Are You Ready for Some …
Basketball? It may just be the new national sport of Texas.
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Sports talk show host, KTCK-AM, Dallas
John P. Lopez
Sports columnist, Houston Chronicle; talk show host, KBME-AM, Houston
Hollister: I’m expecting to see pigs fly any day now, because Texas A&M can call itself a basketball school—legitimately. Where the heck did these guys come from?
Lopez: Well, the main ingredient was there already: Acie Law. I don’t know if I have ever seen, in Texas, a more clutch player than him.
Hitzges: Even before Law, though, A&M was a sleeping giant. It simply needed the right person—maybe that was the right coach, in Billy Gillispie, or the right player, in Law—to awaken the program. There are a handful of Texas A&Ms around the country: enormous institutions with really strong fan bases that for some reason just don’t click as basketball schools. Now, you can say that that’s the state of Texas, that football is king here. But A&M had the potential to be a powerful basketball team. The only negative about this whole situation is, Can they keep Gillispie? Because you know programs around the country are gonna look at what he has done here and think, “Oh, my. He can do that at our place.”
Lopez: I was there the day they announced his hiring, and one of his assistant coaches came up to me, and I said, “Well, now you guys have got yourselves into it.” He looked me dead in the eye and said, “No, we’re gonna be a basketball school.” And I went, “Yeah, ha-ha, funny. Texas A&M, a basketball school.” And he said, “No, really, we are going to be a basketball school.” They’re not deferring to football. They’re not acting or performing like the second sister. Gillispie has sold it like that, he has recruited like that, and now they’ve got DeAndre Jordan coming next year—who is arguably the number one player in the state.
Hitzges: One of the reasons Gillispie may not move on is that, number one, A&M will pay to keep quality. Number two, he is so comfortable recruiting in the state of Texas. Something that might keep him from leaving is to think, “Oh, man, who do I know in Pennsylvania?”
Lopez: And high school coaches here love him, because he was one of them. He still goes, believe it or not, to the high school coaching conventions. So they pull for him. And, well, if you’ve got the high school coaches pulling for you, they’re going to send you players. Let’s not forget also that A&M is building a 70,000-square-foot basketball facility just for Gillispie. He’s got the recruits, he’s got the facility, and now he’s got the success.
Hitzges: One more thing: Gillispie understands how to keep boosters and moms and dads and current fans happy. He beats the bejeebers out of people when he gets the chance. And there’s nothing like kicking back after you’ve beaten somebody by 25 points and hoisting a couple and saying, “My, wasn’t that great?!”
Hollister: Let’s move on to another onetime cellar dweller. How ’bout them Dallas Mavericks? Now that’s a team that gives hope to Texas basketball. After the disaster that was the nineties, who would have thought that, in terms of winning percentage, the Mavs would be in the same league as, say, the ’71-’72 Lakers or the ’95-’96 Bulls?
Lopez: Here’s how I would put it: Mark Cuban has performed a transformation. Billy Gillispie has performed a miracle. For all you want to say about Cuban—and I’ve said as much as anyone—the plan was always in place. First thing he did was the most important: He made it cool to go to a Mavericks game, even though they really weren’t that good when he took over, in 2000. Once he got people there, he started working on the franchise. And he had some pretty darn good pieces to work with—Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley. Two seasons ago, coach Avery Johnson fell into place and injected a lot of defense, and now they’re absolutely the favorites to win the NBA championship.
Hollister: And if they don’t win it all …?
Lopez: Two words: Indianapolis Colts. That’s what it’s going to be, because they are so entertaining, so tough. They have the superstar, their Peyton Manning, so to speak, in Nowitzki. But I’m telling you, there’s no guarantee, with the Western Conference the way it is, that they’re going to win it.
Hitzges: Let me extend that: If they don’t win it this year, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever win the West. Because this place is so loaded. I mean, if Houston simply gets well—it’s a terrific team—who knows what happens. You only get so many shots at the brass ring.
Hollister: So Texas has the powerhouse teams, but let’s talk more about the coaches. Back at the collegiate level, there’s also University of Texas coach Rick Barnes—who has had an unforeseeably good year with his young team—and, of course, Texas Tech’s Bob Knight, who in January notched his 880th victory and became the winningest men’s basketball coach in college history. Is it just me or did that milestone come and go without a lot of hoopla?
Hitzges: Bob has done a lot of things that are an incredible credit to the game. He’s been a very generous man very quietly. But I wonder if the hoopla was just a bit muffled by the fact that people look at Bob Knight and only remember the other side of him.
Lopez: I don’t even wonder. I think that’s exactly what it is. Anybody who can win the games that he has won, as long as he has won them—they build buildings for those guys, they name courts for them. Where’s the Bob Knight Building? I hate to use this cliché, but he is what he is. He’s not going to change. That has really, really hurt him in terms of getting the all-around national notoriety for an unbelievable accomplishment.
Hitzges: He’s probably a lot more proud of his accomplishment than he lets on. People have to recognize that when you make that short list—and the Dean Smiths and the Adolf Rupps are on it—you qualify as a giant.
Hollister: All things considered, this certainly has been a special year for hoops in Texas—and we haven’t even mentioned the amazing show that freshman Kevin Durant has put on in Austin. It seems to me that we have ourselves a new national pastime.
Lopez: If you had to pick one reason why basketball has transformed into something really big in Texas, it’s because of high school and, more importantly, summer basketball. Back when I was playing and growing up, you would be ruled ineligible if you played basketball for a competitive team outside of the basketball season. You couldn’t play in the summer, you couldn’t play in the fall. You had to play just during your basketball season, and that was that.
Hitzges: I remember when they would actually come out with punishments for this. My joke was, “Imagine that! The basketball player got caught playing basketball!”
Lopez: Right. Well, about twelve or fifteen years ago—you can almost pinpoint it to the era of [former UT point guard] T. J. Ford, when that generation started playing summer basketball as sixth- and seventh-graders—basketball absolutely exploded in Texas. Now if you look at the top 150 players in the country, the states most represented on that list are Ohio, California, and Texas.
Hitzges: You go around the country and look at starting lineups and they’ve all got Texas kids. And you know, every year some of those kids wander back here as high school basketball coaches. It just makes the state better and better.