Surviving Bo Ryan’s War on Wisconsin Basketball, and Loving the Badgers Just the Same
I am from Wisconsin, a fact I was reminded of, over and over again, on Facebook this past weekend. I couldn’t look at the site without friends and family constantly sharing their feelings about the UW-Madison Badgers, their Elite Eight victory over Arizona, and their trip to the Final Four. I live in Phoenix now, and have a small Wisconsin contingent. I had no real plans to watch the Badgers-Wildcats game. I decided to join up with friends at a bar in Tempe only at the last minute.
I wanted to cheer against my buddy Brian. The two of us have known one another since we were kids, and our friendship has always revolved around finding the best way to annoy one another.
Usually, our attempts to rile each other up don’t involve sports. Growing up together, we were both fans of Wisconsin-based teams. That used to include the Badgers. But as I’ve journeyed down the basketball rabbit hole throughout my career, objectivity has replaced fandom. The only emotional connections I have to teams these days are with the high school ones I coach. Perhaps that’s why I spent the morning of the game guiltlessly harassing my buddy (and his poor wife, who is also a Badger fan). I even goaded both of them into betting on the game. For me, it seemed like the only way I could develop a sincere rooting interest.
In all my years of being around basketball, I’ve never known a team quite as well as the 1999-2000 Badgers. From Charlie Wills’s wide-stance jumper to Maurice Linton’s grab bag of hanging, off-balance leaners, to the fact that Duany Duany’s name was Duany Duany, I knew every idiosyncrasy. I used to pore over box scores and plan my life around each game. I can still hear in my head the way longtime Badger play-by-play man Matt Lepay used to excitedly draw out the first name of reserve guard Travon Davis after a big play.
The biggest reason I was drawn to this team was a guy named Mike Kelley.
One of my earliest sports memories was watching Kelley play in high school (he went to Pius XI, which is near where I grew up); I attended with my older brother, who was getting his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin. I was 12, so I was a little young to be considered a scout; I just knew my brother was a big Badgers fan and he was excited about this kid, so I probably should be, too.
I don’t remember much about that game other than this scrappy 6-foot-3 kid making the opposing team miserable with his tenacious play. Mike Kelley invented Aaron Craft that night. That performance was only a precursor to what a big deal he was about to become. During his junior season at Wisconsin, he won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Game in, game out, Kelley dismantled the opposing team’s top scorer, leading the Badgers to a Final Four appearance. Kelley blanketed, pestered, and outworked his marks until they hovered on the brink of emotional collapse.
During Wisconsin’s improbable tournament run, he also bested a string of future pros. Courtney Alexander from Fresno State got completely shut down; Gilbert Arenas (!!!) from Arizona didn’t fare much better in the round of 32. LSU’s Stromile Swift and Purdue’s Jaraan Cornell (OK, so he was never a pro, but still) also felt his wrath. I’ll never forget a shell-shocked Swift looking like he didn’t want to be on the court by the end of the game.
After all that, my now-15-year-old self had every reason to believe Kelley was destined to end up as the starting point guard for my hometown Milwaukee Bucks. I was certain that every Badger on that team — particularly Kelley, Linton, and sweet-shooting guard Jon Bryant — was on his way to the NBA. If someone told me then that I’d eventually reach a point in my life where I’d playfully cheer against the Badgers in a huge NCAA tournament game, I would not have believed them. Mike Kelley and the rest of that team indoctrinated me into Wisconsin basketball fandom for life.
Or so I thought.
There are two reasons for the demise of my Badger fandom: Bo Ryan and Wisconsin high school basketball.
When I started coaching Wisconsin high school ball back in the late ’00s, Ryan’s trademark “swing” offense had infiltrated girls’ and boys’ programs across the state. It seemed like every team outside of Milwaukee ran some version of the offense. Because of his success, Ryan was revered by high school coaches across the state. So it didn’t bother anyone that the offense sucked the life out of games, all over the state, just like it did in Madison.
Basketball is being played faster and more aggressively than ever before, yet here is Ryan gaming the system with his über-conservative approach. Go slow, don’t turn the ball over, play defense. Ryan champions smashmouth in the era of the spread. It leads to wins, but basketball doesn’t get more unappealing than that.
In the winter of 2012, I signed up to be an assistant for a boys’ program in the southeastern part of the state. I wanted to play fast, spread the floor, run lots of pick-and-rolls, and play with a purpose on offense. I liked to think of myself as this brash, young assistant trying to bring the NBA to high school basketball. This is easier said than done, espeically when, because of Ryan’s influence, I was constantly coaching in games straight out of Hoosiers.
I resented the team I used to love. Everything about the way the Badgers won — the kowtowing to bland seniority in the face of bold young talent, the unrelenting defense, and, of course, the long possessions filled with pointless passing that stalled the game — drove me crazy. Ryan’s teams represented everything I believed to be fundamentally evil about old-school basketball. I didn’t necessarily want to see the Badgers lose. I just didn’t want their style of play to be rewarded with wins.
As the second half wore on in that Arizona game, my apathy began to fade with it. As time wound down in regulation, despite the meager financial reward in it for me if the Badgers failed, it dawned on me that, while I wasn’t living and dying with every play like my friends, I definitely had some emotions invested in this outcome. I didn’t feel compelled to unleash an emotional outburst like I did 14 years ago, when Kelley would jump a passing lane for a steal leading to an easy layup, but each big shot down the stretch brought with it a mental fist-pump. On the last possession of the game, like every other Badger fan, I began to wonder if the overturned call would lead to an agonizing last-second defeat.
When Arizona’s Nick Johnson failed to get his shot off before the final buzzer, my friends at the bar exploded with excitement, high-fiving and hugging before demanding the bar play “Jump Around” by House of Pain. I didn’t join in, other than giving Brian and his wife dap for winning the bet. I mostly just sat back and watched the Badgers celebrate on TV.
Ryan soon came on for an emotional interview. After it was over, he faded into the swarm of happy figures behind him, only to reemerge, as his team began to cut down the net, with a flat-billed baseball cap awkwardly sitting atop his head. I felt a small rush of pride come over me as I watched the man who had unknowingly become my nemesis climb the ladder and snare his prize.
I guess nothing can kill fandom. Not even Bo Ryan.