Tom Crean has the best college basketball team in the country right now. His Indiana Hoosiers are 8-0. This does not mean that, come March, it will be the best college basketball team in the country. In fact, as things develop, Indiana may not be as good by then as two teams — Georgetown and North Carolina — it has already beaten quite handily. (Last Tuesday, the Hoosiers left the Tar Heels in sticks and splinters, 83-59, in what was probably the best performance by any team yet this season. The Hoyas looked pretty lousy against Tennessee on Friday, however, so it might take them a little longer.) On Saturday night, though, after Indiana had shaken off muddy first-half shooting to beat Coppin State, 87-51, at home, Crean wasn’t talking about the present or the future. He was talking about the past.
At halftime, word had spread throughout Assembly Hall that Rick Majerus, the veteran coach who most recently worked at Saint Louis University, had passed away from heart failure at the age of 64. Long ago, Majerus was an assistant under Al McGuire at Marquette, where Crean was the coach from 1999 to 2007. One of Majerus’s jobs was to be a sort of liaison between the team and freaky student fans like, well, me. Among the real pleasures of this arrangement was that we also got to meet Rick’s late father, Ray, who was a national executive with the United Auto Workers, and a living, walking history of the labor movement in Wisconsin — which is to say in the country — who was around the campus sometimes while the team was practicing. All of the other pleasures involved knowing Rick himself. It was a tough night Saturday.
(And, not for nothing, but people should cool it with the jolly-fat-guy reminiscences. Ray died of heart failure in 1987. Rick was obese and had heart trouble and knew very well what it was doing to him. Food killed Rick Majerus just as surely as drugs killed Len Bias. It just took longer. That he played it for laughs through most of his life seems banal and sadly beside the point today.)
When he was running the program in Milwaukee, Crean took it as part of his job to reestablish a connection between Marquette’s glory years and his own teams. He brought back old players, retired a number of jerseys, honored the 1974 Final Four team, and kept in close touch with McGuire, Hank Raymonds, and Majerus. (Crean was coaching the Golden Eagles when McGuire died in 2001, and he spearheaded drives to name the court on which Marquette plays, and a new all-purpose athletic facility, after the former coach.) Now, of course, he is in a similar position. Indiana’s basketball history and tradition is even longer and wider than Marquette’s was, and it had fallen into an even deeper ditch. (The program nearly self-destructed under Crean’s immediate predecessor, Kelvin Sampson, who, with hubris that would embarrass a sultan, proceeded to transplant to the IU program all the shenanigans that had put Oklahoma in NCAA jail when Sampson coached there.) Moreover, while McGuire was universally beloved at Marquette and was ready at all times to take Crean’s call, the giant figure of Indiana basketball, Bob Knight, is a figure of no little ambivalence in Bloomington, his departure having been incredibly nasty and his subsequent behavior bespeaking no little bitterness. (Knight, of course, works for ESPN, Grantland’s mothership, and the Georgia-Indiana game in Brooklyn this season was the first Hoosiers game he’d called since leaving the program.) Crean’s political task at Indiana in this regard is an infinitely more delicate one.
After beating Coppin, Crean talked a long time about Majerus, and about his days at Marquette, and about the work he did reestablishing the tradition there. Hanging over everything Crean said, of course, was the fact that he is doing it all over again at Indiana, on a larger and much more complicated stage, and doing it with what might be a great team even by the standards of the history of which he is now a part.
“First off, when it comes to the two unique cases of Marquette and Indiana, those are the first two national championship games I ever watched,” he said. “I grew up on that. I was already enamored, even though I lived in Michigan, I was already enamored with the history. You want to share it with the guys that did it and with the guys who are in it now. I always saw that as an unbelievable learning opportunity to them. When you’re playing somewhere, you’re a renter. But, when you leave now, you own it. We wanted those guys, when they came back, to own it, to always know that we knew they were the owners.
“You can forget about the tradition. You can lose track of the history. You can lose culture. We lost culture. We never lost the tradition. If we’d lost the tradition, we wouldn’t have this. We did lose the culture and that’s where the former players had to come back and help us get that, and they did. But you can’t lose the tradition. It’s always there.”
First off, Crean’s current team is a wonderful mixture of talent and brains. They started off against Coppin unable to throw the ball into Beanblossom Creek, falling behind 9-2, before asserting themselves to go up 33-19 at halftime. Then, on the opening possession of the second half, Indiana guard Victor Oladipo stepped in, pilfered the inbound pass, and sailed in for a dunk. That began a defense-fueled 54-point second half to which Oladipo was central. At 6-foot-5, with a considerable wingspan, Oladipo is a complete pain in the ass all over the floor, deflecting passes — 20 of them Saturday night, by Crean’s reckoning — and running down dribblers from behind to poke the ball away. He anchored the point of a half-court trap that broke the Coppin offense down almost completely, and he scored 14 points himself. “It’s hard to explain,” said Oladipo, who came to Indiana from old-school powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland. “When I’m up at the top, I’m not exactly reading the guy’s eyes, because a lot of guys look one way and pass the other, so you have to read other signs. Sometimes, I’m kind of reading how many dribbles the guy’s taking.
“At the top of the zone, you’ve got to make him believe that you’re not really guarding him. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been at the top of the zone since I was in high school.”
Oladipo aside, Crean’s diligence in reviving the Indiana basketball culture has had a pragmatic side as well. The accumulated ill feeling surrounding Knight’s departure, followed by the tenure of Mike Davis, which had a nasty undercurrent to it because some of the Knight irreconcilables never made peace with the fact he was gone, and then followed by the renegade program run by Sampson, had withered Indiana’s ability to tap the rich reservoir of in-state talent that always had been the source of the program’s strength. Since arriving in Bloomington in 2008, Crean traveled Indiana, selling the program on its historical merits. That landed him Jordan Hulls of Bloomington and, more notably, Cody Zeller, the deft and talented center from a basketball family in Washington, Indiana, who very likely will go in the first round of whatever NBA draft he decides to enter. (On Saturday night, the most impressive thing about Zeller’s game was his patience. Gummed up by the Coppin zone, he forced nothing and contented himself with playing defense and rebounding. He scored nine points and nevertheless was completely dominant on the inside.) Taken together, the heart of what Indiana is this year is not in any way dissimilar to the heart of what it was in 1976 — or in 1940, for all that.
“When we got here, we had no choice,” Crean said.”The only leadership we could fall back on were the former players. We couldn’t get enough guys here to speak because we were starting over. Our first summer, we did a two-day thing, we had Don Fischer, Kent Benson, Todd Leary, Chris Reynolds, Steve Green, and Tom Abernethy. All those guys. Calbert Cheaney came back here that year six times on his own dime, and now he’s working here.”
On his way out of the interview room, Oladipo stopped and talked with Bob Hammel, the local Indiana beat writer who had been Bob Knight’s amanuensis throughout Knight’s entire stormy tenure in Bloomington. In fact, Hammel was central to the strangest interview of my career. In 1991, while I was working for The National, prior to our unfortunate accident while docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey, I went out to Indiana to work on a story about the 15th anniversary of the 1976 national championship team, which had gone through the entire season undefeated. (At that time, UNLV was on the verge of doing the same thing, but eventually lost to Duke in the national semifinals in, oddly enough, Indianapolis.) I talked to almost every player on Indiana’s 1976 roster, and the coach was my last interview.
I was told to meet him after practice. This already was not promising; Indiana was a good team that year, but not a great one, and Knight was never a field of buttercups after practice even in the best of times — which, after all, was what I was coming to talk to him about. Knight and Hammel and I adjourned to Knight’s office, whereupon he proceeded to give me what has to be the world’s longest string of monosyllables. It was like interviewing Tarzan. But, at one point, Knight said something about a particular game, and Hammel jumped in and corrected him. Knight’s face lit up and then he and Hammel embarked on a 90-minute conversation about that season that was brilliant and insightful and that I wish had gone on for four more hours. I was allowed to keep the tape running. The ground rule, apparently, was that Knight would answer all my questions as long as Hammel asked them. (I still owe Hammel for this, by the way.) That oddball combination of genius and truculence and Christ-alone-knows-what-else is as much a part of the Indiana tradition that Crean has tried so hard to revive as Branch McCracken is. And, watching Victor Oladipo bend over and touch Hammel gently on the shoulder, I realized that, for all the work he’s done, Tom Crean still has one very big, besweatered elephant sitting in the corner of his office at Indiana University.
In the pregame video in Assembly Hall, Knight features prominently in the section about the 1970s. His image always gets a wild cheer from the stands but, truth be told, the cheer isn’t any wilder than the one that greets the clip of Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater that beat Kentucky last year in what is the signature triumph of Crean’s career at Indiana. But the question remains whether or not it is within Crean’s ability — or, in fact, within the ability of anyone except Knight himself — to smooth out the history and the tradition so that Knight’s part of it and Watford’s part of it are a seamless whole.
“I grew up a Bob Knight fan. I read anything and everything I could possibly read on him,” Crean says. “I’ve picked those players’ brains. I have a giant file of Bob Knight stuff upstairs, and having Bob Hammel here is like, you can’t have a bigger or better historian.
“I don’t allow myself or the program to get caught up in the politics because the bottom line is, these kids would love to meet him some day. I’d love someday for these guys to meet him. They love basketball. They know what Bob Knight has done. I would love for him to meet all of them.
“We brought the 1953 team into our locker room. I get all that. I think that’s what it is now. It’s not hard for me. Bob Knight has got to know there’s an open door here. If he ever came back here, you couldn’t start the game for an hour. I choose to look at it like, we’re never, ever going to stop honoring him here. I stay out of it but nothing could change my respect level for him as a coach.”
The first thing Al McGuire taught Tom Crean when Crean took over at Marquette was not to worry about competing against the past. “He told me, ‘You don’t have to worry about matching up with what I did,’” Crean said. That was why he came to know Rick Majerus, whose passing so moved him over the weekend. That also freed him up, and enabled him to honor the past while creating a present. He has the same job here now, with a team that might just be good enough to do it, and you can’t help but wonder why history has to be such a burden. There are blessings to it as well, if you just know where to look.