DETROIT -- When George Lawson and Ron Cunningham, who served for a combined 52 years on Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base, spoke on the phone this week, Cunningham said it was about "the dream coming to fruition." Both men were planning to travel to the Final Four, and were understandably feeling nostalgic. Lawson, a former Tech Sergeant, had dug up a 1995 photo of the basketball team he and Cunningham, a former Chief Master Sergeant, had joined forces to coach at the base's youth center. The team was called the Andrews Magic (inspired by the Shaq-and-Penny powerhouse in Orlando at the time), and their sons were 7 years old in the picture. In the back row, wearing No. 52, is Dante Cunningham, with his eyebrows raised; kneeling at the center, wearing No. 11, is Ty Lawson, over-grinning to the point that his eyes are nearly shut. Every player's jersey is neatly tucked in.
The coaches' hope had been to give the kids a safe environment on the base -- rather than the less-structured hoops scenes in talent-rich Prince George's County -- in which to develop their skills, which in turn would help them get into good high schools and colleges. The result went above and beyond that: On Saturday night, at Detroit's Ford Field, Lawson, the starting point guard for North Carolina, and Cunningham, the starting power forward for Villanova, will square off in the nightcap of the Final Four, 14 years after they starred together for the Magic.
They aren't the only former Magic who've had an impact in the dance, either: Standing two spots to Cunningham's left in the photo, wearing giant wristbands and No. 40, is Cedric Jackson, the point guard who led 13th-seeded Cleveland State to the NCAA tournament's biggest upset, a rout of No. 4 Wake Forest. One spot to Cunningham's right is Justin Castleberry, who was a reserve on the Bucknell team that beat Arkansas in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament, and was a senior starter for the Bison this season. Four years after that team photo was taken, Kenny Hasbrouck, the son of a disabled veteran who lived in the area, would join the roster; he went on to play a major role in Siena's 2008 tourney upset of Vanderbilt, as well as its upset of Ohio State this season.
The Andrews Magic went 80-7 over an eight-year span that began in '95, regularly "playing up" -- against local competition at least 1-2 years older than their age group. Dante Cunningham said he recently looked through an old scrapbook that the two coaches had put together, and found a sheet in which they had asked each player -- when they were just 11 -- to state what college they dreamed of playing for. Dante wrote down Michigan, or Georgetown, which had recently been the homes of Chris Webber and Allen Iverson, respectively. Ty Lawson listed just one school: North Carolina. "When I saw that," Cunningham said, "I thought, 'Wow. That's crazy, that he already knew back then.'"
Long before Lawson would become a Tar Heel, win the 2009 ACC Player of the Year award, or be named the South Region's Most Outstanding Player, he was just a 4-year-old flying up and down the court with his father, who would bring Ty along to the Andrews gym if he agreed to do two hours of drill-work on fundamentals. The most famous were what they called "commando" ballhandling drills, where George would stand at midcourt and shout out a series of commands -- such as, in-and-out, crossover and behind the back -- as Ty dribbled at him. Ty eventually learned to perform the moves instantaneously. "You have to be able to do stuff like that in games without thinking," George said. "It got to the point where I'd be able to yell out five or six in a row and he'd finish them before he got to me."
Lawson was already using his speed to his advantage at Andrews, too; according to Hasbrouck, "Ty was always the shortest guy on the court, but so quick that he was always at the head of the pack on fastbreaks." Ty's mom, Jacqueline, could be heard from the stands calling her boy "T-Bird" -- their nickname for him back then -- and he was also showing signs of becoming the "Dennis the Menace" that UNC coach Roy Williams eventually dubbed him in Chapel Hill. Hasbrouck said Lawson was fast enough to never get caught after hitting someone, and Castleberry remembers Lawson pulling chairs out from underneath people in the adjoining rec center. But he was also unflappable on the floor, just as he is at UNC, with a 3.54-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. "Big games never seemed to faze Ty," Castleberry said. "He kept everyone calm on the court."
Lawson's floor leadership and shooting ability (he's shooting 46.8 percent from long range) are major reasons why the Heels are overwhelming favorites to cut down the nets in Detroit. Meanwhile, Dante Cunningham's emergence as a senior star for Villanova (averaging 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) is a big reason why the Wildcats have made such a deep tourney run. Without him they might not have even made it to the second round: The 25 points he scored against No. 14 American in the first round helped rally them back from a 14-point deficit in a game that looked to be lost.
This was not the first time he had willed a team to victory. George Lawson told the story of one of the Magic's appearances in a Prince George's County Boys & Girls Club league title game, in which they trailed by eight in the second half to a team that featured current 'Nova forward Dwayne Anderson. Cunningham, then a fiery young leader, walked into a team huddle during a timeout, and yelled for everyone in the gym to hear, "We're not losing this game!" They rallied to win the championship -- and would only lose one home game, ever, on the base.
Jackson said that Cunningham, at the time, "Couldn't shoot to save his life, but was stronger than everyone else, so we didn't mess with him." There was a reason for Dante's fitness: Ron Cunningham used to bring out what he called his "Serious Bag" for practices, and have Dante work with a weighted jump rope and often play with a weighted vest to work on core strength.
Ty Lawson remembers Ron Cunningham constantly yelling, "Bust a move!" to Dante when he would receive the ball in the post. It was considered -- by Lawson, at least -- to be Ron's signature phrase, and it was something he also used to tell his daughter, Davalyn, who played at Rutgers and then in the WNBA. (Ron said the inspiration for it was former N.C. State tourney hero Dereck Whittenburg, who occasionally worked out at Andrews when he was playing high school basketball in the area. Whittenburg said of the players on the base, "They get the ball in the post, and they don't know what to do with it." Ron wanted to make sure his son wouldn't be lumped into that category.) "Dante still gets mad when I say 'Bust a move' to him," Lawson said, "so I'm probably going to say it a few times during Saturday's game."
The Magic have kept in touch, to various degrees: Lawson was texting with Cunningham and Anderson, their old rival, once the Final Four field was set. Hasbrouck texted Lawson to congratulate him on winning ACC Player of the Year; Lawson texted him back to say "nice free throw" after Hasbrouck was clutch from the stripe in the double-overtime win over Ohio State. Jackson played with Cunningham in the DC-area Kenner League over the summer. Castleberry keeps up with them on Facebook, and said his mother, Linda, who's still friends with the Lawsons, caught the Tar Heels' game at UC-Santa Barbara in November to see Ty. "It's unbelievable," Castleberry said, "to think that we'd have five players [from the Magic] playing on Division I teams. And to have Dante and Ty both leading their teams to the Final Four, to play against each other? The odds of that are even more unbelievable."
George Lawson, who now works for a private firm that does security for the Department of State, will periodically return to the gym at Andrews, since he lives nearby the base, in Clinton, Md. Each of the past few years, he says, someone in the Air Force who hasn't been following basketball -- usually because they've been stationed overseas, or in other parts of the country -- will recognize him as the man who used to run drills with his lightning-quick, dribbling-wonder-of-a-son.
"What's he doing now?" they always ask of the boy.
And their eyes always grow wide, as George explains how the dream unfolds.
DETROIT -- You know you've arrived at the Final Four when you see:
• Blake Griffin waiting at baggage claim on Wednesday night, along with a bunch of much shorter and much older men who will escort him to all his award ceremonies.
• Big John Thompson at the check-in counter at the media hotel.
• Airport car-service sign guys looking for Westwood One rather than, say, people from pharmaceutical corporations. (I'm not really sure what the man holding the Final Four sign in the picture below is doing, though. Is he waiting to pick up the actual Final Four? Either way, I was more comfortable taking a shot of him than paparazzi-attacking Griffin or Thompson.)
The guys below (from the airport) are either sign-installers or snipers. You decide.
More images from Detroit are on the way early tomorrow ...
Who's the hottest team in the Final Four? It looks like North Carolina, but my assessment may be affected by the fact that I just spent last weekend watching the Tar Heels in Memphis. I turned to the efficiency numbers for a second opinion, plotting out each of the four teams' efficiency margins for their past three NCAA tournament games (throwing out the first round because, well, a UNC-Radford or UConn-Chattanooga rout just blows up the stats) and found that, efficiency-wise, it is the Heels:
Opponent Poss OffPPP DefPPP EM
LSU 68 1.241 1.034 .207
Gonzaga 78 1.254 0.986 .268
Oklahoma 65 1.115 0.929 .186
Total 211 .223
Opponent Poss OffPPP DefPPP EM
Texas A&M 66 1.400 1.005 .395
Purdue 70 1.025 0.854 .171
Missouri 75 1.085 0.994 .091
Total 211 .213
Opponent Poss OffPPP DefPPP EM
UCLA 73 1.219 0.945 .274
Duke 74 1.042 0.731 .311
Pitt 67 1.171 1.141 .030
Total 214 .210
Opponent Poss OffPPP DefPPP EM
USC 68 1.084 1.010 .074
Kansas 67 1.006 0.931 .075
Louisville 56 1.135 0.922 .213
Total 191 .115
What we learned from the table above:
• Carolina has been the steadiest team, dominating in each of the past three rounds, while each of the other Final Four clubs has had a close call -- or, at least, one game where the Efficiency Margin was less that 0.10 points per possession.
• UConn started out as the hottest team, blitzing Chattanooga and then Texas A&M in the second round, but the Huskies have been coming back down to earth as the competition has gotten stronger.
• Michigan State, meanwhile, has been the least-hot team between the second round and Elite Eight, but the Spartans played their strongest basketball in the Elite Eight against Louisville. They could be coming to life at the right time.
• Villanova put on the best, single-game defensive performance of any Final Four team when it dismantled Duke in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils were held to just 0.731 points per possession. For comparison, North Carolina, in its Sweet 16 game against Gonzaga, let the Zags score 0.986 points per possession.
Some pictorial goodness not related to the coaching carousel, which has been occupying everyone's journalistic week, and holding back the blog for a couple of days ...
Tom Izzo's 'Tournament Coach' Noggin
Michigan State's head man is always referred to as a great "tournament coach" -- which means, essentially, that his teams tend to outperform their seed. He devised a game plan that held Louisville to an improbable zero fastbreak points in the Elite Eight. What might he have in store for UConn, which is comfortable at a slow pace?
Jeff Adrien's Linebacker Mouthpiece
UConn's power forward doesn't need any help in giving off an intimidating, football-ish vibe, but he tops it off with a mouthpiece, which makes him look even scarier when he's putting up a double-double against your team. Why he wears elbow padding is beyond me, though: It only limits the beatings he can dish out in the post.
Jay Wright's Finely Tailored Sidelinewear
North Carolina is a 7.5-point favorite to beat Villanova on the court, but Jay Wright is a 1-to-10 favorite to beat ol' Roy Williams in the sideline suit war. The Wildcats' coach has the best tailor (Gabe D'Annunzio) of anyone in the Final Four. He'd probably trade in a couple of suits for a 7-footer who can stop Tyler Hansbrough, though.
Bobby Frasor's (Finally In The Final) Four
UNC's backup point guard tore his left ACL in December 2007 and missed the Heels' run to the Final Four in San Antonio. This season, as a senior, Frasor is healthy and playing a major role off the bench in relief of Ty Lawson. The only other No. 4 in the Final Four is UConn's Jeff Adrien, who's also in his first-ever semifinal.
Scottie Reynolds' Black-taped Hand
When Reynolds hit the shot of the tournament -- his leaner with 0.5 seconds left that KO'd Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight -- the lower part of his right (shoooting) hand was covered in tape. It doesn't seem to be an ideal condition in which to be running the point, but at this point, I'd leave the tape on for good luck against UNC.
Hasheem Thabeet's Parachute-Sized Shorts
A normal-sized family of six (or perhaps the whole Huskies backcourt) could probably be clothed from the fabric of one pair of the 7-foot-3 Thabeet's shorts, which are Nike 4XLs. They almost weren't coming to the Final Four, or at least I thought so: I nearly believed Thabeet's "I failed a drug test prank" late on Tuesday night.
Goran Suton's Double Knee Braces
Michigan State's Bosnian star has a firm grasp on the concept of branding: Even his neoprene knee sheaths have Spartans logos. He hasn't been held back by weak joints in this tourney, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine boards against Kansas in the Sweet 16, and then going for 19 and 10 against Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Ty Lawson's Infamous Toe
The status of Lawson's toe was such a big story that it inspired its own Twitter. UNC's point guard sat out of its first-round win over Radford, but returned against LSU, and went on to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Region. He's a step or two slower, but might be making better decisions as a result.
The Style Archive, our museum of college hoops style, is in its third season on SI.com. We already have 107 exhibits on display from the past two seasons, and will be unveiling new batches throughout the tourney ...
|52. Net Face
Danny Green, 6-6 guard, Sr., North Carolina
Classification: Alter Ego (not to be confused with popular American graffiti artist Neck Face)
Spotted: March 29 vs. Oklahoma
Notes: Net Face is the superhero Green morphs into following ACC tournament titles and NCAA Regional Final victories. It's of a poor man's version of Spiderman.
53. Magic Hoodie
Micah Downs, 6-8 guard, Sr., Gonzaga
Classification: Tube socks
Spotted: March 29 vs. North Carolina
Notes: Downs consistently opted for this look when the Zags wore black jerseys. He even rocked a throwback green pair in their practice session on Thursday in Memphis, presumably as an homage to Larry Bird.
|56. Blue Chips
Wayne Ellington, 6-4 guard, Jr., North Carolina
Classification: Deron Williams Nikes
Spotted: March 27 vs. Gonzaga
Notes: Ellington's shoes are actually in a Utah Jazz colorway -- because they're the custom models Nike made for Williams this season. Portland star Brandon Roy also received a verson with "B Roy" on the side.
Want to nominate someone for the Style Archive, and get credit for it on SI.com? Send an e-mail to hooparchive AT gmail.com. Photos are greatly appreciated.
The Tourney Playlist (Daily, free mp3s from Gorilla vs. Bear)
- 1. Wavves: So Bored
- 2. Ratatat: Mirando
- 3. Vetiver: Everyday
- 4. Bon Iver: Blood Bank
- 5. Dept. of Eagles: No One Does It Like You
- 6. Grizzly Bear: He Hit Me (Cover)
- 7. Bodies of Water: Gold, Tan, Peach ...
- 8. El Guincho: Palmitos Park
- 9. Swan Lake: A Hand At Dusk
- 10. No Age: Teen Creeps
- 11. Crystal Antlers: Andrew
- 12. Bosque Brown: Went Walking
- 13. Camera Obscura: My Modern Career
- 14. SALEM: Brustreet
- 15. VEGA: Well Known Pleasures
- 16. Crystal Antlers: Andrew
- 17. The Rosebuds: Life like
- 18. Music Go Music: Warm In The Shadows
- 19. Dan Rossen: Too Little Too Late
- 20. St. Vincent: The Strangers
- 21. Here We Go Magic: Fangela
- 22. Karl Blau: Mockingbird Diet
- 23. Chad Vangaalen: Willow Tree
- 24. Women: Black Rice
- 25. Nite Jewel: Weak For Me