JUST ONE MORE win, and the Utes are putting guys from Hollywood on hold who wear rings on their little finger and who say they worked with Gable. They're wearing sunglasses. Some studio is calling DeNiro or Duvall, or maybe Hackman again, and telling him to put on 50 pounds, he's going to be playing a basketball coach. Unless Rick Majerus wants the part himself.
One more win and the Utes are "Hoosiers, The Second Half." Or, "Chariots of Desire." They're getting calls from car phones. People from Warner are wondering when's a good time to do vegetarian.You don't have to tell Hollywood scripts like this don't come along every day. This sells even if Julia Roberts isn't in it.
On the one hand there's Utah, a team long on hustle, short on talent, and predicted to go nowhere. The team is coached by a man who, in the year prior to the start of the season, his first at the helm, goes through a divorce, has heart bypass surgery, stays away from basketball on doctor's orders, takes up jogging, cuts down to one pizza a night, moves into a hotel next to campus, and gets himself into trouble by talking candidly on the radio about sexuality and women's basketball.
The Utes and their coach have themselves quite a season anyway, going 30-and-3 and sweeping games in Honolulu, El Paso, Ft. Collins and Laramie, which is supposed to be harder than selling Buicks in Tokyo, and also sweeping the regular-season series against arch-rival and avowed natural enemy Brigham Young, despite the fact the Cougars are playing with the two biggest freshman instate recruits since Dick Nemelka, both of whom spurned the Utes.
Majerus, the new coach, does unconventional things, like using a walk-on from the intramural gym, Sean Mooney, to put the clamps on star quality centers like New Mexico's Luc Longley - not unlike Coach Norman Dale using the student manager to help Hickory High to the state finals in "Hoosiers." And like making his starting center, Walter Watts, a man whose favorite time is mealtime, wear a 30-pound vest in practice so he'll know what it will feel like if he keeps eating whole pies for dessert. And like moving the entire team, complete with study hall, to Hawaii for Christmas vacation.
The Utes have a backup center (Paul Afeaki) get shot in the shoulder in a traffic dispute one night after a win over Wyoming, and then see Afeaki come back from surgery to help beat Wyoming two weeks later. It's the same Afeaki who is almost deported to his native Tonga before the season got rolling, because of emigration problems.
They watch as their best shooter, Phil Dixon, recovers from a career-threatening leg injury. And they watch their understated star player, Josh Grant, play inspiredly for his 26-year-old sister-in-law, who is in a life-and-death struggle with cancer.
Now, after all that, the Utes find themselves in the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. Tonight in the Seattle Kingdome they will meet the defending national champions from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, a team considered to be among the best college teams of alltime. Maybe THE best college team of all time.
Maybe four of the Rebs' starting five go in the first round of the pro draft. Maybe all five. Maybe their coach, Jerry Tarkanian, goes with them. Maybe they become an NBA expansion team in Las Vegas, immediately.
Somebody with a computer plays 200games between these '91 Rebels and the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the last team to go through a season undefeated. The Rebels win 145 of the games. Against the 1968 UCLA national championship team, the Lew Alcindor-led team often regarded as the best of alltime, the computer finds them each winning 100 games.
Not only are the Rebels good, they have a cause. The NCAA is out to get them, and their coach, for recruiting violations dating back to just after they all were born. They play with passion. They play basketball the way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed banks.
Going into their date with the Utes, the Rebels are on a 43-game winning streak and are 20-point favorites. They are the odds-on choice to win the next three games as well and repeat as national champions.
The Utes' odds are 5,000-to-1 to become national champs, and maybe 10 times that to beat UNLV tonight and make it into a quarterfinal game on Saturday. Even Ute school officials coming to Seattle for the game have booked return flights to Salt Lake - for Friday morning.
And yet, they'll still tip it up between these two teams coming at each other full-speed-ahead from entirely opposite directions.
The Utes win tonight, and it isn't just a game . . . it's a movie.