April 5, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Ten years ago today Georgia Tech played in the men’s basketball national championship game against a Connecticut squad that will try for another title Monday, and Marvin Lewis and Jarrett Jack – the Yellow Jackets’ Maryland-based starting backcourt back — have therefore reminisced about a glorious run.
You and I cannot understand the quality, the depth, of their memories. To the players, little nuances and untold details matter more than points and scores.
Yet we can revel in their recollections and compare the way they match our own.
Rarely do humans get to do what the Jackets did 10 years ago this weekend. A charge to the national championship game is one thing.
Compressing a life journey into an NCAA Tournament run … that’s priceless.
“I miss being with those guys; 10 years goes by fast,” said Lewis, who is now an associate athletic director for finance at the University of Maryland. “The experience that we had, there is kind of that unspoken bond. There have been some e-mails exchanged. It was something special.”
No Georgia college (or pro) team has advanced as far as the Jackets did that season, when a 23-9 record pushed the Jackets to St. Louis as a No. 3 seed in a region where Kentucky and Gonzaga were Nos. 1 and 2.
The first round was simple and boring. Tech beat Northern Iowa 65-60. The second round was another matter, as the Jackets held off Big East power Boston College for a 57-54 win to send Tech to the Sweet 16.
Everything became hyper interesting from there.
Nevada, a 10 seed, gave the Jackets some grief. Lewis, though, found his stroke.
A four-year starter who would by tournament’s end start 130 games to tie Malcolm Mackey for the Tech career record, was a 3-point shooter deluxe.
The ACC’s second-most deadly 3-baller in the regular season, when he made 44.8 percent of his long balls and 48.7 percent on the road, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound stroker from Germantown, Md., scored 23 points in that game.
Tech won 72-67, although leading scorer B.J. Elder sprained an ankle injury in the game and did not score.
Elder did not score against No. 4 Kansas in the regional final, either, but the Jackets pulled away for a 79-71, and low and behold Tech landed in the Final Four for the second time, and the first in 14 years.
The scores mattered, obviously, but for the players there was more.
“The whole journey about it, not just making the Final Four but everything leading up to it … the tough losses that made us battled-tested, I guess. I remember all of it,” said Jack, who now plays for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We were a pretty silly bunch all the way around; I was probably the biggest culprit. We never allowed that to dissuade our focus.”
Tech’s national semi-final game with Oklahoma State was epic.
Lewis hit five 3-pointers in the first half to stake the Jackets, but after John Lucas hit a 3-point shot for OSU with 26.3 seconds left in the contest, the teams were knotted. The Jackets called timeout.
The Jackets’ unique roster makeup, which often included three prominent guards in Jack, Lewis and Arizona transfer Will Bynum – not to mention guard/forward Elder – created some interesting possibilities for crunch time.
As Tech huddled, Jack recalled the give and take between head coach Paul Hewitt and his players.
“I remember coming into the timeout and Will had just run off about three in a row,” said Jack. “And coach said, `What do you want to do?’ I remember Marvin and everybody was like, `Give the ball to Will, and see what happens.'”
That’s the way Lewis remembers it as well.
“I was pretty adamant, we got to get the ball to Will,” said Lewis, who made Dean’s List all but once at Tech. “That last play, I remember that.”
Jack took the inbounds pass from the left sideline right in front of the Tech bench and quickly handed off to Bynum, who crossed steadily to the middle of the floor.
Australian center Luke Schenscher, who continues a fabulous pro career in his native Australia, set a high pick near the foul line.
As Bynum cut hard left around the screen and dove down the right side of the lane, Schenscher sank and set another pick near the basket.
Bynum banked the ball in for a 67-65 lead with a couple seconds left.
The game-winning play was no play at all.
“That was the play: get the ball to Will, and get out of the way,” Jack said. “Just move [out of the way] and let him do his stuff.”
The championship game was not so memorable, as UConn charged to a big lead and held on for an 82-73 win.
For these Jackets, at least, the recollection of falling short in the title game registers with far less resonance than getting there, and the journey that put Tech on the biggest stage of all.
“We remember the special moments on a smaller basis, like Will’s shot,” said Lewis, who suggested that the school send-off last week of the Terrapins’ women’s team to the Final Four brought up a slew of memories.
“The other moments like hanging out in the locker room, some of the jokes we were cracking. It’s the full experience that we remind each other about. I miss hanging out every day for a month . . . When you’re going through it every week, you don’t realize the impact you’re having on others.”
They stay in touch, many of these former Jackets.
Jack, in particular, is connected with Elder and sub Anthony McHenry.
“We all still live in Atlanta in the summer time. We make it a point to be a part of each other’s lives,” he said. “B.J. is playing in Italy, McHenry is playing in Japan. They’ve carved out very good careers for themselves overseas. I’m proud of them.”
Lewis keeps tabs on sub Robert Brooks, who is a Marine officer stationed in Jacksonville (and the best man in Lewis’ wedding to an Atlanta native whom he met at Tech) and walk-on Dave Nelson.
The memories are unbeatable, even for players like Jack who’ve gone on to make millions of dollars in the NBA.
“That was probably the smartest team I’ve ever been on from top to bottom,” he said. “We were able to play with each other for so long and so much that we just understood each other’s coverages and tendencies.
“It was almost as if coach didn’t have to call a play. We were able to police ourselves and coach ourselves.”
Lewis looks back as if that was in a way a different part of his life – a cut above. “I have a big picture in my house from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of me jumping into Luke’s arms,” he said. “It’s very unlike me because I’m one of those even-keel guys, but … I was just so excited that we had a chance to get into the championship game. I stepped outside of myself.”
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