College Basketball Greats of the Past: Steve Wojciechowski

The second entry in an ongoing series. 

 

“Wojo is hurt.”

Wojo needed to be hurt there. Because in order for Wojo to stand up and clap and show Inspirational Leadership, he first needed to be twisted up like a pipe cleaner by Jamaal Magloire. It’s the only way this meant anything.

I doubt Steve Wojciechowski invented this brand of college basketball player, but he certainly helped its popularity. Aaron Craft is fives times more famous than he ought to be, and he should send Steve Wojciechowski a iTunes gift card to thank him for it.

It wasn’t that Wojo was a bad player … Actually, yes it was. Steve Wojciechowski was a bad player. He shot 39 percent from the floor. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.6 assists as a senior. He was the point guard of the worst Duke team of the Mike Krzyzewski era, the 1994-95 group that lost 18 games and went 2-14 in ACC play.

But here was the thing: Krzyzewski got sick that year, and had to sit out most of the season. This was actually good for Steve Wojciechowski’s legacy in the same way it was good for him that Jamaal Magloire tried to rip off his arm. Because in the midst of all that adversity, Wojciechowski’s floor-slapping and floorburn collecting turned him into a mascot. He was this plucky, never-say-die freshman who wasn’t very big and wasn’t much of a player but Played The Game The Right Way. Ordinarily, Duke’s failures would have been blamed on the Blue Devils’ lack of an ACC-caliber point guard — and Duke would have failed that year regardless — but Krzyzewski’s absence washed all that away. It allowed Duke to be an underdog, and nobody played the underdog better than Steve Wojciechowski.

It allowed him to become Wojo.

And we need Wojo for college basketball to seem important. The players in the NBA are way, way better. The level of basketball played in the NBA is superior to the college game to a degree that is comical. Everybody intuitively knows this, even if they don’t like the NBA.  What is important, then, for college basketball fans, is a sense of connection with the players. It’s a feeling that Wojo and I chose the same school and went to the same classes and drank at the same bars and, most importantly, Wojo cares as much as I do and we are in this together. 

Therefore, it is helpful if it seems like your team’s success is largely the result of how much it cares about your school and, by extension, you. When Wojo slaps the floor, he’s not doing it for any practical reason, he’s doing it to communicate to you, the fan, that he is in this foxhole with you, and you will stand and cheer the floor-slapper because, dammit, he might not be able to beat anybody off the dribble but at least you know that makes him as sad as it makes you.

And so we salute you, Steve Wojciechowski, for teaching us that college basketball players aren’t all that good, which is kind of the point.

College Basketball Greats of the Past: T.J. Pugh

Today I begin a blog series which I’m calling “College Basketball Greats of the Past.” Its purpose is not to celebrate those still-famous players that nobody could ever forget like Paul Pierce or J.J. Redick. It’s to celebrate those players that might be forgotten, players whose contributions at the time might have seemed historically insignificant. In other words, the players that make college basketball’s world go ’round.

He’s Dr. T.J. Pugh now, I think. But at the time he was just “Puuuuuuuuuuugh.” He was one of those guys who made it sound like he was getting booed by his own fans, but not in the way that happened to J.R. Giddens.

T.J. Pugh was not a particularly good player. But he wasn’t bad, either. He was about as nondescript as a basketball player can be. He was 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, which is the most average possible size for a collegiate power forward. He was from Omaha, Nebraska, which is the most average city in the Midwest. His senior year, he averaged 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. He shot just under 50 percent from the field and just under 60 percent from the free-throw line. He blocked half a shot per game.

He was adequate.

This being the late 90s, he wore a baggy t-shirt under his uniform. He was not muscular, but you wouldn’t describe him as “lithe” either. I don’t think athletic training was the same then as it is now. T.J. Pugh looked kind of like he’d been spotted shuffling his feet along some broken Omaha sidewalk on the way to a Little Ceasar’s when Roy Williams drove by and asked him if he’d ever played basketball.

I don’t know how stridently Pugh had been recruited. Recruiting information is pretty scarce if you’re going back before about 2003. I’m sure Creighton offered. Probably Nebraska too. There certainly was never a sense of, “Oh man, did you hear about this kid from Omaha KU got?”

And in this way, T.J. Pugh represented everything Kansas basketball has been since at the latest 1989. You hear TV analysts say all the time that KU is just loaded up with McDonald’s All-Americans, but that has almost never been true over the last 20 years. Kansas usually has one or two, and that’s it. Sometimes more, but that’s rare. Whether the coach was Williams or Bill Self, this has been the case.

So there is always room for a T.J. Pugh not just on the roster, but in the rotation. It’s become a real legacy by now. Pugh passed the torch to Bret Ballard, who passed it to Christian Moody, who passed it to Brady Morningstar.

These are players to whom nothing was given, and from whom nothing was expected.

But here is what happens: A couple of years go by, and NBA player or two comes through the program, and suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have enough great players — shot-makers, drivers, etc. — but what you could really use out there is a guy who knows where to go and how to set a good screen and how to reverse the ball to the third side and will slide his feet on defense and doesn’t think he was born to be the hero.

And that’s when you take out C.J. Giles and put in Christian Moody, or you start Brady Morningstar instead of Josh Selby.

That was T.J. Pugh. As a senior, he was better than Lester Earl and (probably) drove a much crappier car. Was he great?

Well, not by your standard definition.

 

Assists aren’t all that, man

Last night on Twitter, people had an epileptic seizure over Flip Pressey’s assist total. The Missouri point guard had 19 assists to go with 19 points in Missouri’s loss to UCLA. It was a remarkable performance. I watched it on the DVR after the fact, and Pressey was spectacular. He might be the best point guard in the country. 

So what I’m about to say is not a reflection of my opinion of Flip Pressey, he just happens to have created the most newsworthy anecdote for this philosophical screed I am about to dump on your head.

Ready?

All you have to do in order to get an assist is throw the ball to someone else. It is the most basic possible action in basketball. It is even more basic than dribbling, in fact, because dribbling was not even allowed when basketball was first invented. At the essence of the game, an offensive player has but two options:

1) Shoot. 

2) Pass. 

Anything else done in basketball — dribbling, rebounding, etc. — is either done in service of (or reaction to) one of those two actions. 

So if your combination circumstance and skill does not allow you to score yourself, you pass it to somebody else who can. That’s pretty much the game. And it’s why the basketball assist is the most overrated sports statistic this side of the RBI. 

This is not to say it is easy to accumulate a great number of assists, necessarily. Anybody who gets more than about 10 assists in a basketball game is clearly adept at getting the ball to advantageous positions on the floor. But he also almost certainly spends the vast majority of the game with the ball in his hands, which may or may not be a good thing. I bet there is a player on every Top 25 team who could average eight assists per game if for some reason his coach told him “I want you to average eight assists per game.”

You have certainly heard the story about Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt, of course, was at the time the most unstoppable force in the history of sports. But because he scored so much and his teams could never win the championship, Wilt started hearing a lot about how he wasn’t a team player. So in 1967-68, Wilt decided to lead the NBA in assists, and that’s then he did. This would change everything, Wilt thought.

Now, this says a lot about Wilt Chamberlain, mainly that in addition to be utterly unguardable he was sadly unable to understand the way public perception works. But it also proves a couple things about the assist, which are that (1) it is not necessarily a selfless act, and (2) a player with the ball in his hands a lot can easily manipulate his assist total.

Any basketball fan can recall a player who seemed to pursue assists for impure reasons. Julian Wright comes to mind for me. I think Julian was probably a good teammate, but he was constantly trying to throw passes when shooting would have been the more efficient and more certain way of scoring the points. A fair number of those passes ended up stuck in a tuba. 

Another reason the assist is a bad statistic is that it fails to account for approximately 90 percent of the reason a basket is scored. The quality of the screen set, the rotation of the defense, the effectiveness of the cut, the position of the other offensive players, and so on. 

Basketball is not a good sport for statistical analysis, because most basketball events lose their meaning when isolated from their context. And no basketball statistic means less than the assist. 

 

 

My grandpa, our hero

My grandfather carried a machine gun through the jungles in Korea and Vietnam. His call sign was “Killer66Yankee.” He wasn’t drafted.

He enlisted in the United States Army when he was just 17. You weren’t supposed to be able to do that, but he lied about his age. He wanted in.

My grandpa had grown up during the Great Depression in Hutchinson, Kansas. When he was a boy he would go around from house to house collecting eggs the hens were laying in people’s back yards, because in those days you could sell your eggs to the neighborhood grocery store.

He was an ornery rascal. There is an underground waterway in Hutchinson, and there’s a story about my grandpa, as a young boy, getting in some hot water for cruising that waterway on an innertube. When he was a teenager, he got his ear pierced. You can imagine how that went over at that time, in the middle of Kansas. He was a boxer, too, and that made sense. Boxing has always been a sport for hardscrabble kids like Arthur Lyman.

That orneriness never left him. Sometimes, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’d see him messing around with one of my nieces or nephews or little cousins, and you’d wonder which one the kid was.

And yet this was a man and he did man’s work. He could fix anything except a car; he hated working on cars. But he’d lick anything else. When I was 13, he and I dug a trench along the side of his house deep enough to patch a crack in the basement wall. He laid the concrete that made my grandparents’ back porch. He built a bathroom, from scratch, in the basement. He repaired other people’s lawnmowers. On the Fourth of July, he made ice cream.

Not too far from my home in Houston, he helped build The Woodlands Mall, back when The Woodlands was still kind of a small thing. I drive past The Woodlands every time I go home.

When, in his final days, some work needed to be done on the house and he was too weak to do it himself, he insisted he be wheeled out there to watch the repairmen work. He wanted to make sure it got done right.

He supposedly retired sometime in the 90s, but he never really stopped working. He was that kind of guy.

But he was also this kind of guy: My mom says that never, in her whole life, did she see him not clean his plate of whatever her mom served him, whether it was any good or not. Never heard him complain. My mom must have told me that 20 years ago, which would have been about 20 years after she moved out. It’s such a small thing, but look at the impression it’s made.

Grandpa had a Jeep I used to ride in. When he took trips he always had to have Jelly Beans. That Jeep smelled like cigarettes — Winstons, the hard stuff. He quit years ago, but they still got him. He’d been getting treatment for lung cancer. Last night it took him.

A couple of years ago on Veteran’s Day my sister and I posted a couple things on Facebook about our grandfather and our appreciation for his service. He wasn’t on Facebook, of course, but my other sister e-mailed him what we’d written.

He wrote back: “I served my country for you.”

What doesn’t kill you probably makes you a moron

For a long time, I have wondered why anybody ever uses the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is supposed to be empowering, I suppose. But there are lots of other choices when it comes to empowering little sayings, and most of them are at least kind of true.

This one isn’t even the least bit true. At the risk of being pedantic and obvious, I am going to explain why, because apparently this actually does need to be explained.

A nonexhaustive list of things that wouldn’t necessarily kill you but definitely would not make you stronger:

  • Losing a leg.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Muscular atrophy.
  • Alcoholism.
  • A donut.
  • Anxiety.
  • Cataracts.
  • Bullet in the leg.
  • Bear trap.
  • Etc.

I know this saying is supposed to be partially metaphorical. Seems that it is most commonly used by young women who are making a vague reference to a romantic relationship. I am painting with an awfully broad brush, here, but in my personal experience the people most likely to apply this saying to their love life are the people who are constantly experiencing destructive relationships. In other words, they do not seem to be getting any stronger, and certainly not any smarter. They do, however, write things with MiSplaCeD CaPiTalS (for some reason) and take self-portraits in the bathroom mirror.

These kinds of people are especially fond of this saying for two main reasons: (1) It allows them to perceive their self-destructive behaviors as a type of delayed-gratification self-improvement, a tearing down in order to build back up, like they’re lifting weights, and, (2) they’re morons.

Most people can see that this saying is inaccurate and mostly meaningless, but the people who can see that aren’t the ones who need it to be true and meaningful, because they can view their own experiences with at least a marginal degree of objectivity.

Most of us (if we find any sort of inspiration in little sayings at all), can get by on more realistic, practical sayings, like the following;

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson.

“Keep sawin’ wood.” — Mark Mangino.

And

“Remember to always be yourself, unless you suck.” — Joss Whedon.

The Ironic Athlete is coming

Sometime soon, there will be a true hipster basketball player. He will be a point guard from Brooklyn, and he’ll be one of the top 25 players in his class. His recruitment will be a national story. He will take visits to all the big schools. Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, etc. And he will take lots and lots of other visits to schools he has no interest in attending whatsoever. Miami, Seton Hall, Washington, etc.

And then, on signing day, he will have a “press conference” in the library at his high school. When it comes time to announce his decision, he will pull out a Nebraska letterman’s sweater.

Someone will ask him why he chose Nebraska.

“I just thought it would be hilarious,” he will say. “Like, me at Nebraska. It’s so funny to me.”

He will be the first player to choose a school for its ironical impact.

Athletes and irony do not (intentionally) mix well. Beginning in the latter stages of the Reagan administration, American culture started becoming ironic and hasn’t really stopped since. We are a highly ironical people.

But athletes are, generally speaking, the exception to this. It’s remarkable. Athletes and grandmas are the most earnest people in America. Just listen to how they talk. They are so serious. They are so tuned in. This thing they do is an Important Thing.

I could easily make fun of this, but I shouldn’t, because earnestness is a good quality and irony is a dead end. Irony only begets more irony. It’s a response, not a prescription. In this way, we should all be more like athletes. (Can you tell I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace?)

That said, I think that day is coming, and when it arrives I will love it.

The Tully Corcoran Dunk Corollary

What I am about to write might sound obvious to the point of being idiotic. I won’t blame you if that’s how you feel about it, because I have to admit that sometimes when I articulate the Tully Corcoran Dunk Corollary in my head, I feel the same thing.

But I believe this is one of those rare ideas that is both (1) totally obvious and (2) completely obscure, and I hope that by the time I am done, you will agree with me.

So here it is:

I need to start by telling you the context in which the Dunk Corollary was conceived. It was the 2008-09 basketball season, and I was covering Kansas. This was the year after the Jayhawks had won the national championship, and I’m sure you’ll recall that the KU team that won it all did a lot of dunking. I would say that right up until Mario Chalmers made that shot, dunking was that team’s most definitive characteristic. The power forward was Darrell Arthur, who never got excited about talking about anything, unless you asked him about dunking. Then, man, it was on. He loved it. At some point I think Brady McCollough even called his mom, who told Brady how excited Darrell had been the day he got his first dunk.

But KU also started Darnell Jackson on the block, and he could really dunk too. He dunked hard, and he would beat his chest after his dunks. Off the bench came a Russian with some kind of alloy where his body fat should have been named Sasha Kaun, whose best skill was post defense, but whose passion was dunking on fools.  Deep on the bench was 6-foot-11 Cole Aldrich, who sounded like an ewok when he dunked.

There were a lot of alley oops and a lot of tip dunks in 2008. This was KU’s Sweet 16 game:

That was an exceptional game as far as dunking went, but that was that team. Those guys did that sort of thing all the time, and their ability to finish plays with dunks just seemed to solve so many problems.

So the next year all those guys were gone, and in their place was a team that played decidedly below the rim. Instead of Arthur and Jackson, it was twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. One of them once said he didn’t like dunking because it took up too much energy. It was harder for that team to score around the rim. It ended up relying very much on its perimeter game, and that worked, because that team’s point guard was Sherron Collins, and he had a great year. That team won the Big 12 championship, but that team made scoring look … harder. It took more work. You couldn’t just toss the ball up in the air to anyone. Missed shots that might have been dunked home the year before got grabbed, hauled in, brought to the ground, gathered, and taken up again.

Now, the Twins would become much better athletes over the next two years, and they were more versatile offensive players than Jackson and Arthur. KU just became a different kind of team.

But in November of that 2008-09 season, I sat there during a game and thought, “You know, one of the problems with this team is that it doesn’t have anybody that can dunk.”

You need guys who can dunk, because dunking is hard, which makes things easy.

When I say “can dunk,” I don’t mean, “Can run out there in an empty gym, take a running start, and put down a dunk.” Almost everybody on every college basketball team can do that.

I am talking about guys who can make a play by dunking. Guys who can find themselves in the midst of a play that is in doubt, and then remove all that doubt by dunking.

There is a play that illustrates this perfectly. I’m sure any KU fan will remember it. It happened during KU’s game against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament this year. It was an ugly, struggle of a game. Kansas was down the whole time. There had been no flow. It seemed every KU shot had been hotly contested. Purdue had played phenomenally on defense.

The Jayhawks were down by three with just about a minute left, and KU got a little bit of a break going off a rebound. Not a great break, though. It was really a 2-on-2 break, but Tyshawn Taylor, the point guard, got behind Purdue by just a step. And Elijah Johnson put the ball in the air.

The ability to finish that play with a dunk made all the difference. Taylor could dunk it, Johnson knew Taylor could dunk it, and dunking it was the only play Purdue wouldn’t have been able to guard in that moment.

The play was in doubt, but the dunk removed the doubt.

And if you can do that, you’ve got something. If Taylor hadn’t been a dunker, there’s a good chance Kansas loses that game, which was in the second round. Instead, Taylor sealed the game with another dunk, and KU went all the way to the national championship game, where it lost to the dunkiest team in college basketball.

So what I’m saying is, it’s really helpful if your players can dunk. And that seems obvious doesn’t it? Or does it?