Now that LSU coach Dale Brown has a team to fit his upbringing, a bunch of underdog hoboes with whom he can hitchhike to the Final Four, the trademark phrases are going to keep coming. We'll hear more about "scrub ladies" from "the other side of the tracks" because what the Tigers did last week, beating Georgia Tech 70-64 and Kentucky 59-57 to win the Southeast Regional, did owe itself to "common labor." And "freak defense." And "magic."
Anyone who has heard Brown tell of the slights, poverty and fatherlessness of his youth—it would be chapter one of an up-by-the-bootstraps story, if he had had bootstraps—could see the Tigers' travails this season prefigured in their coach's life. LSU has endured a bugging scandal, an NCAA probe, academic ineligibility, a player defection, sundry injuries and a chicken-pox outbreak. As 6'6" center Ricky Blanton said on Saturday, "This season we've proved we're men, not just basketball players."
Against that backdrop, playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta hardly seemed a hurdle. " Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in 1936 in front of El Sicko, now that's pressure," Brown said. The Tigers shot 41.2% to Tech's 58.3%, were outrebounded, watched their top scorer, John Williams, go 2 for 15—and won.
Tiger forward Don Redden's improbable jumpers, for which even referee John Clougherty complimented him, fell 10 times against the Yellow Jackets. And point guard Derrick Taylor threw in nine shots, including three straight that brought the Tigers from four points back into a tie with four minutes left. "A minor miracle," Brown called the victory.
Down four to Kentucky with six minutes to play, LSU looked to its scavengers. Redden gets his guile from the predominantly black rec leagues of the piney-woods town of Monroe. Blanton, a converted guard, plays center because 7'1" Tito Horford skipped town, 6'8" Nikita Wilson flunked out and 7'1" Zoran Jovanovich was hurt. Redden and Blanton often end up on the floor like beached porpoises. But they scored every Tiger point in those final six minutes and did so in proletarian fashion: on follows, layups and well-deserved free throws.
And when a half-court heave at the buzzer by Kentucky's James Blackmon glanced off the rim, LSU had finally beaten the Wildcats, winners of 21 of 22 previous games with Southeastern Conference teams, including a 68-63 regional semifinal defeat of Alabama and three straight over LSU this season. Before the final, Brown invoked the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union. "Those other three [defeats by Kentucky] were just losses," he said. "This one's for the gold."
"He's told that story so many times," said Williams, rolling his eyes.
Brown does run on. Asked to summarize in one word the reason for the Tigers' unlikely success, he said, "Outright guts." But even Brown's vaunted irrepressibility has been tested this season, as he openly mulled retirement. "Who motivates the motivator? I've spent a lifetime trying to motivate others, and these young men have motivated me."
Brown drew up his "freak defense" in late January, just before taking a lineup averaging 6'5" to play four road games in five days. The freak is sort of a box-and-one and sort of a matchup zone. "Even we don't know what we're doing some of the time," says the Tigers' Oliver Brown, who helped Blanton limit Kentucky All-America Kenny Walker to three second-half shots. "So it must confuse them."
In fact, this is a remarkably well organized team. Taylor is a fifth-year senior. Williams is a great instinctive player. Anthony Wilson and sixth-man Brown understand their roles, as shooter and stopper, respectively. And Redden and Blanton are too pigheaded to quit. Says Brown the coach, "If you think I'm crazy, what about these guys? They believe in me. That puts them in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Adds Taylor, "If anyone says anything [negative] about the man right now, they're crazy."