Commentary

KING OF QUEENS| A FEW GOOD MEN| FANS FOREVER| BILLY'S BETTER HALF| OLD SCHOOL| ROAD SCHOLARS| 'CLONE RANGERS

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:34 PM ET
By CURRY KIRKPATRICK, JOHN GUSTAFSON, LUKE CYPHERS, CURRY KIRKPATRICK, ANNE MARIE CRUZ, DONNELL ALEXANDER, CURRY KIRKPATRICK, LUKE CYPHERS

THE TOURNAMENT SUCKS YOU IN AND SPITS YOU OUT IT SHOWS YOU THE DREAM, THEN SLAPS YOU AWAKE. QUICKER THAN A SUDDEN TREY, BRACKETVILLE tradition and talent meaning nothing, fate everything. Ask Kenyon Martin or Loren Woods, out before the shooting started; Cincy and Arizona: chalk with them, cheese without. Ask hobbled Khalid El-Amin and defending champ UConn: likewise, two and through. Then there was Seton Holloway-or was it Shaheen Hall? No sooner did the Pirates' star go down than Ty Shine shone like a jewel and cut the soul out of John Chaney. How bizarre was opening weekend? UCLA and Carolina, given up for dead a month ago, turned into their old selves-title contenders. So too, perhaps, Tulsa and Iowa State. But Miami? And Wisconsin? What is this, the highway to the Heisman? Hey, Erick Barkley and St. John's: Was that your final answer? Use the word upset around Gonzaga and they'll give you the ziggy quicker than you can say Axel Dench. Billy Donovan once made the Final Four playing for Providence. Now he coaches Florida, accompanied by the lovely Christine, who waits and hopes. O For the trey. The chance. The dream.

KING OF QUEENS

Basketball pushed them together. It also pulled them apart. Then they wereinvited to the Dance-but both walked away losers. Or did they? ...

Speedy was crying. His team had yet to win anything, but he couldn't keep it in. It was during a timeout, late in Hofstra's last regular-season home game against Maine, and he didn't want his teammates to see him. So as coach Jay Wright delivered instructions, Craig "Speedy" Claxton bowed his head and began to cry. Sitting on the bench-in the new arena he helped build-it hit him: The dream of the Dance wasn't a dream anymore. "I looked back at allthe hard work, and I realized it finally paid off for me," he said. "It just touched a special place in my heart."

In the aftermath of a 67-64 victory, Speedy was scooped up by the fans and passed through the crowd. He grabbed a handful of jersey to the left of his H and a handful of jersey to the right of the A and thrust the logo on his uni toward a TV camera. "We're moving up," he yelled. "We're going big time." Erick was driving. As Hofstra was claiming the America East title, Speedy's former backcourt mate was in his car just a few miles away. The previous night, burdened by an ongoing NCAA investigation and a locker-room squab with teammate Bootsy Thornton, St. John's soph Erick Barkley had announced he was taking a "leave of absence." Now, with the Big East tourney final hours away, he was debating whether or not he wanted to go on playing college ball. It was almost 2 p.m. when he made a U-turn for his Queens, N.Y. apartment, grabbed his shoes and headed to the Johnnies' shootaround.

That evening, sporting NBA logo socks, Barkley scored 19 points and helped the Red Storm win their first Big East tournament in 14 years. As the team celebrated at midcourt, Barkley danced toward one basket by himself. Thornton sought him out and the two hugged. Later, coach Mike Jarvis praised his kids, calling them a family. For the moment, Barkley seemed happy. "I got a lump in my throat," he said. "But I'm not going to cry."

They hail from the same high school-even slept under the same roof-but Speedy Claxton and Erick Barkley are miles apart when it comes to personal stories. Claxton's is the kind the NCAA loves-small kid at small school earns his way to the Big Dance. Listen to a testimonial from his coach: "He stays home, passes up all the trappings of the big time. There's nothing false about this kid." Sure enough, back at Christ the King in Queens, Speedy had trouble making the freshman team and was a non-starter on the JV as a soph. It wasn't until his senior year, playing alongside Barkley and current Clipper Lamar Odom, that Claxton started attracting interest from schools like Georgia Tech and St. John's. By then he had already given an oral commitment to Hofstra. And Speedy kept his word.

In four seasons with Claxton, the Flying Dutchmen rebuilt their program. Hofstra won 12 games during his freshman year and 19 during a league MVP sophomore season. Last season, 22 wins earned the school a date with Rutgers in the NIT. (The Dutchmen lost 58-45.) But Speedy saved the best for last. After christening the new Hofstra Arena, the 5'10", 175-pound senior molded himself into a pro prospect. He averaged 22 ppg and six assists, and made 50 threes after attempting just 19 as a junior. Against Barkley and St. John's in December, he went for 32. And finally, Speedy made it to the Tournament. "None of it happens without him," says Wright.

In a way, Claxton has done it all without leaving home. Raised with his brother and five sisters in Corona, Queens, Speedy and his family moved east in his junior year of high school. The house in Hempstead, Long Island, is a five- minute drive from the Hofstra campus-perfect for doing laundry. Claxton is a regular at Sunday dinner and even shows up for breakfast two or three times a week. From the start, Stephen and Yvette Claxton's residence became a hangout for Speedy's teammates. When the CTK Royals lost in the state finals to Stephon Marbury's Lincoln High team, the starting five spent the night at the Claxtons'. For a young Erick Barkley, it was a welcome sanctuary.

E-Bark grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a place former Red Storm center Tyrone Grant once called "the worst neighborhood in the world." Says CTK coach Bob Oliva: "Erick is a complex story. He didn't have a complete family. He was a project kid." Barkley also struggled to make grades, and had to repeat his freshman year in high school. By the time Claxton was ready to go to college, Erick had fallen seriously behind. So Speedy went to his parents and asked if they could do something for Erick. "Erick would come for two weeks or a month," Yvette explains. "The day Craig moved to Hofstra, Erick brought everything he owned here. He was like a part of us." Barkley's mom moved to Georgia, so Erick spent a year with the Claxtons. Speedy's dad drove Erick to CTK every day and made sure he kept up his studies.

But Barkley needed another year of polish to qualify for D-1 play, so he enrolled at Maine Central Institute. Back in Brooklyn, he'd sported a street game to match his lifelong rival-Marbury. At MCI Barkley learned all about conservation of energy. He'd float downcourt, biding his time, then, seeing an opening, explode inside, elevate and dish. He also sharpened his academic game, raising his grades and earning a qualifying SAT score. But his education wasn't cheap. Barkley's AAU team, Riverside Church, ponied up $3,150 towards the $21,500 tuition. The rest was earned with a scholarship from MCI.

One year later, Barkley found himself at St. John's, and his ability to get in the lane and drop dimes at will transformed the Red Storm into a 28-9 Tournament team that pushed its way to the Elite Eight. But the NCAA soon started doggingBarkley. This February, he was suspended for two games for "receiving an improper benefit" because he swapped a '96 Jeep Cherokee for a '95 Chevrolet Suburban with a fractionally higher blue-book value. Then the $3,150 in tuition money he received from Riverside Church was called into question, and Barkley was slapped with a game suspension. During the Big East tourney, NCAA investigators started questioning him about his SAT score.

It didn't stop the Johnnies from winning the conference tournament title. But by then, much like UCLA's Jaron Rush, Cincinnati's DerMarr Johnson and Michigan's Jamal Crawford, E-Bark had become a symbol for everything we love and hate about amateur basketball.

There were no tears of joy when the clock struck midnight for Hofstra. Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton called them the Tourney's toughest No. 14 seed. But things weren't easy once the Flying Dutchmen flew to Buffalo. Claxton gave chatty OSU point Doug Gottlieb all he could handle early on, until a dislocated finger sent him to the locker room. Speedy announced his return with a nasty throwdown late in the first half, but Hofstra was burned by Desmond Mason's 30-point performance. Afterward, Coach Wright gave it up for his star senior. "Speedy, I thank you for four unbelievable years. You made my life a lot better and you took us here." If Claxton didn't cry, he didn't want the dream to end either. "I wish I couldn't leave, but I have to move on," he said.

When the Red Storm's run ended, talk turned to the NBA. Barkley said he might hold a press conference within a week. But like Claxton, he also spoke of sticking around. Despite a season of scrutiny, there were things he liked about the college game: Guys on his team, friendships, even Gonzaga assassin Matt Santangelo, with whom he bonded during last year's World Games.

"It would be tough to give up," says Barkley. "Even with everything I've had to go through this season, I still love it."

And you wish you believed him.

A FEW GOOD MEN

How foolish we were, charmed by the funny name and the obscure school and the Twin Peaks locale and the cute little players like Matt Santangelo. We realize it now, though. We have lifted the veil of conspiracy: Gonzaga is not Cinderella. It's the center of the college basketball universe.

We should have suspected earlier. The school's most famous alum, John Stockton, is only the NBA's all-time assists leader and just happens to work out with the Bulldogs every fall. Maybe it's coincidence that Spokane is his hometown. Until you also consider this: Jud Heathcote attends every home game and dishes out advice to firstyear Zags head coach Mark Few. Yes, the same Jud Heathcote who taught the best point guard ever, Magic Johnson, how to play at Michigan State.

What's Jud Heathcote doing in Spokane? You might believe the story that he coached there-at West Valley High-for 14 seasons, and retired there because he likes the place. Sure, and it never rains in eastern Washington.

And what's a nice guy like Santangelo doing one degree of separation from an NCAA?witch-hunt? After all, he's a cardplaying buddy of St. John's guard Erick Barkley, thanks to a tour of duty at last summer's World University Games. Obviously, Santangelo is heavily connected. In fact, he used his knowledge of Barkley to deliver a scouting report before the Zags "upset" the Johnnies in this year's second round. "He warned everybody that Erick has this other gear," says Few, a long-time Gonzaga assistant. And who but an insider would know that?

Speaking of scandal, where did Minnesota turn to douse the PR?bonfire created by all those fake term papers a year ago? That's right. The Gophers hired Dan Monson, who led Gonzaga to the Elite Eight last spring, then coached Barkley and Santangelo as an assistant on the World U team. Though he has a (supposedly) bigger-name, (winkwink) better-paying job, Monson confesses that watching Gonzaga "makes me miss 'em-I go through withdrawal." Did anyone say that after leaving Tulsa?

"Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm and Casey Calvary all have the ability to play as pros," Monson says. Some of them can even dunk. But bigger schools missed out because they were too busy listening to the prep scouting gurus-those "45-yearold, overweight, doughnut-eating hoops junkies," Few scoffs. Who but an insider could so strongly challenge the powers that wannabe?

An early season thumping of UCLA only bolstered the Zags' confidence. No wonder these guys walked off wearing Mona Lisa smiles after taming the Red Storm in Tucson, then shrugged when several Johnnies skulked off without shaking hands. Gonzaga doesn't need validation from New York or its media stooges.

The final, most damning piece of evidence? The Bulldogs' mascot is featured prominently in Nike's Bracketville ads. Nike, only the most powerful entity in college hoops. Nike, whose HQ is one state away. Nike Gonzaga The center of college basketball It's all clear now.

FANS FOREVER

Luke Recker's road to the Final Four ended on a soft summer night high up in the cottonwoods outside Durango, Colo. It ended with a glorious moon overhead, a beautiful girl by his side and his wondrous future measured in starshine so bright that surely nobody in his car would have noticed the oncoming truck roaring around the bend. The man behind the wheel was so drunk he was brainlessly speeding almost 25 mph over the limit, swerving across the center line, crashing head on into Recker's All-American life, twisting and mangling and violently changing it forever.

The driver of the Recker car, John Hollberg, was killed. Recker's girlfriend, Kelly Craig, suffered spinal cord damage that paralyzed her almost totally from the neck down. Her brother Jason was so severely injured he is still hospitalized and can barely move or talk. Recker suffered a broken wrist and facial wounds that required the reattachment of an ear and more than 200 stitches. Big Dance? Luke and Kelly may never dance together again.

And yet ... "This is my favorite time of year," says Luke, a oncebudding star at Indiana who has passed through three colleges since last year's Final Four. "In high school I used to fake being sick so I could stay home and watch the Tournament."

And yet ... "I made out my brackets as soon as the teams were selected," says Kelly, a former cheerleader at Indiana who won't win any Tourney pools this year. "I always root for the Hoosiers. But I follow Arizona, too."

Back in July, when the dreadful accident happened, the young lovers were in the midst of transferring from their Knight-mared existence in Bloomington to a new dawn at Arizona. Durango derailed all that. Luke tried to make a go of it in Tucson, but-heartbroken, homesick, guilt-ridden- he left after one semester and enrolled at Iowa. Nearly 430 miles away in Jasper, Ind., Kelly stays in touch with many of their ballplaying friends. "Shane Battier calls me, so I always follow Duke," she says. "[Arizona's] Richard Jefferson sends me reading stuff. I dated Michael Lewis at Jasper High. Now, when I go up to IU games, I talk to him and Dane Fife [Recker's former roommate]."

"Dane and I phone every week," says Luke, who played in four Tourney games in two seasons for the Hoosiers. "But I also keep up with the Arizona guys: Richard, my roommate Justin Wessel, Josh Pastner. Josh said he was petitioning Coach Olson to get me a Pac-10 championship ring. That would be sweet."

Not nearly as sweet as the relationship Luke once shared with Kelly.

"We're not boyfriend and girlfriend any more, just friends," she says.

"It's just impossible to date in the current situation," he adds.

And yet ... They follow every game of the Tourney on TV. And though Indiana and Arizona have long gone home, Luke and Kelly may very well meet at the Final Four in Indianapolis. If not there, then four days after the championship game, when they have another reunion scheduled. April 7. Durango. At the sentencing trial of the man who altered their lives forever. "That'll be very hard," Luke says. "Closure," says Kelly.

BILLY'S BETTER HALF

Win. Lose. Didn't matter much when Christine D'Auria was just another Billy Donovan fan pulling for Providence College in the mid-'80s. Either way, the Friar faithful partied hard. But ever since the final strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" rang through her wedding reception 11 years ago, every month has felt like March for Christine Donovan.

And to think she had never been south of Jersey before Billy became a graduate assistant for Rick Pitino and Kentucky just days after the Donovans' honeymoon. "I fought his job initially," Christine says. "But basketball defines Billy, so I got used to it."

She suffered through Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater for the ages in '92. She reveled in Florida's surprise Sweet 16 appearance last year. She sighed with relief when the Gators trounced Illinois to make it back this year. The woman knows Bracketville like her own backyard.

In the early days at UK, Christine worked a variety of jobs-tutor, receptionist, riding instructor-to supplement her husband's meager $370-a-month salary. Things got even more hectic in '93, when the Wildcats tore through to the Final Four and Christine found herself pacing the streets of New Orleans at the crack of dawn, her 14-monthold son in tow. Hordes of nightcrawlers were just coming up for air, but Mom was simply trying to keep Little Billy away from the mess of VCR wires in Daddy's makeshift headquarters.

When Marshall made Big Billy a head coach in '94, Christine became a valued recruiter, whipping up dinners for prospects and their anxious parents. At Florida, where Billy took over in '96, her brownies are a locker room staple; Thanksgiving means chicken, corn pudding and a house full of players horsing around with Little Billy (8), Hasbrouck (6) and Bryan (3). "The team is my extended family," Christine says.

No wonder her appetite always vanishes on game day, replaced by a dull, creeping headache that crests just in time for tip-off. Christine and Billy always try to meet eyes before a sea of orange pom-poms surrounds them and Billy starts calling plays he's barked aloud a thousand times in his sleep. Christine tries coaching from the stands, but she's drowned out by the thrum as she rises from her seat, then slumps back, twisting and peeling her ticket like a Fruit Roll-Up. Her appetite returns only if there's a blowout. Her headache subsides only after Billy's press conference.

Of course, even industrial-strength aspirin couldn't have taken the edge off this year's first-rounder against Butler. During the final seconds of overtime, Christine stood in a daze, clutching her worn ticket scrap, her fingers curled together in prayer. She was almost certain the Gators were headed home. "I thought of everything to say to pump Billy back up," she admits. Then Mike Miller's desperation runner rattled in at the horn and his teammates buried him under a pig pile. For the first time in her life, Christine wept at game's end.

"That was pure joy," she says. "But wins leave you so quickly because there's always another game tomorrow."

OLD SCHOOL

Sampled beats are banging almost by way of introduction to the man on the other end of the phone line. LL Cool J is taking a break in the studio to talk a little hoops. His voice is surrounded by the cacophony of release, the sound of musicians grabbing a timeout. The borough of Queens N.Y. has produced a bunch of legendary rappers, but only one assumes the authority to call himself "Greatest of All Time." And unless he wants his new album, G.O.A.T., to be received as comedy, this break had better be short.

Where the college game is concerned, LL represents for St. John's. What sort of Queens rapper would he be otherwise? Sure, there was a dalliance with the Runnin' Rebels, lasting roughly from Stacey Augmon to Isaiah Rider. ("Fab Five did their thing, but I was feeling UNLV," LL says.) And yet the rapper always found time to bust the chops of a young and hungry Jayson Williams. These days, he feels Erick Barkley's pain, but his all-time favorite Johnnie is Mark Jackson, who hooped it up back when James Todd Smith was just rhyming on Farmer's Boulevard as a battle-tested MC, straight doin' it for free.

"The thing that makes college basketball so fascinating to me is that almost everyone's a hair away from the dream," LL says. "And, let's keep it real, a lot of them are in school just for the experience needed to get to the next level." (This last sentiment is punctuated by a thin swath of "ahhs" in the background.)

For the voice on the phone, it's Tourney time in more ways than one. LL may be a multimedia celeb, but today's MCs say he forgot what a hardcore artist is en route to greater fame and glory. G.O.A.T. has the rapper battling in the studio, with stakes as high as they've been in a decade. He's feeling the three weeks of raw competition that's calling him from the TV. March Madness? "It's analogous to life," he says.

Here's a guy who doesn't believe in paying student athletes, thinks college basketball is a no-lose situation: "The money comes back to you if you make it as a pro. And if you don't, you get a free education." At the same time, he empathizes with players like Auburn's Chris Porter and UCLA's JaRon Rush, while pointing a finger at some of the more unsavory characters who seem to multiply by the minute. Dirty agents, he says, "need to quit it."

He has been in showbiz nearly half his life. He has watched Tourney games from around the world, from the backseats of limos with stars bigger than his own bad self. But his most treasured recollections date back to the mid-'80s, to the Redmen of Jackson and the pallid sharpshooter Chris Mullin-and, of course, Walter Berry. "We used to see him all the time in that great big white Mercedes," LL says. He pauses for a moment, then laughs. "Nothing's changed."

ROAD SCHOLARS

The boys from Maguire University have been compared to the religious pilgrims of Canterbury. They've been celebrated coast to coast for their proud history. Their motto, "We Play Hurt," and mantra, "Final Five- because we're always there," underscore their remarkable success in reaching the championship game every year since the school was founded. And yet Maguire has been listed in The Blue Book directory of college athletics only once. Year: 1972-73. Nickname: The Jollymen. Colors: green and white.

That's because the university was never a school but a tavern named Maguire's in Forest Park, Ill., that flourished in the early '60s when coaches from high schools and colleges gathered to swap stories and suds with doctors, lawyers and even an occasional priest. In '63, when Loyola coach George Ireland scored Final Four tickets for the gang, a tradition was born. (Okay, so it wasn't called the Final Four back then. But Ireland's Ramblers upset Cincy for the championship.)

Mel Connolly, a truck driver, would become Dr. Connolly, Maguire's provost. The dean would be John Kelly, a fireman who also ran Kelly's Pub (which eventually replaced Maguire's as the administration building). And Len Tyrrell served as head coach or chancellor-he's never quite sure which-despite his day job as director of a drug rehab center in the Cook County state attorney's office. The gag was fleshed out with T-shirts, warmup jackets, pennants, buttons and, of course, annual 100-member hospitality- suite all-weekend all-nighters at the Final Four. Game tickets were and are irrelevant. Most Maguire enthusiasts prefer the communal atmosphere where they belly up to the ... uh, library. "Maguire's may not be the best party at the Tournament, but it's usually the longest," says Johnny Lattner, the old Notre Dame Heisman halfback and a Maguire fellow traveler.

Through the years the tradition survived. Maguire's hallowed halls have entertained Final Four revelers from Ray Meyer to Burt Reynolds to Jim Valvano, who walked into a Maguire classroom after winning it all in '83 and found half his team partying there. Maguire vets have even achieved a celebrity of their own. "New Orleans '93," Tyrrell says. "We were walking in the French Quarter and got mobbed by fans."

Alas, everybody yuks it up over Maguire except-dun, da, dun-dun-the NCAA, which has never forgiven the university for crashing the revered Blue Book. (Seems an application mysteriously showed up at the bar one day, so the boys filled it out and sent it in as a gag.) Treating Maguire much like Jerry Tarkanian, the NCAA discourages Final Four hotels from booking the group. "They won't admit that they give us trouble," Tyrrell says. "But now we have to make reservations through our real names instead of Maguire."

Matter of fact, this year the school's profs have been displaced from their usual downtown Indianapolis lecture hall. Enrollees are instructed instead to sign up at the suburban Signature Inn East. Bring a notebook and stay awake. There will be pop quizzes-along with pop tops.

'CLONE RANGERS

Matt Scuffham is not your average Iowa State fan. He wears a ref shirt to games. He boogies solo to Ally McBeal's "Dancing Baby" on the Hilton Coliseum floor. And while many of his peers dream of a Final Four trip to Indy, this senior prefers to think Philly-because that's where the Cyclone women hope to be playing on March 31 and April 2. See, while Scuff (above left) and his elite band of zanies-all clad in ref shirts-love the No. 2 seed men's team, they love the No. 3 seed women even more. From their courtside seats opposite the Cyclone bench, they lead cheers and work officials and watch during timeouts as Scuff does his "Dancing Baby" routine. It's a fail-safe crowd pleaser among the Lil' 'Clone Club, a 2,000-strong army of kiddie fans who fork over $15 each for season tix.

Scuff's ref-shirt crew consists of three sets of brothers. There's Scuff and his younger brother Mark (above right), who grew up on a pig-and-sheep farm outside Algona, 114 miles from Ames. "I don't call him Mark," Scuff says. "I call him Lil' Scuff, like everyone else." Then there are the Welks, Dan and Matt. "Since he's Matt and I'm Matt," Scuff says, "we call Matt Welk 'Boy.'" For reasons unexplained, Jason and Dave McClatchy go by their given names.

It all started so humbly. Four years ago, Scuff struck up a conversation while shooting hoops next to a tall blonde at the rec center. Amanda Bartz told him she played for the Cyclones and invited him to her next game. (She has since transferred to Illinois-Chicago.) In no time, Scuff and Dan Welk were hooked. They loved the antics of Wild Bill Yungclas, the dean of Cyclone superfans. Dressed in red pants and a Vegas-issue gold jacket with shoulder-width lapels, the bald retiree would get fired up counting out three seconds, calling fouls and bellowing like a bull elk for 40 minutes. Inspired, Scuff and his buds began wearing gold hats to show support. But soon enough they had created their own trademark. "We kind of enjoyed yelling at the refs," Scuff says, "so we decided we'd dress like 'em."

As coach Bill Fennelly built Iowa State into a national power, the crowds grew to 10,000 a game. "We knew we'd made it when we couldn't hear Wild Bill anymore," says ISU promotions coordinator Monica Rende. And bigger crowds meant more fame for the striped-shirt guys. Now Lil' 'Clone Clubbers worship them; players seek them out. "Scuff follows us everywhere and knows all our parents," says star guard Stacy Frese. Even the refs sometimes sidle up to him for a chat.

Scuff enjoys his celebrity, but this farmhand won't milk it. He claims he hasn't used it to get a date yet. And he's leaning toward hanging up his stripes after he graduates this spring. "Comes a time," he says, "when you gotta move on."

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