By Lenn Robbins
Davidson coach Bob McKillop, a Queens native, the son of a NYC firefighter captain and a lifelong coaching genius, thought he could never see a hoops scenario that left him so devastated he could barely speak. Then came the 59-58 loss to Marquette in a 2013 NCAA Tournament
The Wildcats, a No. 14 seed, were up seven with less than two minutes to play. In those final 120 seconds No.3 Marquette made three, 3’s, and Vander Blue drove for the winning layup with a second left. School’s such Davidson don’t get these chances often. Upset bid over. NCAA Tournament over.
In the tunnel outside the Davidson locker room, a shaken McKillop looked me in the eyes and whispered, “Geez, Lenn.” That was it, “Geez, Lenn.” He could say no more. Five minutes later a composed McKillop complimented Marquette on its comeback and spoke glowingly about his players, their effort, and blessing of playing in the tournament.
That was the moment I realized what a special man, forget coach, I was working with.
That memory came flooding back when Steve Pikiell, the Rutgers coach whose team had just suffered a gut-retching, 63-60 loss to Houston Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament, took to the podium to address the loss.
“But before I start, I just want to send my condolences, Coach Boylan, our beloved radio guy, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, traveled with us for the last five years, was the voice of Rutgers basketball, passed away today,” said Pikiell. “He will just be really missed.
“One of the greatest people that I’ve been around. A real just special person. I’m really sorry for his family, the loss. He’s a loss for everyone. He was a legend at Rutgers. He was just a special person. I know he’s in heaven. He’s that kind of guy.”
That was the moment it reaffirmed my belief what a special man, forget coach, Rutgers has.
Full disclosure, I’m a Stony Brook grad, the man who took The Brook to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. We would chat at the Metropolitan College Basketball Writers Association luncheons. Pikiell became the head coach at Rutgers, where I’m an adjunct professor. We trade the occasional text so you can play the bias card now if you’d like.
But consider the moment. The Scarlet Knights, a No.10 seed, led No.2 Houston by nine with under five minutes to go. The Cougars, as tough a team as you’ll see in this tournament, rallied to take a three-point lead. Rutgers had a chance, a great chance to force OT but Ron Harper Jr.’s 3 bounced off the rim and the Scarlet Knights were bounced from the tournament.
Pretty gut-retching, right? But not as heart-breaking as this: Before tipoff, Pikiell had been informed that Joe Boylan, the forever voice of Rutgers basketball, had succumbed to a stroke he suffered Wednesday. Pikiell made the only decision. He did not tell his players. They deserved to play without the shadow of death on the back of their jersey. He told them after the game.
Sudden death met death in the Rutgers locker room.
“Coach Boylan, me personally, he has been my biggest supporter since I first have been on campus,” said senior guard Geo Baker. “Just always talking, always calling me, not even talking about basketball, asking me about how my family is, how my mom is, how I’m doing. Just so much more than just basketball.
“To hear that, too, it only added to the emotion in the locker room. Just a really tough day overall.”
It was the toughest of days for Rutgers, two days after its finest day, upsetting Clemson in the first round for its first tournament win in 38 years. Now they had lost their shot at One Shining Moment and the voice they hear in the heart.
Pikiell had it right. Baker had it right. They went 15-18 overall and 3-15 in the Big Ten in 2017-18, They built this program, loss by loss, win by win, through COVID, through death. This loss will hurt, maybe forever. But that’s not what should be remembered. How Pikiell and Co. handled the aftermath, the class, the dignity…
“I do love all my players,” said Pikiell. “I am very thankful to be coach here. This university is great. They started the standard now for what we want to be as a program, not just on the court, but off the court, academically.
“We need this group to be remembered for a long time, again, be the standard for where we want to go every year.”
How can anyone ever forget.