Play It Again, Dan...
Tonight's NIT Final is Horton, Hunter and Brown's Last Game
If you haven't seen Casablanca, stop reading now.
But if you have, bear with me. As the movie ends Rick and Capt. Renault walk off the runway toward an uncertain future. Neither of them got what they wanted. All they are left with is a path off the runway that neither man would have chosen in a million years. Yet, as they walk away they are smiling, joking and remarking about how this miserable little experience has made them friends.
So go our three intrepid seniors. All three of them are in a situation none of them would've expected. After four hard years, oodles of promise, and staggering disappointment, they find themselves walking away from Michigan never having played in a NCAA tournament game. Like Rick, they were supposed to have gotten what they wanted. They were supposed to get the girl or get into the tourney. But they didn't.
The chronicle of Rick Blaine's life seems to mirror our season. Filled with promise in the beginning. Then the Panzer's roll in, everybody gets hurt, then depression, sadness and failure fill the middle part of the story. The ending however, is a story of redemption. Our hero(s) are redeemed not just to those who care about them, but to themselves. There is a form of self redemption and forgiveness for failures in the past that occurs in that last scene where Rick puts her on a plane and where Michigan plays that last game.
So. Here we are. Hours before tip off in what has become a post season of redemption for this basketball team. While winning an NIT championship will not erase the disappointment we all feel at missing the NCAA tournament, it will soften it a tad. Something has changed inside this team for the better. While the Seniors have been themselves, other people have begun to reemerge from the shadows.
Chiefly, their coach Tommy Amaker. Tommy is still on my "must go" list for his inept handling of the last 10 games of the season. During that time he sat on his hands when we needed adjustments, made horrible defensive decisions, and generally drove us all nuts with his "nice guy" attitude when it was obvious the team needed a kick in the pants. I will say this for him though. The last few games have been well coached. While I realize they involve, UTEP, Miami, and Old Dominion, Tommy has called appropriate defenses and stymied runs with proper time outs when necessary. These are things he DID NOT DO all year. In addition, he has actually shown some emotion on the sidelines. He has not been his usual robotic self on the bench. He's been yelling, screaming, pleading with officials and doing a little (just a little) barking at players for dumb decisions. This could be a Tommy I could get behind.
It will have to be a Tommy I can get behind. Billy Martin has repeated said that he is a "Amaker fan" and that Tommy's job is secure. In fact, Martin has gone so far as to say he likes the direction the program is taking. In today's Detroit News, Jim Spadafore interviews Martin and reports that Martin is very happy with Amaker. One of the things that caught my attention was Martins reference to developing enthusiasm. While this seems like an innocuous comment, in reality it is not. The indirect assertion that it took Amaker five years to show enthusiasm about coaching at Michigan and five years to get his players excited about playing is a damning statement. But, of course, this is out of context. I will play devil's advocate and assert that Martin meant Amaker is finally figuring out what it takes to win at a Big Ten powerhouse.
Coaching at Seaton Hall allowed Amaker to lie in the weeds. He could stay quiet and bring in a focused group of overacheivers to play ball and surprise people. This is not the case at Michigan. Every time you hit the floor you wear a bullseye. Perhaps this newly developed enthusiasm is the result of Tommy realizing he has to be a much more active coach to win in the Big Ten. Maybe he now realizes he is the Big Bear in the woods rather than a snake waiting in the grass. If Tommy's realized he is now the Big Dog and not the underdog, its a good thing. We'll see what transpires tonight and over the summer.
For our seniors, this is it. Daniel Horton, Graham Brown, and Chris Hunter. They're playing their last game. So with that in mind, tonight I'm gonna turn on the tube. Put on my old raggety Michigan sweatshirt (Champion reverse double weave), pop a beer, and plop down on my couch to watch them play. I'll yell at the TV. I'll feel disappointment if we lose. But we'll still feel some modicrum of pride if we win. It may not be the path we would've chosen, but we'll all cheer for them just the same.
In our hearts, we'll all ask them to play the same sweet tune they've played the last three games. Make us experience the Michigan basketball we want to remember one last time before we all go our separate ways.
In Casablanca, Rick and Capt. Renault didn't get what they wanted. Neither did this group of seniors. But Rick and Renault walked away happy.
Hopefully, so can Horton, Hunter and Brown.
Johnnys at the Game. Lucky bastard.
The Detroit news has a bundle of stuff to check out. In addition to the Billy Martin interview, there is a game day preview and a matchup section. Good stuff.