Thursday, June 3, 2010

Divine Providence

A byproduct of the NCAA tournament is teams that capture the popular imagination for a few games or a couple of weeks, then are lost to history after bowing out. The Providence Friars fall squarely into this camp for their performance in 1997.

The squad had something for everyone to like, starting with head coach Pete Gillen, a benevolent quipster with the ruddy complexion of an Irish barkeep. The Friars’ top scorer was Austin Croshere, a lantern-jawed white forward whose game was an amalgamation of three-point shooting and classic back-to-the-basket fare. Fans of players who do the donkeywork under the basket had the underappreciated big man Ruben Garces. There was Coney Island native Jamel Thomas for some street flavor and former JUCO player of the year Derrick Brown for the classic up-from-your-bootstraps storyline.

Then there was God. He came to Providence as Shammgod Wells, an ankle-fracturing point guard from Harlem who stole the spotlight with his wicked ball-handling at the star-studded 1995 McDonald’s All-American Game. In college he changed his name to God Shammgod, much to the appreciation of pun-loving sportswriters and broadcasters. Stories of his dribbling wizardry are legion in college basketball.

The Friars entered the tournament as a 10th-seed and opened with an 81-59 victory over Marquette. Croshere poured in 39 points, the high for the tournament, including 15-for-15 shooting from the free-throw line. It was Providence’s first victory in the tournament since the school had Rick Pitino on the sideline and a scrappy kid named Billy Donovan running the point. The Friars also beat fellow upstart Tennessee-Chattanooga, 71-65, in the third round. But Providence’s best performances came in its 98-87 victory over Duke in the second round and its 96-92 loss in overtime to eventual champion Arizona in the Elite Eight.

The dominant personalities on Providence were the three players with professional prospects: Croshere, Thomas and Shammgod. But against second-seeded Duke, Brown was the guiding force with 33 points and 10 rebounds. The Friars needed Brown, especially his 17 points in the first half, because Croshere was saddled with foul trouble and Shammgod got off to a turnover-filled start against the Blue Devils’ pressure defense. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about Brown’s game. He just worked and willed his way to points, fitting for the New Yorker who took the circuitous route of two junior colleges out West to make it back to the East Coast.

Shammgod finally got it going in the second half. He had the classic game for a New York City point guard: flashy handle, a nose for getting in the lane to dish and an absolutely broken jumper. Theories abound about this phenomenon, with unforgiving NYC blacktop rims and cramped indoor gyms often cited as reasons for the city’s point guards’ inabilities to shoot. Shammgod’s dribble-and-drive attack, along with fellow lightning-quick guard Corey Wright, sparked the deciding 11-1 run in the second half. Shammgod had nine assists after halftime, and the diminutive guard capped off the victory with two stylish dunks in the final minute. Croshere managed 21 points despite his limited minutes.

Shammgod needed to have a game of the first order against Arizona, which boasted a backcourt with Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson. Shammgod answered the call with 23 points, including some on long jumpers. Croshere was in foul trouble again, so Garces took over more than his share of inside duties and had a career night with 16 points and 19 rebounds.

The two streetballers from New York, Shammgod and Thomas, led the rally from a 10-point deficit against the Wildcats with under four minutes remaining in regulation. Thomas, a formidable talent somehow overlooked on this team with the flashy Shammgod and the emotional Brown, tied the game on a three-pointer with 15 seconds left. Thomas finished with 23 points. Providence forced a steal, but jumpers by Shammgod and Wright fell short before regulation ended.

The Friars ran out of steam in overtime. Brown fouled out, joining Croshere on the sideline, and the Wildcats coolly sank their free throws to salt away the victory.

Providence’s flash of greatness ended. Croshere, Brown and Garces were seniors. Croshere played in the NBA for 12 seasons with varying success and large paychecks. Thomas didn’t get drafted despite leading the Big East in scoring as a senior in the 1998-’99 season. He managed to see action in 12 NBA games, but became somewhat of a star in Europe. He resurfaced Stateside as younger half-brother Sebastian Telfair became a hot recruit in 2004, and Thomas had a prominent role in the 2004 documentary about Telfair, “Through The Fire.” Shammgod left two years of eligibility on the table and turned pro after Providence’s tournament run. He was a second-round pick by Washington and saw action in only 20 games of his only NBA season. But that divine name and ball-handling prowess ensure Shammgod of eternal cult status. Just like this Providence team.

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