UW clicking because of, and in spite of, differences
They call us the "Truman Show People," as in, "Where the Truman Show People at?" They are the Washington Huskies and we are eight ESPNers who have been granted a total-access pass since Selection Sunday, because -- to their good fortune, and ours because the top seeds always stay at the site's best hotels -- they were given the No. 1 seed in the West.
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Since then, we've been with them at practice, of course; in the locker room; on the bus; on the plane; in the lobby; in the arena; at dinner; at film sessions; at walk-throughs; and any other time they're doing something and we have cameras in hand.
Some early observations:
• Nate Robinson, the -- as he likes to say -- 5-foot-something guard with the 43-inch vertical leap, cannot stay still or quiet. He eats Frosted Flakes with added sugar for breakfast (when he can get away with it) and is either singing or yakking at nobody in particular wherever, whenever. After Washington won the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles a week ago, head coach Lorenzo Romar actually had to stop his postgame accolades to say, "Nate, can you shut up for 20 seconds?" He did and teammates say that was a record.
As the team drove by the Boise State football field on Wednesday, Robinson was beside himself with glee.
"Hey, this is the field with the blue turf," he said to nobody in particular. "I've always wanted to see that in real life. I'm going to ask coach to stop so we can run around on it. Blue turf. Birds be flying, they think it's water, be landing on it, splat, because they think it's water, wonder if you can see it from here...look, that's sick ... it do look like water, though."
• Bobby Jones, the defensive stopper and pure shooter straight out of Compton, cannot stay awake. He sleeps on the bus, he sleeps during film sessions, he sleeps in the locker room, even as the music is blasting and his teammates -- namely Nate -- are busting on one another like there's no tomorrow.
Jones was asleep in the locker room before practice Thursday, even as reporters interviewed players around him, the TV was blaring and Brandon Burmeister was blowing on him. Only a pencil in the ear woke him up.
• Will Conroy is the glue. A senior, he was with the Huskies in some mighty lean times. Recruited by a zillion top schools across the country, he chose Washington (then coached by Bob Bender) because he's a self-admitted "mama's boy," and her voice is still inside his head.
"She'd be telling you right now put down those cameras and come eat," he said the other night as we had the cameras rolling at a team dinner. "I'm serious."
We believe him.
• Hakeem Rollins is a biochemistry major who hopes to become an anesthesiologist. He is the only player anyone can remember who interviewed members of the medical school staff before committing to UW. He has taken two finals at the hotel in Boise this week, finals nobody would ever think anyone else was helping him cheat on, because even the tutors haven't been able to help him.
• Tre Simmons is a silent assassin. He doesn't speak much, but his shot from the 3-point line helped the Huskies avoid true drama vs. Montana on Thursday. He grew up with Robinson, Conroy and Brandon Roy, was nearly lost to the Seattle streets and attended two jucos before Romar rescued him and vice versa.
• They all can sky. Romar let them put on a dunk show for the crowd on Thursday and even the white guys, namely Mike Jensen and Zane Potter, were coerced into throwing a few down. Nate, of course, led the charge, calling his shot every leap of the way.
They have reached this point because of their differences, but also in spite of them. Their chemistry is palpable, on and off the court. They finish one another's sentences (except Nate, of course, because he finishes his own and everyone else's), and they laugh early and often at one another and with one another. They share the spotlight (except Nate, who stands in his and everyone else's) but more importantly, they share the ball -- even Nate, at times. They act like brothers and they play like brothers, evidenced by the fact that their biggest confrontations come against one another in practice.
Their parents, like many parents of college athletes, hang together before, after and during games. They brag, they scold, they hoot and holler; they somehow seem to sense that even if/when their son moves on to the NBA, as several of them will, it won't be the same. Thursday night after the win over Montana, they were celebrating like there was no tomorrow, perhaps because last season following the first round, there was no tomorrow. The Huskies were beaten by two points by UAB, ironically the team they are now sharing a hotel with. Players and parents alike have all tasted the going-home-after blues and, No. 1 seed or not, this is new and exciting and, like everyone, they don't want it to end.
Maybe it won't.
Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.
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