Tourney coaches who wiseguys love 

March, 27, 2013

At the 10:30 mark of the UNC-Kansas game last weekend, with UNC up 14-6, I thought to myself: I'm watching a pickup game in a really nice stadium.

There was one summer, many years ago when I lived in New York, when all I did was watch pickup games. It was working on a book on the subject with a then fellow reporter at Sports Illustrated named Lars Anderson. We both traveled all over the country, from Chicago to Philly to Indiana to L.A. to D.C. to Idaho. But most of the time we hitched a subway to different boroughs throughout New York.

Everyone likes to think the best pickup games in New York are at West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. But they're not. And they haven't been for a very long time. Back then, in the late 1990s, they were in Brooklyn at Tillary Park, where a kid named Booger Smith used to run a maze through everyone who tried to D him up. Booger couldn't shoot, not even a layup, but he could handle the ball as though it were webbed to his hand. And his passes came from every angle; no one he played with was good enough to see where he was going with the ball, so his artistry was almost always unfinished. Watching Booger hang his head as he walked back down the court, you began to understand why so many painters and authors and musicians are loners: God forbid they had to rely on someone else to give their work an ending.

Booger was all I could think about as the UNC-Kansas game played out in the first half. Pickup games don't have coaches. Guys just run up and down the court looking for their shot. It's one pass and heave it up; like an NBA All-Star Game with players who aren't as good. And the Jayhawks and the Tar Heels didn't seem to have coaches helping them very much. It wasn't until that 10:30 mark in the first half when Kansas had a designed play that led to a made layup, by Travis Releford on an assist from Ben McLemore. At that point, the score was 14-6, UNC.

I confess that I did nothing but watch college basketball all weekend, taking advantage of the fact my older son had strep throat. I decided I would "watch" him while he was laid up. By the time UNC-Kansas came on, I had seen approximately 1 million minutes of basketball. But it was the first game I watched on Saturday, between Michigan and VCU, that struck me as the complete opposite of that UNC-Kansas game. Michigan was sublime against VCU's feared pressure defense. Its players were cutting and weaving and generally making VCU's spidery guards look harmless. Wolverines coach John Beilein put together a game plan that appeared to have been crafted over months, not hours. And when it became clear that Kansas would advance to play Michigan in the Sweet 16 this coming weekend, it was the one game I knew wiseguys were going to jump on.