If I had to describe the Final Four in only thirteen words, this is what I’d say: It’s essentially just a weeklong circus with a few basketball games thrown in. We arrived in Atlanta four or five days before our first game against Georgetown because there were all sorts of practices, banquets, meetings, and media commitments we had to tend to before the game.1 But even though all of the hoopla got annoying pretty quickly, I never got sick of the media sessions held in our locker room every day before and after our practices.
Since I was a freshman walk-on and was therefore entirely unknown, nobody in the media ever wanted to interview me, which is to say that I had nothing but free time during these sessions. And it goes without saying that I used this free time to do everything in my power to distract my teammates as they were getting interviewed. The way I saw it, no teammate and no method of distraction was off-limits.
My favorite move was to stand behind the interviewer and violently thrust my hips with a goofy look on my face (think of Ace Ventura in front of all the cops after he solved the Roger Podacter murder case), but every now and then I’d throw in a Happy Gilmore “riding the bull” dance just to mix things up. When reporters would swarm around Greg [Oden] and shove their tape recorders in his face, I’d grab my cell phone, join the cluster, and make it my goal to see if I could get close enough to actually have my phone touch Greg’s face.
The crowning achievement of my interview-distracting career was no doubt when I stood behind a guy interviewing power forward Ivan Harris on TV and tried to show Ivan that he had a booger hanging out of his nose. This went on for a few minutes until Ivan eventually saw me out of the corner of his eye and said to the interviewer, “We’re just going to go out and play our game and … hold up — do I have a booger in my nose? Hang on a sec. I gotta go to the bathroom real quick and take care of this.”
It may seem like I was an ass for distracting my teammates, but the truth is that everyone on the team pulled pranks on one another all throughout the year, so by the time the Final Four came around, doing things like distracting teammates during interviews was pretty common among our team. Besides, I got my fair share of pranks pulled on me, it’s just that I’m purposely choosing not to write about them because I refuse to give my teammates the satisfaction of knowing their prank on me was successful. Anyway, the point is that it was all good-natured because we were an extremely close-knit group of guys who genuinely loved being around one another, which is something that can’t be said about other Ohio State teams I was on. This camaraderie wasn’t limited to just the players, though, as many of our coaches also felt a strong bond with our team and weren’t afraid to have some fun with us.
Perhaps the best example of this happened at one of our open practices at the Georgia Dome. We were forced to have open practices at every stop along the way of the NCAA tournament, but at the Final Four these practices generated a lot more fan interest and were more for show than they were during the first few rounds of the tournament. Since it was basically just an exhibition for the fans, Coach Matta, who was mic’d up by ESPN, decided not to show too much from a strategic or conceptual standpoint and let us just shoot around the entire time. Midway through the practice, he walked over to me, covered the microphone that was clipped on his shirt, and told me he wanted to have some fun. He said, “I like to think that there’s some guy in a trailer outside the arena right now closely listening to everything I’m saying. Let’s confuse the hell out of him.”
This sounded like a great idea, so I told him I’d play along with anything he said. A few minutes later, Coach Matta called my name.
“What’s up, Coach?” I asked as I approached him.
He put his arm around me. “Listen, Mark, we’ve already established that you’re our secret weapon and we’re gonna play you at least 30 minutes on Saturday. But if you keep shooting this badly, I’ll have no choice but to play Oden over you. I mean, I’ve watched your last 10 shots and I honestly can’t tell if you’re trying to shoot a basketball through a basket or if you’re trying to put your dick in your own ass. Well, I got news for you. You gotta pull your head out of your ass before you can put your dick in there. Now get your shit together, go back out there, and make a shot.”
Is that exactly what he said? Probably not. But he definitely hinted at a plan to play me most of the game instead of Greg, he said something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, he cursed a lot, and he calmly scolded me for being terrible. So that’s close enough. Either way, I remember verbatim what he said when practice was over and all the players gathered around him for his standard post-practice talk.
After we all congregated at half court and waited for him to share his thoughts on how practice went or whatever else he had on his mind, Coach [Thad] Matta (still mic’d up) stepped into the middle of the group and said with a straight face, “All right, guys, let’s go ahead and start our usual post-practice routine. Everyone drop your drawers to your ankles and let’s get this circle-jerk going.”
By the time our game against Georgetown rolled around, nobody on our team seriously thought we had any chance of losing. Georgetown was good and had a handful of solid players (led by Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who are now on the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, respectively), but they were methodical on offense and we were confident that we understood their system well enough to stifle them. Heading into the game, all the focus was on the matchup between Greg and Hibbert because both guys were seven-footers who could defensively dominate the game, but Greg picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and sat on the bench for pretty much the entire first half. It wasn’t looking good for us early on, but the rest of the guys on the team stepped up, and we took a four-point lead into halftime.
The second half played out a lot like the first, with the big exception being that Greg was back on the floor. To be honest, most of the game was pretty boring to me because of the combination of Georgetown’s style of play and the fact that I never once thought we could possibly lose. Thankfully, though, Greg made things exciting for a brief moment in time when he trailed a fast break, caught a pass from Jamar [Butler] as he was steamrolling his way toward the basket, and proceeded to execute the greatest missed dunk I have ever seen in my life. Greg caught the ball just inside the free throw line, collected himself, jumped from about six feet away from the basket, and tried to put his testicles in Jeff Green’s mouth as his head rose above the rim.
It was such an impressive missed dunk that Ohio State fans still use the picture of Greg at his apex with our entire bench rising in anticipation as their computer background picture or their Facebook picture, which suggests that they’ve decided to reject reality and just pretend that he actually made the dunk. (It should be noted that although Greg missed, a foul was called on Jeff Green.) Anyway, other than that missed dunk and the fact that it put us in the national championship for a shot at redemption against Florida, there isn’t much I remember about that game.
Heading into our rematch with Florida, I had a weird sense of confidence. They were the defending national champions, they had beaten us earlier in the year by 26, and they were led by the greatest women’s basketball player of all time in Joakim Noah, but for some reason I honestly thought we had a legitimate chance to win because they would be overconfident or something. During the pregame warm-up, though, my confidence quickly vanished thanks to Daequan Cook, who now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder. While the rest of the team was getting prepared for the biggest game of their lives, I stood on the sideline to let the real players have enough room to do whatever it was they had to do to get ready. Daequan noticed me standing off to the side and decided to come talk to me instead of focusing all of his attention toward warming up, because of course he did.
“Well, Bru,” he said (he always called me “Bru” or “Brutus” because he thought I looked like Ohio State’s mascot — whatever that means), “looks like this is going to be our last game together.” After being teammates for the previous five years (at Ohio State and on our AAU team), I took this statement as Daequan’s way of telling me that he was going to go to the NBA instead of returning to Ohio State for his sophomore year. Forget the fact that I thought it was a bad decision for him to leave early. I was more concerned with him telling me about his decision 10 minutes before the national championship game was set to tip off, which was a pretty good sign that he didn’t have his priorities lined up all that well.
It’s okay, though, because he surprised everyone and played out of his mind once the game started. Wait, never mind. He actually scored two points and only played nine minutes because he screwed up on so many inbounds plays that his mental errors directly led to 10 Florida points and Coach Matta couldn’t risk playing him any more after that. Sorry about that mix-up.
Other than Daequan not being mentally prepared for the game, the other fatal mistake our team made was Coach Matta’s decision to keep me on the bench. You see, right after the starting lineups were announced, I approached Coach Matta and explained to him that I had five fouls to give and they’d go to waste if I didn’t use them, so if he should need me to go in and violently foul Joakim Noah or Al Horford, just to send a message, I was more than ready. I mean, Temple coach John Chaney used this strategy against St. Joe’s in 2005 (when he infamously referred to his player as a “goon” — which makes it sound like the kid should’ve been playing for the Monstars), so it wouldn’t have been a completely unprecedented move. Nonetheless, Coach Matta just laughed and told me he’d “keep that in mind.” But here’s the thing: He didn’t keep it in mind. At all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he had his mind made up all along that he wasn’t going to play me. I’m not saying that this is why we lost, but then again, I’m not saying it’s not.
After we lost by nine in a hard-fought game, I walked off the court with a hanging head as orange and blue confetti fell from the rafters and thousands of Florida fans did their Gator Chomp. We came so close to achieving something I had dreamed about my entire life, but we were stopped short by a team featuring a guy whose ponytail looked like a wad of pubes. It was, without a doubt, the most demoralizing feeling of my life.
As I took one last look at the throngs of Gator fans cheering, I couldn’t help but think that our season wasn’t supposed to end this way. It felt like I was watching a terrible finish to an otherwise great sports movie. Like if Jimmy Chitwood airballed what would have been the game-winning shot, fell into a deep depression, and died a week later on his bedroom floor with an empty bottle of painkillers in one hand and a half-full bottle of Jack in the other. Or if the Giants were destroyed by the Cowboys in The Little Giants because Icebox realized she wasn’t a lesbian and decided to stay on the cheerleading team. Or if Rudy didn’t get to play in the last game because he was mouth-raped by the team captain in an act of hazing and decided to quit a month before.
Yeah, that’s exactly what it felt like.
About a week after we lost the national championship, we held a rally for Ohio State fans at our arena that looked back on one of the best seasons of Ohio State basketball ever and gave people a chance to say good-bye to Greg and the seniors (and, of course, Daequan). Even though everyone had a pretty good idea that Greg was going to go to the NBA, Ohio State fans figured it was at least worth a shot to try to persuade him to stay. As the team was introduced, the few thousand people in the stands burst into a “One more year!” chant that drowned out whatever was being said by whoever had the microphone. Once the chanting subsided, the interview portion of the rally started, with fellow benchwarmer Danny Peters and me as the first players interviewed.
Ohio State basketball legends Bill Hosket and Ronnie Stokes conducted the interview, and since the entire thing was scripted, I knew going in that these two guys were just going to toss us one or two questions so they could quickly get to interviewing the good players without making us feel left out. Hosket said, “Both of you guys started the season in a unique way, as team managers. And then obviously became an integral part of this basketball team.” I still can’t tell if this was meant to be a joke — for his sake, I hope it was. “Tell us a little bit about that transition.”
Danny and I had already planned for me to field the first question, so I leaned into the microphone and went for it: “First I’d just like to make an announcement real quick. I hear the fans chanting, ‘One more year,’ and I just wanted everyone to know that after sitting down with my family we’ve decided that I’ll be back next year!”
I stood up and waved to the crowd as they ripped into a perfect combination of applause and laughter for 10 to 15 seconds. The next day all sorts of articles appeared online and in our local newspaper about the pep rally, and I was the focal point of seemingly every one of them. Everywhere I went for the next week I was recognized as that basketball walk-on who said he’d be coming back for his sophomore season. My announcement received infinitely more attention than I ever anticipated it would, and the people of Columbus and the Ohio State fans were eating it up.
And just like that, my “legend” was born.
From the book Don’t Put Me In, Coach
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Titus.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.