Timeout to take in lessons learned

JOHN EISENBERG

April 07, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- The Final Four being a college experience, at least in theory, it seems fitting that we sum up what we learned while watching North Carolina win a championship neither big nor easily in the Big Easy.

We learned, first and foremost, how ridiculous it is to credit or blame coaches for what happens in the Final Four. It is perfectly fair to judge them on their team's performance over the course of a career or even a single season, but the Final Four is just a dice roll.

Consider that Kentucky probably would have beaten Michigan had Jamal Mashburn not committed a foolish fifth foul in overtime of their semifinal. The Wildcats might well have gone on to beat North Carolina in the final, and Rick Pitino would have been canonized. Instead, Dean Smith will be canonized for winning his second title, but he easily could have lost had Michigan's Chris Webber not asked for what will go down in history as The Timeout.

Coaching had nothing to do with any of those outcome-changing moments. What's the lesson? That college basketball is perhaps the most over-analyzed game of all, that no matter how much television hypes its sideline "geniuses," it is still a game played by kids, who, being kids, often don't do what they're told.

Here's the deal: If you're a Final Four coach, all you can do is hope you get lucky and, in the event that you don't -- Michigan's Steve Fisher repeatedly reminded his players about the lack of timeouts -- try not to take the criticism personally, hard as that may be.

OK, what else did we learn? We learned that it will never again be easy to be Chris Webber, even though he has a future as bright as any player in high-tops.

If you're going to make the biggest mistake of your life, it's best not to make it while being watched by 50 million couch potatoes waiting for a "moment" they can say they saw live. It is a sad fact that people are fascinated by bonehead plays, for much the same reason that they rubberneck while passing an accident on the highway. Webber, alas, has made a rubberneckable mistake.

With television having turned the NCAA tournament into the monster that it is, The Timeout will become lore, with a place alongside Fred Brown's mistaken pass at the end of the 1982 title game.

There was an item in the local paper over the weekend that said Brown finally had just stopped giving interviews about the pass, that it kept coming up and he was tired of talking about it 11 years later. Webber should take heed. His case will be different in that he is a far better player and should have a long pro career in which he can do much to erase the memory of his mistake. But he will never entirely erase it.

What else did we learn? That you can be a gentleman and win a national championship; that a coach can succeed without having to resort to screaming obscenities at his players and pacing the sideline like a hungry tiger cooped up at the zoo, succeeding primarily at stealing attention from the players.

There aren't many gentlemen left in sports, but Dean Smith surely is one. He treats his players with respect. If they make a mistake, he just takes them out. He doesn't pander to anyone, recruits or reporters or alumni. If he's on an ego trip, he has the decency not to make a ridiculous, macho show of it, as do so many coaches.

What a pleasure it is to watch a successful team not fronted by some strutting, wild-eyed caricature putting on a show. It just doesn't have to be that way. Look at Mike Krzyzewski. And please, look at Smith, who, no matter how his team fares, succeeds every year in demonstrating the right way for a coach to act.

What else did we learn? Let us count the pearls.

We learned that Carolina will be back in the running next year with four starters returning and the addition of Jerry Stackhouse, supposedly the best recruit to come out of North Carolina since David Thompson.

We learned that Michigan's Fab Five probably will be back next year. There was talk that Webber might go pro if the Fabs won, and he still might, but the hunch now is he'll consider his college career unfinished business.

We learned that the ACC has bragging rights as the country's best conference, having won three straight national titles, yet it is virtually indistinguishable from the Big Ten.

We learned that you can't buy a bad bowl of gumbo in New Orleans.

And, of course, we learned what to do when your coach reminds you how many timeouts you have left.

Listen.

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