A new basketball bond

This has been a winter of content for those of us who bleed IU cream and crimson. Our Hoosier men’s basketball team, currently 18-2 and ranked No. 3 in the nation, will take on archrival Purdue this evening before gearing up for a big ESPN College GameDay showdown here in Btown with No. 1 Michigan Saturday night at what promises to be a packed, loud and lively Assembly Hall.

A couple of Sundays ago, I found myself in a far less raucous—but no less spirited—Assembly Hall for a game between IU’s women’s team and the Spartans of Michigan State. I was accompanied by my son and daughter (ages 10 and 5, respectively), who chose seats just a few feet from famed Branch McCracken Court in the foldout bleachers across from the team benches. As many times as I’ve been to Assembly Hall, I’d never sat that close and had such a fantastic vantage point of the court, the pep band and cheerleaders, the crowd and, of course, the championship banners.

My son and daughter enjoy a sweet refreshment while watching the IU women's basketball team at Assembly Hall.

My son and daughter enjoy a sweet treat while watching the IU women’s basketball team at Assembly Hall.

Our closeness to the action also gave me a live glimpse of first-year IU head coach Curt Miller, who hopes to bring to Bloomington the type of success he had while serving as head coach at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he amassed an impressive 258-92 (.737) record. If he fails, I’m pretty sure it won’t be for a lack of passion and enthusiasm. Throughout the game, Miller stomped the sidelines, shouted instruction and encouragement, and attempted to will his team to compete with one of the top teams in the Big 10. His Hoosiers responded, in turn, with a strong overall effort. Despite losing 56-46, IU outscored Michigan State in the second half, 31-27, and shot over 57 percent (12-of-21) from the field in the game’s final 20 minutes.

When the game was over, Coach Miller and his players remained on the court, first to sing IU’s official alma mater song, “Hail to Old IU,” and then to meet and greet fans, who were allowed onto the court to get pictures and autographs. And while they might’ve preferred, after a hard-fought game, to retreat to the solace of the locker room, the coach and his squad patiently accommodated everyone’s requests, smiling for photos and graciously signing balls, posters, ticket stubs, T-shirts, jerseys and more.

As my daughter waited in line to meet Coach Miller, who happily chatted with kids and their parents while wielding his Sharpie pen, my mind traveled back to another time in my life—when I was a college student and aspiring sports writer at the University of Connecticut. Back in the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of covering the UConn women’s basketball team and its enthusiastic young coach Geno Auriemma, who was happy to share with anyone who would listen his vision to make UConn one of the nation’s top women’s basketball programs. Back then, when I could just stroll into Auriemma’s office for a quick interview, that vision seemed somewhat of a long shot. And yet, Auriemma pursued it doggedly, seeking players who shared his determination and building a strong bond with the local community, which supported the team through its early development, including a few lean years, and eventually was rewarded with a remarkable seven NCAA championships.

While I’m not suggesting that level of success, I can safely report that Coach Miller and his players are building a truly special bond with the Btown community. And they appear to be eagerly embracing their role-model status for the many children who attend their games. Indeed, several days prior to the Michigan State game, Miller’s team lead an open clinic for about 750 area youth, who received instruction from the players, tickets to that day’s game, opportunities for autographs and other goodies.

Coach Miller has also taken to growing this local bond through social media, including Twitter, where he has displayed a quick wit and humorous take on his team’s growing pains. (Sample tweet: “Authorities just informed me of a missing peoples report filed today…ON OUR OFFENSE…I told them I will try and find it at Cook Hall today.”)

For those of us who love Hoosier hoops, it will be fun to see the bond between Coach Miller and his squad and the Btown community continue to grow. Personally speaking, I know I plan to be there for more ‘gamedays,’ with or without ESPN, in the future.

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