations and tarnished programs and tarnished players. But in the end it came down to a glorious 16-foot jumper by the little guy, who could look up and see himself grinning like a baby on the heavenly scoreboard above. Smart was the face. Very very Smart.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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