Price, UConn enjoying cathartic run
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As the final minute drew near, Inga Price left her row and stood, arms hugging her waist in the aisle.
When her son sank two free throws with 18 seconds left, she walked down two steps.
By the time the buzzer sounded, she was at the railing that separated the stands from the court, yelling and jumping and screaming as her son did the same with his teammates on the floor.
Connecticut's 82-75 win over Missouri was as much a catharsis as it was a celebration, a group exhale for an embroiled team that despite the clouds overhead had still managed to make it to the Final Four.
Jim Calhoun battled cancer last summer and the NCAA this spring.
Stanley Robinson spent the fall boxing scrap metal, exiled from the team while he got his life back together.
Jerome Dyson went from star guard to spectator, his season halted by a knee injury with just six games left in the regular season.
But if there is a poster child for these Jobs of basketball, it is A.J. Price, whose college career was stopped, stymied and stunted no fewer than three times in five years. His battles are well-documented -- a brain malformation that nearly cost him his life, a suspension that nearly cost him his reputation, and a knee injury that cost UConn a longer stay in the NCAA tournament -- but what the combo platter of suffering, self-inflicted wound and injury did for Price is impossible to measure.
Three times Price had to sit back and watch basketball go on without him. He's not about to be a passive bystander now. Price is averaging 14.7 points, 4.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds this season and has been nothing shy of relentless every second he's been on the court.
"Four years ago, I was just praying he'd make it out of the ICU," Inga Price said. "I never dreamed we'd be here. Never. But he is on a mission. Everyone's been talking about all the distractions with this team. This is nothing. There are no distractions. There's one goal and that's all he's focused on."
When news broke about potential NCAA violations, the knee-jerk question was to presume it would negatively affect UConn. Instead the Huskies have turned the swirling controversy surrounding them on its ear, using it as a motivation rather than a crutch.
Since the beginning of the season, they have broken every huddle with the same line: "Five is one." It seems almost prescient now, what with the "us against the world" attitude this team has adopted.
Now this is my last chance, my last chance to do something historic and leave my mark. I just want it so bad.” -- UConn guard A.J. Price
"With everything that went on this year, I just told myself I've been through worse," Price said. "Now this is my last chance, my last chance to do something historic and leave my mark. I just want it so bad."
A.J. Price has been bouncing a basketball for as long as he can remember. His father, Tony, led the University of Pennsylvania to an improbable Final Four 30 years ago, and Inga hooped, too. They taught him the basics, taking him outside to show him proper technique for a simple layup when he was just a toddler.
Father and son played a little one-on-one, the last game ending when A.J. was 11 after his dad fouled him so hard A.J. was knocked out of his shoe.
From elementary school to high school to AAU ball to now, the Price family has followed the same game routine. Inga sits in the stands, serving as head cheerleader; Tony finds a quiet place where no one can find him.
At the West Regional, Inga was impossible to miss. She wore a No. 12 jersey and literally started the U-C-O-N-N cheers in the school's section. About 30 rows up, Tony sat in the handicap section.
"He needs room, he likes to pace," Inga explained. "He gets too nervous."
But honestly, the nerves father and mother feel now are nothing compared to the terror that hit them in October 2004. Price woke up on Oct. 1 and couldn't get out of bed. As the days wore on, his condition worsened and team doctors took him to a local hospital. Doctors there discovered a brain hemorrhage. Ultimately diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a life-threatening condition that causes bleeding in the brain, A.J. would spend two weeks in the ICU, including his 18th birthday. Family, friends, teammates and Calhoun served a constant vigil, praying that A.J. would make it.
He remembers none of it, except waking up. There were no birthday cards or presents waiting for him, just smiling faces.
"I was the gift," Price said.
Radiosurgery in February repaired the malformation, but the arduous road back was just beginning. He had extensive therapy. Forget basketball. Price had to learn how to walk again, and he was not cleared for any sort of basketball until May.
Three months later, he was out of basketball again. Caught stealing laptop computers along with teammate Marcus Williams, he was suspended for the entire 2005-06 season. Price wasn't allowed to take classes in the fall, so he worked construction, taking mass transit to get to work every day.
He jokes now that he and Robinson could open a business, but admits that the suspension was an eye-opener.
"It was extremely difficult. I mean, you're just a regular person," he said. "You're just a regular person going to work every day, no basketball, nothing. It really made me appreciate what I didn't have."
Out of basketball for two years, Price was clearly rusty in his sophomore season, but last season he finally looked like the top high school prospect he once was.
Price averaged 14.5 points per game, earned a spot on the All-Big East first team and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-American team.
And then, after nine minutes in the NCAA tournament, Price was done again. He tore his ACL, and the 4-seed Huskies crumbled without him, losing to San Diego in overtime.
As he looks back on the litany of strife in his life, Price said that while the hospitalization was clearly the most serious, it is the suspension that eats at him the most.
"I could have controlled that," he said.
But he doesn't allow time for looking back. What's done is done. What's next is what matters.
And next is Detroit and history.
When A.J. was named the West Regional's Most Outstanding Player, the Price family became just the sixth with a father-son combo to be named to an all-regional squad.
When the Huskies won, the pair joined an elite group that includes, among others, the Bibbys (Henry and Mike), the Waltons (Bill and Luke), the Lucases (John and John III) and the Mays (Scott and Sean).
Naturally, A.J. heard all about his father's magical run. No. 9 seed Penn upset North Carolina in the first round to begin the ride to Salt Lake City, but outside of Philly, that Quakers team remains a brief footnote in history. The '79 Final Four is remembered for two other guys, one named Magic, the other Bird.
Still, Tony liked to tell his son what a big deal he was and still is in Philadelphia and jokingly brag about his basketball success.
But A.J. never felt pressured to live up to his dad's accomplishment.
No, he was determined to beat it.
"My dad would tell me, 'Hey, I've been to a Final Four, so you have to do something different,'" A.J. said. "So I decided I would. I'd go one step further and win a national championship."
He is 80 minutes from that moment now, 80 minutes from the ultimate reward for an awful lot of suffering.
When the Huskies beat Missouri, they gathered together in a circle singing and dancing, repeating and chanting one word.
"We were saying, 'Shawzzs,'" Jeff Adrien said, giving the nonsensical word his best spelling attempt. "It doesn't mean anything. It's just something we do after we win big games, big games only, just our way to celebrate."
It sounded like a catharsis.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.