Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oops. My Bad.

If you’ve played pickup basketball long enough and in various cities across the nation, the chances are pretty good that you’ve shared the court with a player of some renown.

Maybe in college you teamed with your school’s star shooting guard to form a formidable backcourt for that one game in the student activities center. Maybe one day in the NBA off-season, the eighth man on your local franchise was starting to get back into shape and wanted to get some burn at the posh health club, and you ran up and down the court with him and passed him the ball every time.

Well, I once threw an errant alley-oop to Pat Sullivan.

Sullivan is a fondly remembered figure in UNC’s storied basketball history. He arrived in Chapel Hill from Bogota, N.J., as the least-heralded member of a recruiting class (Eric Montross, Clifford Rozier, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese) that was considered one of the greatest ever, until it was eclipsed the next year by Michigan’s Fab Five.

Sullivan played 118 games for the Tar Heels and appeared in three Final Fours, with the historical record noting that he scored 478 points, grabbed 223 rebounds and dished 120 assists. But beyond statistics, Sullivan seemed to personify the unselfish ideals of coach Dean Smith. Sullivan took charges, ran the offense, boxed out, helped from the weak side. After three solid years of solid production, Sullivan agreed to redshirt to ease a logjam in the frontcourt. It’s a shame that he is mostly remembered for missing the back end of a one-and-one in the 1993 NCAA title game against Michigan, setting the stage for Chris Webber’s infamous timeout.

It’s a natural transition for a player like Sullivan to get into coaching. He’s carved out a niche for himself as an NBA assistant, currently in his second stint with the Detroit Pistons. He helped coach at UNC in the late 1990s, but when Matt Doherty was hired as the Tar Heels’ coach in 2000, Sullivan was relieved of his duties. Stories circulated about Sullivan packing up his Tar Heels memorabilia in his Carolina-blue apartment. That helped poison the well of Doherty’s UNC tenure.

Sullivan had just finished his playing days at UNC in 1995. He was probably making the coaching rounds of North Carolina when he came to Greensboro to be the featured speaker at the Crown Automobile/Gaters AAU All-Star Camp.

The Greensboro Gaters were a nascent organization that, if memory serves, grew out of the Guilford College YMCA all-star teams. They had not ballooned into the NC Gaters juggernaut that would become a power on the national circuit. Still, it was every Greensboro baller’s fervent wish to be on those teams with the free sneakers and the sleek practice jerseys.

I was never quite good enough to make the Gaters, whose ranks at the time included future ACC players Brendan Haywood, Jason Capel and Justin Gainey. But I kept trying out for those teams, making tiny inroads (like notching the “Most Improved Player” at the Gaters camp the year before) but never earning a spot on the traveling squads. So Sullivan’s make-the-most-of-your-talent, work-hard-good-things-will-happen, I-made-it-to-UNC-and-so-can-you speech was directed mostly at the marginal talents like myself. I had already started dipping my toe into the slipstream that carried me from can-do hustler to self-aware deprecator of my own limitations.

Sullivan was gracious enough after his speech to join the choose-up scrimmage with the bird-chested 15-year-olds on Greensboro Day School’s main court. Fate would have it that Sullivan ended up on my team. This would be my chance to prove my worth to the local hoops cognoscenti.

It was just a few minutes into the action when I brought the ball up the court on the wing. Sullivan set up on the blocks and was fronted by a Northwest Guilford High School standout. Sullivan put his hand up and made eye contact with me, then lifted his chin to acknowledge that the door was open.

I achingly wanted to thread that needle. I snapped my wrist on an overhead pass with the form that had been drilled into me over several years of basketball camps.

The ball seemed to hang in the air for a couple of dramatic beats.

Then it clanged off the rim and skipped out of bounds. A teammate said, “Man, what the hell was that?” Sullivan scrunched his face in confusion. He must have sensed my disappointment, because he winked at me while running down the court and said:

“It was there.”