INDIANAPOLIS — Three young Ohio State fans stood alone at the railing of Conseco Fieldhouse. Their arms pressed over the black metal bar, their pudgy arms turning red while they tried to inch their hands further and further into the walkway.
Even through the crimson face paint I could see the strain in their faces.
“He’s coming! He’s coming!” one said to another, driving his face into the rails, his final push in this arm-lengthening contest.
I turned, expecting to see Jared Sullinger or Thad Matta — both gods in their own regard in Columbus — coming to be greeted by their boisterous fans.
But, unexpectedly, I saw Tim Hardaway Jr. running toward the tunnel, hand outstretched ready to meet the tiny hands of his rivals. He gave high fives before continuing his way to the tunnel. Each boy looked down at his hand in awe.
“I’m never washing my hand,” one exclaimed.
That’s what’s expected now after basketball has become a superstar sport. A game where one’s on-court presence and off-court antics can solidify a legend at the age of 18.
It didn’t matter that LeBron James had four teammates in Cleveland — it wasn’t the Cavaliers, because the “Chosen One” worked alone. For him, his chalk fell to the ground just as easily as his opponents. And when he left, Cleveland fell apart.
And maybe that’s what people thought would happen to Ann Arbor when Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims left. Maybe people thought their dust would fog the air and the remaining Wolverines would crawl on hands and knees to the exits. Maybe that’s why student ticket sales plummeted this season.
But maybe people were too focused on the names on the backs of the jersey, rather than the one on the front.
In the past 10 seasons, only once has the Naismith College Player of the Year, the award that honors the top men’s basketball player, been given to a player on the team that won the National Championship.
Ever since a team meeting after the Wolverines’ 69-64 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 22, Michigan has been playing with a different mentality on the court.
“I watched that film and was really disgusted with myself, I knew I needed to step up. Not just in terms of my on-the-court performance, but just being a better teammate,” Morris said at the time. “Afterward, I called a team meeting and I apologized to everybody and everybody else stepped up too and said they’ve been lacking too at being a good teammate and holding each other accountable to go out there and playing hard all the time.”
Morris and junior captains Stu Douglass and Zack Novak have pulled this team together into a single cohesive unit. They don’t care about who scores. They leave the statistics to the statisticians. But not every group of players in the country can say that.
With just under six minutes left in Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal game against Ohio State, a Morris layup was blocked by the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Dallas Lauderdale. When Lauderdale returned to earth, he was holding up two fingers.
That didn’t signify how many points the Buckeyes withheld from the Wolverines that possession.
It was the number of blocks Lauderdale had that game.
Michigan was about to go on a run, and Ohio State’s senior leader was bragging about his stats.
But when Hardaway Jr. hits a big shot, he doesn’t count how many he’s hit. He doesn’t let people know how many points he’s scored. He runs back down the floor pounding his chest, pounding the Michigan that’s emblazoned across his jersey.
His confidence on the court has impressed analysts and fans alike. But what they don’t see is that when he misses a shot, it’s Douglass and Novak who slap his chest and say, “Good shot, keep shooting.”
Right now, the only thing on the Wolverines’ backs that matters is their new warm-up tops that read, “TEAM, TEAM, TEAM.”
Their confidence on the court is manifested in the fact that they lack something there. A superstar.
This year, unlike last, there were never any Fab 5 throwback jerseys. That’s because for this Michigan team, there aren’t just five players. There are 15. And in the past 10 games, they’ve become one.
In the final minutes of the Wolverines’ 68-61 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Michigan cut Ohio State’s 17-point lead to just four. And during that time, starters Morris and Jordan Morgan were on the bench.
Two of the most important players, according to the statistics, sat while others who are less important, according to the statistics, pulled the Wolverines into fighting distance of the No. 1 team in the country.
During that time, Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander turned and yelled to the bench, “That’s what we do. We fight. Remember this game!”
Could Jim Calhoun have turned to his players at any point during the Big East Tournament and say that? And if he did, would his team have rebutted, “No, that’s what Kemba Walker does?”
Maybe those three boys, enamored with Hardaway Jr., could pass Matt Vogrich or Morgan without a second thought. And perhaps, if Hardaway Jr. passed them on the streets, they wouldn’t think twice. But for the Wolverines this year, that doesn’t matter.
Because their TEAM got the No. 8 seed. Their TEAM is facing Tennessee. Their TEAM is what’s most important to them.
So Dallas Lauderdale, you hold those two fingers proudly. But just remember it’s a hell of a lot easier to break two fingers than it is to break a fist.