SETTING: The Larry O. Finch Center, U of M campus. Late evening. A dimly lit court, silent but for the rhythmic collision of basketball to hardwood . . . and the slap of ball meeting twine. A REPORTER enters, stage right, and proceeds to baseline, underneath basket where a Tiger player -- wearing his number-2 practice jersey -- works on his free throws.
REPORTER: Hey, Dajuan. I thought two-time conference scoring champions were allowed to skip free-throw drills after practice.
WAGNER: Never too many free throws, baby. Im going to the line this year, you wait and see. Like never before. This team came so close last year . . . no way will a foul shot get between me and that trophy.
REPORTER: You gotta be excited about the scoring record, no? Less than 100 points -- so, say, four games at the most -- and you move ahead of Keith Lee in the Tiger record book. Thatll be worth a party.
WAGNER: You know, I havent thought about the scoring record as much as my dad has. Hes fifth alltime at Louisville, so to have a chance at the record here in Memphis -- Louisvilles biggest rival -- thats kinda special to both of us. But lets be realistic . . . theres no way I have the points I do if it werent for Coach Cal pushing this offense, and for all those passes Antonio delivered.
REPORTER: How much will Mr. Burks be missed?
WAGNER: Not much . . . well be sharing the same building! [laughs . . . and misses first free throw since reporter entered] Nah, seriously . . . Antonio was the engine. Were all happy that he wound up with the Grizzlies. But you know, Darius Washington can ball, man. And with the experience we have on this team, I think well be all right.
[Enter from weight room, stage left, AMARE STOUDEMIRE.]
REPORTER: What is this, BMOC night at the Finch Center?
[Stoudemire slings sweat-soaked towel at reporter, before picking up ball under side hoop.]
STOUDEMIRE: What do yall expect? You dont get to Final Fours by splitting pizzas and playing on your Game Boy all night. UConn was stronger than us in the championship game. Im making sure aint nobody stronger than Stoudemire in St. Louis.
REPORTER: You two have surprised a lot of people by playing in college as long as you have. So for the 1,800th time . . . why?
WAGNER: Its kinda funny. Believe it or not, I had a dream during my freshman year that made my decision for me. Remember when LeBron James made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school? Man, that told me there will always be a next big thing. In my dream, I was a top-ten pick in the draft . . . but the next season, my team picked LeBron! I dont know all that much about business -- Im getting my degree in communications, by the way -- but I know something about market value. And the minute LeBron became my teammate -- in my dream, I mean -- my wallet shrunk like those shorts Dr. J and them used to wear. And I knew, hey, if I can take Memphis to the Final Four Id be rig ht back in the spotlight.
STOUDEMIRE: Boy loves his spotlight!
WAGNER: Look whos grinnin! Mr. Twelve-Rebounds-a-Game!!
STOUDEMIRE: You score your points, Juanny. When you miss . . . those points are mine.
WAGNER: You mean, if Banks doesnt take 'em.
STOUDEMIRE: Da-umn . . . cant that kid play?
REPORTER: How has Coach Cal managed to find the right rotation with so many stars on this squad?
STOUDEMIRE: Buddy, you need to read up on your hoop history. North Carolina won a national title -- 1982, I think -- with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy. Two Hall of Famers and a guy who played in the League for, like, 20 years! If Dean Smith could do it with those three, I think Coach Cal can handle us.
REPORTER: What about the role players, guys like Rodney Carney and Anthony Rice?
WAGNER: Theyre just as important. Dude, youre the one whos always writing how it takes a TEAM to win championships. Well, thats what weve got here. If one of us has a bad night [STOUDEMIRE breaks out in laughter], Rodney or Anthony, or Sean Banks picks us up. Were relentless. Conference USA knows it, and last March, the rest of the country found out. If it werent for that Okafor, wed have a championship banner to hang in FedExForum.
REPORTER: Is that the motivation for the season ahead? One more win, in April?
STOUDEMIRE: You got it. Nothing less than the 2005 national championship. Oh, and Ive got one personal goal. Im gonna make sure Qyntel Woods knows whos the best dunker on this team!
The U of M mens basketball team -- their real team -- opens the 2004-05 season this Thursday night at FedExForum against Savannah State in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.