In most newspapers around the country it was a brief item yesterday with a headline that said something about Florida International being upset about opening its basketball season playing defending national champion North Carolina—in Chapel Hill.
The back story—in short—is this. Carolina and FIU are part of a 16 team tournament that bears the imprimatur of Coaches vs. Cancer but always has some corporate name slapped on it by The Gazelle Group, the entity that runs the event. FIU thought it was going to play Ohio State in the first round. When the ACC announced its schedule for the season earlier this week, the school learned it was going to Chapel Hill.
In defense of FIU, the tournament is bogus in a lot of ways. To begin with, it isn’t really a tournament. Four host schools are ‘designated,’ to play the semifinals in Madison Square Garden, regardless of what happens in the opening round games. So, if FIU, under new Coach Isiah Thomas goes into Chapel Hill and stuns the Tar Heels, they don’t go to New York but instead go to another site along with three other smaller schools to play a round robin while the four glamour schools—Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse and California. Move on to play on ESPN.
Having been burned in the past by upsets the corporate and TV folks are no longer taking chances. They even announced the semifinal matchups before they announced the first round matchups.
This is not the first time The Gazelle people have pulled a fast one on a smaller school. A few years back, Holy Cross was invited to play in the event. Coach Ralph Willard looked at his schedule and saw that his players had exams the following week. But he really wanted to play since one of his players, Andrew Keister, had beaten cancer as a kid and he knew how much it would mean to Keister and his family to see him play in the tournament.
So he told the Gazelle people he’d like to play but only if The Crusaders could make a one hour bus trip to Connecticut—one of the four hosts that year—rather than being sent across the country someplace on an airplane.
The Gazelle people agreed. When Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun found out he might play Holy Cross in his second game he wasn’t happy. Under Willard, Holy Cross played a rarely-seen 3-2 zone that gave teams fits, in part because it was unusual, in part because Willard coached it so well. Calhoun told Willard that summer, “I don’t want to play you guys. It will mess up our offense for weeks.”
Willard thought Calhoun—a friend—was more or less joking. After all, he expected to lose the game to the Huskies by at least 20 points. In September, he found out that Calhoun wasn’t joking when someone from Gazelle called to tell Willard his first round games were at Oklahoma.
“I told you we can’t go there,” Willard said. “We can’t travel for that long right before exams. I thought I made that clear.”
“Well,” the guy said. “We think this gives you a better chance to get to New York. (This was before upsets were banned).
Willard knew that was a lie. He knew Calhoun had gone to Gazelle and demanded the switch. He pulled out of the event rather than travel his kids even though it was a huge disappointment.
This time is different. The contract FIU signed stipulated it could be sent to Ohio State or North Carolina. Thomas says he had been assured he was going to Ohio State. Why the switch was made to send Alcorn State to Columbus is anybody’s guess but, in truth, it doesn’t matter—FIU is going to get crushed in either place. In fact, if there’s ever a time to play Carolina in a season opener this might be it with four starters gone from the national championship team.
While it is impossible to sympathize with Gazelle and its bogus event (it would be interesting to request the 501C3 for the tournament and see how much money goes to Coaches vs. Cancer and how much to corporate entities) this is classic Isiah for any and all who know him. Trouble seems to follow him whether it involves being the most disliked player in the NBA; saying that Larry Bird would be no big deal if he wasn’t white (!!) or the sexual harassment suit the Knicks lost while he was running them into the ground the last few years.
I know first hand how little one should trust Isiah. Remember when Bob Knight was fired at Indiana? Isiah was coaching the Pacers at the time and he instantly came to Knight’s defense, saying he wouldn’t have become the person he was if not for Knight. No one stood up for Knight more than Isiah.
I found that interesting since the one and only ex-Indiana player who had refused to talk to me about Knight when I was researching ‘Season on the Brink,’ was—you guessed it—Isiah Thomas. I drove up to Indianapolis to see him when the Pistons came to town. When I told him what I was looking for he shook his head and said, “Can’t do it.”
I thought he meant this was a bad time and I started to tell him there as no need to do it then, that we could schedule it another time. “That’s not it,” he said. “It’s just that my mother always told me, ‘if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.’”
He gave me that Isiah smile, wished me luck on the book, shook my hand and was gone. I found out soon after that he and Knight hadn’t spoken since a well-documented incident in Fort Wayne in which Thomas had described in detail some of the words Knight liked to use when talking to his player during an awards dinner. Knight, who was there, was embarrassed and furious and told Thomas so the next day when Thomas was playing pickup ball back at IU. At the very least Isiah and I have something in common: incurring Knight’s wrath for ‘revealing’ that he can be profane at times.
This time around it would be tough to feel much sympathy for Isiah—he’s going to lose the opening game regardless. Except you DO have to feel sorry for any coach who is told before he plays a game in a ‘tournament,’ that even if he wins, he doesn’t advance.
I just hope this doesn’t give the NCAA any ideas. If The Gazelle Group had been running the tournament in 2006, George Mason never would have gotten out of the first round.