Monday, June 24, 2013
UW alumni game fueled by Romar pros
By Kevin Pelton
SEATTLE -- Barring a surprise involving seniors Abdul Gaddy or Aziz N'Diaye, the University of Washington won't have a player selected in Thursday's NBA draft. That has become out of the ordinary, as reinforced by Sunday's inaugural alumni game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. A sellout crowd watched 12 current and former NBA players from the past decade battle in a game won by post-2009 pro draftees over their older Huskies counterparts, 107-103.
Such a matchup was inconceivable 11 years ago, when Lorenzo Romar returned to coach at his alma mater. At that point, the only Washington player active in the NBA was Todd MacCulloch. During the entire 1990s, a down period for the program, UW sent just three players to the league.
That lack of elite talent changed quickly under Romar's leadership. Starting in 2005, Washington has had at least one player selected in the draft seven of the past eight years, including six first-round picks. Ten Huskies altogether played in the NBA last season; if College Basketball Nation's Path to the Draft series looked only at current NBA players, UW would crack the top 10.
All of those players returned to Seattle for Sunday's game, and the lengths they traveled spoke volumes about its importance. Center Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who plays overseas, returned from his native London. Forward Bobby Jones, who spent two years in the NBA, came directly after finishing his playoffs in Italy. And Quincy Pondexter, a breakout star for the Memphis Grizzlies during this year's Western Conference finals, flew 15 hours after participating in an NBA Cares clinic in Singapore, arriving Sunday morning.
"At all costs I was going to be here," said Pondexter. "I had prior obligations and I took care of those and sprinted here as fast as I can. Plane, train, automobile -- I would have been here."
The same could be said of Husky fans, who packed Hec Ed to the point of sweltering like a high school gym. Thousands of fans bought tickets the day of the game, and more had to be turned away after the arena reached capacity. The attendance exceeded Romar's expectations "out of the stratosphere."
"I was hoping we'd get 5,000," he said. "There's no way I thought we'd fill it up and turn people away."
The fans who made it in saw a pair of games. The first, billed as the "Legends Game," featured Washington players from the 1990s all the way back to the '50s, including all-time leading scorer Christian Welp. In a 16-minute showcase that tested the endurance of several older alumni, Romar himself stole the show. The 1980 grad, who spent five seasons in the NBA before moving to the sidelines, knocked down three triples in a row at one point and led all scorers with 11 points to earn MVP honors.
Then Romar settled in at courtside with his family to watch the players he recruited and coached put on a show. The pre-2009 roster was highlighted by stalwarts who lifted the Huskies from the bottom of the Pac-10 to a No. 1 seed in 2005, including NBA All-Star Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson. They squared off against younger Washington products like Pondexter, Terrence Ross and Isaiah Thomas in a matchup played with slightly more intensity than the typical charity game because of the bragging rights on the line.
The post-2009 team led throughout and held on for the 107-103 win, getting 24 points from Thomas, the game's MVP. Tony Wroten added 19 points and Pondexter 17. Spencer Hawes of the Philadelphia 76ers had 21 points and 17 rebounds for the pre-2009 team, while international veteran Tre Simmons scored 23 points and Will Conroy had a triple-double (16 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, but also 10 turnovers).
The day wrapped up with a slam-dunk contest, where 2012 grad Darnell Gant upset Ross, the reigning NBA dunk champion. Gant earned a perfect 50 for dunking home a lob off the shot clock, and Ross -- who got his own 50 when he windmilled a lob by Wroten from the balcony -- blew several tries at his only dunk in the finals before settling for a more conservative finish.
Throughout, the alumni game experience served as a celebration of what Romar has built at UW, from NBA talent to one of the Pac-12's most devoted fan bases.
"It's a testament to the program and how much it's grown to be able to put something like this on," said Hawes. "There's not a lot of schools that have enough guys and enough support from the community that you could pull something like this off."