Jan. 14, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
D’Andre Bell would like you to know a few things:
1. He’s all right. His neck’s OK, his spine’s fine.
2. Barring any unforeseen post-operative complications with his stenosis, he plans to resume playing basketball next season on the Flats. Better yet, he’s on track to graduate in May.
3. He wants you to pack Alexander Memorial Coliseum tonight. To transform it into what the great broadcaster Brad Nessler once christened it: The Thrillerdome. Into what Alexander once was — and was again for the Georgia game. Especially down the stretch, when the largest and loudest crowd of the winter gave it a surround-sound, sonic-boom soundtrack and helped the Jackets rally and win.
In short, when No. 2 Duke arrives tonight, Bell — the senior captain sitting on the bench in street clothes — wants you to arrive in full force, and in full-throated voice. To parody that old Chicago political theory of voting-booth success: Root early, and often.
In other words, folks, be in your seats by the 7 o’clock tipoff. You’ve no idea how much your presence, and your decibel-level, means to Bell and all the Jackets.
But Dennis Felton does. “We’re in their place, and no doubt the crowd really helped them,” the Georgia coach said moments after Tech’s 67-62 comeback victory last week. “It was as loud in here as any other place that I’ve ever coached.”
As loud as Alexander was regularly during Bobby Cremins’ reign. From Price, Salley & Dalrymple to Lethal Weapon 3 (listen carefully tonight, and you still might hear the last echoes from Dennis Scott’s corner jumper that toppled Carolina). From Matt Harpring and one Saturday matinee upset of Joe Smith and mighty Maryland. From Paul Hewitt’s fortuitous arrival, and the run to the ’04 Final Four by Jarrett Jack and all the Jackets. From the storm-the-court madness after Jack’s two free throws beat Chris Paul and Wake Forest 102-101 in overtime in 2005.
For those of you with very short memories: the last time Duke came to Alexander two years ago, the No. 11 Blue Devils departed with a 74-63 defeat and a collective earache. That season, Tech was 16-1 at home, losing only to Virginia Tech. Last season? Not so good: 6-7 in Alexander, yet with a maddening five ACC defeats by a total of eight points. And that’s not counting a 71-66 home loss to eventual national champ Kansas.
And as for tonight? “To all of our fans,” Bell said, “to any supporters of Georgia Tech, I just want to let them know how much they’re appreciated, and that they’re truly part of our basketball family. And to get as big a turnout as possible for every game. Not just for certain games. It is imperative that they come out for every game.
“We want to rekindle that tradition.”
My words here: Too often this season, Alexander crowds have been late arriving, early leaving, sit-on-their-hands quiet during. No, this isn’t a vintage Tech team. Yes, there have been disappointing, close-but-no-Macanudo home losses to Penn State, Illinois-Chicago and, in overtime, Virginia. Saturday’s 28-turnover defeat at Maryland still stings. Yet Bell knows well how the crowd turned the Georgia game.
How the Jackets, down 13 in the first half, 10 at the break, still trailing inside the last TV timeout, dug deep and defended and rebounded and won. And heard all about it, from a raucous and loud “To Hell With Georgia!” crowd.
“See?” Bell said, smiling at the memory. “Towards the end of the game is when we won it. When you hit a shot, and the crowd erupts, you can’t replace that.”
Or underestimate its psychic value. Bell vividly recalls the Vanderbilt game his freshman year. “My first big game,” he said of that 76-67 win. “I had 10 points, played great defense and we won. After experiencing that, the adrenaline rush I had and just being able to do things I never thought I could, it was a result of that cheering and the love from the fans.
“I was literally [on] a high. Overjoyed,” Bell said. “I had much more energy [due to the fans]. At times when I felt I had nothing left in the tank, I was able to push through it. At times when I didn’t think I could even jump, I hit some key shots.”
On Oct. 28, after his stenosis was diagnosed and well before his successful surgery in California, Bell posted a pre-season blog on Tech’s basketball website. It began:
Hello Georgia Tech Basketball fans,
I hope all is well. For a little while now I’ve been wanting to write to you all to express our appreciation of your support over the years as well as how important you all are in contribution to our success as well as the game of basketball. The definition of a fan is awfully constricted. A fan is more than an admirer. A fan is part of the team, a game changer, an emotional leader, a momentum giver. A fan is what 15 are in millions, and ultimately the team’s rib. Quite frankly, we are nothing without you all. The wonderful world of sports would implode without your existence, love, and passion. The fan’s name should be changed to fam, which is short for family, because that is exactly what we are. WE represent one another in and out of competition; whatever is said about us directly affects you and vice-versa…”
He continued, then signed off:
I love you guys…peace.
D’Andre D. Bell
You can look for Bell tonight at the far end of the bench. He’ll be looking for you, too. Listening, as well. Hoping to replicate the roar, the atmosphere from the Georgia game, that Vandy game. Oh, that he could always see such spirit through the year.