WICHITA, Kan. — The overtime was nearly gone when this short guard named Lopez, with buck teeth, a crew cut and a hairy chest, launched his three-point shot into orbit. All heads looked up. The ball hung high, then began to come down, and the whole of the Fab Five legacy seemed to be coming down with it. What if it dropped? What if it went through? What if this shot, from this never-heard-of-him kid from this little California team named the Waves, what if this shot were to kiss through the net, the way his shots had been doing all night? Then what? Michigan could lose. It could be over. Everything the Wolverines were supposed to be, everything they had worked for, gone. To a bunch of happy-to-be-here’s from Malibu?
And the worst thought of all: They would have no one to blame but themselves.
“My heart stopped,” Jimmy King admitted of that frozen moment. “Right up until it missed, my heart stopped.”
His, and everyone else’s.
Will somebody tell them this isn’t fun anymore? It’s not cute. It’s bad for your health. And it certainly doesn’t do the Wolverines’ reputation any favors. By the end, the crowd is always rooting for the underdog, booing Michigan. Yet the Wolverines continue this habit, like smokers who can’t quit. Why is this team so enamored with buzzer-beater games that they refuse to accept the notion that when you play a team you’re supposed to beat, it’s OK to beat it? Maybe even (gasp) blow it out? Have these guys ever heard of that? A blowout victory?
No. Instead we have players such as Ray Jackson, who has been a star on this team for only three years, stepping into the lane twice during free throws — not just free throws, but the first shots of two-shot fouls — and giving two free points to the mighty Waves of Pepperdine University.
And we have Jalen Rose, who has been a star on this team for only three years, dribbling the ball up court during overtime — a relatively simple task, even by layman’s standards — and he waves off any help, annoyed at the thought that he could use some, and then he dribbles the ball off his knee and out of bounds.
And we have King, who has been a star on this team for only three years, chasing down a loose ball and forgetting to either stop or dribble, so that he’s called for traveling, turnover, new life for the opponents.
And on and on.
“All that matters in these games is that you win them,” coach Steve Fisher said. He forced a smile. “That’s all that matters.”
Any one of these days, I expect the guy to take a breath and faint dead away. No lead safe for U-M
What else can you do with these Wolverines? They make the simplest games into goose-bumpy horror shows. They take a lead, then seem to turn to the opponent and say, “Come on, keep up, it’s no fun doing this alone.” They held an eight-point edge with under five minutes left in this first-round game, and everyone knew it was going to the wire.
Why? An eight-point lead should be safe, no?
“Why do you make everything into a near-nightmare?” King was asked, after Michigan survived Pepperdine, 78-74.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We get up nine or 11 points, but we can’t seem to put anyone away.”
“Is it because you always feel, deep down, that you have the talent to beat anyone?”
He smiled, as if being asked to recite the alphabet. “Of course,” he said.
Of course? Well. I’ve got news for King and the rest: Talent alone will not get it done. Talent has off-nights. Take a look at Rose, who shot a miserable 2-for-13 and even admitted, “I couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean.” No one will deny Jalen’s talent. But what good did it do him Thursday night?
No one will deny Jackson’s talent, but five fouls is five fouls, and he got his fifth before the game went to overtime. What good does talent serve on the bench?
Only Juwan Howard, of the Fab Four, played an excellent game, hitting 12 of 17 shots, hustling for rebounds (a game- high nine) and making four steals. He was the go-to man, but against Pepperdine, you shouldn’t have to rely on one player, should you?
“We never panicked,” Howard said.
Of course not. They won.
Most of the time, they do.
No room for mistakes
But most of the time won’t be good enough in this tournament. You stumble once, you’re on the plane home. This was just the first-round game. It’s the scariest of the three openers they have played during the Fabulous Era. And there are, in the end, two ways to look at it:
One is that it’s the perfect medicine for a team that had begun to doubt itself. Three losses in the last four regular- season games can make anyone jumpy, and Michigan may have needed a true scare and a comeback to reassert its confidence. Remember the UCLA game last year? Just as in that one, the Kansas Coliseum crowd was cheering lustily for the underdog and booing the Wolverines, and that seemed to invoke an old and familiar chord. So much so that Makhtar Ndiaye, who wasn’t even on the team last year, was taunting the crowd when the game ended. Ndiaye? Now he’s got attitude?
“The crowd helped us win,” King said. “They don’t realize we thrive on that kind of stuff. Let ’em come. The more they boo us, the more focused we get.”
Jackson added: “I think we found ourselves this game.”
It might help if he found the foul line and stayed on the other side of it.
But, as I said, that’s just one way to look at it. The optimistic way. The Michigan fan’s way.
The other way is to say that they are running out of breath, these fabulous kids. They are gasping as they head down the stretch, and they will never have enough wind to finish the race. That’s the other way. It, too, makes sense.
All night Thursday, Damin Lopez, that crew-cut kid with the mean three-point shot, would launch these bombs, watch them fall, and on his way downcourt, dry his hands on the back of his shoes, as if wiping off dirt.
This much you can bet on: If the Wolverines don’t wake up and play to their capabilities, it won’t be Lopez, but some other sharpshooter doing the nasty deed soon, very soon. And it won’t be dirt he’s wiping off his shoes.
It’ll be Michigan.