I”ll admit it. When I learned before Saturday”s game that former walk-on Herb Gibson was to start for Michigan, I furrowed my brow and rolled my eyes. Part of me is getting used to coach Tommy Amaker”s oddball lineups, but I was beginning to believe that the first-year coach was settling into his regular starting lineup. After all, the Wolverines have cleared the halfway point of the season, and most people feel that there are five guys on the team that ought to be starting every game now.
Amaker has repeatedly made it clear that to start for his team, you have to earn it in practice. Hustle. Hard work. Responsibility. Determination. These vague intangibles are the keys to the starting gate, and Amaker should be commended for staying true to that method.
So Gibson, the former walk-on senior forward started. Less than two minutes into the game he received a quick pass from center Chris Young and converted an easy layup. Five minutes in, Gibson stole the ball at midcourt and found himself in a one-on-nobody. He dribbled, nervously stumbled a little as he approached the basket, and slammed down a two-hander that caused the Crisler Arena crowd to erupt in gleeful applause, and his buddies at the end of the Michigan bench to stand and smile for the new high-flying superstar who once sat with them.
“I wasn”t nervous,” Gibson said of his fastbreak dunk. “I didn”t want to do anything too crazy.”
Before he left the game after nine minutes on the court, Gibson added two gorgeous blocks and, true to his reputation as a defensive whiz in practice, closely guarded Wisconsin”s standout shooter, Kirk Penney. He left the floor to a standing ovation from an excited, and happily surprised, Crisler crowd.
I say without hyperbole that Gibson”s effort in the first half was the catalyst for a Michigan offense that has been stagnant early in games. Amaker seemed to have cured the sickly Michigan offense (which was coming off an embarrassing loss to Michigan State) with an injection of Herb Gibson.
But who is he? He”s a former walk-on whose career-high for minutes entering this season was three. He”s played three years for Michigan and has contributed primarily by playing aggressive defense against first-teamers in practice and clapping and shouting from the far end of the bench during games. This season the team had an opportunity to offer him a scholarship, but it surprised everyone except his teammates when he was also given the opportunity to start.
“The guy is like that in practice,” said sophomore Bernard Robinson, who sat to begin the game so Gibson could start. “He gives everybody problems. He”s hard to check and he”s hard to get around. Long arms, strong. He makes everybody play as hard as possible.”
Gibson ended the game with four points, three blocks (including one swat of a Kirk Penney 3-pointer that ended up in the stands), a steal and a rebound. He tripled his career-high in minutes with 27 in his career game.
“It might have been a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” Gibson said.
Amaker has been criticized this season for his unpredictable and seemingly unfathomable lineups. He hears the criticism, but is undeterred. He is setting the bar high for his players, and rewarding them accordingly.
I expected Gibson to leave the game quietly after the first T.V. timeout (somewhere around the 16:00 mark). That may have been unfair, but I had never seen him play for an extended period of time before, and had no reason to suspect otherwise. Instead I saw Gibson take a team in dire need of energy and lead it to its best half of basketball in two years.
“It was tremendous,” Robinson said. “It gave us a big boost, it got everybody hype. He just did stuff that he does all the time in practice.”
Amaker has a policy and sticks to it. When it seems foolish for him to blindly subscribe to his long-term plan of rewarding hard work regardless of talent, or of playing a man-to-man defense when its not the best thing in a given game, he ought to be questioned. When it seems like starting Herb Gibson was a brilliant and necessary coaching maneuver, Amaker deserves for us all to unfurrow our brows and unroll our eyes.
As for Mr. Gibson, keep working in practice. I hope to see you again.
David Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.