In Minnesota, Basketball Makes the Woe Be Gone


Three of the teams - Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arizona - are barons of college basketball. Give them coats of arms. Drive them in royal broughams into the NCAA Final Four tournament in Indianapolis Saturday.

And what does Minnesota ride into Indy? How about a John Deere cornpicker? Maybe a snorting ore-hauler from Minnesota's iron range up north?

Neither one would damage the feelings of the suddenly aroused basketball multitudes in Minnesota, who don't need glamour in their athletic heroes. If they did, Kirby Puckett, Bud Grant, and Kent Hrbek were impostors. Puckett was the broad-rumped gnome whose bat and acrobatic catches took the Twins to two World Series championships. Grant was the Viking football coach whose impassive stone face getting pelted by snowflakes on the sidelines confirmed for millions of TV watchers the enduring image of Minnesota stoicism. Hrbek was Puckett's accomplice, a first baseman who looked like a bartender, a spiked-shoe version of the state's folk hero, Paul Bunyan.

But this is basketball, and before you watch Kentucky vs. Minnesota in the Final Four Saturday night, you should know this about the folks back home: The alleged dead-pan stolidity of 4-1/2 million glacier dwellers has been shredded by a basketball team that has put the Minnesota natives on the edge of euphoria.

When you talk Minnesota and euphoria, you talk cautiously. Until major league athletics arrived in the state in midcentury, one of the most popular spectator sports was watching the ice melt on Lake Nokomis. It seemed suited to the modest threshold of exuberance among the Scandinavian thousands. Euphoria, the kind that burst on the state with the basketball team's first-ever surge to the Final Four, normally creeps into the subarctic glands warily. Although this is a dominion of superior education and prosperity, most Minnesota folk are absorbed for six months with snow shovels and runny noses, conditions tough on euphoria.

ut 17,000 people stuffed their way into the home of the Golden Gophers, Williams Arena, to scream their appreciation for the team's triumphal arrival from the regionals in San Antonio. Another 10,000 circled futilely in their cars, hoping to feel the tremors of the rolling quakes inside. You might need to know that these were not exactly country rubes and jock geeks getting their first rush of glory. Thousands of them were upscale suburbanites who haven't had an excuse to behave that way since the new half-billion-dollar urban freeway cut their drive time to Minneapolis by three minutes.

There was another, subliminal reason. The University of Minnesota has been the people's college for more than a century. Its classrooms and research centers, internationally prestigious for many years, have nurtured every citizen in the state. But a few years ago the big school went into a slump. The medical school took a succession of blows from charges of legal and ethics violations. The chief of surgery was acquitted, but morale plunged. The board of regents then got into a mess in a dispute over tenure for professors. The school's football team has been in the tank for 25 years. Nothing was happening at the Old Main on the Mississippi to make the alums very proud.

So here came Clem Haskins and the basketball team. Like most perceptive colleges in America trying to make it in athletics, Minnesota has been aggressively recruiting African-Americans for its basketball team for years. Until Haskins arrived, nobody had thought seriously about recruiting one to coach it. After a couple of years of trauma with mediocre teams, Haskins hit his stride, his teams got competitive, and he became familiar on radio and TV with his amiable mush-mouthed delivery and his habit of mourning the lack of immortals in the Minnesota lineup. But it all changed before this season. Haskins shocked the natives and his coaching peers by describing his team as a candidate for the national title. He had T-shirts made up for the players with brazen goals: (1) 20 wins. (2) Big 10 title. (3) On to the NCAA.

On the prairies, on the suburban freeways, the natives gulped. But Haskins delivered. He led a crusade. Play for the team, he demanded, or don't play. He moved players on and off the floor like a shell game impresario. A guy would score 15 points in 18 minutes and come out. The natives looked bewildered. But Minnesota won. This, Haskins said, is the way.

It was. His team is a clan of muscular and athletic bodies, wide and high, interchangeable all night. His players are smart and coachable and give you a scoring guard, Bobby Jackson, who was unknown before the tournaments but has outshown everybody with his pressure scoring and instincts for the ball. His team is disciplined, bangs the boards, plays furious and controlled defense, and doesn't rattle. And the natives are stoically going nuts. It has been the State Fair, Aquatennial, and Winter Carnival in Minnesota - Mardi Gras on the prairie.

It may not be the hysteria of Boston or Philadelphia when they're going good, but it's cornfed, sure-enough hysteria. The fans' arena, which they cheerfully call The Barn, is one of those thundering fortresses of bedlam, the kind now sadly being replaced by domes for the tournaments. It snowed again here this week, but nobody talked about the weather and almost nobody shoveled. They hung up signs, "Go Go Gophers," with the footnote, "You Betcha." So if you're neutral and need a team this weekend, Minnesota may be the one. It's the team that will probably show up in a cornpicker.

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