NEW ORLEANS — It doesn’t matter, all the money and the music and the new clothes and the computers. College is still about kids making their parents proud. It always has been.
The last time Greg Monroe’s father came to see him play basketball, Greg was a freshman in high school. It was the first game he would get to start, and Greg recalls his father’s only advice: “Do what you gotta do.”
That was it. One game. In the games that followed, in the years that followed, through the high school championships and county all-stars and freshman and sophomore and junior years at Syracuse University, all those nights, all those tournaments, Greg Monroe never played before his father again, never saw him waiting in the tunnel after the gym had emptied.
Instead, he “did what he had to do.” When the games were over, he visited the hospital, where Walter Monroe would spend the better part of seven years. A stroke put him there. Another stroke robbed him of his speech. Then cancer struck, brain cancer, and yet he somehow survived, he lived for years in that bed, and his son grew up and brought him newspaper clippings and videotapes of his blossoming basketball career.
“We communicated a lot through eye contact,” Greg Monroe said. “Every now and then he’d try to mumble a few words. Usually he just smiled, and I guess the smile was telling me, ‘Don’t worry about it, keep your head up, don’t let this situation bother you.’
“That’s the kind of guy he was. Very strong.”
And then, last summer, Walter Monroe died.
ON SATURDAY afternoon, Greg Monroe was introduced to a thunderous roar inside the sold-out Superdome. The Syracuse Orangemen were in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, one game from the championship finale. Monroe, a stocky player with sleepy eyes, is their starting guard and team co-captain.
The game began and Monroe got the Orangemen’s first shot. He went up calmly from the right of the key and buried a three- pointer. And in the stands behind the Syracuse bench, his mother, Mary Monroe, quietly applauded. To almost everyone else watching, he was another college ball player on another magic carpet ride to glory. “Lucky kid,” they would mumble, eyeing the screaming fans and the national attention.
Mary Monroe knew better. She knew of the daily hospital visits, of the agonizing silence, of the slow ooze of life that those things bring about. Her son had dedicated this season to her and her late husband. And so well had he played, that his teammates dubbed him “Money” — as in “Money in the bank.”
And Saturday, Money delivered. He hit several key three- point baskets; he shut down Providence’s Billy Donovan, the man deemed most dangerous in this contest; and then, with under 12 minutes remaining and Syracuse mired in a sudden slump, Money stole the ball from Providence’s Delray Brooks, ducked his head and drove the length of the court, dishing off for a basket and getting fouled in the process. The play was worth three points and that, more than any single occurrence, turned the tide back in Syracuse’s favor.
THE ORANGEMEN would win, 77-63. They are going to the NCAA final, the top of the mountain. And as the last seconds ticked away, it was Monroe dribbling past defenders, his shirt dangling out of his shorts. Do what you gotta do. He had scored 17 points. The TV announcers named him player of the game.
The buzzer sounded and as his teammates leaped up and down, he walked off the court quietly. One more to go for his team. One more for his personal quest.
When the game was over, there was no father to congratulate Greg Monroe, but his mother was there, and she kissed him. And when this is all over, whatever happens Monday night, Monroe plans to go to the Rochester, N.Y., cemetery where his dad is buried. He’ll go alone. No crowds, no cameras.
“I’ll just have a quiet moment there with him,” he said. ” It’ll be the end of my college career and I’m sure he’d be very pleased to know that I graduated on time, that we had a chance to go to the Final Four, that me and my Mom are coping as best we can.”
So it really doesn’t matter, all the hype and the attention and even the final score. College is still college. It is largely about one thing. “I just hope my father’s proud of me,” Greg Monroe said before leaving, and somewhere, no doubt, he is. CUTLINE Syracuse guard Greg Monroe (right) battles for a loose ballwith Providence’s Delray Brooks (left) and David Kipfer.