Hope and hoops

Culture | Coaches and players overcome adversity to make it into this year's NCAA Final Four

Issue: "Guns & Poses," April 13, 2002

Death threats, hate mail, and diminished fan support nearly drove basketball coach Mike Davis away from Indiana University, where he was hired two years ago to replace head coach Bob Knight, a man both revered and reviled for his super-strict coaching style. Though the underdog Hoosiers, a surprising entry into the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta, fell to Maryland 64-52 in the April 1 national title game, Mr. Davis had by that time silenced his countless critics and stepped out of Mr. Knight's oppressive shadow. Mr. Davis made it by holding on to something that's stronger than human intimidation and harsh criticism. Many believed Mr. Davis was in the wrong place in Bloomington, where Mr. Knight had won three national championships. Mr. Davis believed God thought otherwise. "What people don't understand is, God has shown me favor," Mr. Davis said at halftime of the Kansas-Maryland semifinal game on March 30, about an hour after the Hoosiers had defeated Oklahoma in the other semi. "He put me here for a reason, to show people that you don't need a big name to do something big." A big name Mr. Davis was not when IU named him interim coach after firing Mr. Knight for violating the administration's "zero-tolerance" behavior policy, and it was his first head coaching gig. Mr. Davis, hired as a Knight assistant in 1997 in part to help recruit more black athletes, had no job security even after being named the permanent head coach. But his humble demeanor and ability to build close relationships with his players, many of whom pushed for his hiring, was a major factor in the Hoosiers' run, which included a stunning come-from-behind win over top-ranked and defending champion Duke in the round of 16. "I just thank God for this opportunity, and this victory," he said after that win. "I hope now people know I can coach." A member of Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis, Mr. Davis has always been vocal and very public about his faith. Monday night, after walking off the floor with an arm draped around junior guard Tom Coverdale and wiping away the burning tears, Mr. Davis did as he had done in so many previous interviews throughout the tournament, prefacing his comments with a grateful acknowledgment. "First of all, I thank God for us being here," Mr. Davis said. "What a wonderful blessing to be here playing for the national championship." Maryland stars Juan Dixon, a first-team all-American this season, and Byron Mouton overcame much on their way to the national championship. Mr. Dixon's drug-using parents both died of AIDS when he was in high school. His older brother, Phil, provided him a better life, and Mr. Dixon overcame his slight physique to earn a starter's role as a junior. He is the only player in NCAA history with over 2,000 points, 300 steals, and 200 3-pointers in his career. Mr. Mouton nearly called it a season in December after his older brother, Kevin, was found murdered in his car in Houston, Texas. He took a week off but rejoined the Terrapins on Dec. 9 and found that physical action helped him to escape from grief. "I'm always thinking about him," Mr. Mouton said in a Jan. 29 Washington Post story. "If I get too emotional, I'll just start crying. [In] certain situations, I might start crying and I can't have that during a game, so I have to stay a little more relaxed.... It taught me to take every day as my last day of my life. That's how I'm playing on the court. I'm dedicating this season to my brother." Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson nearly lost his father along the road to the Final Four. John W. "Ned" Sampson had to undergo emergency brain surgery on March 19 for a subdural hematoma (blood collecting on the brain). He recovered in time to make the trip to Atlanta for the Sooners' showdown with Indiana, though he watched from a hotel room. Mr. Sampson spent the entire night of the surgery and the next morning at his father's side and kept in contact with him daily. The emotional turmoil Mr. Sampson endured over a 10-day span made the Final Four seem like a scrimmage. "I think as you go through your life, you handle your adversity," Mr. Sampson said. "That's what makes you into a man."

Fans or fanatics? After the coaches and players for Indiana and Maryland showed their character on the court, some fans showed theirs on campus. In Bloomington, Ind., angry fans torched furniture, toppled street signs, and threw beer bottles at police officers after Indiana lost to Maryland in the April 1 championship game. Police arrested about 30 people after breaking up the crowd with tear gas at about 1:30 a.m. on April 2. "When students started getting pelted with bottles, that's when we decided to move and disperse the crowd," said Bloomington Police Capt. Mike Deikhoff. "If the crowd hadn't started throwing beer bottles and setting fires, we wouldn't have had to act." Victory was no antidote to similar riots in College Park, Md. Thousands of celebrating fans took to the streets after Maryland's win, and some began throwing bottles, lighting bonfires, and breaking the window of a local bicycle shop. Police arrested 15 people. Maryland fans' reaction to victory this year was similar to their reaction to defeat last year. Riots erupted after the Terrapins lost to Duke in the 2001 Final Four, with one bonfire causing $500,000 in damage. "I wish I knew why we keep having this problem," said Prince George's County Police Maj. Jeff Cox. "I'm hoping tonight we found the formula for taking care of it."

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