It is no longer enough, in these complex times, for a college hoopster to have a thorough knowledge of his team's motion offense and a firm grasp of the principles of man-to-man defense. He must also master the chronometry of as many as six time zones in order to know when to call his girlfriend. He must be able to recognize a riptide and have the good sense never to come between a moose cow and her calf.
We were reminded of this last week when six of the top eight teams in the nation took leave of the continental U.S., half of them bound for the Maui Invitational, the other half for the Great Alaska Shootout. Because these tournaments ran consecutively and offered the opportunity to watch Arizona open its national title defense, to view the unveiling of Duke's fabulous freshmen, and to see Kentucky and North Carolina as they sallied forth without their departed larger-than-life coaches—and because we thought it would be easy to get a direct flight from Hawaii to Alaska—we decided to cover both events. It was a difficult trip for which to pack.
Along the way we learned that Hawaii is home to 20 species of fruit flies, all of which were well represented on and around the media-room buffet at the 2,500-seat Lahaina Civic Center in Maui. We learned that gee, to a sled dog, means right, and haw means left. We learned, sadly, that there are no commercial flights between the 50th state and the 49th. It was, as first-year North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge put it, "an educational experience."
As for the week's basketball-related revelations, we learned that despite its assurances to the contrary, Arizona is feeling the strain of defending its NCAA championship. We learned that callow Duke, with its eight underclassmen, has completed its orientation period and is ready to kick some tail. We also learned that Kentucky's fans rank among the most far-ranging—and the most impatient. The day after Arizona schooled Big Blue 89-74 in an anticlimactic reprise of the 1997 NCAA title game, Maui's Kahului Airport looked like Saigon just before the fall. Faced with the choice of sticking around for Kentucky's third-place game against Missouri (whose plodding 45-42 first-round win over DePaul was described by one observer as "a cow paddy in paradise") or splitting early, many Wildcats fans scrambled to get home for Thanksgiving.
The truth is, these far-flung hoops expeditions are not so much holidays as they are ordeals. UCLA coach Steve Lavin, whose Bruins were routed 109-68 by the Tar Heels in the first round of the Shootout, freely admits this. The delayed flights, the rubber-chicken dinners, the circadian-rhythm-scrambling time-zone changes, "studying for finals while you play three games in three days and your girlfriend breaks up with you—all this pays off in March," says Lavin. "It gives you the mental toughness you need to get deep into the NCAA tournament."
Tubby Smith, who took over at Kentucky after Rick Pitino left for the NBA, will need all the toughness he can find just to get through the regular season. He inherited a sorely depleted roster—gone is 51.7% of the Wildcats' scoring from a year ago. It was evident in Hawaii, however, that Tubby has created a reservoir of goodwill that will sustain him through the rebuilding. While Kentucky fans—distinguishable in Maui by their toad-belly-white skin and HULA HOOPIN' WITH THE WILDCATS T-shirts—will always be grateful to Pitino for rescuing their program from probation and then delivering a national title, it's surprising how little they seem to miss him. Pitino, of course, never pretended to be anything but a visitor in the Bluegrass State, cracking wise about Lexington's "international cuisine" and poking fun at the accents of his homegrown players. He inspired more respect than affection.
The inside cover of this season's Kentucky basketball media guide quotes Herky Rupp, the son of legendary Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp, as saying, "Dad would have been very pleased" by the hiring of Smith, Kentucky's first black men's basketball coach. One wonders about that. It was during the 41-year reign of the Baron that Kentucky basketball earned a reputation as a bastion of racism. The fervor with which Wildcats fans have embraced Smith suggests an eagerness to prove they are color-blind.
It helps that Smith is so embraceable. "You can put your arm around him," said Chiquita Nauert, a Louisville resident interrupting her Wednesday walk on the beach to discuss Smith. "You couldn't do that with Pitino."
"The only way to get close to Pitino was if you paid two grand to play golf with him in Ireland," said Del Combs of Lexington. "Tubby's the salt of the earth." Smith is the sixth of 17 children raised on a Maryland farm, so he has little trouble relating to Kentucky's rural fan base. Says Combs, "Tubby was 14 years old before he found out a chicken had anything but gizzards and wings."
"I've had my share of pig's feet, too," Smith said when that comment was relayed to him.