He was surrounded by green, and if you know anything about Dugan Fife, you know green is his least-favorite color. When he was a kid, he refused to wear green clothes, and any schoolmate who did, he would tease unmercifully.
“Green is Michigan State’s colors!” he would taunt. “They stink!”
Now, here he was, the son of a former Michigan star, on the Crisler floor with five green men around him, five Michigan State players. The shot clock was ticking down, and none of his teammates seemed to have a good look. Fife came to the middle and he leapt and he hung and he aimed and he fired. Long range, baby. He was 21 feet from the basket, and on the bench Steve Fisher watched and screamed to himself, “No! . . . No! . . . ” and then “Yes!” as the shot went through the net like a saw going through a banana.
“That was a designed play,” Fife would say later.
“That,” Fisher would say, laughing, “was luck.”
Whatever. It was big. A three-pointer. The shot that put the Wolverines over the top in their annual Ann Arbor showdown with the Spartans. This was an important night for both teams because it was their first Big Ten contest. It was important for the Michigan fans, who desperately want to believe that this team — minus Chris Webber — can somehow find the magic of the two years past.
But it was most important to Fife, who was so excited to play against Michigan State he almost jumped out of his skin before the game.
“I couldn’t wait to get this game started,” he said. “I couldn’t wait.”
“How many times have you made the big shot against Michigan State in your dreams?” he was asked.
“Ever since I was a kid,” he said.
Wearing blue, of course.
He took a big helping of leftovers
You should know this about Fife: He is an unlikely assassin. He is modest, almost shy — looking down when he talks, swallowing some of his words. It doesn’t help that he looks like a choirboy, all sandy blond hair and apple cheeks. And it doesn’t help that he comes from suburban Clarkston, the son of former Wolverine hoop star Danny Fife. And it doesn’t help that he is the lone new starter in a college lineup that had, for the last two years, been referred to as “The Beatles of Basketball.”
Hey. You’d be shy, too.
“Are you looking more for shots these days?” Fife was asked, after scoring a career-high 13 points in Michigan’s 75-64 victory.
“No,” he said, with proper deference, “Jalen and Jimmy and Ray and Juwan, they’re great players. They’re gonna get shots. I’m gonna get the leftovers.”
He got more than leftovers on Wednesday, making four of his seven attempts
(three of them three-pointers) and hitting both of his free throws. He also did lots more than shoot. In the final five minutes — after nailing that hanging jumper — he also managed to block a shot, draw an offensive foul on Shawn Respert, and steal the ball, fall to the floor, spin up and call time out.
“The kind of stuff you love if you’re a coach,” Fisher said.
Indeed. Fife is one of those kids who lives for fundamentals, who thinks basketball even when he’s walking around the house. He was raised to play for the Wolverines — consider his bloodline. And he was so sold on the program, that, while most recruits shied away from Michigan the year after it got the Fab Five, Fife signed up early. Here was how hard Fisher had to recruit Dugan Fife: Ring the doorbell.
He’s leaving hesitation behind
Which doesn’t mean it was a primrose path for the point guard. When he first arrived at Michigan, he scrimmaged against the by-then famous sophomores. And not long into the game, he went for a fast-break lay-up and heard footsteps behind him and heard Jalen Rose scream, “BLOCK PARTY COMING!” and — whack! — Rose slapped away Dugan’s shot as if using a flyswatter.
It was then that Fife knew he wasn’t in Kansas — or Clarkston — anymore. He sat most of last year, watching the older players. And when he did get in, he was nervous and hesitant.
“That’s the difference you see in Doog now,” Rose said Wednesday. “No hesitation. I think when you spend most of the time on the bench, you get used to watching, and even when you’re on the floor, you kinda think watch first, play second.
“Now that he’s playing more, he’s thinking play first. The game is coming more naturally to him. He doesn’t hesitate. He just plays.”
Fife has improved consistently since the season opener. If he continues to play as he did Wednesday — and provide the Wolverines with some much-needed shooting options — well, their Big Ten chances just got a whole lot better.
Not that Fife has mastered all the perks of Big Time Basketball. True, he did get a standing ovation when he left the game. But afterward he was ushered into the interview room as the sole designated U-M player to meet the press. He gave short, careful answers and looked about as relaxed as a fraternity pledge on haze night.
Later, as the crowd dispersed, and his teammates bundled up for the cold evening, he was asked about that interview session, all the media focusing on him, the guy who never liked green.
He thought for a minute.
“Lotta lights,” he said.
Get used to it, kid.