Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Warner shows Radford his moves

RADFORD -- Clearly, the senator missed his gun-toting entourage.

Oh, those guys were great. When Mark Warner was governor of Virginia, they'd travel with him everywhere, including the pickup basketball games he'd play around the state.

"Nobody would block my shots because they thought the security guys might go after them," Warner said with a smile. "Now I've got none of that protection."

On Tuesday at Radford University's Dedmon Center, it showed early. Warner blew layups. He bricked jumpers. He airballed a jump hook.

But the 54-year-old U.S. senator maintained his good humor throughout the 20-minute scrimmage with members of the RU men's basketball team.

"I may not be fast," a sweaty Warner said when it was over. "I may not know how to jump that well. But I've got sharp elbows and a big butt and I know how to set a mean screen."

That last part's true. Just ask Kenny Thomas, the RU guard who might have a few bruises this morning.

"He was real competitive," Thomas said, shaking his head. "He kind of stuck me on one of those screens. I didn't appreciate that too much."

Warner spoke to a class at RU on Tuesday before arriving at the Dedmon Center court for a little down time. He was greeted by a few hundred students and a bit of a surprise.

"I've played with a lot of the teams around the state," said Warner, whose highest level of organized hoops was intramural ball as an undergraduate at George Washington University. "And when I asked if I could play at Radford, I thought maybe I'd get some old coaches or some faculty or something. I didn't know I would be playing with an NCAA tournament team."

Warner -- decked out in Roanoke College shorts, a white RU T-shirt and loaner sneakers -- actually showed a few nifty moves at the end of the five-on-five scrimmage. He rattled in a 6-foot turnaround jumper for his first basket, prompting a cheer from the crowd. Then he forced his way inside and scored over 6-foot-1 guard Cole Wilder, a former George Wythe standout.

He also grabbed a rebound, I think. ... Or maybe the rebound just found him.

"Normally I'm a bit of a trash talker," Warner said. "But one, they were too big. And two, I didn't have the guts to do trash-talking today. I still play some, but I'm used to playing where I'm one of the taller guys. So my instinct would be when the ball goes up to try to crash the boards. Suddenly, I'm running into a 6-foot-10 wide body. Maybe not such a good idea.

"But they were really kind to me. The guy that was guarding me from Wytheville, I'm not sure he put the big D on me."

Warner attributed his slow start to the two hot dogs he had for lunch. He also mentioned age as a factor.

But even without the threat of gunfire, the RU players showed respect. Late in the scrimmage, when Warner posted up Thomas, the senator appeared to get an easier-than-expected path to the basket, scoring off the glass with the right hand.

"I felt a little sympathy, you know?" Thomas said, laughing. "I had to let him go. I'm a good player, so I wasn't going to let him get it too easy. I made him do a little step-through. He capitalized."

Coach Brad Greenberg gave the next-shot-wins warning when it looked like Warner was getting tired. The red team -- Warner played for the white squad -- scored, and that was that.

But Warner took some fond memories from the event. When I asked him what he thought the highlight of the game was for him, he did not hesitate.

"Come out here and I can show it," he said, inviting me to stand so he could pantomime the play. "There were three 6-foot-10 guys around me. All over me. I faked right and then kind of moved up and twirled around and laid it in.

"There were two jock straps left on the floor from the fake out that I made."

That, my friends, is a politician.

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