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Feinstein: UMBC's Win Is Why I Still Cover Sports

"Miracles do happen," John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
March 20, 2018 - 10:43 am

Two summers ago, I got a phone call from Ryan Odom. He had been hired in the spring as the basketball coach at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

In the back of my mind, I’d been thinking that, at some point, I would make the 40-mile drive from my house to UMBC to see Ryan and write a column of some kind about him and the school. It made sense. I’ve known Ryan since he was a boy. His dad, Dave Odom, was the coach at Durham High School when I was in college and I got to know him well when he was an assistant coach at Virginia and better than that when he was at Wake Forest, where he recruited and coached Tim Duncan.

Ryan will tell you his first memory of me is coming to his parents’ house in Charlottesville on a Sunday morning before a Virginia-North Carolina game along with Keith Drum, who was then the sports editor at the Durham Morning Herald.

Drum and Dave Odom had become close friends while Dave was in Durham. Drum was also one of my first mentors in journalism and had sent me to cover Durham High games as a stringer for the paper when I was an undergraduate.

Lynn Odom, Dave’s wife, Ryan’s mom, made pancakes.

I also had fond memories of UMBC that had little to do with basketball—although I had been there the day it beat Hartford in 2008 to win the America East Conference title and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first and—then—only time in school history.

My memories of the Retriever Athletic Center (the RAC) were focused on the other side of the building, where the indoor and outdoor swimming pools were located. In 2000, the United States Masters long course nationals were held in the outdoor pool and I had been part of a relay that not only won the national championship, but also broke the world record in our age group.

I still have vivid memories of that race. As we walked to the blocks on a surprisingly cold August night, Clay Britt, who won three NCAA titles as a backstroker at Texas, said to me: “Are you shivering because you’re cold or because you’re scared?”

"Both,” I answered.

Two days later, I swam my best 100-meter butterfly time as a Masters swimmer by almost two seconds. The UMBC pool is MY Field of Dreams.

Ryan wanted to know if I’d be willing to talk to him and his boss, Athletic Director Tim Hall, about doing color on some of their home games. The America East had entered into a deal with ESPN to televise every conference game on ESPN3 and the home teams were responsible for production—including, as TV people like to say, ‘talent.’ (One of the great misnomers of all time as far as I’m concerned. I’m proof).

I was in the fortunate position of having a fairly full plate of regional TV games. I was doing CAA games on Comcast Sports Net; several VCU games and a handful of other games at Lafayette, George Washington and American. I very much enjoy doing these mid-major games for a couple reasons. First, I’m familiar with the programs and the people involved; second, because I’m not an ex-player or coach, the national networks would never hire me as an analyst. Which is fine, because, even if they did, I wouldn’t want the extra travel and would no doubt say something to upset a sponsor or some higher-up. Plus, I’ve never gotten along terribly well with network executives—regardless of network. It’s a gift.

I went to breakfast with Ryan and Tim. They explained they were in the nascent stages of putting together their production but would love to have me do as many games as I could. Feeling as if I was doing them a favor (wrong, as it turned out), I agreed to do any games that fit my schedule.

Which, two seasons ago, I did. I was able to do more games than I had thought because GW’s athletic department imploded in an internecine war between basketball coach and athletic director and they decided not to do any TV games.

I ended up doing ten games at UMBC. Ryan Odom had taken over a program that was in shambles. The school had won 41 games in seven seasons. But there was talent. Jairus Lyles, who had transferred twice before landing at UMBC, could certainly score—although he was an absolute ball-hog, especially late in a close game.

“We just sent four guys to guard Lyles,” Towson Coach Pat Skerry told me after the Tigers came from behind late to win the first game I did. “We knew he wasn’t passing.”

Odom knew it, too. In his first meeting with Lyles he had said to him, “Jairus, I need you to score LESS.”

The other guard was K.J. Maura, a kid from Puerto Rico, who was so small you felt like you could put him in your pocket. He’s listed at 5-foot-8, 140 pounds. I’d say more like 5-6, 130. Other America East coaches told me they had backed off him coming out of junior college because he was so small. Odom saw his size as a strength: Maura could make plays from UNDERNEATH people. He also had a remarkable sense of the game: court vision, smarts and a nose for the ball.

I loved him the first time I saw him play.

Lyles learned when to shoot and when to pass. Maura made everyone better. Joe Sherburne, a sophomore swingman, was deadly when he got the ball in a catch-and-shoot situation. He also had 4.0 GPA—something we learned when my play-by-play partner Gary Stein mentioned on-air he had a 3.75. A few weeks later, his dad came to a game—the Sherburnes are from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and Joe LIVES for the Packers—and told Gary and I how much he and his family enjoyed our telecasts but Joe had a 4.0 GPA. We corrected the mistake.

UMBC won 21 games a year ago—tripling their output of the previous season. They finished 9-9 in the America East, a vast improvement and won three games in the CIT, one of those pay-to-play events that a mid-major on the rise can benefit from playing in.

I enjoyed the heck out of doing the games in the RAC. I was delighted when Tim and Ryan asked me back, especially because the CAA had blown up its TV package (it had none last season) and I’d lost a dozen games.

During that first season, I got to know Freeman Hrabowski, the president of UMBC—not well, but well enough to know he’s a remarkable man. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I would compare college presidents to mafia dons if I didn’t think that was a little unfair to the dons.

Hrabowski is the exception to the rule. It isn’t just that he’s brilliant – Ph.D in math from Harvard – or that he marched with Martin Luther King in Birmingham as a 12-year-old in 1965 – and spent five days in jail as a result. Or that he was one of President Obama’s top advisors on education.

It’s this: there’s no BS in Hrabowski. He calls himself a "a math nerd" and readily admits he knows little about basketball beyond the fact that more points is better than fewer points. He’s been president of UMBC for 28 years; has no desire to go anyplace else. He’s built the school into an academic force: there are more UMBC minority graduates with Ph.D's or medical degrees than ANY school in the country. The campus has been reborn, including the $95 million UMBC Events Center that opened in February.

Ryan Odom pointed out to me they couldn’t call it the Retriever Events Center because that would mean moving from the RAC to the REC.

UMBC was up and down early this season: there were nagging-type injuries: Sherburne had a back problem; Lyles had a concussion; starting forward Arkel Lamar got sideswiped in a car accident near campus (going to get a pizza) and sophomore forward Max Curran had an ankle problem. It wasn’t until late January that the Retrievers were finally healthy.

You could see them getting better—especially on defense-- as the season went on. The road to the NCAA Tournament in the America East has led, most often, through Albany and Vermont the last 10 years. UMBC was blown out by Albany in January, but came from behind to beat the Great Danes in February. Vermont was just too good—two games, two blowouts, including 81-53 the day the new building opened.

But Odom and his players kept grinding. They came from 11 down at halftime to beat Mass-Lowell in the first round of the conference tournament, whipped Hartford and headed to Vermont for the championship game. They had already won 23 games—a school record—and a loss to Vermont (which had beaten them 23 straight times) would hardly be anything to be ashamed about.

“Forty minutes,” Odom said to me the day before the game. “We all know anything can happen in 40 minutes of basketball.”

He was right—twice. First, Lyles, who could have transferred to a big-time school as a grad student this year but stayed, “because I wanted to establish a legacy here,” (UMBC) beat Vermont with a three at the buzzer.

That was a near-miracle. But it was nothing compared to what happened in Charlotte last Friday. Virginia was the top-seed in the tournament. No 16th-seed had ever won a game: 0-135.

And, then, in a blur, it became 1-135.

I was in Pittsburgh, covering the regional there. I had planned to go to sleep as soon as the game became a blowout. The games on Saturday started early. As expected, after a 21-21 first half, it became a blowout. But not the way ANYONE expected. I sat transfixed, as the Retrievers made shot-after-shot and made Tony Bennett’s team look helpless. Even with De'Andre Hunter out for UVA, I waited for the run. It never came: UMBC scored 53 second-half points against a team that gave up 53.4 per GAME. Final: 74-54.

I woke up the next morning convinced I’d dreamed the final score. I checked my computer. No, it was real.

All I could think—selfishly—was how glad I was that Ryan Odom had called me in the summer of 2016. I respect the heck out of Tony Bennett and Virginia. But this was personal for me. A game like this is why I’ve continued to hang around sports all these years.

Miracles do happen. And they make all the rest of the garbage we put up with worth the effort.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book is, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—a New York Times bestseller for five months. His latest Young Adult Book is, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” which was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017.