Friday, March 20, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Forget the outcome, but not the journey


GREENSBORO, N.C. -- This couldn't be the memory.

That's what drove Brad Greenberg the coach to become Brad Greenberg the psychologist here Thursday.

Repetition. It's the only way to get through to people at a time like this. Just keep saying it, saying it, saying it until they have no choice to believe it themselves.

So every timeout, the Radford coach would tell his players the same things. Be proud. Walk tall. This season's been amazing. Don't forget that. Fight. We worked six months to get here. Play. Have fun. Savor this.

Then Greenberg would release his players back onto the floor.

And his players would get their tails whipped for another four minutes.

Next timeout, same Greenberg routine. Preach positive message. Release stunned players. Watch tail whipping.

How often did he give the same speech as the deficit continued to climb? Five? Ten? Twenty?

"I said it a lot," Greenberg said. "Unfortunately, I had a lot of time to say it. Those timeouts were long."

This whole day was for Radford. Even if you missed the game, surely you saw the final: UNC 101, Highlanders 58. And the beatdown was every bit that decisive.

Battles you figured they'd lose -- transition game, bench play, speed -- they lost. Matchups where you thought they had a chance -- banging inside against UNC's post men, for example -- they had none.

The Tar Heels made President Obama's bracket seem prescient on this day. Those guys in blue looked fast, powerful and prepared.

They looked hell-bent on a national title.

But for Radford, this couldn't be the memory. The keeper snapshots of 2008-09 had to be something other than the ending, something outside of breakaway dunks and Carolina dominance.

And thanks to Greenberg, they did become something different. Immediately.

When it ended, Art Parakhouski -- the rugged post man who'd suffered through his most frustrating game of his career -- held his hands above his head and applauded the RU fans, soccer style.

And Amir Johnson, the little point guard who'd chased those Carolina speedsters to no avail, smiled and clapped about nothing in particular.

He said he'd already embraced the positives instead of the scoreboard.

"Definitely," Johnson said. "We're the Big South champs, and in my eyes, we're champs no matter what. ... Our fans came down and supported us, and I'm happy for that. I'm a champ no matter what. We get rings, and I'm happy for the whole season we had."

Some might think this sounds Pollyanish after such a thrashing, a little too much like kindergarten gold stars and smiley faces. But those people need get off the Internet message boards, step away from the computer and think about what sports really are. Success is relative. Moments are relative. Memories are relative.

Greenberg made sure this team has great ones. And two years ago, when he took this job, such a notion would have seemed laughable. This program was a wreck. The record stunk. Many of the holdover players from the previous coaching staff felt abandoned.

And this is the guy who turned it around? A guy in his 50s who'd never been a head coach? A guy best known around here as another guy's brother?

Yes. Greenberg got these players -- almost all of whom weren't recruited by him -- to a place RU hadn't been in 11 years. He returned a buzz to campus. He raised RU's profile in college basketball circles, got the attention of coaches who'd never even thought about the small school in Southwest Virginia.

Case in point: UNC coach Roy Williams. He remembers the day he saw Radford had won the Big South tournament and made the NCAAs.

His first reaction? That's great.

"The reason I had that reaction is because of Brad Greenberg," Williams said. "It wasn't because I love Radford, the university or the colors or anything. It's just because I really like the guy. He's a lifer. He's a coaches' coach."

And a players' one. Greenberg proved that this season on no uncertain terms. When the Highlanders started the season slow, Greenberg motivated. When a top scorer acted up midyear, Greenberg moved decisively to protect the best interests of the team. When the Highlanders lost badly to a solid VMI squad, falling out of first place, Greenberg prepared them to beat the Keydets -- twice.

And on Thursday, a brutal day, he might have done his best job yet.

"He keeps your mind on the positives," RU guard Kenny Thomas said. "I don't know how much we lost by today, but he had only positive things to say."

Especially to Thomas. Although much of this team returns next year, Thomas is a senior. Greenberg could sense that his captain was frustrated, that Thomas was crushed to see it ending this way, so he acted. And Thomas noticed.

"He's an awesome guy," Thomas said of his coach. "And one of the best moments I remember is this past one when we lost. He gave me a hug and said I had a great career."

Now this can be the memory. As it should be.

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