Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thank You, Brennan

Forget social security. I don’t need it. When I am old, the Vermont basketball teams of the late Brennan era will be my pension.

Sure there will be other conference champions. Sure there will be other two-thousand point scorers. But there will never be another Taylor Coppenrath. There will never be such a venue as Patrick Gym. And most of all, there will never be another coach like Tom Brennan.

That’s why in December I bought a plane ticket from Denver to Burlington for the America East championship weekend. If there was one game I couldn’t miss, it would be Vermont playing for the title on March 12. But deep down I had a good feeling. After all, this was a team that started four seniors and had won two consecutive conference titles.

From a bar in Aspen, I had watched Vermont take No. 1-ranked Kansas to the wire on the road, losing its opening game in the closing seconds. In February, I saw the Cats on ESPN, falling to Nevada after leading for more than a half in Reno. And if they had spent a few less hours at the blackjack table in Las Vegas maybe they would have had their legs down the stretch. But isn’t carpediem what Brennan and his players symbolize? Isn’t it better to have fun and leave everything on the court? Isn’t that what college sports are about? Would you expect anything different from a team whose coach ends each of his morning radio shows, “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today’s a gift, that’s why we call it the present. So tear into it like a 5 year old on Christmas.”?

How could you not love a man who takes his team out to the finest steakhouses in town on road games? How could you not love a man who cheers for his team like a fan when they’re doing well and lets his assistant Jesse Agel worry about the X’s and O’s? Unless you’re a NBA prospect when you enter college, is there any other coach or program you’d rather play for?

In February 1996, moments after his final home game in a Vermont uniform, guard Bernie Cieplicki told me there was no better coach to play for than Brennan. That day was the first time I saw UVM play.

Now, the first thing Brennan says to me is, “My boy!” Every time I’m around him I feel important and most of all, I laugh. I remember trying out for the UVM basketball team my freshman year. After lasting three days he cut me and the other walk-on hopefuls. If it were any other coach I would have been upset. But I knew he made the right decision, and I then knew what Bernie Cieplicki had meant. Tryouts were fun, and when Brennan wasn’t instructing or making a point, he was cracking jokes.

So now it’s March 2005 and UVM has won every home game of the season in front of a sold-out crowd. And the whole state of Vermont and a young man in a small Colorado town are pulling for one more home game. But first they must win at Binghamton….

I only had two connections to the games at Binghamton – the live play-by-play from Chris Wojcik on my computer, and the Lands, who gave me a call before, during and after the UVM games to relay the various facial expressions and crowd noise. It was a nervous and exciting feeling listening to the games more than a thousand miles away. The anticipation of every basket was more intense than being at the games because I had no control of the outcome. No yelling at the referees. No friendly gestures to the players. It was all in their hands. But I knew the Land crew would cheer in place of me, along with lots of other Vermont fans who made the six-hour drive to the Events Center near Binghamton on Saturday, March 5 to see UVM play UMBC.

Game time. Taylor was fouled down low and scored the first two Vermont points at the foul line. Vermont’s next basket was a straightaway three-pointer by Sorrentine. They continued this trend for the rest of the weekend.

Maintaining a close lead in the first half, UVM pulled away in the second half for a 76-61 win. UMBC tried every defense, including a box-and-one on Sorrentine, but nothing could stop the Cats. At one point in the second half, Wojcik said, “Sorrentine the other way with 11 minutes to go. Another three. Got it! He can’t miss! That’s his sixth triple. Randy Monroe needs a timeout. Vermont by 22, and the Catamount fans are on their feet!”

Taylor had 33 points. After the game, Agel told Wojcik, “Yeah, he should have had 55 Chris. We did a poor job of getting him the ball. We did a great job half the time and the other half we just didn’t get him the ball when he should’ve gotten it…. we got to throw it to him a lot more. We only have him for so much longer.”

Agel’s days were limited as well since he wasn’t named Brennan’s successor despite having been his assistant for 17 years and maintaining strong support from the team and community. For Senior Night, on Feb. 24 against UMBC, all the Vermont players wrote “Agel” and “17” on their sneakers.

Against Binghamton in the semifinals, Vermont continued to play inspired basketball despite the vociferous Bearcat fans. Sorrentine got UVM off to a fast start, but Binghamton was shooting well also. I listened to every possession like a Catholic listens to the Pope. And maybe, I thought, if I listened well enough and prayed, Burlington would be my holy land the following weekend.

As Vermont went on a run before halftime, I could hear fans chanting “UVM, UVM!” The Cats led 41-33 at intermission. I felt better. Vermont’s only loss when leading at halftime all season was at Nevada.

Sorrentine continued his hot spell after the break, and set an America East championship record with seven three-pointers in a game. He told reporters afterward, “I know three’s kind of break people’s back if you make a tough one. I just try to get ‘em up there and hope they go down so I don’t have to go in the huddle and listen to ... (Brennan) say, ‘What are you doing?’”

With 4:07 left, Binghamton had cut Vermont’s lead to ten (68-58). At that time, the scorer’s horn would not turn off and the game was delayed for ten minutes. When play resumed, the momentum had changed in UVM’s favor. Moments later Binghamton’s main offensive threat, Alex Adediran, fouled out on a dumb foul with Vermont’s lead at nine points. Binghamton never recovered. Final score: Vermont 76 Binghamton 65.

With his 262 career victory, Brennan became the all-time winningest UVM coach, passing John “Fuzzy” Evans. Coppenrath had 34 points and 12 rebounds, scoring most of his points near the basket or at the foul line like he did against UMBC. Sorrentine finished with 25 points. Taylor and T.J. combined for 112 points in the two games. Even more remarkable was the fact they both were not at a hundred percent before the playoffs. Coppenrath was still fighting the effects of the flu, and Sorrentine had practiced only once in more than a week due to a tender right hamstring that he had injured in the second half on Senior Night. While they may not have played at full strength, they played with full confidence.

“During warmups they had two or three hundred kids yelling at them,” Agel said. “I remember our first game of the year. There was five thousand kids yelling at them two and a half hours before the game. So I didn’t think this would bother them. I thought they’d relish it. I think it got us excited…. we just had this swagger I really haven’t seen that much of. And it has to do with our senior leadership. And it all starts with Thomas John Sorrentine and it trickles down from there.”

What happens when that swagger returns to Burlington? I couldn’t wait. “Coming back home is going to be great,” David Hehn told reporters. “I’ve been telling ... (the freshmen) that they’re in for the best week of their lives.” For me, it was a week of anticipation and trouble sleeping.

Buzz and Donna did not know I was coming to Burlington. Maybe it was surprising them. Maybe it was seeing the last home game of an era like no other. Maybe it was knowing I’d be waking up at 2 a.m. and driving to Denver, flying to La Guardia and then to Burlington. Whatever it was, I couldn’t sleep. The whole week before I was restless and now it was damn near impossible to think about anything else. I kept closing my eyes and then opening them and staring at the red numbers on my alarm clock…7:15…7:27…7:33…. Time crawled by. I must have fallen asleep around midnight or so.

I woke up just after two with a headache, and I felt cold and groggy. A few Motrin and a shower and I was on the road -- alone and in the dark. Waiting in the airport terminals and on my flights, I mostly slept or just closed my eyes. When trying to read a book I had brought, I had trouble keeping my mind on the words. Finally I landed in Burlington on a cold, snowy night. Peter drove me to Rabbit Road in his old white Volvo. Before he drove up the Land’s driveway, he let me off, so I could walk through the woods and sneak through the sliding glass bedroom door that he had left open for me. After tromping through the deep snow, I hid in Buzz’s closet. Donna was talking to a friend on the phone about how difficult it was to get a ticket for the next morning’s title game. Minutes later I heard Buzz arrive. I nonchalantly walked through the pantry and into the living room. As I made my way into the dining room, Donna looked at me, and said, “Mr. B?” Buzz was on the phone and turned and looked. Even though Buzz claimed that he knew I was coming, it was worth the surprise.

The next morning, Peter drove me from his apartment to the Burlington Country Club parking lot. It had snowed during the night. We were by ourselves waiting for the Lands and friends, so we took some pictures as it continued to snow. The Lands arrived and we walked toward Patrick Gym. And oh, how things had changed. Even since the previous year.

I didn’t remember fans holding up signs that said, “I need a ticket.” I had heard someone sold four tickets for more than $800 on eBay. I didn’t remember a stand outside the gym lobby giving out free pieces of pizza and hotdogs. But my empty stomach was pleasantly surprised. And I didn’t remember a pair of arcade-style basketball hoops outside. Whoever made the most shots in thirty seconds won a game-worn UVM jersey. Peter and I were past our prime.

Of course some things hadn’t changed. There were gravy fries and a long line for a cup of Ben & Jerry’s. I walked past a Vermont fan in a gorilla suit and inside the gym lobby, where most people wore green and yellow outfits. On the balcony I noticed Eddie Benton and a few other former players and assistant coaches. Boy, time flies, I thought. Last time I saw Benton, he was playing in a UVM uniform. Now his sweater covered a stomach that hadn’t missed a meal.

I walked outside and talked with Peter about how Vermont would contain Northeastern’s point guard Jose Juan Barea. At a quarter of ten, I saw everyone facing Harris Hall. But it wasn’t the dorm they were watching. It was Brennan, wearing a tan overcoat and a big smile. As he strode by me and the other fans, who were cheering for him, I thought of a moment during a game back in 1970 between Georgia and LSU. Brennan was guarding “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who pushed off while driving to the basket. But Brennan was whistled for the foul. Brennan told the referee it was an offensive foul. The referee turned and said, “Hey, they ain’t here to see you!” But on this cold and overcast Vermont morning, they had come to see Brennan.

By ten o’clock, the will-call office opened, so I decided I should get my ticket that Reza had reserved. As soon as I got in line, George Coppenrath and one of his sons waited behind me.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Nervous,” said George.

I told him it would be an emotional game but the last regular season home game should help the team deal with that type of feeling.

“Now I know it’s their last home game,” he said.

Why was I the one convincing George that UVM would perform well? Wasn’t he the one with the son who was named conference Player of the Year three straight years, joining the late great Reggie Lewis? Didn’t his son score 43 points in last year’s title game with a recovering broken wrist? Wasn’t his son the second-leading scorer in the nation?

Maybe it did make sense to worry. Maybe it was very difficult to beat a team like Northeastern three times in a row. Maybe the expectations had grown too high. Still, I wasn’t worried. I left that up to Taylor’s father.

With my ticket in hand, I walked behind the UVM bench and directly up the aisle to my seat, which was in the corner and up high (row Z). It didn’t matter. There are no bad seats in Patrick Gym. The environment had changed since I saw Vermont beat Maine a year prior. Behind me on the wall, and on the opposite side, it said in white letters, “WELCOME TO CATAMOUNT COUNTRY.” The UVM student section looked like it had doubled in size, occupying close to half of the bleachers on the other side adjacent to me. The Husky fans stood out with their matching red T-shirts behind their team’s bench and a smaller group on the opposite side up high. UVM fans booed when the Northeastern players jogged onto the court in their black uniforms, and cheered louder than they had booed when Vermont ran out in its white uniforms. Looking across at the bleachers, I saw Peter in his yellow UVM sweatshirt. He spotted me and smiled and waved. A man near Peter held a yellow sign above his head that said, “TAYLOR’S HOUSE.” Next to the Vermont bench the cheerleaders wore black uniforms with green bows in their hair. Northeastern had cheerleaders too. Across from the UVM bench, in the corner, the Catamount pep band played. The only band I remembered was a couple of elementary school kids and a middle-aged woman and an old man who damaged eardrums at hockey games. Now, Vermont had a legitimate pep band, and at basketball games. Oh, had things changed. I found out after the game that Vermont fans had watched the game on a large screen on the nearby indoor tennis courts, where they had the post-game reception a year earlier.

There was half an hour until tipoff and Vermont and Northeastern fans were chanting back and forth as if in a cheering contest. First, “UVM, UVM!” Then, “Let’s Go Huskies!” I noticed former Duke point guard Jason Williams was one of the ESPN announcers. In front of me, Germain Mopa Njila’s friend Georges, who was also from Cameroon but played for New Hampshire, sat.

“Do you think UVM will make it to the big dance regardless of whether they win or lose?” I asked him.

“They have to win to go.”

Could it end any other way in Brennan’s last home game?

After a week of sleepless nights, it was game time. Taylor won the tip and T.J. dribbled up. Twenty seconds later Martin Klimes threw an overhead pass from the top of the key to Taylor, who had sealed his man and banked it in.

On Northeastern’s first possession, Taylor knocked the ball loose from Bennet Davis. There was a scramble in the paint. Bodies were on the floor. I couldn’t see what happened because a couple of fans stood and blocked my view. I saw T.J. push Barea away from the pile and say a few words at him as referees separated the two point guards. Later, as I watched the play over and over on video, I saw Klimes on the bottom of the pile with the ball. Barea had jumped in and threw two left-handed punches at Klimes, hitting him in the face. Jason Williams said that Barea should have been ejected. One fan held a sign that said, “No Way Jose.” The two referees watching the play again and again on a courtside video monitor, thought differently. They called the two coaches to halfcourt and issued a warning to both teams. Brennan, wearing a tan suit and purple shirt and pink tie, knew it was B.S., but didn’t argue. I, on the other hand, booed as loud as I could even though I didn’t know what had really happened at the time. I knew if I had flown that far, I was going to make as much noise as possible.

When play resumed Klimes was on the receiving end of Taylor’s bounce pass, fumbling it and then taking a drop step and making a layup to put UVM up 4-2. Vermont led the rest of the way. Barea dribbled slowly up the court on the next play and Vermont fans cheered loud. Sorrentine scored the next UVM basket on a fadeway three in Barea’s face. After that shot any doubt that was in my bones, no longer existed. Just before the midway point in the first half, Germain was on a one-man fastbreak, scoring against two players and then sinking a three-pointer from the wing. On the next basket, he penetrated and dished to Taylor for a layup and a 23-11 lead. A few minutes later Taylor scored down low and one guy near me said, “You can’t stop him.” A guy next to him said, “Blow them out.” It was starting to seem that way.

The only time I was concerned was when T.J. converted a three-pointer over Marcus Barnes at the 4:24 mark. Barnes had fouled him on the play and T.J. landed on his shoe and rolled his left ankle. Thankfully, he played through it. After the shot, Jason Williams, turned to Dave Revsine and said, “The energy in here is amazing. You told me Vermont was a special place but I didn’t know it was this special.”

And after Sorrentine made his third three of the half, Erin, who sat next to me, said, “T.J.’s really on his game.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s on a mission.” I hadn’t seen him smile once.

Vermont led 48-34 at intermission. The first half felt like it flew by, perhaps because Vermont played so well. As a UVM fan in the lobby remarked to another fan at halftime, “It’s too good to be true.” It was for Klimes, whose good fortune came as a result of the attention Taylor, knee socks and shaggy hair, drew from the Husky defense. Klimes had a career-high 15 points, scoring all 15 in the first half. He didn’t miss a shot, converting seven field goals and a foul shot.

The second half was no better for Northeastern. Any hope of a comeback diminished when Barea left the game with a sprained right ankle after landing on Taylor’s sneaker on a double-pump layup attempt at 13:58. I felt bad for Barea. I also wanted UVM to beat Northeastern with the Husky’s best player in the game. But it didn’t matter. Vermont led 62-40.

In the second half Northeastern adjusted, playing Vermont straight up and trying to double Taylor only when he had the ball. There was no defense for UVM on that day. During a 14-minute stretch Taylor scored 21 straight UVM points. Either way, Vermont’s experience and talent helped them live up to the slogan “You Can’t Stop Us!” on the white T-shirts that were handed out to the fans before the game.

When Brennan substituted Klimes out with four minutes left, they both gave each other a big smile and hug. Moments later, I saw T.J. standing in the corner before the ball was inbounded and for the first time he was smiling. Then the cheers began. Fans began chanting, “Thank You, Brennan!” They repeated this cheer for Taylor, then Agel and then T.J.

I walked down the aisle with a few minutes left, and stood behind the UVM bench. Alex Jensen was taken out of the game and greeted his excited teammates. Taylor did something I never saw him do after Jensen passed him. He started jumping up and down, doing a dance by himself. “That’s right, dance big man,” said a young man next to me. “That’s right, do your dance.” Some of the UVM players wore white America East championship T-shirts and tan championship hats during the closing seconds. Vermont had won big: 80-57. I rushed the court with the team, jumping up and down. Seconds later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Buzz! We jumped up and down for a while. Once again, a year later, and it didn’t get any better than that. We finally found Peter and Dave and Germain, who made the all-tournament team along with Klimes, T.J. and of course, Taylor. Germain finished with nine points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals while shutting down one of the conference’s top scorers, guard Marcus Barnes.

Taylor was named MVP and finished with 37 points. The same Taylor I talked to last May in Burlington, with neither of us mentioning basketball. The same Taylor who told me how he had been tutoring kids at Colchester High and his interest in becoming a math teacher after graduation. You needed a calculator to add up his stats. And to think three summers ago we were playing beer-pong together. Or the hot summer day he drove a friend and me in an old, small sedan to go cliff jumping about 45 minutes south of Burlington. And we jumped off the 30-foot cliff after walking across a narrow and slippery ledge to the jumping area. Good thing Brennan never knew about that. But, we didn’t know Taylor would be named the best conference player that upcoming season. We only knew he was a fun guy to be around with a friendly demeanor. Since then, nothing has changed. Except for his opportunities as was heard after Taylor had cut the net and walked down the ladder with fans chanting, “NBA, NBA!” I felt a chill down my back with Buzz and Peter standing next to me. We were all sweating.

When Brennan cut the net, the fans repeated their chant, “Thank You, Brennan!” He cried. We hung around and took photos with friends and fans. “How good are you?” said a middle-aged woman to Germain as she reached up and grabbed his face with two hands. Germain smiled. Taylor posed for pictures with four girls who had his mug shot on the back of their white tank tops and the words “Taylor Got Back” on the rear of their green skirts. There also was a toddler on Taylor’s left shoulder and two small girls with homemade yellow “VERMONT 22” T-shirts in the shot.

“I could have never believed it could get like this, and until the day I die, I will never forget today,” Brennan told reporters. “What has happened here is a phenomenon beyond belief as far as I’m concerned. When I was broke, when I had nothing, people took me in, and now I’ve won the lottery three times in a row.”

When there was just myself and a few players and parents left in the gym, I left with Reza and Germain and Georges. Reza drove to Shanty on the Shore and we ate lunch and talked about the game. It was so quiet and unassuming in the restaurant next to Lake Champlain. Patrick Gym seemed like a different world in comparison.

I went back to Reza’s apartment after lunch and we watched some of the game replayed on TiVo. At halftime, we watched with a grin as former UCLA head coach Steve Lavin talked about Taylor, saying, “Taylor Coppenrath actually has a game tailor-made for the NBA…. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s going to be a first round draft choice in the next level.”

Soon fatigue settled in. I napped on Reza’s couch. Peter woke me, calling to pick me up for dinner at Papa Frank’s with Buzz and Donna. We only talked about the game at dinner. After I said goodbye, Peter said they would talk about the Cats for the rest of the night, and for the entire day that’s all they’d have talked about. For Buzz and Donna, their pension arrived in 1986 and each year it grew. Several months ago I asked Buzz, who had a good friend in an old age home, if he could ever live there. He said, “No, I never could do it…. Unless, I’m with Brennan.”

The next morning, Boston University head coach Dennis Wolff called Brennan and said, “I’m really proud of you, but what in the world was all the crying about?”

“We were up by 30,” Brennan said. “I had nothing else to do.”

By the time it was announced on Selection Sunday that Vermont would play Syracuse, I was hoarse. But I still tried to talk to the Lands about the upcoming Friday game in Worcester, Mass. My first thought was, oh no, Syracuse is a surging team. But on second thought, I knew Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s teams never were very disciplined and often had poor shot selection. Besides, Vermont had experience in the tournament. They were more ready now than ever before. That was the feeling I carried with me all week.

I wouldn’t be the only one riding the Brennan train. Everyone seems to love an underdog. And what better underdog for college basketball fans to love than Vermont against Syracuse? The America East champs versus the Big East champs. The day before his team played the Orangemen, Brennan told the Washington Post, “I’ve gotten way too much publicity. I told a guy the other day that no one loves Tommy Brennan more than I do and I’m sick and tired of me.”

Anyone who listened to “Corm and the Coach” on Wednesday morning, when Brennan was talking to Boeheim, would understand why the media had been flocking to Burlington. “I like to look at tape right after games,” Boeheim said. “I’ve always found that I’m wound up and can’t sleep, so that’s a good time to get it done. How about you, TB, you the same way?”

“Actually the only tape I see after a game is whatever highlights come on the TV set in the bar I’m in,” Brennan said.

The only bad part of an exciting week leading up to the weekend in Worcester was the lack of tickets distributed to UVM fans. However, Buzz, Donna and Peter had tickets, so I was happy.

Since I don’t have even basic cable television, I watched the game at a friend’s place in my apartment complex. My friend had left for the weekend so it was just the couch and March Madness and me in a small room.

By gametime, my only fear was a bad start for Vermont. I knew if they made a few shots early in the game they’d settle in. Hakim Warrick tipped the ball to Germain and both teams missed their first few shots. Syracuse was in its patented two-three zone. Klimes flashed to the foul line and received the ball and split the zone with a quick bounce pass to Taylor for a layup and the first two points of the game. A minute later, Germain tipped in a miss for a 4-2 UVM lead. Vermont led 8-4 when Taylor scored over Terrence Roberts while falling back and leaning with one second left on the shot clock. Then at the 12:50 mark, CBS switched to the Duke-Delaware State game. The good feeling I had about Vermont stayed with me as I watched the updated score on the ticker.

When they switched back to the game, it was the beginning of the second half. As if on cue, UVM went on a run and gained a 30-27 lead. First, Taylor scored an old-fashioned three-pointer on a reverse layup and foul shot. Then T.J. and Germain each made a contested NBA three-pointer from the wing and the fans, who it seemed were mostly rooting for Vermont by then, rose to their feet and cheered.

Unfortunately, CBS switched the game and when it returned at the 6:24 mark, UVM led 38-36. Because Vermont had slowed down the game, I knew it would likely remain close and low-scoring. And as if on cue again, T.J. made a NBA three-pointer and a minute later Germain stole the ball and was alone on a fastbreak. I thought to myself, just make the dunk Germain, just make it. Instead, he double-pumped in the air and slammed it with two hands. UVM led 45-41. I jumped up and down and yelled in the room by myself.

As time slipped under two minutes, Vermont trailed by two. But if there was a savior on that day, Mopa was his name. Germain split a double team at the top of the key and made a leaner to even the score. I thought, how did he make that?

Taylor’s jump shot and Warrick’s offensive foul on an elbow to Klimes’s face sent the game into overtime, even though Germain scored on a drive with 3.7 seconds left. Unfortunately his left foot was on the baseline. It wasn’t just an upset in the making, it was turning into an instant classic. My brother called me and said he couldn’t believe the score. “I told you Vermont’s a very good team,” I said. “I guess so,” he said.

Before the overtime, the cameraman zoomed in on the UVM huddle. Germain was smiling.

He had good reason to smile. Klimes made a 10-foot jumper for the first overtime points. But the two biggest shots were yet to come. With UVM down two, and two minutes left, Germain made a three-pointer on the wing. That shot erased my worry. On the next Vermont possession and still a 56-55 UVM advantage, Brennan was shouting at Sorrentine to “run red,” which would have him slice through the Orangeman zone and look for Coppenrath for a shot. But sometimes playing on instinct is best, which no one consistently epitomizes on the UVM team more than Sorrentine. So he shook his head no and said, “It’s okay, Coach. I got it.” There was just a little over a minute remaining. The shot clock was winding down. He took a few dribbles, bent at his knees five feet behind the NBA three-point line and let the ball go. Swish! I screamed with joy and was jumping around the small room again.

In the press conference, T.J. told reporters, “I knew it was good when it left my hand. I thought I had one more in me. I didn’t realize until I looked down how far out I was.” Lack of confidence is not in Sorrentine’s makeup. That’s why he told the Burlington Free Press, “Some guys packed for spring break and I told them that was a mistake.” T.J. wasn’t the only believer. Outside the team, I don’t think there is a bigger believer than Buzz, who changed his vacation to Florida with Peter to see his beloved Red Sox in spring training. His reason: It was Final Four weekend. After Sorrentine’s deep three-pointer swished through, Brennan raised both fists above his head. “When that went in, I thought I might burst,” Brennan told the Associated Press. “I thought you might find me in pieces around the arena because there’s no drug, nothing in the world that is that feeling. There’s nothing that can make you feel like that except competition and going through a lot with your guys, especially ones you love.”

Vermont did it. They beat Syracuse 60-57. Brennan pumped his fists toward the crowd as he left the court. Brennan was right. No drug or stimulus could do what he and his group of young men did.

“Growing up this was always a dream,” said Taylor during the post-game press conference. “And I’ve always said upsets can happen…. when it comes down to game time you have to go out and really do it.”

The win was incredible. T.J.’s shot was incredible. But it was Germain who elevated his game more than any player at that point in the tournament. He led the Cats in points (20), rebounds (9), assists (5) and steals (4). Thank God Brennan had lied, I thought, when Germain first visited Burlington on a hot, sunny day. “I lied,” Brennan once said about Germain’s recruiting visit. “I told him it never gets cold here. If he gets a job in North America, I’m going to get him the nicest topcoat.”

I wasn’t the only one who was glad Brennan had lied.

“I’m on cloud nine right now, as are all the other UVM fans,” Peter said on my voice mail. “We were dancing in the stands for half an hour ... UVM fans embracing other UVM fans. Syracuse fans were crying. I can’t believe we made another team’s fans cry. There are tears in our eyes too in a way.... Call me!”

I called Peter and relived the highlights. Then I watched ESPN that night over and over. At last, basketball fans across the nation could see and hear what UVM fans had been blessed with for years.

“With the magic of the tournament is a night just like tonight,” Brennan said. “And we’ll never forget it and I’ll never forget it. I just hope I don’t stay out too long that I get back here on Sunday, that’s my biggest concern now. Because this is going to be a big party for your boy tonight.”

Players and fans were talking about UVM advancing to the Sweet 16 and further. And why doubt Vermont? Oh, had things changed.

However, the beauty of the tournament, losing one game and going home, became Vermont’s demise that Sunday afternoon. Although T.J.’s huge heart and 26-point effort kept the Cats close, Michigan State was deep and talented. If the Cats had converted a few more shots the game might have been different, but it wasn’t their day. On the bright side, T.J. reached the 2,000-point plateau for his career. And as Brennan put it, “It ended badly, but not sadly.”

When I called Peter, he told me he saw Germain coming out of the locker room.

“Guess what Germain is doing?” Peter said.

“What?” I said.

“What he always does.”


“That’s right. He’s got a big smile as if they won and are going to the Sweet 16.

When I talked to Germain on the phone on Monday, he said he was tired, but he was studying for a religion exam he had to make up that afternoon. Would any other player who just had the game of his life and helped make school history by winning its first tournament game over a Big East power be studying when he got back? During spring break, nonetheless? Maybe only then. Maybe only in Burlington.

I was wrong. The Brennan era isn’t my social security because it would then require a dollar amount. The Brennan era is priceless.

Thank you, Brennan.


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