So much of college basketball is, well, satanic. You've got your Blue Devils, the team to beat this season, as well as your Sun Devils, your Blue Demons, your Demon Deacons. But it's not so much about the devils without as the demons within. Texas point guard Daniel Gibson (right), for one, is using his failure in last spring's Tourney as motivation to get him to this season's. Other stars, including Duke's J.J. Redick, have inner Lucifers of their own to conquer. And there's every reason to believe that Tennessee's Candace Parker will play like a woman possessed this season. Finally, on Dickie V's Playground, you'll get a head start on filling out the brackets that will end at the RCA Dome. By the way, are we the only ones who realized that you can't spell Final Four season without i-n-f-e-r-n-o?
Most of the Daniel Gibson stories are small. Nothing huge, nothing major, nothing to alter the effortless smile or the creaseless face or the weightless brow that dances above his inquisitive eyes. Look at the kid and you'll know: what could be big? He's wearing a Dominique Wilkins jersey and a fresh Yankees cap on tilt, and he's sitting in a Cajun place in Austin eating fried shrimp the size of his forearm. Worries? To this point in his 19-year-old life, adversity-such as it is-has hit him with all the force of a shrug. And this includes the two days last year when he thought the world was ending.
Oh, yeah … those days. No big thing, Gibson says, now that he knows the world wasn't really ending; it was just kind of sitting up straight and clearing its throat. No big thing, especially now that he's a sophomore and his Longhorns have survived an unfulfilling season to become the team most likely to cast off preseason fave Duke. Now that he and his coach understand each other and his life is back to running the way it always has: smoothly, and mostly on Daniel's terms.
His eyes fix on the restaurant's ceiling and his mind drifts back to those two dark days, three months apart, and he laughs a little to himself, because the world is a private joke when you're young and feeling it.
Gibson's first experience with perceived Armageddon came after the point guard had gone 1-for-7 against UT Arlington on Dec. 15, then endured another verbal evisceration from Rick Barnes. The coaching was meant to be instructive, but it was tough: name-calling tough, break-you-down-to-build-you-up tough. Gibson was always most comfortable being coddled and complimented, but that's not Barnes' way. He preaches that his players need "truth tellers" in their lives, and he'll gladly be first in line.
Do you know how you could tell the end was near on Dec. 16? You could tell because Gibson was on his cell at 6 a.m., and for him to be awake at that hour the world had to be ending, or at least posing the threat.
Byron Gibson, Daniel's father, answered the phone in the family's Houston home. "Daniel? [Pause.] Daniel? "
And then the words came bursting forth. Daniel told his dad he wanted out. He was ready to leave Austin and everything that came with it: school, hoops, teammates, Coach, Sixth Street, Tex-Mex, all of it. Nothing he did was good enough for Barnes. He couldn't do what the man wanted, so he wanted out. Immediately. "I can't deal with it," Daniel said. "I want to be anywhere but here."
Byron Gibson, a Houston playground legend who played point guard for Guy Lewis at the U. of Houston in the late '70s, listened quietly to his son's complaints, then said, very calmly, "You have to gut it out, because you ain't leaving. You're right where you need to be."
That pretty much squelched it. It turns out that the first day the world almost ended was a small thing to everyone but Daniel. It was small to Byron, who gutted out four seasons under the demanding Lewis. It was small to Barnes, who wasn't even aware of Daniel's unhappiness until much later, when Gibson told a reporter about it. It was small to Cheryl Gibson, Daniel's mother, although she will admit it was a bigger thing to her than it was to anyone but Daniel. It works that way when you're the mama of a self-described mama's boy.
"His dad was his dad, doing the dad thing," Cheryl says. "I was probably a little more understanding, telling him he had made his choice and it was going to be all right. Mom is more, That's my baby.' "
The strange thing is, Daniel spent a lot of his basketball-playing life wanting to be nowhere else but Austin. The Texas coaches, sick as it sounds, knew all about him by the time he was in eighth grade. Gibson was scoring 40 and 50 points a game then, and a trip to a Longhorns summer camp put him on the most-wanted list. "It didn't take much forecasting to see how good he was going to be," says UT assistant Russ Springmann.
The 6'2" Gibson had his pick of colleges as a McDonald's All-American from Jones High, where he became the leading scorer in the history of Houston independent prep hoops. When he decided on Texas, he immediately went to work on 6'10" LaMarcus Aldridge, a Dallas high school star with NBA hopes. The two first crossed paths the summer after their sophomore years, when they played on opposing teams in a regional AAU game. Gibson went to the hole and flipped a layup over the gasoline-hose reach of Aldridge. After the ball dropped through the net, Gibson smiled at his adversary and yelled, "Get up, big dude!" They later became friends and occasional teammates in the traveling show that is big-time prep hoops.
"Every time he'd see me, he'd be working me," Aldridge says. "He'd walk by me and whisper, Longhorns' or `Rick Barnes' or T.J. Ford.' He never stopped." Aldridge ended up in Austin after pulling out of the NBA draft.
There was only one hitch to Gibson's big plans: when he first showed up in Austin, his play wasn't nearly as relentless as his recruiting style. "At the beginning, I was calling out drills we didn't even run," he says. "Everybody was laughing. It was crazy. I was lost. I didn't expect everything to come at me so fast." As Barnes says, "He has a wonderful personality, but he's unassuming. We had to draw him out. He had a comfort zone coming out of high school, and I was going to be the first guy to push him."
Looking for ways to make his playmaker more of a vocal leader, Barnes halted practice one day last winter and said, "From now on, nobody can talk but Daniel." For the rest of the practice-and much of the year-Gibson was responsible for calling out every drill and making every read. As part of his reeducation, he and Barnes routinely watched tapes of Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Ford, and critiqued their play.
Gibson wasn't lost for long. On his way to Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors, he scored a team-leading 14.2 points per game. He rebounded (3.6 rpg) and passed (3.9 apg). He played nearly every minute of every conference game and held the Longhorns together after the team was weakened by the loss of starters P.J. Tucker (grades) and Aldridge (hip injury) in mid-January. Gibson even grew to see Barnes' persistence as a necessity, maybe even a blessing. The two became so close, Barnes would phone Gibson after practice to talk shop. "I know he's there for me," Daniel says now, "and he just wants me to get better."
Cheryl Gibson, who attended every one of her son's games last season alongside her husband, knew the world was back in order for good during a February road matchup with Colorado, when Daniel made a perfect read on a play under his own basket, then ran clear across the court, smiling all the way, to bump fists with Barnes.
So, in time, the first day the world almost ended became a small thing to Daniel too.
ON THE second day the world almost ended, March 17, 2005, Daniel Gibson was in Indianapolis for a first-round NCAA Tourney game between No. 8 seed Texas and No. 9 Nevada. As he counted down the minutes before tip-off, a strange feeling came over him, something he couldn't quite pinpoint, the result of a chemical reaction he didn't know his body could produce. Was this … fear? It couldn't be, could it?
Sure looked that way. What other explanation could there be for eight points, on 3-for-11 shooting, and zero assists? What else could account for his indecisiveness? As his final, desperate act, Gibson shot and missed from 25 feet with 24.9 seconds left and Texas trailing by one.
After the four-point loss, he walked off the court and cried. He cried in the locker room and cried back at the hotel. This is what it's like to be young and not feeling it. He held it together long enough to get through the postgame press conference, where it became clear he would be blamed for the upset loss. He told the media then what he says now: hit or miss, he wanted to be the one who took the big shot. They were kind enough not to use the word choke, but the implication was there. "All those reporters asking all those questions," Gibson recalls. " Why did you lose? How did you lose? Why'd you take that shot? Why weren't there any assists? Are you really a point guard?' It was coming at me fast."
On the flight back to Austin the next morning, Barnes made his players write down what they learned from the experience. Among other things, Gibson wrote, "This was the first time I'd ever been scared before a game."
How do you respond to highly publicized failure when you still call your mom three or four times a day? How do you respond to failure when you're accustomed to having your way? It wasn't just basketball that was easy for Daniel. He was a member of the National Honor Society, and graduated sixth in his class. The second-hardest phone call he made last year was at the end of first semester, when he told his mom he was about to get his first C ever. Shoot, life was easy.
So how did he keep his failure from becoming a big story? "I sat back and took it all in," he says. "I decided on the way home that I was going to bring all that stuff with me the next time I went to the gym."
The truth is, the 2005-06 Longhorns season began the second the horn sounded and the tears fell in Indianapolis. Tucker, a 6'5" forward with a mean streak, got his grades together and is back this year. Aldridge, the Garnett-like post man, got healthy and added a retro-skyhook that he half-jokingly says will "change the college game." They spent so much time in the gym with Gibson this past summer, the three of them decided to make it a contest. As Daniel tells it, "Guys were saying, I was at the gym last night.' And I'd say, That's funny, I was at the gym last night and I didn't see you.' So we decided to put up a sign-up sheet."
Gibson arrived in Austin weighing 196 pounds with 11% body fat. He's now at 185 and 6%. After adding three inches to his vertical leap, he can jump and touch a spot 14€ inches above the rim. His ability to stop and change direction-the lifeblood of a point guard-leaves Texas strength coach Todd Wright shaking his head in wonder. "Daniel is that unusual combination," Wright says. "He's one of the hardest-working kids I've ever seen, and he has incredible skill."
Better still for the Longhorns, Gibson's desire is infectious. On the front door of Tucker's apartment, there's a photograph of Tucker sitting on the bench in street clothes. Texas is losing, and his head is in his hands. Tucker positioned the photo strategically, so it's the last thing he sees when he leaves in the morning and the first thing he sees when he returns.
So this is how Gibson and his teammates decided to conquer their demons: they went to work. It sounds old-fashioned, and maybe a little trite, but it's what they did. They posted a list on the wall and a photo on the door and an inventory of slights on their collective conscience.
During some of those long summer nights in the gym, Gibson worked on his hand strength and dexterity by dribbling horizontally against a pass-back net. Barnes taught him a couple of tricks to reduce the monotony of the drill. One of them was to recite the alphabet, one letter for every bounce. Gibson mastered that, then decided--like any good point guard--to improvise. Now, every time he does the drill, he spells out two words:
"Coach taught me the ABCs," he says. "I just mixed 'em up a little bit."
He delivers the line like he's practiced it, then laughs and hoists another shrimp. It's nothing major. Just a couple of harmless words being dribbled into the air by a kid with a resilient nature and an active imagination.
No big thing. At least not yet.