by Alan Paul
I grew up on Pitt basketball. It may not have been much during the 70s and 80s but it was what we had in Pittsburgh and it was, in fact, a lot of fun. I went to virtually every home game from early elementary school until I graduated form high school in 1984, most of them of them with my brother and father. Those years incorporated a lot of pretty mediocre teams, but also some tremendously exciting basketball played in the close confines of musty old Fitzgerald Field House.
The relative small-timeiness of the program also presented opportunities: It was easy to sit court side, to get to know the players and even to watch some practices. We had one nutty family friend who often drove us to and from games in his Pacer (Google that car, kids) when my father had to work and who had some sort of insider connection/groupie type relationship with the team. Thanks to him, we often ended up in the Pitt locker room after games and ended up hanging around chatting with players and coaches from both teams. Once, Villanova had some sort of transportation problem (I think that their bus failed to show up) and I’ll never forget a grizzled Rollie Massimin0–who seemed ancient but probably wasn’t much older than I am now–turning to us and saying, “Kids, don’t ever become a coach.”
These are indelible memories, moments which helped fuel my love for basketball and give me a life-long devotion to Pitt basketball, good bad and ugly. So I was more than happy to offer up a little bit of editing help when a message from my old friend, neighbor and summer camp counselor Mike Lowenstein appeared in my email box last year. He was working on a book about Pitt basketball and he wanted to know what I thought.
I thought the early version I saw was a great read and I still do now that We All We Got: Pitt Basketball in the Golden Era has been published. Mike is a true fan and the book is all about his love for the team and the game and the way that watching basketball together has drawn his family–he has three grown children– closer. Mike has great insight into Pitt’s program and college basketball. I caught up with him in New York, while he was in town on his annual pilgrimage to the Big East tournament.
SLAM: What gives you hope that this Pitt team will be different and do better than the previous ones, which have not been able to get past the Sweet 16?
Mike Lowenstein: Except for maybe the 2003 team, this is the most complete team Pitt has had. It is deeper and faster than that team and can score more (although they are not yet as good on defense). More specifically, they have the following things going for them:
1. Blair is an overwhelming force. The only thing that has stopped him is foul trouble.
2. Young is a versatile scorer when he plays within the offense.
3. Fields is a proven senior point guard and a great leader.
4. They run better than most people think.
5. They shoot better than most people think.
They are almost certain to get a 1 seed and statistically, 1 seeds win nearly twice as often as any other seeds.
SLAM: A lot of people believe that Pitt has put too much emphasis on the Big East tournament in recent years, which was worn them out for the tournament. Well, now they lost in the first round after making seven of the past eight finals. Are you concerned heading into the NCAA tournament?
ML: I am pretty concerned. This is a very good team. They went 28-3 in a great league. But they are not their healthiest, which is just the breaks, and they are not playing their best right now. Especially with Fields playing hurt they struggle on defense with teams that can spread them out and penetrate. But we never give up on them.
Maybe a week off to rest and refocus will be the best thing but I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Big East tournament runs have hurt them. Pitt’s success in the Big East Tournament has been a big part of how they have built the program. I don’t think Pitt has put too much emphasis on the Big East whether it wore them out or not — and for the most part I don’t think it did so. Their play in the Big East Tournament has coincided with their play in the NCAA. Pitt has made four Sweet Sixteens in the past seven years and in each year they made the Big East Finals. The one year before this year that they did not make the Big East Finals –2005 — they lost in the first round in both the Big East and NCAAs, which is not a happy thought right now.
I just got back from watching UConn and Syracuse play six overtimes. I didn’t see either of them holding anything back. It was a truly epic, incredible game. Who would want to say it was in any way a bad thing that both teams tried so hard?
SLAM: So how disappointed are you with the WVU loss? And how concerned are you about Levance Fields’ injury?
ML: I’m very disappointed–although frankly more by the fact that it was a sub-par performance than by the loss to a good West Virginia team that played a superb game. The one exception I would make to going all out in a conference tournament is that I would err on the side of not pushing an injured player. Whether Pitt did that with Fields only they and he would know, but Fields is such a competitor it is hard to keep him out.
I am concerned about not only his health but also Blair’s. Since he banged knees with a Seton Hall player–and remember he’s had two knee surgeries in high school–Blair has had three games in a row with less than 10 rebounds for the first time this year. Fouls are a part of that, but he also has not looked like quite the same overwhelming force on the boards.
SLAM: Pitt has achieved an incredible amount of success without any McDonald’s All Americans. Does that give you extra pride as a fan? Do you think it has also been the ultimate reason for their lack of March success?
ML: I touched on this in my book. Until recently Pitt has recruited almost all “seconds,” players lacking one thing or another that has kept the biggest powers from recruiting them. But they go to work, get better, play hard, stay four years, win 27 games a year and win their share against the best of the best–UConn, Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Duke. It is very satisfying to watch it happen.
For example, I have great respect for UConn and the Pitt-UConn rivalry. I was recently in Connecticut and saw a listing of UConn players in the NBA. From the past seven years there were about eight NBA players and five are high-end players: Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor and Charlie Villanueva. Pitt has Aaron Gray at the end of the Bulls bench. Yet Pitt is 7-6 against UConn the past eight years.
Blair was an exception. Whatever his ranking, and it was all over the board, he could play for anybody from the day he got here. Chris Taft was almost that way, and it is long forgotten how important he was to the continuity that has enabled this program to accomplish what it has.
Has it been the ultimate reason holding them back? (I am a little resistant to the term “lack of March success.”) Maybe. They have had teams that could have gone deeper, especially in 2003. It certainly would have been easier with a couple of the UConn players I mentioned above.
SLAM: Next year, they are finally getting that true blue chip recruit. Your thoughts?
ML: Dante Taylor sounds like both a top recruit and a Pitt-style player. I have no concerns about him, but other schools also get players like him. If Blair should stay, Pitt should be great inside. My concerns are for a perimeter player who can get his own shot as Sam Young does, and, most of all, for a point guard to emerge to continue the 10 year line of Brandin Knight, Carl Krauser and Levance Fields upon which so much of this program has been built. It is not clear if they have that player. But Pitt has been very good for eight years and I will assume they will find a way to be very good again.
SLAM: When Ben Howland went to UCLA in 2003 and Jamie Dixon took over, were you confident he could continue and build upon the success? I was not.
ML: I wanted them to hire Jamie. Usually I think hiring an assistant is a bad idea (although Tom Izzo has certainly been great.) But they had played such a special brand of basketball under Ben Howland and hiring Jamie gave it the best chance of continuing.
SLAM: Who has been your favorite Pitt player to watch during this resurgence? How about your top five?
ML: Brandin Knight, without question, for me and I believe for my whole family. My top 5 would include Knight, DeJuan Blair, Jaron Brown, Aaron Gray and Carl Krauser, although Carl gets an asterisk because my son and I fought about Carl for three years. That leaves out some great players–Levance Fields, Chevy Troutman, Julius Page, for example.
SLAM: How about your favorite opposing player?
ML: I would have to say Emeka Okafor. Such a great college player and he carried himself like a prince. Plus, he played in all three Pitt-UConn Big East Finals which, as a group, are the greatest basketball thrills for me, even though Pitt lost two of them.
SLAM: A lot of non-fans consider sports a frivolous waste of time. A big part of your book is the way that Pitt basketball has brought your family closer. What are your thoughts on this?
ML: Our family–not just our immediate family, but also our extended family–approaches college basketball, especially Pitt basketball, in a way that is meaningful to us and that we have shared together over many years. As I tried to explain in the book, we take the journey with them, and with each other, every year. When the kids are away, it is often how we get together with them, or we get calls and text messages during the games. Different families do different things together, that help them stay connected with each other. This is one of the things we do.
It also helps that Pitt has had a very positive basketball program in this decade. Not just that they have won a lot of basketball games. They are trying to build something that will last. You hear coach after coach say that they want to build their program the way Pitt has built its program. It has added something positive to our community that simply did not exist ten years ago. We believe in that and we want to support it. And we do