When Steve Henson arrives at the Alamodome on Saturday for the NCAA men’s Final Four, memories will dance, emotions will stir.
Two years ago, Henson stood in awe of the crowd at NRG Stadium in Houston, 75,505 strong. The sound of the national anthem, the sight of Hall of Fame basketball coaches – all of it moved him.
Then an assistant coach under Lon Kruger at Oklahoma, Henson entered and exited his first Final Four memorably.
On April 1, 2016, the day before OU’s semifinal game, Henson was named the new head basketball coach at the University of Texas at San Antonio. On April 2, the Sooners fell to Villanova, 95-51, the most lopsided loss in Final Four history. In a span of 48 hours, Henson swung from elation to devastation to joyful anticipation.
“The opportunity to go to a Final Four was a thrill, a dream come true,” Henson said. “To come up short of winning the national championship was heartbreaking. But I was excited about getting to work at UTSA. It was a whirlwind of a week. Surreal.”
As the host coach of the 2018 Final Four’s host school, Henson knows how coaches and players from Kansas, Michigan, Villanova, and Loyola-Chicago will feel before tip off. The roar of the crowd – expected to be 69,228 – and the magic of the moment, will lift and electrify.
“It’s going to be really exciting,” said Henson, the 2018 Conference USA Coach of the Year.
The three greatest players in San Antonio Spurs history – Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and George Gervin – never played in an NCAA Division I Final Four game. Spurs guard Danny Green played in three.
Every March, the NCAA tournament transports Green back to the heartbreak of 2008, to the hallelujah of 2009, to a childhood watching the madness and cheering for North Carolina.
Shooting hoops in the driveway of his home in North Babylon, N.Y., Green pretended to be a Tar Heel. He had no choice. Five years before he was born, his father, Danny Green Sr. rooted for the celebrated North Carolina team of 1982, the national championship team that featured Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins.
The father, an assistant high school girls basketball coach, taught the son to dream about Carolina Blue. The boy complied and imagined cutting down a championship net. The father swelled with pride when North Carolina recruited his son in 2005. The son reeled in shock when police arrested his father – and more than a dozen others – in connection with a reported $40 million cocaine bust in 2006.
Danny Green Sr. pleaded not guilty, insisting his involvement was a case of mistaken identity. He went to prison, then accepted – reluctantly – a deal offered in 2007: one to three years in exchange for a guilty plea to a conspiracy charge. In January 2008, he was out on parole. In March, his son and the Tar Heels reached the Final Four at the Alamodome.
“We got beat up pretty good in San Antonio,” the Spurs guard said, recalling the 84-66 loss to Kansas in the semifinals. “It was very disappointing.”
The Final Four is a difficult dance, a whirl of emotion, a spin of extremes. In 1988, Sean Elliott, the former Spur, led Arizona to its first Final Four in history with a victory over North Carolina in the Elite Eight. “That was one of the great feelings I’ve had in my career,” said Elliott, recently selected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Elliott expected to win a national title. Instead, Arizona fell to Oklahoma in the semifinals, 86-78. “We were in shock,” said Elliott, who scored 31 points in defeat. “I’ve never been around a team so disappointed. To this day, that loss still hurts.”
Spurs guard Bryn Forbes understands the madness. In 2015, Forbes and his Michigan State teammates upset Louisville in an overtime thriller, 76-70, to reach the Final Four.
“It was unbelievable,” said Forbes, who scored 14 points against the fourth-seeded Cardinals. “There was so much excitement and joy. We were the underdog, the seventh seed. We weren’t even supposed to make it out of the round of 32. It was crazy. I will never forget that feeling.”
He won’t forget what happened next, either. The Spartans fell to eventual champion Duke, 81-61, in the semifinals. In 19 minutes off the bench, Forbes grabbed one rebound and missed all four of his field goal attempts.
Forbes and Elliott never got back to the Final Four. Danny Green did. In 2009, North Carolina swept through the NCAA tournament to reach Ford Field in Detroit. Before a then-record Final Four crowd of 72,456, which included the elder Green, the Tar Heels dispatched Villanova, 83-69, to reach the championship game against Michigan State.
Danny Green Sr. watched his son foul out with six points and a pulled stomach muscle, the only glitch of the game for North Carolina. When the final buzzer sounded after a 17-point victory, the Tar Heels leaped and the son went looking for his father. In the din, young Danny heard a familiar voice, and when their eyes met, all those long ago dreams crystallized into One Shining Moment.
How often does a kid grow up to play for the team he fantasized about under a driveway hoop? How often does that same kid reach the Final Four with that same team and cut down a net? Then embrace the father who taught him the game, went to prison, and got out in time to see the celebration?
The Spurs guard shakes his head, searching for words. “I’m just really blessed,” Green said.
Green’s Tar Heels, the defending national champions, got bounced from the NCAA tournament two weeks ago. Which team will succeed North Carolina? The Alamodome will be filled with dunkers and dreamers. Four teams. Three games. One champion. Let the memories fly.