Our Uber driver stopped in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue, got out of his car, and proceeded to start shouting at another driver in a minivan who was clearly not happy with his sudden merge. My friend and I looked at each other, asked the Uber driver if he needed us, and ascertaining that he did not, decided to hoof it the remaining mile to Case Gym. It was hardly an auspicious start.
My entire trip out to Boston, however, had been one flashing neon "Don't do it!" sign. Two flights out of Milwaukee canceled on Thursday morning before I finally got booked through Detroit. Not being able to make it to Providence to do research on the John Birch Society as a result. Nearly getting stranded on the D line late one night. It was practically some cosmic warning that trying to excise these demons, experience the soothing rhythm of the Princeton Offense one last time could only end in pain for all those involved.
In March 2015 Holy Cross fired Milan Brown after a 56-67 (32-28) stint over five years in Worcester. Not two weeks later, they replaced him with former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, who had spent a year and a half enjoying retirement before taking an advisory role with the Fairfield Stags. I met this news with great excitement.
There's an odd reverence for Carmody among a not-insignificant subset of Northwestern fans. InsideNU's Ben Goren captured a good deal of that when he wrote about watching a matchup between Carmody's Holy Cross outfit and Noted Scourge of Northwestern Ed DeChellis' Navy Midshipmen. It crosses the line from self-loathing into pure nostalgia:
The script had already been written. Through the 432p connection of PatriotLeague.tv, I could see the fans begin to realize the same thing. Every midshipmen penetration, every corner three against the 1-3-1, every Holy Cross forced three over the zone made the inevitability of the upcoming defeat all the more clear. I had seen it too many times to count. And then, all of a sudden, the script was flipped. It was Bill Carmody making the right moves down the stretch. It was Ed DeChellis's players who couldn't hit a foul shot. The game went to overtime, and Holy Cross started getting offensive rebounds, 3 in one possession. And then it was over. Holy Cross had won.
And it was so much damn fun to watch. This was my rivalry. A terrible one, perhaps, but it was mine. There will always be a soft spot for admittedly bad, but more importantly familiar, basketball.
Let's be clear: Boston's Case Gym is a glorified high school gymnasium. There are stands on the two sides of the court, no seats behind the baskets (only doors), and the atmosphere is...stale, to say the least. But it's Senior Day for the Terriers, and it's not in the cards for the Crusaders that day.
Since we'd gotten to Case Gym ("The Roof!") late, we figured we'd have to get some nosebleed seats way up behind the Holy Cross bench. Imagine, then, our surprise when the ticket counter (think of your high school auditorium's ticket window and divide it by two) told us the tickets were General Admission and the seats were first come, first serve. That, naturally, led to this:
And for the 10 minutes we were in those seats until a man told us that they had tickets for those seats and we decided it wasn't worth it, we were treated to Peak Carmody. Aspiring blogger that I am, I tried to take notes on the game:
13:32 - SIT BACK CROSS LEGS
12:48 (19-7): another missed defensive rotation produces an easy BU layup and induces Carmody to burn his second TO of the half.
3:51 [like I said, "tried"] (28-21): a few weaknesses in the BU 2-3 zone have begun to produce their share of looks, both in the low corner and off the cutter. Kraken has not yet been released.
1:15 (30-27): a couple defensive stops and a nice drive by Robert Champion get the Crusaders a pair of FTs to potentially make it 30-28 with a minute to go, but only converting one of the pair means Holy Cross trails by just three. A turnover, airballed floater, and questionable handcheck foul ensure that Carmody stalks off the court with rage at the end of the half, down 34-27.
I'm sure there's a reason I'm not a journalist. Those are all the notes I took. I was all too familiar with the pain and frustration of watching a team that you just knew was going to lose, making the rest of the game an academic exercise in futility. BU had a center that was carving up Holy Cross' 6'11" beanpole Matt Husek, just like Jared Sullinger and Jared Berggeren and JaJuan Johnson carved up Davide Curletti and Kyle Rowley and my favorite, Luka Mirkovic. The more athletic Terriers guards ran circles around Holy Cross' inefficient matchup zone and man defense. On offense, Robert Champion, like so many of the Great White Hope wings Carmody had at Northwestern, chucked and slashed and threw up prayer after prayer that sometimes would drop, but more often would rattle around, leaving a defensive rebound for Boston to clean up - because of course a Bill Carmody-coached team isn't going to contest the offensive glass.
Instead, Greg and I shifted to talking about what constituted a "successful" trip to watch Carmody coach in person one more time. We'd gone over it at brunch, but nothing positive was happening and it bore repeating:
- Failure: Not get close enough to the court to have any substantive enjoyment of all the Carmody tics [the crossing legs, the angry gesturing, the "make shots!" exhortations].
- Mild success: Get him to acknowledge our presence while doing his postgame radio show or walking off the court.
- Rousing success: Get a wave or some gesture indicating that he realized we were Northwestern fans there to watch him.
- Cut-off-my-hand-and-preserve-it-in-amber success: Meet Bill Carmody.
Midway through the second half, it finally happened: Nearing the under-8 media timeout, his club floundering at about 10 points down, failing to establish any momentum, Carmody rose from his seat, indicating to the team during a dead-ball moment that they'd be changing something up. Greg and I exchanged a brief, excited look -- could it be? Would the Kraken be released?
And, true to form, it was everything we remembered from the Carmody Era.
Only it was the bad part of the Carmody Era. [Turn your head sideways; I have no clue why my phone did it that way.]
An offensive rebound allowed. A corner-pocket three. A missed Holy Cross jumper on the other end. Another corner-pocket three.
End of Kraken. End of game.
Before we knew it, the scrubs were off the bench. Something called John Papale -- a scrappy, lunchpail senior, as the backstory we invented went before we learned that he went to Choate -- had torched the Crusaders with three after layup after three, stymieing any hope of a Holy Cross run, and now we watched as a group of five who could just as easily have been the Northwestern student managers stepped out onto the court. This was over.
83-68, Boston. Less important part of the day over. Time to find Bill.
Locating where the Holy Cross radio stand was (across the gym), we began to plot if there was any way we could get from our side of the stands, out through what would be a packed concourse, to the other side of the gym. That wasn't going to happen - the entire crowd had to exit through the three doors along the baseline on either side of the gym.
Cutting across the rows of seats to get around the crowd which was seemingly moving nowhere, we saw our target pick up his headset and begin the interview. Our hope began to fade -- this would be a failure.
Indeed, as we nudged our way through the concourse, past the two concession stand windows and fighting the current of mildly-amused Boston fans, we entered the other side of the gym, only to see him put down his headset, walk toward the baseline basket, quite a distance from us. We realized we had to go for it:
He looked up, cocked his head a little, obviously confused. Seeing the purple -- and likely not the N-cat plastered across my chest -- he waved.
Then he looked up again. He had noticed the N-cat, and apparently processed or realized that we weren't just Holy Cross fans.
Carmody threw up the peace-sign wave.
Stopping to greet a couple elderly fans with court access, he walked off. It was all we needed. High-fiving, Greg and I turned and headed to the concourse.
Then we realized it: The coaches, players, staff, everyone had to walk through the concourse to get to the locker rooms, because this is the Patriot League and of course there's little to no security.
And there he was. Patiently fighting the crowds, looking as if he would kill to just melt away, was Bill Carmody. We approached.
He realized it was us again, and a smirk crossed his face if just briefly. "Hey guys." He extended his hand. We both shook it.
I'm sure we sounded like idiots, thanking him for everything he'd done at Northwestern and wishing him the best, but he flattered us with his attention, giving the trite yet biting Carmody postgame response of something to the effect of "Well, we can't shoot, we can't win." Then he stopped. "Can either of you guys make a shot?"
I about shit my pants. There he was, the coach who scowled and stomped and stalked the Northwestern sidelines for 13 years, screaming at John Shurna and Juice Thompson and Jitim Young to "Make shots, damnit," asking us if we could. I panicked. "We learned it from you, Coach."
An assistant appeared at the doorway, and one more time we got the sad Bill Carmody smile, wave, and departure.
Suddenly, I'm in the office watching Holy Cross jump out to a double-digit lead against Lehigh in the Patriot League Championship. I'd followed the Crusaders' Cinderella run to the finals as they won at Loyola, then top-seeded Bucknell, then Army West Point, bemusedly commenting with the like-minded folks at InsideNU. Whole articles turned into Holy Cross game-threads.
Just like that, the second-half lead was slipping away. Lehigh was getting the ball inside and breaking down the 1-3-1 which, for the entire first half, had thwarted the Mountain Hawks. Holy Cross wasn't as crisp off the ball, and the Crusaders bricked free throw after free throw, allowed offensive rebound on offensive rebound.
It was every nightmare we Northwestern fans had known, relived over and over again. Leading Ohio State in the second half, only for Jared Sullinger to shoot a bajillion free throws. Leading Minnesota by 7 at the under-4, only for the ‘Cats to collapse in Indy, their bubble burst. We knew how this would end.
And then it didn't. Malachi Alexander dropped 25, playing out of his gourd. Timely defensive stops. A turnover forced by the 1-3-1! This was everything Bill Carmody's teams had the potential to be, and they needed one more frantic possession, up just three with :17 to play, to hold off the Lehigh rally.
A missed three. Offensive rebound. Here we go again.
A missed three. Another offensive rebound?! Christ, Bill, you're trying to kill us, aren't you?
A missed three. A third offensive rebound. Oh my God, this is how it ends. I'm so sorry, Holy Cross fans.
A missed three. Finally, that elusive defensive rebound.
Ballgame. Holy Cross wins, 59-56. Bill Carmody is going dancing once more.
Holy Cross plays Southern University tonight at 5:40pm on truTV, and I will be glued to my TV the entire time. Is it a crazy obsession? Probably. Will the Crusaders lose to a more athletic, more successful Jaguars squad? Probably. But can I think of a coach I want to watch succeed more in this NCAA Tournament? Not a chance.
Any way you look at it, since shaking my hand, Bill Carmody is 4-0. His club has secured four consecutive road upsets and tonight boards the bus to see if they've got one more little bit of magic.
They don't need any, though. All they need to do is make shots.