ATLANTA — In the big room where the media gather in the basement of the Omni, they have tables full of information on each of the teams in this tournament. Pile after pile. School after school. Media guides. Statistics. By Friday afternoon, there was a big empty space above the sign marked “ST. JOHN’S.” That team had been defeated just an hour earlier; already all its brochures were thrown out.
The lesson: Death comes quickly in March Madness. One slip and you’re an empty spot on the table.
For a while there Friday night, they might have been fingering the Michigan pile, too. The Wolverines, a team that started five freshmen for the first time, I believe, in the history of this crazy tournament (I could be wrong, but nobody seems to remember it happening before), almost saw The Beginning and The End on their very first game. They had blown a big lead, were throwing the ball away, missing dunks, getting called for traveling, and Temple coach John Chaney, who has been around for years and has a sagging face that suggests he has been around since the dawn of time, was screaming at his team,
“Get a lead! Get a cushion, and I’ll win this game for you! We can rattle them! They’re young!”
Oh, yes. They’re young. That’s the first thing you always say about these Wolverines, isn’t it? Especially when they make mistakes. They’re young. They’re nervous. They’re foolish. They don’t know how to shave.
Wait. They do know how to shave. At least they know how to shave their heads. I can prove this: Friday afternoon, Chris Webber was sleeping in his hotel room and he woke up after dreaming about his younger days, when he wore
“the bald head” haircut, and he nudged his roommate, Jalen Rose, and said,
“I’m fixing to cut my hair bald-headed.”
And Jalen said, “Huh?”
And Chris said, “I played more aggressive when I was bald- headed, I think. Help me cut it.”
And they got out the clippers, which Webber says they take on every trip
(don’t ask me why; they’re young, I guess), and they cut Chris’s hair, all of it, down to the scalp.
So they do know how to shave.
They also know how to win, or at least how not to lose in the first round of the tournament. (Something St. John’s wishes it knew right about now, along with where all its brochures went.) The Wolverines weathered that Temple comeback and Chaney’s evil plans to rattle them; they survived the embarrassment of a 14-point lead turning into a four-point deficit; they endured a series of plays in which Webber blew a fast break by trying a behind-the-back pass, and Ray Jackson missed a wide-open dunk, and Rob Pelinka grabbed a rebound, then fell on the out-of-bounds line.
They even survived some bad microphone work. The Omni public address announcer kept pronouncing Jalen Rose as “Jay-leeen” Rose.
“I heard that,” Rose said afterward. “I kept looking over to see who he was talking about.”
He was talking about the star of the game, as it turns out, and maybe the biggest reason Michigan still has practice today. Rose (19 points) sprang to life when Michigan was in danger of blowing it all. He hit two running bank shots in a row, then a crucial three-point basket to re-establish the U- M lead. He also sank the free throws down the stretch to straight-arm any Temple comebacks.
After Michigan was finished — final score: Wolverines 73, Owls 66 — Rose admitted he was nervous in his first tournament game. “My hands were sweaty back in the hotel.”
Hmmm. Not while he was cutting Webber’s hair, I hope.
Other first-tournament-game reactions from the U-M freshmen:
Jimmy King: “I wasn’t nervous; I was excited.”
Juwan Howard: “If you get nervous out there, you lose.”
Webber: “I was nervous. During lay-up lines, I kept thinking about how my dad and I used to play games one-on-one, and I would dream it was the NCAA tournament. It wasn’t even the noise tonight, because the arena was half-empty. And it wasn’t the TV cameras, because we’ve had those before. It was just the idea that this is the tournament, you know?”
Somehow, I believe that answer more than the others.
But OK. The important thing is in one game, we saw the Wolverines burst into flames, douse themselves, then reignite in time for a victory. Let’s face it. This team is like a Crackerjack box. You never know what you’ll get when you open it. Friday night, it was the prize. Sunday, against surprising underdog East Tennessee State, it could be a whole different story.
But remember that the NCAA tournament is a thing that builds on itself. You tend to correct mistakes as you go along, and the farther you go, the more confidence you display. The thought of this brash young team (did I say young? I meant, you know, well, I meant young, I guess) playing with any more confidence is a little frightening. Already there is too much on-court celebration, too many attempts at flash when modesty is safer.
But that’s the Wolverine team. They are one of the best mysteries of this tournament, and as each game arrives, some staff person will no doubt be checking out their pile of brochures in the media room.
“They overcame mistakes tonight,” warned Chaney afterward, “but I don’t know if they can overcome those same mistakes against an equally talented team.”
To which Steve Fisher replied: “To be honest, I think we got past the young thing a while ago. When we make mistakes, it’s not youth, it’s just college basketball. We’ve been hearing how being young is this disadvantage. I say we turn it into an advantage.”
You know, Steve, that’s an excellent idea.
Now take those hair clippers away from those kids. They’re young, and they might hurt themselves.