Thursday, August 31, 2017

Passing of an era

Two guys with names you don't see anymore passed this week, and it gave us a chance to witness something that happens all the time but isn't often obvious to the naked eye.

Which is, an entire era going dark right in front of us, the lights winking out one by one.

That's how it feels right now, with a guy named Jud and a guy named Rollie having left us. Jud Heathcote and Rollie Massimino died within two days of one another, and a whole marvelous time in college basketball seemed to die with them, though it has of course been long gone  in actuality.

It was a time of high-water socks and higher-water shorts, a time of giants and giant killers and Rushmore presences named Jud and Rollie and Bobby and Lefty. Coaches are more visible today, but not more iconic. In a curious sort of way, the very lack of 24/7 public exposure back then somehow made them even larger than life.

Jud and Rollie, rumpled tie-at-half-staff types whose curmudgeonry was leavened by their postgame comedic timing, were what we used to call characters back in the day, and they never really looked right anywhere that didn't have rims, nets and a lot of gleaming hardwoods. They were old school before anyone came up with the concept, frankly. And yet one (Jud) coached the game that ushered in the era of college buckets as corporate monolith, and the other (Rollie) coached the game that put the Madness in March Madness for good.

Jud's moment was the 1979 national championship game, when his Michigan State Spartans beat the undefeated, upstart Indiana State Sycamores in the most watched title game ever to that point. It was Bird vs. Magic for the first time, and from that point on college basketball became something more than just a game; it became a bankable commodity fueled by bankable personalities, whether coaches or players.

And Rollie?

Well, we all know what his Villanova Wildcats did in 1985. They came into the NCAA tournament as an eight seed, and they exited it as national champions. Their defeat of John Thompson's defending national champion Georgetown juggernaut -- after losing to them three previous times that season -- was the tournament's second stunning upset in three years.

First, a scruffy North Carolina State team took down Phi Slamma Jama. Then, 'Nova, improbably hardly missing a shot, took down Patrick Ewing. And March Madness was truly Mad from then on out, every guy who picks some mid-major dreamer in his office pool tracing that impulse back to those two seminal moments in the 1980s.

And now Jud and Rollie are gone, and their era, too. That they each had a hand in ushering it out is, of course, a neat bit of irony. So is the fact that what they helped leave us with is flashier and immeasurably richer, but not necessarily better.

Yank those ties down one last time, boys. You've earned your rest.

1 comment:

  1. Jud was so visibly intense, face all scrunched up, hair combed straight down like Frankenstein's monster...I enjoyed watching him coaching Scott seemed operatic , Jud screaming at Skiles in every huddle and then Skiles openly defying Jud on the court, but I figure they worked it all out. Rollie was one of those old gym rat geniuses who devised the plan that shocked the world when John Thompson went down.