- Marty Dobrow, ESPNBoston.com
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AMHERST -- Front and center.
All around the two chairs, the atmosphere was festive. There was giddy anticipation. A sense that deliverance was finally at hand.
For a decade and a half, it had been Rejection Sunday. At the University of Massachusetts, that annual rite of near spring had been cause for burrowing back underneath for more of a long, cold winter. Year after year, the disappointment had been so public. Right there on national television -- on highly rated national television -- the message had come through like a sledgehammer:
You're not good enough.
But this past Sunday, brimming with confidence, convinced they had built an unassailable postseason résumé, the UMass basketball community squeezed into the Amherst Brewing Company. Little tykes in Minuteman sweatshirts high-fived cheerleaders. Players wearing maroon sweatpants and gray long-sleeve shirts proclaiming a message with no national buzz ("The UMass Way") nibbled on wings and took selfies with iPhones. Just before the bewitching hour of 6 p.m. when Greg Gumbel -- the NCAA tournament's answer to Dick Clark on New Year's Eve -- started unveiling brackets, the players took their seats in a couple of rows before the big screen.
The front row of eight seats had three veteran players on the left, and three on the right. The two seats in the middle could only go to two people:
The leader on the floor. The coach on the sidelines.
The little guy who learned basketball from his dad (before, at age 9, losing him to a brain tumor). The surrogate father who teaches him now.
Point guard present. Point guard past.
Chaz Williams and Derek Kellogg were positively wide-eyed as CBS aired an intro that went right to the heart. The "One Shining Moment" montage spliced together all the sweetness of the Madness: Louisville last year; Kentucky the year before; Christian Laettner hitting the miraculous shot in 1992; Jimmy V racing around in wonder, looking for somebody to hug.
"It was bringing back memories," Williams said, "and it was reminding me: Here is your chance. This is something you've always worked for."
Kellogg couldn't wait for his players to have a chance to compete in what he called -- World Cup, World Series, Super Bowl and Olympics be damned -- "the best sporting event on earth."
In team sports, there is nothing quite like the relationship between a basketball coach and a point guard. It is a relationship with a high level of intensity, one that requires an unusual amount of communication. At its core is nothing less than finding a vision for the team, a sense of how it should play.
There are "pass first" point guards and "score the ball" point guards. Point guards who signal plays with a fist at half court. Point guards who barrel into the lane. Point guards who drive and dish, who provide the alley for others' oops. Point guards should be able to dissect defenses on the fly, to find seams, to anticipate. The best ones are measured by this intangible: They make others around them better.
No relationship in baseball is like this one. Nothing in hockey or soccer. Perhaps the best parallel is the relationship between a football head coach and a quarterback. But the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady bromance is far more the exception than the rule. Offensive coordinators often call the plays. There are 11 players on the field at once, shrouded in pads and helmets. The quarterback is only out there for half the game.
Basketball is far more intimate. There are just five players on the court. The coach is right there -- not wired to a headset, not behind the glass, not tucked in a dugout. The relationship with the point guard is based largely on identification. Indeed, it is common hoop parlance to talk about the point guard being an "extension of the coach."
But the relationship also can be fractious and combative.
"It's more like father and son," says Williams, who plans to be a coach one day. "Being a point guard and the leader, the coach is going to say some things to you that may get under your skin. As a child, you have to know how to respond."
In the sweep of basketball history at the University of Massachusetts, the best players have played other positions: Hall of Famer Julius Erving, national player of the year Marcus Camby and two-time All-American Lou Roe. But in a real sense, the most interesting players have been point guards.
Chaz Williams became the latest "case in point" when he started playing for Kellogg in 2011. It was a critical juncture in the history of the basketball program as one point guard began playing for another.
But it was, in a sense, an old story at UMass.
Twenty years before that, at another hoop crossroads, another new point guard began playing for the Minutemen in 1991, coached by a former point guard.
So, too, 20 years before that, in 1971.
The minute the 1970-71 season ended, Rick Pitino was ready to roll. In an era when freshmen were ineligible to play varsity sports, he would be a sophomore at UMass in '71-72 and the possibilities for that team seemed endless.
Could the Redmen (as they were known from 1948-72) improve upon their 23-4 season from the season before, when they notched five more wins than any other team in school history? Sure. Could they repeat their spotless 10-0 record in the Yankee Conference? Absolutely. Could anyone in the country beat that team? It wouldn't be easy.
After all, Pitino figured, UMass would have the very best player in the country in senior Julius Erving. The season before, Erving had averaged 26.9 points and 19.5 rebounds. In the last home game of the season at the Curry Hicks Cage against Syracuse (and its second-year assistant coach Jim Boeheim), Erving had put forth one of the greatest college performances Pitino would ever see: 36 points, 32 rebounds.
In addition to the man not known quite yet as Dr. J, UMass was set to return seven of its next eight leading scorers. And from the freshman team, there was going to be a tremendous infusion of talent. That included Al Skinner, someone headed for a six-year career in the ABA and NBA and then a long college coaching stint; Pitino's roommate, a slender, sharp-shooting 6-foot-4 guard named Peter Trow; and Pitino himself, a point guard with plenty of flash and dazzle and a will to win as intense as anyone's in the game.
They would be playing for coach Jack Leaman, a former star point guard at Boston University, who remains to this day the coach with the most career wins in UMass history. The sky itself did not even seem to be the limit.
Until it came crashing down.
The first cut was the deepest, by far.
Attending the Final Four in Houston, Leaman received a phone call from his assistant coach, Ray Wilson, warning him that he had some bad news.
"What, is my wife leaving me?" Leaman asked.
"Worse," Wilson said. "Julius is leaving."
At a time when almost all players stayed through their senior seasons, Erving had gotten a lucrative offer from the start-up Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association. For a kid who had grown up with very little, the $500,000 contract over three years was just too good to pass up.
Months later, things went from very bad to much worse. Ten games into the season, Pitino picked a fight with starting senior point guard Mike Pagliara, breaking his thumb. Trow, a man close enough to get invited to Pitino's wedding, said in 1996, "Rick instigated the whole thing. He was unhappy. He wanted to run the show. He gave everybody a hard time, and eventually it just exploded into a fight."
An outraged Leaman booted Pitino off the team for the rest of the season, telling the student newspaper, "He thought too much about himself, and not about the 11 other guys on the team."
The UMass team that was going to be the greatest the school had ever known lost seven of its last 10 games and finished 14-12.
Pitino considered transferring, but ultimately decided to return. He chafed under Leaman's discipline, under the half-court structure of his offense and the lack of spontaneity given to the point guard. But he did it Leaman's way, and the results were good. The newly christened Minutemen improved to 20-7 the next season, winning an NIT game for good measure. In Pitino's senior season, 1973-74, they went 21-5. It would be their best record for 18 years.
Until, that is, 1991-92, when the 20-year cycle of point guard drama hit its next chapter with the arrival of a freshman from Springfield by the name of Derek Kellogg. It was an arrival that, in some circles, was not met with glee. One radio announcer suggested that UMass coach John Calipari should be fired for wasting state taxpayer money on a scholarship for a player who, he deemed, lacked the athletic ability to compete at the level that the Minutemen played.
That level had improved markedly during the first three seasons under Calipari, himself a former college point guard at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Clarion State. He had inherited a program that was among the worst in college basketball, one with 10 straight losing seasons, a team that had achieved the dubious, if almost remarkable, distinction of once losing 29 straight games.
In his second season, Calipari had turned UMass into a winner, and in Season 3, 1990-91, he guided the Minutemen to a 20-13 record and an appearance in the NIT's Final Four. By then, of course, the NIT was long-since established as a second-tier tournament: no office pools, no Shining Moment.
Now it was time for the next step, the NCAA, the Big Dance, the place where the elite meet to compete. That was the singular goal as Kellogg donned a college uniform for the first time in 1991-92. He knew he would not play much that season with senior Anton Brown entrenched as point guard of a veteran team, but he was determined to learn as much as he could.
Kellogg remembers it as an exhausting, if exhilarating, experience.
"The one thing I found out very quickly is that the point guard for Coach Cal was a demanding, tough position," Kellogg said. "He put a lot of stock in his point guards as far as being tough and playing the game the right way, knowing the game through and through. The mental kind of grind and the physical kind of grind really toughened you up."
It required a locked-in focus. You needed to be able to watch, to study, to dissect. You had to realize how to read and react to fast-moving, athletic defenders. You had to be able to absorb the explosive blasts from the coach himself, eruptions Calipari referred to as "aggressive counseling."
It was, Kellogg now says, "one of my biggest learning experiences ever."
That was a magical season for UMass. Playing their last full season in the cozy confines of the Curry Hicks Cage -- home to UMass hoops since 1931-32 -- the Minutemen powered their way to a 30-5 season. They won their first Atlantic 10 regular-season championship, as well as their first conference tournament title. They lived it up at Coach Cal's house in Shutesbury on Selection Sunday.
For the first time in 30 years, they were back in the NCAA tournament. There they acquitted themselves quite well, getting to the Sweet 16 before losing memorably to Kentucky and its coach, Rick Pitino.
Derek Kellogg became the starting point guard the next season, the starter and captain the two seasons following. All of those teams made it to the NCAA tournament. In his senior season, the Minutemen reached No. 1 in the AP poll and made it all the way to the Elite Eight.
Calipari's sometimes tyrannical tutelage had worked wonders for the kid from Springfield. "It helped you become a good college player, and it helped me become a college coach. Really, by my junior and senior year I was an extension of Coach Cal on the floor."
Kellogg knew his limitations. He knew there were lots of point guards who were bigger, stronger, quicker, more athletic. But he felt that under Calipari, his game was maximized, a lesson that he has tried to apply as a coach.
"Every relationship with each point guard is going to be a little different," Kellogg said. "There are different personalities, different styles of play. Each guy has some things that make him go. In college basketball, there is not a manual that says if you do it this way, then you are going to be successful. There's some things that we all have, our basic building blocks. But it's more of an art form than a standard operating procedure."
No exploration of the UMass Point Guard Academy would be complete, of course, without a brief plunge into the 1995-96 season, when the team's double-edged drama defied belief. There was the Marcus Camby miniseries: the national-player-of-the-year performance, his startling collapse before a game at St. Bonaventure, the even more startling confession at season's end about taking gifts from agents (placing a record-setting season in an Orwellian memory hole, according to the NCAA).
There was Calipari, charming some, infuriating others, winning the national coach of the year, then bolting for the head coaching position of then New Jersey Nets. There was the astonishing 26-0 start to the season, rabbits yanked out of hats again and again from a team with just two scholarship guards for most of the season.
The guards were unusually sensitive souls: Carmelo Travieso, minoring in art; Edgar Padilla, the son of two deaf parents, brought to tears on the bench one game before Calipari's wrath. Still, Calipari considered Padilla "the most fearless player I've ever coached." He had a willingness to plunge into the hardest situations with everything he had.
Padilla, who went to high school in Springfield, had tried to draw as much as he could from Kellogg's leadership the two previous seasons. And now, running the point himself, he did that point guard thing spectacularly well, making those around him better. UMass made it all the way to the Final Four.
There the opponent was Kentucky with Pitino at the helm, a powerhouse Wildcat team with nine players on its roster who would make it to the NBA. UMass, with just Camby holding an NBA pedigree, had defeated Kentucky in the season opener, but in the national semifinals the Wildcats were too much. Two nights later, they won the national championship.
Afterward, in the bowels of the arena then known as the Meadowlands, toward the end of a triumphant news conference, Pitino was asked about his old coach, Jack Leaman, then on the broadcast team for UMass. His response was stunning.
"What he did for me was he taught me how to be a man. And that's the most important thing to me. He made it very tough -- back then discipline was extremely stringent. Without Jack Leaman, I don't think I would have ever grown up. He taught me the fundamentals, taught me about defensive discipline, but he taught me how to be a man and care about the team before anything else."
By the time Chaz Williams got ready to play his first game in 2011, UMass basketball had taken the elevator straight down. Briefly the darlings of the college basketball world, the Minutemen had become irrelevant.
Under Bruiser Flint, they made it to the NCAA tournament in the first two seasons of the post-Cal-and-Camby era, but both were one-and-done affairs. It was 1998 when UMass last set foot, ever so briefly, in the Big Dance. Chaz Williams was just 6 years old.
In the next decade (three more years with Flint, four with Steve Lappas, three with Travis Ford), the Minutemen ranged from poor to mediocre to fairly good. They were collectively a few games over .500, thanks in part to less-than-ambitious nonleague schedules. They made it to three NITs with one good run. There were some good moments, but no magic. Fans who used to routinely fill the 9,493 seats of the Mullins Center found more desirable entertainment elsewhere. A half-filled arena was considered a good crowd.
When Ford left for Oklahoma State in 2008, UMass athletic director John McCutcheon reached back to the glory days to hire Kellogg. He arrived fresh from eight years as an assistant under Calipari at Memphis, most recently going all the way to overtime of the NCAA championship game on the back of a mesmerizing point guard named Derrick Rose.
At his welcome-back news conference, placed symbolically at the Curry Hicks Cage, Kellogg did not promise a return to the NCAA tournament, but stated, "We're going to be the hardest-working, most fun, most passionate, most energetic team in the country."
For three seasons, it sure didn't look like it. Sure, the cupboard was left rather bare by Ford and it was late in the recruiting game, but those early teams did little to inspire hope. They went 12-18, 12-20 and 15-15. And if that 2010-11 campaign looks better, it sure didn't feel like it at season's end. A UMass team that had started off 7-0 finished the regular season by losing at Fordham, a team with a 41-game league losing streak. Then in the first round of the A-10 tournament, playing at home against Dayton before a listless crowd of just 2,284, the Minutemen got torched by 28.
A constitutionally optimistic Kellogg now admits that his confidence was lagging.
"You need to perform at a certain time in your career," Kellogg said. "To me, it was time."
He knew that one of the big ironies of his teams' struggles during those first three seasons was the failure at point guard. Two highly touted recruits at the position were bounced out of the school for disciplinary reasons. Some underperformed. The system that Kellogg brought in from Memphis -- the "dribble-drive motion" -- just wasn't well-suited to the personnel. UMass often looked lost on the court. The net effect was the opposite of the point-guard goal: The whole was less than the sum of the parts. Sometimes considerably less.
"Being a point guard, you would think that would be your best position, or at least that things would go a little better," Kellogg admitted. "We didn't have the stability that we finally got when Chaz became eligible."
Williams had transferred from Hofstra after his freshman season, and watched from the sidelines as that once-promising 2010-11 season fizzled. Kellogg spent lots of time with him in practice and around the edges, knowing that the program's direction -- and perhaps his own coaching future -- was deeply tied to this pint-sized point guard, who might achieve his listed height of 5-foot-9 when stepping on a few copies of the UMass record book.
"It was a process," Kellogg said. "What I didn't want to do was force the relationship on him."
He found in Williams an incredibly eager student.
"I would tell him," Williams recalled, "'Coach, I'm here to learn, so anything you feel I'm doing wrong, just let me know. I'm just going to try to grow from here, so next year when it's my turn, I'll understand what you want me to do.'"
Kellogg knew all about Williams' father passing away when Chaz was a kid. And though the now-40-year-old Kellogg and Williams are separated by almost 18 years, they both became parents for the first time just two years apart. Kellogg's almost 6-year-old son, Max, is constantly around the team, and Williams' daughter, Cheree, who turns 4 in July, frequently makes it to UMass games.
"I speak to Coach a lot," Williams said. "We have a personal relationship, more than just a coach-player relationship."
But the coach-player thing is there, too, as they share an unbridled passion for the game.
As fate would have it, the Minutemen opened their 2011-12 season back at the Curry Hicks Cage against Elon University. It was a throwback night for UMass, but also recognition that the crowds at Mullins had become sparse. One game in the old gym that seats just more than 4,000 would look better there. The crowd that night was 3,093. What they saw was a revelation.
Early in the second half, Williams sparked a 13-0 run that put the game away with a dazzling sequence of plays: a series of tough baskets and electrifying passes, culminating in an Elon timeout as the crowd roared. Kellogg considers that exact moment the turning point of the UMass basketball program.
"He gave a little Hulkamania pose [to the crowd]," Kellogg said. "Immediately at that point, I knew something was going to be different." He saw "passion and energy coming from the team" and knew in his gut "the program was changing."
UMass won 25 games that season, 21 the next, scoring a couple of NIT bids. Williams combined Kellogg's court acumen with Pitino's tenacity and Padilla's fearlessness to become the best point guard in the history of the program.
This season, in just his third with the team, Williams became the school's all-time leader in assists. He averaged 15.8 points per game. He was named to the All-Atlantic 10 first team for the third season in a row. With his heart and his swagger, he made those around him better. At long last, full houses returned to the Mullins Center. Williams says his relationship with Kellogg hit a new level this season as the coach allowed him more freedom in running the show.
"We had the trust in years past," he said, smiling and interlacing his long fingers, "but it wasn't a complete, all-out trust. It was like, 'OK, I trust you, but," looking over his shoulder. "But let me just make sure."
UMass went 24-8, putting up lots of quality wins. And so it came to pass that the Minutemen gathered at the Amherst Brewing Company, Kellogg and Williams front and center.
First, Greg Gumbel went through the South bracket. Then the West.
Tension filled the room as he began going through the Midwest, starting with undefeated Wichita State. Kentucky, now coached by Calipari, appeared on the screen as the No. 8 seed. There was a collective gasp in the room before the No. 9 team was revealed. When Kansas State came on the board, Williams smiled, put his arm around Kellogg, squeezed his left shoulder. ("Me and the guys were ready for it," Williams later said. "We wanted that matchup. But once it didn't happen, it was like, 'Coach, you can wipe the sweat off your head.'")
A few moments later in the same bracket, there was No. 4, Louisville, coached by Pitino. The Cardinals were pitted against No. 13, Manhattan.
Calipari and Pitino: winners of the past two national championships, archrivals, fundamental parts of the UMass point guard family tree.
And then, drum roll please, No. 6: the University of Massachusetts. Predictably, the room erupted.
Just before Kellogg high-fived his son, Max, with his left hand, he turned to his right and clasped hands with a beaming Williams. They didn't have to say a word.
Emphatically -- indeed triumphantly -- they had made their point.