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Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Updated: April 8, 1:37 PM ET
Baylor family relishes team's success

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

Since the Baylor Bears high-stepped out of New Orleans bound for their first Sweet 16, coach Scott Drew has repeatedly trumpeted the rise of Baylor Nation.

In western France, former Baylor forward Tommy Swanson -- playing for Angers St.-Leonard -- has taken to wearing Baylor sweats to practices and games. In Turkey, where Terrance Thomas is continuing his European career, the former Bear happily talks up the NCAA tournament with international teammates that he said only knew Baylor in a different light.

In the Los Angeles Clippers locker room, former Bears big man Brian Skinner is enjoying March like never before in his 12 years in the NBA. He's taking great delight in prodding teammates like former Kansas Jayhawk Drew Gooden and former Texas A&M Aggie DeAndre Jordan, whose alma maters sadly are no longer dancing.

In Houston, former Bears player and coach Carroll Dawson can't step outside without somebody shouting something about Baylor's run.

And in Waco, former Bears sharpshooter and longtime color radio analyst Pat Nunley beams over the giddiness he senses in the local fandom.

He expects a strong number to head to Houston as the South Region's third-seeded Bears take on 10th-seeded Saint Mary's at Reliant Stadium on Friday night. An appearance in the Elite Eight and a once-unimaginable shot at the Final Four are at stake.

Nunley, under the Baylor headset for 28 years, said he never imagined this.

"We were so mired in just trying to get our program functional that we couldn't dream," Nunley said. "We've got a guy in here that changes the way we look at things -- I don't know how else to put it -- and allowed us to think outside our box, which we were stuck in for so long, and here we are."

That guy is Drew. Charismatic, cunning and arguably indefatigable, Baylor's seventh-year head coach -- only 33 when he took over a decimated program spared the death penalty -- has elevated Bears basketball to previously unseen heights.

Fans become weary of talk of the program's darker days that sabotaged progress over the past two decades, but those events are an undeniable part of the Baylor basketball narrative. To ignore it would be to overlook so many players and coaches who endured the challenges and in many ways set the foundation for 2010, when Baylor Nation came to life.

Here are just a few of their stories:

Tommy Swanson (2002-06) and Terrance Thomas (2002-04)

When Drew and his staff took over a program of shell-shocked and confused players in August 2003, Thomas remembers meetings held with the seniors. Assistant coach Matt Driscoll, now the head coach at North Florida, left a particular impression.

"He said, 'If you stay, it won't be a one-year commitment. It will be a lifetime commitment,'" Thomas said. "At the time you didn't think it really would be. But it is."

While players John Lucas, Kenny Taylor and Lawrence Roberts understandably transferred to other programs, Thomas was one of four players who stayed after the tragic summer of 2003. Thomas now lives in Waco during the offseason and is often at Baylor working out and playing pickup games with the current Bears during open gym.

Tommy Swanson
Tommy Swanson finished his Baylor career in 2006 and is currently playing for a French team.

"Terrance, that's my boy," said senior point guard Tweety Carter. "He comes back and he pushes us. He tells us to keep it up, he's watching, and don't let anything come between us. When you got guys telling you that constantly, checking up on you and worried about how you're doing and how hard you're working, it's just a blessing. You don't get that at too many places."

Thomas, 29, said in many ways he's just now getting over the Patrick Dennehy murder and the Dave Bliss scandal that destroyed a burgeoning team with serious NCAA tournament aspirations. Thomas said it's been difficult for him to forget, because playing overseas, the first question he's asked is "What happened?"

Swanson, 26, also stayed. After finishing his college career in 2006, he earned a master's degree in sports management and completed an internship with the San Antonio Spurs as a player development assistant. After getting the itch to resume playing, he signed with a club in England and is now in his second season playing in France.

Lately, he's been donning his Baylor sweats a lot. One day recently his French coach showed up wearing a Texas Longhorns shirt.

"I had to explain to him that that's not appropriate attire to wear to practice," Swanson said. "Before I leave I'll have to give him a Baylor shirt to wear. With him seeing the success Baylor is having, I'm sure we can get him to be a Baylor fan now."

Swanson said he has moved beyond the summer of 2003 and, like Thomas, returns to Baylor when he can to visit coaches and players. Both players have followed the Bears' NCAA tournament run on the Internet.

"There isn't any disbelief with what this team is doing. It's been a work in progress," Swanson said. "There's a lot of pride stemming from former players to current players to current coaches to student body to administrators. I'm sure it'll be a huge showing in Houston this weekend. I'm a little disappointed I won't be able to take part in the excitement out there, but I'll be rooting for them in spirit."

Brian Skinner (1994-98)

Baylor's all-time leader in rebounds, blocked shots, double-doubles and minutes, the Los Angeles Clippers forward is soaking up this Baylor run. In 12 NBA seasons, the goateed Skinner has never enjoyed a March quite as much as this.

Brian Skinner
Brian Skinner (right), who is in his 12th NBA season, remains Baylor's all-time leading rebounder.

"I'm definitely having bragging rights right now with all the guys, now that some other teams have faltered off," Skinner said.

Skinner has also remained involved with the Baylor program, dropping by in the summer to get to know the guys and play some ball. Last year he was honored for making a substantial donation to the athletic program's learning center.

He hopes to be at Friday's Sweet 16 game. As ruthless as the NBA schedule can be, perhaps karma is on Skinner's side. The Clippers play the Rockets in Houston on Thursday night, and his plan is to stick around and root for the Bears in person.

"I'm so happy for the guys. I was there when all the controversy started, with probation and team sanctions and different things like that. I was there when everything started and everything after that just went [south], and it was hard," Skinner said Tuesday before the Clippers' game against the Dallas Mavericks. "It was hard for guys wanting to come, and Coach Drew has gotten the players to come and he's gotten the players to play hard, so what else can you ask for?"

Skinner, a native of Temple, Texas, about 40 miles north of Waco, came to Baylor to play for his high school coach, Harry Miller. Miller succeeded Darrel Johnson, who was fired amid academic fraud violations. Baylor imposed stiff penalties, including cuts in scholarships and a ban on postseason play, just as Skinner began his college career.

Skinner stuck with Miller and Baylor. Skinner's senior season launched him into the first round of the NBA draft, but the Bears went 6-24 (0-16 in the Big 12) and Miller was fired.

"Perseverance has paid off," Skinner said. "The guys are playing well and you have a bunch of guys that really care and they have a coach that's really putting in the time and effort to do what they need to do to get a winning basketball program."

Pat Nunley (1978-81)

In Nunley's day, the Ferrell Center didn't exist. The Bears played at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum, an old rodeo arena. Under Jim Haller, Baylor fielded some pretty good teams during a competitive time in the Southwest Conference.

Nunley's senior squad finished second in the SWC, but it didn't translate into a bid to the NCAA tournament. Nunley -- one of the best free throw shooters in Baylor history -- played one season with Vinnie Johnson and graduated the year before Terry Teagle came to Baylor and set the school's all-time scoring record, a mark that's currently being approached by junior shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn.

Nunley stayed in Waco after school, pursued a career in law and lucked into a radio gig calling Bears games.

"There was a legendary broadcaster at Baylor named Frank Fallon who had been hired by Baylor to start the Baylor radio network," Nunley said. "He knew I was in town and had played. He said, 'Come sit with me, I'm going to get this network started. You can wear a headset and whenever you feel like saying something just pipe in.'"

Twenty-eight years later, Nunley is still piping in, alongside play-by-play voice John Morris. As Nunley said, he's seen every Baylor basketball game for nearly three decades, still three decades shy of how long it finally took the program to win an NCAA tournament game.

Nunley couldn't help reflecting upon the program's often strange and twisted path to reach its first Sweet 16.

"I remember 0-16 vividly," he said. "It seems like, it was almost comical -- not comical, there's nothing funny about it -- but the harder we tried, the worse it got. I remember thinking when we hired Dave Bliss that if this guy can't do it, then I'm not sure it can get done. And not only did it not get done, it went deeper than we ever thought imaginable; unprecedented. So that was my perspective."

His perspective is changing.

"I haven't studied this, but if there is a better story, a better resurgence-slash-resurrection story in all of college basketball, I'd like see it," Nunley said. "I don't think there is one, and let me tell ya, I was there for every dribble. You have to see it to believe it. It's off the charts."

Carroll Dawson (1959-60 player; 1964-65, '72-77 assistant, head coach)

These days Dawson can be found cheering courtside as a season-ticket holder.

The former Houston Rockets general manager is a well-known Baylor backer in the Bayou City.

"They're hollering at me from across the street wherever I go," Dawson said. "I just came out of the store and this guy said, 'You kind of forget about the Rockets now.' I said, 'No, I haven't forgotten about the Rockets, but I'm really happy with the Baylor team.' It's really united the Baylor family as far as athletics, because I don't think you can ever go back and find a program as low as we were."

Carroll Dawson
Carroll Dawson is best known for his longtime employment with the Houston Rockets, but his Baylor roots run deep.

Perhaps no one at Baylor knows Drew as well as Dawson. When Dawson was a Baylor assistant in the 1960s, Drew's father, Homer, was an assistant under Dale Brown at LSU. Years later, Dawson would draft Drew's brother, Bryce, to play for the Rockets.

"Homer and Scott would come down to see him play a lot, so I got to know them real well," Dawson said. "So when Scott got the Baylor job he called me immediately. We talk a lot of basketball all the time."

Drew has the eyes and ears of other loyal Baylor coaches, and former players as well. Haller, Bill Menefee and former Baylor player and staff member Greg Davis attend most home games and help keep former players updated on and involved in Drew's open-door program.

"Each year it just grows to where people who started the program come back more and more," Drew said. "And when you have that, again, that tradition, that pride, that knowledge that's passed on, that's something that really helps build a program."

Drew even dials up Dawson and his NBA connections for recruiting purposes.

Dawson, 42-51 in four seasons as Baylor's head coach, lavishes Drew with praise for his tireless and creative recruiting efforts, calling him "one of the best recruiters I've ever seen. I'm just amazed, and he's gotten better and better every year as a coach."

"But," Dawson continued, "his recruiting skills are just off the wall. You'll probably see my picture two or three times in his office because he uses everybody and he uses everything that's been in the pros. He knows what young men like, and he's appealing."

So, too, is this once-beleaguered basketball program.

Just ask Baylor Nation.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.