ATLANTA — One of their guards is called Peanut Butter. The other is called Jelly. The forward, who comes from Venezuela, is called Bread. There’s gotta be a Knife in here somewhere.
“We are explosive,” says one.
“We are a dynasty,” says the other.
Well. It’s nice to see a school with its own publicity department.
Ladies and gentlemen, next on our NCAA menu . . . a sandwich. No. Wait. A college basketball team. The University of South Alabama. Or, for short: USA. Really. Those are its initials. And its sweat suits are red, white, and blue. Last year, when the players walked through airports people would rush up to them.
“Good luck in Seoul!” they would say.
“Thanks . . . huh?”
They are not to be confused with the Olympic team. They are more easily confused with the Olympic Diner, a place we used to go for lunch. Which brings us back to Junie (Peanut Butter) Lewis and Jeff (Jelly) Hodge.
“I thought up our nicknames,” bragged Lewis, a 6-foot-3 guard from the suburbs of Philadelphia. “I felt we were doing a lot for the university and weren’t getting enough attention. So I woke up one morning and told Jeff I had this idea. He was gonna be Jelly, because he slides around the court real easy. And I was gonna be Peanut Butter, because I’m thick and I stick to the opponents’ minds.”
How unique. He did not say if he had any brothers named Skippy or Jif, but then, no one asked. Lewis, Hodge and Gabe (Bread) Estaba, the 6-foot-7 forward from Venezuela, were being fed more media than they had ever seen before, all because they had upset Alabama Friday in the final seconds, 86-84, to advance to today’s second round of the NCAA Tournament against Michigan.
Upset? Is that strong enough a word? South Alabama came back from a 19-point deficit and won in breathtaking fashion, when Mr. Butter fed a quick pass to Mr. Jelly (not to be confused with Mr. Jam, which I think was one of Darryl Dawkins’ nicknames), who launched a three-pointer with four seconds to go. . . .
Napkins for everybody! Now, suddenly, they were in the limelight, taking on the Wolverines, the 10th-ranked team in the nation. Michigan, of course, recently lost its head coach, Bill Frieder, and the players must quickly get used to a new leader. Hey. That’s nothing for the guys on team USA. Estaba (Mr. Bread) has already played for three colleges, and two countries. And nine of his 12 teammates played for other schools before USA. Lewis (Mr. Butter) began his collegiate career at Pittsburgh.
“What happened?” he was asked.
“I didn’t get along with the coach,” he said. “Also, I wasn’t getting enough publicity.”
I am not making this up.
Wait. Did we tell you about the horses? Yes. Estaba used to work with horses. Actually, he used to clean up after horses. He needed the money, after coming to America only to find that it doesn’t always work as it did for Eddie Murphy. Estaba, a smiling, curly haired member of the Venezuelan national team, was lured to a junior college in California, where the coach, he says, lied about the scholarship. With no money to return home, he found work in a stable. “But my coach took that money, too. I was so hungry, I ate sunflower seeds for dinner. Finally I quit and worked in a hotel. It was — how you say here? — four months of hell?”
Sure. We say that in Detroit. Every football season.
Anyway, how Estaba got from that hotel to his current team is a long story. Let’s just say today, at 24, he has found a home. Even though it is a long way from home. “I grew up in a tropical climate, near an ocean. We used to run around without shoes, always in the water.”
You can do that in Mobile, Ala., I suppose. Probably not in public.
Oh. Hey. Did you see his daughter? On national TV? Yes. After USA beat Alabama (its first NCAA Tournament win ever), Estaba was handed his little girl, Sarah, 18 months, whom he held in his arms as he was interviewed. She smiled. She giggled. At one point, she grabbed the microphone. Must have been taking lessons from . . .
(Peanut Butter) Lewis.
I knew we’d get back to him. Now, let’s get this straight. He is a guard? Came out of Philadelphia? Played for Pittsburgh? Never heard of South Alabama but transferred there anyway, and began his own personal publicity tour? Can that all be true? Who cares? It is not every day you find a player with quotes like this:
“I was the most hardheaded person, I think, in America. Until Coach knocked all the hardheadedness out of myself.”
Not bad, huh?
So, sure, there is much we do not understand about today’s opponent. The name, for one thing: University of South Alabama (which, in my mind, is kind of redundant, because I never figured you could get more south than Alabama,
even if you tried).
But we do know this: The Jaguars have won one big game already, and they have nothing to lose this afternoon. Lewis and Hodge promise to be trouble for Michigan, as quick guards have been in the past. Estaba may not enjoy the same success he had against Alabama (26 points) because, at 6-feet-7, he is not exactly a giant in the Michigan forest.
U-M will be favored, but South Alabama will be the crowd’s choice. Especially when it gets to yell “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“We are the Cinderella team,” said (Jelly) Hodge.
“We are a dynasty about to explode,” said (Peanut Butter) Lewis.
“I like America very much,” said (Bread) Estaba.
I think it was Shakespeare who wrote, “What’s in a name?”
He must have skipped lunch.
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests: Chuck Daly, Bernie Smilovitz and Steve Garagiola.