Memorable fans, international talents motivating First Four squads
DAYTON, OH -- They're happy to be here. They really are.
Boise State coach Leon Rice is "excited.'' John Giannini of La Salle is "very excited.'' Not to be outdone, James Madison's Matt Brady is "really, really excited'' his team is playing in the First Four.
They don't lack for motivation. La Salle hasn't made the NCAA tournament in 21 years. Madison's center is suspended for the first half Wednesday night, charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct at a team party Saturday night, after the Dukes won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Boise just wants someone, somewhere, to acknowledge the Broncos play basketball.
LIU-Brooklyn is a little different, as one might expect from a commuter school dwarfed by the giants of Gotham. The Blackbirds are happy, of course: "Understandably excited,'' says coach Jack Perri, as if the concept were somewhat nebulous. Their incentive assumes a different shape.
The names Londell Francis and Richard Kurlander don't mean anything to you, which is OK. You're not playing Wednesday night. But the 8-year-old boy with sickle cell anemia and the 60-something man, blind since birth do offer a little push to the Blackbirds. Sometimes, a little push is all we need.
"He's got this great enthusiasm for life'' is how Perri describes Londell. He is a neighborhood kid, matched with the Blackbirds by an organization called Team Impact. Its mission is to bring together local sports teams and children with chronic, life-threatening illnesses.
The idea is for teams to "open up their ranks and extend their laughter, strength and support'' to the children. Inevitably with programs such as this, the support works both ways.
"(Londell) humbles our guys,'' says Perri.
"I feel that energy every time I see him,'' says Jamal Olasewere, a junior forward and conference player of the year. "I try to enjoy every moment, like he does. You see him cheering for us and you think, how could you not want to perform for a kid like that?''
Londell comes to practice. He eats meals with the team. He's at all the home games. When LIU won the Northeast Conference tournament, Londell was up on the ladder, snipping some net. "Our players feel really good they can have this impact on an 8-year-old,'' Perri says.
Across the way, Richard Kurlander sits courtside at all the home games. He has been attending Blackbirds games for as long as anyone can recall, 40 years at least. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees there in the 1970s. Kurlander takes the R train from his apartment in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn (think Saturday Night Fever), gets off at the DeKalb Station where, white cane tap- tap- tapping, he makes the short walk to the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center where LIU plays.
Kurlander has engineered games online since 2001. He plugs in headsets and adjusts volumes. Before that, Kurlander produced the broadcasts. Mike Schikman remembers Kurlander, whom he calls "Kurly.'' Schikman is the radio voice for James Madison now; three decades ago, he did the same for LIU.
"I said, 'I've got a teaching tool for a producer, because the audience is blind.' If Kurly said, 'I can't see the ball' when I was calling a game, I knew that was legit.''
Once en route to a game, Kurly slipped on a subway platform and fell onto the track. When Schikman heard about it his reaction was, "How's the train?' Kurly was indestructible, even then,'' Schikman says.
Kurly has worked in New York's Department of Education for 29 years, commuting daily to Manhattan by bus. He has a Twitter account: @rmkbraille. He never misses a Blackbirds home game.
"He's like an institution here," associate athletic director Greg Fox said last year "It wouldn't feel right if he wasn't part of our broadcasts and part of our games. It's a lot more than just producing basketball games."
The Blackbirds play James Madison Wednesday night at 6:40.
Boise State plays La Salle in the second game. Boise, Idaho, doesn't fit the profile of an international attraction. So why are there two Broncos from Australia (including their leading scorer), one from Serbia and another from Latvia?
"We're in Boise, Idaho. We gotta go all over the place,'' Leon Rice says.
Actually, one of Rice's assistants, John Rillie, is an Aussie. Rillie played at Gonzaga in the mid-90s, when Rice was an assistant there. As Rice recalls, Rillie made 23-of-28 three-pointers in the conference tournament that year, leading the 'Zags to their first NCAA tournament appearance.
Rillie played professionally for 16 years, and was an Olympian in 2004. When Rice took the Boise job three years ago, he called Rillie. As for the Serb (Vukasin Vujovic) and the Latvian (Edmunds Dukulis)?
"The Internet is great,'' says Rice. The coaches did a lot of YouTube-ing.
Rice says the international players "were a little more of a blank slate, more open to being coached. They hadn't played all that AAU ball, just (running) up and down the floor.
"It's harder to evaluate them, though. You just hear about the good ones. There have been a lot of misses. In some ways, it's a crapshoot.''
The 6-foot-6 Aussie Anthony Drmic averages 17 a game. Rice says when Drmic arrived in Boise two years ago, all he could do was shoot the three. The staff has schooled him in how to attack the basket and move without the ball. "He's a scorer now, not just a shooter,'' Rice says.
He's "excited'' about that, probably. They all are, for one reason or another.