Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mitch And Brian

TigerBlog woke up early on July 29, 1981. Very, very early. Like around 4 a.m. early.

Then he made pancakes, or was it french toast?, for a bunch of people.

Of course, TB's small breakfast party wasn't the only pre-dawn one going on at the time. It was the thing to do that day, wake up early, throw something on the griddle and then settle down to watch the royal wedding between Princess Diana and Prince Charles.

As an aside, TB's fingers are so conditioned to typing a certain word that he - without thinking - typed the word "Princeton" before both "Diana" and "Charles" in the last sentence and had to go back and change it. Princeton Charles?

TB isn't sure why he bought into the whole royal wedding thing. Maybe he just wanted the pancakes.

And TB wishes he could remember back all those years, to what his thoughts about British royalty were. He knows that they are now, though.

The United States broke away from England largely to get away from the idea of a monarchy, and the best part about this country is that it's all about the individual. Anyone from anywhere, no matter what their inherited hardships, can grow up to literally be the President.

Look at where Ronald Reagan started. Or Bill Clinton. Or Barack Obama.

In fact, the way that President Obama was almost deified, as if he was royalty, after his 2008 election frightened TigerBlog. In this country, no person is supposed to be looked at that way.

Of course, the royal family now has little in the way of constitutional power or responsibility, so they're more celebrities than anything else. And in today's world, where celebrity is so valued regardless of the reason for it, TB understands why people would embrace a young, attractive, royal couple like the two getting married tomorrow morning.

Yes, it makes for great theater, and there's certainly something to be said for a bit of escapism every now and then. Still, there's something about it that TB just can't embrace.

The more TB thinks about it, the more he thinks it was pancakes, not french toast, that he served that morning in 1981.

His favorite french toast story is about the time at the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament in Indianapolis that TB tried to order french toast for breakfast, only to be told that they didn't have french toast.

"You have bread, milk and eggs, right," said Mark Eckel, who was covering (the game, not breakfast) for the Trenton Times.

"Yes," the waiter said with a confused look.

"Then you have french toast," Eckel said.

This morning, two members of that 1996 team - and the two that followed it - sat in TigerBlog's office, arguing about which of them would win if they played tennis. Despite the fact that neither has ever seen the other play, they both were supremely confident that they would win.

In fact, the idea that the other even had a chance was too ridiculous for either to contemplate.

TB took at as another sign that Princeton men's basketball is in the right hands.

Mitch Henderson, the Tigers' new head coach, was one of the two former players. Brian Earl, who will be staying on as Henderson's top assistant, was the other.

Just as TB wishes he could think back to the Charles-Diana wedding and remember what his thoughts were about British royalty, he wishes he could back to the RCA Dome that night in 1996 - or any of the other many nights that Henderson and Earl played together - and remember what he thought of their potential as basketball coaches.

He's pretty sure he thought it was pretty high.

Henderson and Earl played together for three season, from 1995-96 through 1997-98.

During that time, the team went 40-2 in Ivy League games (41-2 if you count the 1996 playoff win over Penn), a record that was 28-0 in their final two seasons.

Overall, they were 73-13, including 2-3 in NCAA tournament games. Their team reached the national Top 25 in both of their final two seasons, going to as high as seventh in 1998.

Combined they went for 2,398 career points, 567 career assists (Henderson ranks fourth all-time at Princeton, Earl ranks seventh), 282 career steals (they rank 8-9 all-time) and 374 career three-pointers.

Their combined numbers in the 1998 NCAA tournament win over Nevada-Las Vegas: 40 points, 16 of 29 shooting, eight rebounds, 11 assists, three steals. Both played 40 minutes.

TigerBlog watched in awe as Earl and Henderson played together here, and he saw every game they played those final three years.

Henderson wasn't the pure shooter that Earl was, but nobody was the passer that Henderson was.

What stands out most to TB as he thinks back is their toughness. They were not going to pushed around, despite the fact that every opponent tried their best to do just that.

Earl, especially, was the target, with his baby face and small frame. For whatever reason, opposing teams and players saved their most brutal comments for him, and TB cannot think of another Princeton athlete he's seen here who was subjected to that kind of verbal abuse on a regular basis.

And how did it affect him? He'd go out and drain another three, that's how.

TB can remember games that Earl simply took over, and TB can see the look that he saw a few times from Earl that seemed to say "get out of my way."

The night that Princeton came from 27 points down to beat Penn? With all due respect to the other four key Tigers that night (Gabe Lewullis, Ahmed El-Nokali, Chris Young, Mason Rocca), that's a 20-point Penn win without Earl.

And the night that Princeton beat North Carolina State in the 1999 NIT in the final Wolfpack men's game at Reynolds Coliseum? That was all Brian Earl.

It's not a coincidence that he did both on hostile courts against teams that knew they had to stop him. It's not a coincidence that he silenced the crowd both times.

TB remembers one sequence specifically from that Penn game. Princeton trailed 42-30 with seven minutes or so left when a three-point play cut it to nine. Earl then stole the inbounds pass and gave it to El-Nokali.

As he made the pass, he was already setting his feet to shoot and clapping his hands at El-Nokali to get him the ball back. Once the return pass was made, Earl let it go in a heartbeat.

TB was sure that shot was going in before the pass ever got back to Earl, and sure enough, it swished in, making it a six-point game.

Earl scored 1,428 points at Princeton, and TB saw 1,417 of them. That one three-pointer stands out more than any other.

One other thing about Earl: TigerBlog has never seen a Princeton player who, when the shot clock dipped under five seconds and there was absolutely nothing there, could make something out of nothing like Earl.

And now, after every other contribution that he's given to Princeton basketball in his life, Earl gives the program continuity as the coaching change to Henderson happens.

Henderson and Earl. They're tough. They're competitive. They're proven winners. They're Princeton guys through and through.

Princeton basketball is in good hands.


Tiger Fan said...

Excellent recap.

Anonymous said...

"TigerBlog has never seen a Princeton player who, when the shot clock dipped under five seconds and there was absolutely nothing there, could make something out of nothing like Earl."

Kareem Maddox? That's why Noah Savage called him "The Human Eraser." A hopeless offensive set? Kareem will get you buckets or FTs. A lazy defensive stand? Kareem will come out of nowhere and swat the shot.