The Best Sporting Time Of The Year

Yale legend Calvin Hill and Duke superstar Grant Hill with the author on a visit to Polynesian Cultural Center — note the Harvard shirt on the elder Hill PHOTO COURTESY PCC

Yale legend Calvin Hill and Duke superstar Grant Hill with the author on a visit to Polynesian Cultural Center — note the Harvard shirt on the elder Hill PHOTO COURTESY PCC

I always have maintained that March Madness leading up to the Final Four is the most enjoyable sporting event in college or professional athletics. Naturally I’m biased, given my passion for basketball and the experience of having attended a few Final Fours. It is arguably NCAA’s signature sporting activity. To be able to attend three games spread out over three days with all the hoopla, fun, food and excitement blended together in a rah-rah college atmosphere — wow, who could ask for anything more?

My only regret is that I didn’t witness this year’s edition held in the city of Indianapolis — it was such a historic event and included the intimate participation of a close family friend at courtside. First of all, everybody’s favorite — and I mean everybody’s — Kentucky Wildcats fell short in their bid to become the first team to go undefeated in 40 years, and snag a crown with the most victories ever. The Wisconsin Badgers pulled off an upset that gave them all kinds of momentum going into the Finals, yet stumbled in the championship contest against a young, freshmen-laden Duke squad.

By Duke capturing its fifth NCAA championship under coach Mike Krzyzewski, his name keeps getting mentioned in the same breath with the “Wizard of Westwood,” UCLA’s John Wooden, as the best coach in college basketball. As an avid UCLA fan for decades, I felt there was no way anyone could ever measure up to Wooden. But I must confess I have been converted to the way of Coach K. For one thing, Coach K’s 1,017 victories place him No. 1 for most wins, and the totals will continue to mount because the 67-year-old “Duke of Durham” is not making any plans to step away from the coaching profession. He also moves into second place for most championships, trailing only Wooden, who won a remarkable 10 national titles. And if that is not enough proof of his superior coaching record, let’s throw in the fact that the West Point graduate was coach of the U.S. men’s national basketball team that won two Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

His coaching genius was on full display in the game against the Badgers. He pushed all the right buttons and made all the right moves in rallying his team from nine points down in the second half with two of his star players sidelined with foul trouble. The similarities and parallels to Wooden are amazing — both struggled early in their coaching careers and skillfully learned how to overcome it, always have tailored their system to accommodate the talents of their players and mastered the ability to make adjustments, especially in game situations.

I met Coach K in the late ’70s, while working at Bobby Knight’s camp at Indiana University. I met Knight when the late Ralph Yempuku was staging the Aloha Classic at Blaisdell Arena, pitting the nation’s finest collegiate pro prospects against each other under the watchful guidance of the country’s best coaches. I was lucky one year to be slotted as Knight’s assistant for the Classic, and I forged a friendship with the iconic coach. I’d like to tell you that upon meeting Krzyzewski at Knight’s camp, I knew instantly he was destined for greatness, but as I like to say, that would be “rubber-lippin” if I admitted to that. He was just starting his college coaching at Army, and at that time all the focus and attention was on Knight, as he was only a few years removed from his undefeated national championship season in 1976. It was Grant Hill, the consensus All-American at Duke, who played a vital role in Krzyzewski’s first two titles in ’91 and ’92, who provided me with an insider’s view of the genius of Coach K. His parents, former Yale and Dallas Cowboys legend Calvin and mom Janet, expounded upon Krzyzewski’s character and abilities with a stirring endorsement from a parents’ and fan perspective. The one central theme they would relate about Coach K is “the meticulous care and attention he had for his players both on and off the court and how he stayed in touch with them long after their playing days were over and his willingness to always lend a helping hand.” In other words, this loyalty simply translated means “once a Dukie always a Dukie.”

That’s why it was so heart-warming for me to listen to and watch Grant Hill make a successful transition from a great college and professional ballplayer to a highly competent expert in his debut as a courtside commentator at the Final Four. Grant, who spent some time living in Hawaii when his dad signed on to play for the Hawaiians in the WFL, was smooth, articulate, insightful and looked good while having fun at his newfound craft and vocation. He unquestionably will enjoy a long and successful broadcasting career that will duplicate his ballin’ days as a college and pro player.

While we’re on the subject of basketball, congratulations also are in order for Connecticut, which won its third straight NCAA women’s championship by besting Notre Dame. It’s time to give Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma his due as one of the all-time greats, because any time you win 10 championships, in any sport, as he has done, that is an incredible accomplishment. Like Krzyzewski, Auriemma, whom I’ll dub the “Sultan of Storrs,” isn’t showing any inclination to slow down anytime soon, so it’s safe to assume he’ll continue to set records that will be around for an eternity.

Now, if we can only get Coach Geno to take a look at some of the 808’s finest, such as Konawaena’s fabulous allstate guard Chanelle Molina. That would be quite a statement for Hawaii high school hoops. • Speaking of Hawaii, you had to know that University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine basketball coach Laura Beeman is on the radar screen of major universities looking to improve their programs. Today it’s Utah of the prestigious Pac-12 Conference that’s pursuing Beeman, who during this season won 23 games, a conference championship and took the Rainbow Wahine to a post-season tournament again. I guarantee the suitors won’t stop coming after her. Her career path thus far reminds me of Dick Tomey’s, who came to Hawaii as an assistant football coach from UCLA. As he started to accumulate success at Manoa, big-time schools came after him and he received a very attractive offer to take the helm at Arizona. Beeman came from USC, so it stands to reason that the Pac-12 schools would feel that they would get a listening ear from her. For Hawaii fans, let’s enjoy the Beeman years as long as we can

• No matter how you slice it, you had to feel for UH men’s basketball coach Benjy Taylor, who was passed over in his bid to become the permanent head man. He and his cagers did an incredible job, compiling a 20-win season under some very trying circumstances. We welcome back to the Islands and congratulate new UH head coach Eran Ganot of St. Mary’s. He’s no stranger to the Manoa campus, having made a favorable impression when he was on the staff of former head coaches Riley Wallace, Bob Nash and Gib Arnold. But we nonetheless say mahalo and wish Coach Benjy all the best in his future endeavors!