Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cinderella story

In law school I spent three years writing for Hoops, the school newspaper. Its unusual name derived from the hoops one must jump through to become a lawyer, but many people assumed it had something to do with basketball. In a sense, today marks the first time I've "written hoops" since then.

As for the hardwood hoops, I used to play quite a bit. From junior to senior year of high school, my height shot up from 5'8" to a little over 6'4", and despite my general lack of skill, I had a great time playing with my friends. Who cared that I missed a layup for every shot I blocked? Or that with my gravity-obeying vertical leap, I still played 5'8"? It was fun. I played a lot in college too.

I've since gravitated to playing tennis and volleyball, and also drifted away from basketball as a fan. What was once an acute sensitivity to the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls turns out to have been a chronic case of Jordanitis; soon after he retired, I was cured. I'd rather play than watch sports, but if I'm going to watch, I'll take baseball, football or tennis.

Having said all that, I would be remiss if I didn't salute the remarkable accomplishments of the 2007-08 Drake Bulldogs basketball team. My brother Ari is a proud Drake alum, and the more I've learned about their season over the last month or so, the more impressed I am. It's a heartwarming story.

Drake is a Division I school but one without a strong basketball tradition, best known for the Drake Relays track meet. They did make a Final Four appearance in 1969, where they nearly upset the Lew Alcindor-led UCLA in the semifinals, but haven't returned to the NCAA tournament since 1971, before any of their current players was born.

After Drake graduated four senior starters last summer, nobody expected them to do much this year either; the preseason Missouri Valley Conference coaches' poll picked them to finish ninth out of ten teams. Heck, their own coach picked them to finish sixth.

And yet. Out of nowhere, with a ragtag group of lightly recruited players, Drake has made mincemeat of everyone this year, reeling off a 21-game winning streak en route to a school-record 28 wins including one over #8 Butler on the road. They've lost only four games (by a total of 13 points) in becoming the story of the year in college basketball.

They've romped, blown out, rolled, outclassed, outshot and outsmarted, winning with three-pointers, brains, unselfishness and aggressive trapping defense. This despite having only two players taller than 6'6". Drake makes up for its lack of size by spreading the floor, starting four legitimate three-point threats. They score in bunches by hitting a lot of threes and create long rebounds when they miss, which compensates for their smaller lineup.

Drake's everyman intrigue is fresh and appealing; several of its star players are walk-ons. That isn't supposed to happen anywhere, much less at a mid-size private school.

The team leader, six-foot-one Adam Emmenecker, epitomizes the feel-good story. A high school baseball standout, he passed on a Boston College scholarship offer to pursue his greater love, basketball. Over his dad's wishes, he also passed on sure playing time at smaller schools to walk on at Drake. He only started two games before this year, averaged 0.9 points per game, and didn't even have a scholarship until this, his senior season. Just another obscure college hoopster.

But the kid knows what to do with a basketball. Promoted to starter this year, he's made the most of the opportunity, confidently running his team's offense and setting assist records. He's also tough, leading the nation in rebounding among point guards. In the nationally televised Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game, Emmenecker looked like a young Bob Cousy or Pete Maravich, distributing the rock with nifty passes and floating delicate, fluttery shots past bigger guys. CBS' Dick Enberg was positively giddy telling Emmenecker's (and Drake's) underdog tale.

Look at him now. Emmenecker's gone from unrecruited benchwarmer to starting point guard to conference MVP to conference tournament most outstanding player to nationally reported Horatio Alger story leading his team into the NCAA tournament.

He's just as accomplished in the classroom. The national Academic All-American of the year, Emmenecker has more academic majors (four) than career three-pointers made (zero). The lone B on his four-year report card ("by two points!") marred his otherwise perfect academic record, but his 3.97 GPA remains impressive. Emmenecker has already accepted a job offer at a financial firm, but his basketball renaissance could lead to a change of career plans.

Drake, meanwhile, is the only school in the country with a first-team Academic All-American on both its men's and women's basketball teams. The men's starting five boast an average GPA of 3.4 and their coach, Keno Davis, looks pretty smart too. He just celebrated his 36th birthday by being named the Sporting News' national coach of the year.

Another Drake star, Klayton Korver, comes from a family of basketball standouts. His mother once scored 73 points in a high school game and his older brother Kyle, a two-time Missouri Valley Conference MVP for Creighton, led the NBA in three-point baskets a few years ago. Little brother is playing like he belongs there too.

Between Emmenecker's floor leadership and his teammates' raining in threes from all over the court (including 3 of 5 from 6'8" forward and fellow walk-on Jonathan "Bucky" Cox), Drake trounced Illinois State by thirty points in the Valley title game, cruising home after a 19-0 run in the first half. (Amusingly, the St. Louis-based tournament is known as "Arch Madness.") The blowout loss is probably what bounced otherwise solid-looking ISU from the NCAA tournament.

Now, for the first time in 37 years, Drake's heading back to the big dance, where they tip off midday Friday in Tampa against Western Kentucky. If they win, they'll probably get UConn on Sunday.

Drake's long-suffering fans and players have waited a long time for a return trip to March Madness. I hope they get through this weekend unscathed and extend the fun for another week. I mean, I hope they win the whole thing, but let's get them to the Sweet 16 first.

Congratulations, Drake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo Ben and congratulations on remembering schools that truly epitomize a Mid West attitude.