What the hell am I doing here?
It’s 10:45 a.m. on a July Saturday, just 10 days ago to be more accurate, and I am sitting in NAIA St. Xavier University’s gymnasium on the southwest side of Chicago, for some event called The Basketball Tournament.
My friend Jeff has convinced me to come and watch a pro-am team coached by one of his former high school teammates. Only Jeff, whom I’ve known since I was five years old, could get a
Expecting the crowd to be sparse, I arrive to a surprisingly packed gym as a goon squad with former Indiana players Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey is playing Jeff’s friend’s amateur team.
As I find a seat in the bleachers, the experience is immediately surreal. It’s about to get even weirder.
Apparently, The Basketball Tournament is a nationwide 5-on-5 competition offering the winning team of its March Madness-style format a $2 million collective payment.
The Illinois alum in this once die-hard basketball fan is really confused.
Really, what am I doing with my life, having no pony in this race, paying 20 dollars to watch the annoying Will Sheehey play for 2 million dollars?
The real answer, though I don’t know it at the time, peeks his head through the gym doors, cell phone in right hand and black Jordan jump suit on a body that is heavier than I last remember.
A smile adorns the baby face that mostly looks the same as it did years earlier when he became my college basketball equivalent of a pro wrestling babyface.
He actually showed!
Based on my research the day before, Bibby, the former University of Arizona and Sacramento Kings point guard, will be playing in the next game at once again, St. Xavier of all places, on a team called Pedro’s Posse, of all names.
Even stranger, he will be teaming with another former NBA player, Jason Williams, whom Sacramento traded for Bibby almost 15 years ago.
What am I to make of all of these strange parallels in this current basketball alternate universe?
Unexpectedly, something in my life has come full circle, as I am about to see Mike Bibby play again.
It’s a Sunday night in late November, 1997.
Family has gathered at my parents’ home to celebrate my 16th birthday.
My mind is preoccupied with the upcoming Tuesday night as I am trying to goad my dad and uncles to deliver the birthday present that I truly desire.
Chicago’s United Center is hosting a preseason college basketball tournament called “The Great Eight,” featuring six teams from last season’s Elite Eight (and Purdue, or Pur-don’t, as Jeff will eventually come to call the Boilermakers after our college years).
Powerhouse programs like North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas will be playing in the house that Michael Jordan built and still occupies.
On the surface, this lineup of programs is impressive, but I could care less.
I am far more concerned about seeing my favorite college team, albeit of just the last nine months, play.
Call me bandwagon, but I am now a full-blown University of Arizona Men’s Basketball fan, thanks to what players like Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson, and of course, Mike Bibby, accomplished
My dad and uncles finally relent, calling the United Center box office and purchasing tickets for the two-night event, which is hardly cheap.
Two nights later, I skip out on studying for a geometry exam, which I fail the next day, to see Mike Bibby and Arizona play against Kansas in a rematch of the 1997 Sweet Sixteen.
Like pro wrestling heels, the baby-face Bibby and the Wildcats are booed loudly by the Jayhawks fans as they arrive on the court, bitter feelings from last year’s Kansas choke job, what is becoming a tradition under Roy Williams.
Ultimately, Kansas gets some revenge on this night, and I am more upset about the Arizona loss than the result of my geometry test.
But at least I get to see Mike Bibby play in person.
| || |
As a teenager, seeing Mike Bibby play on television, let alone in person, was a big damn deal to me, starting from what he accomplished during the 1997 NCAA Tournament.
As a freshman point guard, Bibby directed the fourth-seeded Wildcats to an unlikely national championship, the school’s first and only men’s basketball title.
Playing the position like a senior, the unfazed Bibby hit huge threes during the Final Four, but more importantly, set up a crucial moment late in regulation of the championship game, with a beautiful drive and dish to Bennett Davison for a layup that pushed the Arizona lead to three before a crazy Kentucky three forced overtime.
While the oh-so-cool Simon would deservedly win the Most Outstanding Player (MOP) and quickly become one of my all-time favorite college basketball players, it was Bibby who would star beyond the NCAA and forever in my heart.
Whenever Arizona played on national television (my house did not have cable) after the team’s title win on March 31, 1997 , I would drop everything to see Bibby (and Simon) play, something that I certainly would have not guessed only months before.
Back in December 1996, I first saw Bibby play as and like a freshman (showing potential but nerves) during a nationally-televised Arizona loss against Michigan just days before Christmas.
As I had a freshman basketball game that afternoon, and did not get to see much college basketball during my cable-free weekdays, I decided to record the CBS doubleheader, hardly because of Bibby and Arizona but more so for an Illinois-UCLA game from United Center airing before that.
Later that night, after watching the tape of the Illinois win and Arizona loss, I came away more impressed with the Illini upset than anything Bibby and Arizona, playing without Simon due to academics, did.
Because of this unlikely and unexpected title run, Arizona basketball would fall just behind my hometown Chicago Bulls in terms of my basketball interests, at least for a few years, before eventually fading.
As for Bibby, his star would not fade, at least in my eyes, even if unrecognized to me more recently after years of following his highs and lows as a player.
● I watched in anger during the 1998 Elite Eight when Bibby was smashed by a hard screen by Utah’s Hanno Mottola and then locked down by a box-and-one defense during Arizona’s shocking blowout loss to the Utes, marking Bibby’s last collegiate game and ending the Wildcats bid for back-to-back championships. Damn, that loss still hurts.
● In a creative writing class during my junior year of high school, I asked my friend Joe, a talented artist, to draw Bibby’s number and name on one of my folders. At first, Joe laughed at the thought of drawing some player from the Vancouver Grizzlies, but then realizing how serious I was, he would oblige.
● I cheered when the Kings traded the more popular Wiliams for Bibby in the summer of 2001, knowing that this unpopular move was what Chris Webber and Sacramento needed to be a true championship contender, and what Bibby truly needed to be recognized as a fantastic professional player who was unseen in Vancouver, British Columbia.
● Near the end of my sophomore year of college, I randomly bought a Bibby Kings’ jersey for only 15 bucks on Ebay. That purchase proved quite prescient about a month later as I would ignore the strange looks of family members and proudly rock this jersey during the 2002 Western Conference Finals, which Bibby took over, almost shooting the Kings past the Lakers and into the NBA Finals, during the greatest individual stretch of his career.
● In coming seasons, I held out hope that Bibby and the Kings would win a title, which would never happen due to shaky officiating, injuries and bad luck.
● At some point during the tail end of his career, I think during his Hawks days, I made another random visit to Ebay, delighted to learn that a rare Starting Lineup figure of Bibby in his Arizona uniform actually existed. I quickly bid and won the figurine, which still sits in my home office.
● Even at the end of his career, I secretly rooted for Bibby to do well as a starter on the first rendition of the villainous Miami Heat team with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that would be upset by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.
● As an adult who should have more important things to worry about, I spent a full day at a pro-am tournament secretly hoping that Bibby would show up and play.
● Weeks later, I felt the need to write an essay about what Bibby (and Simon and the rest of the 1997 Wildcats, to be to fair) meant and still mean to me.
So what was it about Bibby and 1997 Arizona that generated so much interest in the teenage me?
A journey back to that championship night, the last of the 1997 tournament and that March, provides more answers than I realize.
It is close to eleven o'clock, and I am wondering if this is really happening, or just some about-to-be-revealed April Fool’s joke.
For some reason, my sister Allison, who is in first grade, is still up and has decided to come watch the end of the game with me.
She does not understand what I am saying to her and why I am so excited.
I am not sure why I am so excited.
Could it be because I am currently watching college basketball and not worrying about school as I have done during past championship games?
Or that I just witnessed an exciting game in which a team few expected to win just did so, an actual upset in a '90s title game?
Or that Kentucky, which is a juggernaut under Rick Pitino, actually lost?
Or that this Arizona team played throughout the Final Four as a matter of when, not if, it would win?
Really, why the hell was I so excited then and now by what Bibby and the Wildcats did almost 20 years ago?
For some perspective, Allison was married just this May, and I am still fascinated by this silly college basketball team.
I am not fully sure why, but there was something that felt right about 1997 Arizona, then and now, from the aesthetic stylishness of its awesome (and then-different) uniforms and its well-coiffed head coach, Lute Olson, to the talent and unique abilities of its cast of characters, starting with Bibby and Simon.
Bibby and Simon had a chemistry that was beautiful to watch, due to how their strengths complemented each other, with this nowhere more apparent than on the glistening hardwood floor of the RCA Dome, site of the 1997 Final Four.
To begin with, both players just understood how to play, natural decision-makers versus preoccupied thinkers, as evidenced nowadays in Simon’s knowledge as an insightful college basketball analyst for ESPN.
For a freshman, Bibby not only ran an offense with a maturity beyond an 18-year-old kid but could take over games in stretches, which he did with three-pointing barrages in the second halves of both of the Carolina and Kentucky games.
Not as strong of a shooter but capable of hitting timely outside jumpers, Simon was a pure scorer, who seemed to be always on the attack when having the ball in his hands, much different from today’s ball stoppers who hold the rock and jab.
When Miles Simon got the basketball, he always seemed to have a purpose.
Simon’s ability to play downhill off the bounce, make creative floaters in the lane and draw fouls eased pressure off of Bibby, who was equally content during key points during Arizona’s run to spot up in open spaces beyond the three-point line and then step in and knock down a big shot.
Equally amazing about Bibby and Simon in 1997 was their unflappable confidence. Bibby was never rattled, and Simon carried himself like he was the best player on the floor, even if he really wasn’t and was physically limited in some regards, as seen in the sideways release of his jumper and his brief NBA career.
In addition to the way Bibby and Simon played, there was nothing cooler than how they looked on court, matching substance with flash.
Prior to today’s tattoo craze, Bibby and Simon sported somewhat more modest tattoos on the outside of their shoulders, Bibby a bubbled MB, outlined in black, and Simon with his first name in cursive. Okay, maybe the tattoos were not that modest, but they looked more elegant and did a better job of preserving the natural look of the human body.
With basketballs in the backgrounds, Bibby’s and Simon’s tattoos oozed the confidence that was seen in their play.
Throw in those baggy navy, red and white Arizona jersey tops and shorts, with Bibby’s blue Nike Foamposites and Simon’s shaved head, and there was no one hipper to me, outside of Michael, Scottie and Dennis, than these two Wildcats throughout 1997 and 1998.
And then were was each player’s back story. Bibby was the son of former UCLA guard Henry Bibby, with whom he had an estranged relationship. At the time the older Bibby was the head coach at USC, a school in the same conference as Arizona, the Pac-10, making this story line of their icy relationship even more noticeable.
As for Simon, he was named by his father in honor of the epitome of cool, jazz legend Miles Davis, and was the brother-in-law of Darryl Strawberry, who was then married to his older sister.
While Simon and Bibby were the straws that stirred the drink in 1997, small forward Michael Dickerson was the most explosive scorer on the team, another key member of this "tough group of 'Cats," as Lute Olson would say after the title win.
After leading the Wildcats in scoring during the regular season, Dickerson struggled during the Final Four, but was such a threat at hitting threes and mid-
When Dickerson wasn’t hitting, Olson would put in ultra-sub Jason Terry.
Before he was the JET, Terry was a precocious sophomore who brought energy, confidence and even more swagger (if possible) to the Wildcats, ushering in a small-ball lineup that was hard to keep in front.
Terry wasn’t as refined in 1997 as he would later become at Arizona and in the NBA, but still played with a reckless abandon that was an important change of pace and nice counter to the smoother Bibby, Simon and Dickerson.
And like Bibby and Simon, Dickerson and Terry had some style themselves.
Dickerson sported a number-zero fade that transitioned effortlessly into a full beard, which was uncommon in college back in the day.
As for Terry, his skinny legs could hardly be seen, thanks to those baggy Arizona shorts that I could never find a pair of in high school, and those knee-high white socks spelling out C-A-T-S in blue.
For all of the glitz and glamour of Arizona’s small-ball wings, the team’s versatility and toughness are forgotten on its front line, which is a classic example of the sum being greater than the parts.
A junior-college transfer in 1997, the aforementioned Davison was an incredible leaper who was quick on his
While sophomore center A.J. Bramlett was still a work-in-progress offensively, he brought more bang for his buck with his ability to be physical on the block despite his skinny 6’11 frame.
Sophomore big Donnell Harris and freshman Eugene Edgerson were serviceable reserves who gave solid minutes and made opportune little plays during the Final Four, with Harris providing a spark in the second half of the championship game victory against Kentucky.
Most important from Arizona’s big men was their ability to get down the court, making the Wildcats too quick from the 1 to 5 positions for Carolina and Kentucky to handle. Next to Arizona's confidence, the team's jack-rabbit speed and conditioning were the decisive factors it won the title.
And then there was Olson, who admitted that the 1997 team was a year ahead of his schedule.
The 1997 Arizona Wildcats were an amazing collection of talent, which became apparent after winning the national championship but was not the case during the regular season, when the Wildcats finished 5th in the Pac-10.
While Olson had taken Arizona teams to the Final Four in 1988 and 1994, the 1997 team showed that his program was going to be one to be reckoned with for the next decade, in large part due to his ability to recruit deep teams.
Honestly, Olson built more talented teams in 2001 and 2003, but 1997 was the team that hit it big when it mattered most.
While Olson could be uptight on the sidelines, he was extremely composed during this title run, as if he had a sense of what his team was accomplishing.
In other words, as the 1997 NCAA Tournament moved on, especially after Arizona survived Providence in the Elite Eight in Birmingham, Alabama, there was a growing sense that this squad was a team of destiny.
Still, the Cats would have to beat two one seeds in the Final Four, an imposing task to say the least, especially with Kentucky the crown jewel of college basketball during this period.
Quite honestly, I am not sure that if you could go back in time and replay the 1997 NCAA Tournament, that Arizona would win again, making this title still so enjoyable all these years later.
● Guard oriented, utilizing the three pointer and dribble drive to great effectiveness, marking a continuing shift at the time from low-post players who demanded the ball to more perimeter-based attacks.
● Fast with fours and fives who could run the floor all day long and put the durability of opposing big men to the test.
● A different type of tough with players who were more agile, athletic and mentally strong than overly physical.
● Confident bordering on cocky (without the overt showiness), as led by the jazzy Simon and his occasional shoulder shimmies after and-ones at the rim.
● Unflappable, as seen in the stoic Bibby’s control of the point and willingness to take and make big shots.
● Brash, as displayed in Terry’s Super Ball-off-the-wall confidence, especially from the three-point line.
● Explosive, as found in Dickerson’s streaky shooting and Davison’s out-of-the-gym jumping ability.
● Well-coached and designed by Olson, whose teams most often fit well and played an enjoyable style of offensive basketball.
● Stylish from their jersey, shorts and shoes to their haircuts, tattoos and backgrounds.
● Resilient, nearly (but not) losing to South Alabama, College of Charleston and Providence, unlike past Olson teams that were upset early in past tournaments.
● Battle-tested, in 11 days knocking off the three programs with the most wins in college basketball history (Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina).
● Hot at the right time, a team that peaked when it mattered most.
● Young and fun, with no contributing player who was a senior.
● Lightning in a bottle, a team that was better suited to win it all as an underdog four-seed than a targeted one-seed, as seen in 1998.
● Lucky to have survived several close games, including a would-be game-winning three-point attempt by Providence at the end of regulation.
● Something new, fresh and unexpected at a time, the 1990s. when favored teams typically ended up on top at the conclusion of tournaments.
In short, everything came together for Arizona in 1997, with the team’s play in the Final Four in Indianapolis the culmination of a fascinating three-week stretch.
“Oh, my God? Did that just happen?”
Jeff turns and looks at me as we watch Bibby’s team play in The Basketball Tournament.
It’s the first half, and Bibby has just missed a wide-open corner three that amazingly hits the side of the backboard
I want to laugh, but feel like it’s sacrilegious to do so, as this is Mike Bibby, a basketball hero of my youth, a man, who as a kid, hit five three pointers in the second-half of a Final Four victory against North Carolina.
Bibby’s been out of the NBA for four seasons, his body is built like a small house that can happen with age, and the elevation on his pure jumper is lacking.
Overall, in comparison to his teammate Williams, who physically looks the same as when he last played in the NBA, the explosiveness is not there for Bibby.
Other parts of Bibby are unrecognizable as well, including his MB tattoo which has faded and is overshadowed by more noticeable ink.
It seems likely that Bibby doesn't play much basketball in his spare time, though I later learn that he has recently coached his son, Mike Bibby, Jr., to a second-straight state championship at his high school alma mater, Shadow Mountain.
Ultimately, Bibby plays mostly a floor game, with nothing too memorable.
The box score gives his performance a little more weight.
Bibby logs 33 of the game’s 36 minutes (each game is comprised of two 18-minute halves) as Pedro’s Posse wins by 10 against a team featuring Elijah Milsapp of the Utah Jazz and former NBA player Renaldo Balkman.
Bibby nearly gets a triple double, scoring 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting (2-of-4 from three), grabbing nine boards and dishing out 8 assists (though he has 5 turnovers).
All in all, Bibby is not at The Basketball Tournament to star, despite his name recognition. He plays a role and helps his team advance towards the $2 million goal.
Pedro’s Posse will win one more game before losing big in the tournament’s Super Sixteen to a team of Bradley alumni.
Once again, Father Time shows that He is undefeated, proving that a team with two former NBA players is not immune to losing to a younger and more fit team.
On this weekend in Chicago, the 38-year-old Bibby is not the same player he used to be, nor should he be expected to be.
The fact that I get to see Mike Bibby play up close and personal at a random gym in Chicago, just 15 minutes from where I now live and teach, is as unexpected as it gets, and turns out to be an enjoyable and revealing experience after my initial hesitation and skepticism.
Even with an increase in age and decline in game, there is something about Bibby's face, just as it did back in 1997 for the Arizona Wildcats, that rekindles youthful feelings of possibility and opportunity, ideals that are not as easily summoned as I, myself, get older and more limited.
For someone who was wondering why he was here, at an obscure gym for a summer tournament, it finally makes sense, thanks to an invitation from my pal Jeff and an old appreciation of Bibby.
Whether a member of the Arizona Wildcats, the Sacramento Kings or some pro-am team called Pedro's Posse, Bibby is a touching connection to and much-needed realization of my youth.
Through the game of basketball, players like Bibby and Simon, and teams like the 1997 Arizona Wildcats, have brought much joy to my life, acting as a foundation to form and access lasting memories that will remain positive regardless of the personal makes and misses, and wins and losses I experience, and how old, overweight or ornery I get.
Such is the reason this hardened basketball nostalgic sits in a gym for nearly 12 hours, clinging to form a new memory while simultaneously feeling young again.
Despite what the eyes may tell me this day, I realize that Mike Bibby forever remains to me a wide-eyed, unflappable freshman in the 1997 NCAA tournament, just as I, despite what my heart occasionally tells me, remain intrigued by and indebted to this wonderful sport.