SMALL-TOWN ROOTS LEAD CMU TO THE BIG TIME

Chris Kaman takes the pay phone. He yawns. It is not boredom. It is simply lack of sleep. He was up until 2 a.m. and then awoke again at 4 a.m. and then he traveled several hours from Mt. Pleasant to the Detroit airport and is now awaiting the flight to Minneapolis to connect to the flight to Salt Lake City to meet the bus that will take him and his Central Michigan teammates to the hotel and then the arena where they will complete their longest trip of the season — heck, only their fourth plane trip of the season! — and play today, for the first time in their lives, in the opening round of the Big Dance.

Not that dancing seems likely at this moment.

“I’m so exhausted,” Kaman says, laughing.

What were you doing until 2 a.m, he is asked. Partying? Celebrating the Chippewas’ season?

“I was watching cartoons,” he says. Then he adds, almost sheepishly, “I was a little nervous.”

Can you blame him? Life is not supposed to move this fast for a 20-year-old small-town son of a public works father and teacher’s aide mother. This is a kid who came late to basketball, who planned on “going into law enforcement”
— in other words, becoming a cop — and who never saw himself, even when he quickly accepted a scholarship from CMU, as anything more than “a role player.”

Here is the truth about Chris Kaman now. He still has one year of college eligibility left. He is 7-feet tall. He averages 22.7 points a game. And NBA scouts are calling him a lottery pick.

A lottery pick?

“It’s strange,” admits the junior center from Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian. “I never thought I’d be good enough for the NBA. I just wanted to play close to home.”

A word from the coach

Kaman passes the pay phone to his fresh-faced coach, Jay Smith. Airport scenes like this are, for Smith, old and new. A decade ago, when he was the lowliest level of assistant coach at Michigan, scraping by on $16,000 a year, trips were not only the norm, they were a circus. It was the Fab Five era, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, et al. Reporters and TV crews followed wherever they went.

Smith helped mold the big men — particularly Howard — then broke free in 1996 and returned to the small-town roots from whence he came. A year at Grand Valley State led the Mio native to the head coaching spot at CMU, where he inherited a losing program with a weak reputation. He rolled up his sleeves. He dug in.

And then one day, a small-town tip led him to an even smaller high school, where he laid eyes on a blond-banged 7-footer with “quick reflexes” and an obvious passion for playing. He felt that coach’s shiver down his spine.

“Were you worried other coaches would discover Kaman?” Smith is asked.

“Are you kidding?” he says, laughing. “I started looking around the gym in the first 10 minutes.”

No one else was there. Kaman, the kind of diamond in the small-school rough that can make a program like Central Michigan’s, became a focus for Smith, and he recruited him intensely. And then came his first home visit, with the family around the dinner table.

“They cleared the plates, and suddenly, Chris’ older brother says, ‘Aw, why don’t you just commit?’ ” Smith recalls. “I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t want to pressure him. So I just sat there. Then Chris’ father says, ‘Yeah, you should go there.’

“I actually interrupted and said, ‘Hey, Chris, if you’re not ready, it’s OK, don’t rush it.’ And Chris said, ‘Nah, I’m ready. I’m gonna go.’ “

You know what they call that in college basketball?

Jackpot.

A lesson for life

The climb since then has been steady — for Kaman, Smith and the whole CMU program. This season, they have peaked with a conference title, a 24-6 record and a No. 11 seed for the NCAA tournament, their first such appearance since the late ’80s. The Chips play 15th-ranked Creighton tonight, and should they somehow win, they would almost certainly face Duke, the royal family of the college basketball world.

It’s all heady stuff for the small-town coach and the small-town kid, neither of whom are very small anymore.

“I’ve never even been to an NCAA tournament,” says Kaman, who grew six inches in one year in high school, then three more the following year. “I watched them on TV. It is a little weird seeing your school name in a bracket.”

Smith took the Chips to Salt Lake City early for precisely that reason. Like Gene Hackman’s head coach in “Hoosiers,” Smith wanted to remind them that the rims are the same height and the floor is the same length. The audience may be nationwide, but the game remains the game.

Still, win or lose — and stay or go, because Kaman is weighing the option of leaving school early, depending on his NBA prospects — there never will be a moment like this for either of them again, standing in an airport, waiting for the flight, crossing the threshold from outsider to insider, from unknown to known, from dot on the map to entry in a million office pools.

“This,” Kaman says, wistfully, as the airport voices echo through the pay phone, “will be the furthest away I’ve ever played.”

Then again, as he and Smith are proving, life isn’t so much about where you’ve been as where you’re going.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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