Friday, December 3, 2010

The time I almost played on the same court as Magic

For the next issue of the Saint John's alumni magazine - which is undoubtedly the best alumni magazine for any school called Saint John's, no matter what the New York City propagandists would have you believe - I have a story on some Johnnie grads who work in pro sports. One of the people profiled is Bryant Pfeiffer, who is the VP of Club Services for Major League Soccer and a 1994 SJU grad.

When Pfeiffer was still in school, he helped organize the first Johnnie-Tommie 3-on-3 basketball tournament, an event that continues to this day. Saint John's and the school's hated, despised, loathed, pitied rival, St. Thomas, each hold a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the spring. The winning team from the Johnnies' tournament later faces off against the victor from the Tommies' tournament on the Target Center floor, following a Timberwolves games. It's a very cool event, as regular folks get to play on the same court where, just moments earlier, the Timberwolves squandered a late lead.

In 1996, I played in the tourney with teammates from my championship-winning intramural squad. We had a solid lineup, which included a guard who could hit with ease from 25 feet, a tenacious point guard, a small forward who was a star high jumper in high school and possessed a wicked baseline jumper, and a dominating center who moonlighted as an All-American defensive end on the Saint John's football team. We made it all the way to the finals. Along the way we defeated some Johnnie grads - the tournament wasn't limited to current students - and some other quality teams. One victory from Target Center. Our run ended there. We lost in the finals and if I remember correctly, I think I blamed some shoddy reffing for the defeat.

Still, we had tickets to the Timberwolves game a few weeks later and they happened to be playing the Lakers. I've mentioned this game before, as it was one of only two times I saw Magic Johnson play live - the other was during an exhibition game in 1984 - and it was one of his last good games. Magic had 11 assists in the game. He'd only play one more game where he had more - a playoff game against Houston, in a game the Lakers lost, in a series that ended his career, this time for good. Two days after this Lakers victory over the Wolves, Magic bumped a ref, perhaps the most startling move of his career that didn't involve his talk show. So I saw him dish out 11 assists. All of those assists he piled up in his career and I was able to see the one of the final games where he showed why he was the best point guard ever.

After the game, all of the people from Saint John's and St. Thomas sat courtside as the Johnnie champion faced the Tommie champion in a 3-on-3 showdown. I don't remember who won that contest, and my bitterness over our loss in the finals kept me from fully supporting the SJU representative. That doesn't mean I cheered for the Tommies' squad. No, I probably just sat there passively, like a celebrity at the front row of a Lakers game attending his first basketball game. I was surely the biggest Magic fan there that night (if someone else was there who can say they cried the night the Lakers lost the 1983 title, my apologies for my hyperbole). It should have been me out on the court, taking up space on the same court where, moments earlier, Magic put on a show. I would have thrown some no-look passes, taken some set-shots and added a junior, junior hook. Alas.

Finally someone put some video from that game on YouTube. The Wolves-Lakers game, not the 3-on-3 one.

This was quite a Timberwolves squad. Garnett was a rookie, all arms and legs but already playing with the intensity he trademarked before losing his sanity when he joined the Celtics and became a caricature. Gugliotta, JR Rider and Spud Webb joined The Kid.

The best Magic passes come at 3:40, 4:05, 8:20, and 11:05 (even though Eddie Jones blows the layup). Still, this certainly wasn't the same Magic I grew up watching. His weight was up, his quickness down. Yet he still controlled the game, though this time from the post instead of on the break.

That's the only year I played in the Johnnie-Tommie tournament. Maybe we can get our old squad back together someday. I'm fairly certain we could handle many of the teams we'd face. None of us really had any quickness to lose, so age shouldn't affect that. Our big guy can control the middle, our leaper probably can't even touch the net now but should still be able to hit a baseline shot and I can keep casting away on 3s while playing token defense. Still, it wouldn't be the same. In 1996, I would have played on the same court as Magic. In 2010? I'd share a court with Darko.

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