CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The big lie began every morning, with the book bag he carried and the clothes he wore. He would eat breakfast, kiss his mother good-bye, make like he was going to school, then not go to school at all. He would go to a gym and play ball. All day. When one gym closed, he would go to another. In between, he’d sit in parks and stare at the sky.

When he got home, his parents would ask, “How was school?” He lied. Then, one day, his mother asked to see a report card. He hadn’t thought about that. He hemmed. And she knew. She knew, the way mothers know, and she pleaded with him to return, not to drop out. He was stubborn. He refused.

A year passed. Then another. Soon, he was a man in his 20s, and all he did was play ball, work odd jobs and watch the hope die in his parents’ eyes.

You can call him Al. His last name is Dillard. He comes from Alabama, plays for Arkansas, and is not the most famous story at this Final Four. But he is the most important — because he answers the question, “What is this hoop madness all about?”

In the case of Dillard, who is 25 years old and playing his first year of college basketball, it’s about saving a life.

His own.

“I figured I’d end up in the military, or in the steel mills like my father,” he admits. “I even got an application to be a steelworker once. I filled it out. But for some reason, I never turned it in.”

He shrugs and fixes his Final Four cap. His face is soft and fleshy, without teenage pimples or sprouting whiskers. His fellow Razorbacks, many of them six or seven years younger, teasingly call him “Father Time.” When he doesn’t hear something, they roll their eyes in mock aggravation.

“You can still see, can’t you?” they ask. Love turned his life around

He can see just fine. It’s believing that trips him. After all, just a few years back, the closest he came to college was the players he faced in summer pickup games. Thanks to years of killing time with a basketball, Dillard was a gym-rat legend, banging jump shots from zip-code distance. But every fall, the college kids went back, and Dillard stayed where he was, going nowhere.

Until he met a woman.

“She is the reason I’m here,” he says proudly, “she” being Jean Wiser, his girlfriend and a former college player herself. Every night and every day she told him the same thing. “You must get a high school diploma. You should be in the college game. Your time is running out.”

Wiser sat with Dillard and helped him read. She tutored him. She looked up words in the dictionary. “I hadn’t read a book in four years,” Dillard says.
“It was so frustrating. It was like starting school all over again.”

At times he felt like giving up, and he looked at Wiser and asked why she was so stubborn.

“Because,” she said simply, “I love you.”

The lessons continued. When a junior-college coach saw Dillard play — saw him bury jump shots from way past three- point range — he was so impressed that he promised a scholarship if Dillard could pass his GED exam. For the first time since dropping out, Dillard had a glimmer of a future.

He studied. He took the test. When he passed, he was so excited, he jumped

in the car and drove two hours straight to the junior college, “because I didn’t want the coach giving away my scholarship.” The pupil becomes a teacher

The rest you can read in a media guide. Dillard lit up the junior college scoreboards — he once scored 40 points in the second half of a game, and Arkansas, one of the best teams in the country, gave him a scholarship once he met transfer requirements. He arrived for his first college practice already older than the graduated seniors.

No matter. Dillard was pointed in the right direction, and he wasn’t turning back. He is now a Razorback weapon off the bench, averaging nine points a game and the longest shots on the team.

Of course, he’s a bit of a long shot himself.

“When I was playing pickup, there were guys 27, 28 years old. They were so good, they could have been in the NBA. But they never even finished high school. They always had an excuse — I got screwed; this or that happened. .
. .

“I didn’t want to be that way. My girlfriend says you can have a below-average life, an average life, or an above-average life.”

He pauses. “I want an above-average life.”

He is getting his wish. Tonight, he plays in the national championship game, before a worldwide TV audience. And recently, President Bill Clinton, a Razorback fan, declared Dillard his favorite player. Not long ago, Dillard’s younger brother, Harold, started talking about quitting high school. Al took him aside and, he says, unashamedly, “beat him until he came to his senses.”

Harold stayed in school and got his degree.

You see the fuss over March Madness, the money, the hype. And perhaps you say, “What for? Isn’t college basketball just spoiled jocks winning games for someone’s alma mater?”

Sometimes. And sometimes not. If a kid can go from quitting high school to being the President’s favorite college player, then something worthwhile must still tick inside this sport.

You can call him Al. He says he wants one thing more. You expect to hear the words “national championship,” but instead, he opens his mouth and says “a diploma.” And you realize, with a smile, that the dropout has become, quite remarkably, a teacher.

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