Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story.The Players’ Tribune presents, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Steve Novak remembers Marquette’s magical run to the Final Four in 2003, capped off by an Elite Eight win over heavily favored Kentucky that featured a triple-double by Dwyane Wade.
Kentucky just handed us bulletin board material. One day before the biggest game of our lives.
Like we needed the motivation.
Kentucky had won something like 27 games in a row and people were saying they were unbeatable. The team was stacked with future NBA guys. Sound familiar? But it wasn’t 2015, it was 2003. We hadn’t been that far since Marquette won the whole thing in 1977.
Out of nowhere, a day before the game, we find out that a Kentucky player told a reporter that he’d never heard of Rob Jackson, our starting center. Rob was just like, We’re one game from the Final Four and you’ve never even heard of me? Our whole team took it as a big offense. Rob was NBA-bound at that point and he was a big reason for our success that season. The worst part about it was that the Kentucky player wasn’t trying to make it a thing — he genuinely just did not know who Rob was. That’s what made it even more motivating. We felt like true underdogs.
It was always our goal to make Final Four. We had been saying it since the summer. But our turning point came way before that Kentucky game. It happened at a film session early in the season, after back-to-back losses at Dayton and at East Carolina. Bad losses. When we got back from the East Carolina game, Coach Crean told us to meet in an old basement locker room below the gym. After back-to-back losses, you knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. All the lights were off. The only thing you could see was the the TV and the glare of a Gatorade machine.
You just knew we weren’t leaving that locker room until Coach Crean had made his point. He turned on the TV and showed us clip of a turnover Rob made in the East Carolina game. He just kept playing that one clip. Rob grabs a rebound, dribbles down the court and just throws it away. We had to watch it over and over. And over. Then coach just got in Rob’s face and basically challenged his manhood. It was a really tense moment. It was a challenge to all of us, really.
Remember, no lights were on, so all you could hear was Coach Crean breathing and yelling “Do you hear me? Do you hear me?” It felt like we were there for two or three hours. When the lights came on, a podium was broken and some pictures had fallen off the walls.
Coach Crean knew what we was doing. He was a psychological coach and an incredible motivator. Looking back, it definitely set the tone for every game after that. We came out of that film session saying, We’re not going through that again. The way we were playing was unacceptable. We were better than that. It forced us to ask ourselves, Did we really want to make the Final Four or was it all just talk?
The Kentucky game was just magic. It was a perfect storm. For Dwyane Wade, it was his coming out party. People knew he was good, but to drop a triple-double in an Elite Eight game? Ridiculous.
No one on Kentucky could stop D-Wade from getting to the basket. So every time they tried to make a run, he would come back and make a play. He’d find Rob down low, or find the perimeter guys, or then he’d score against three of their guys. We were never nervous because D-Wade just kept making plays. It was the first time a lot of people saw how he could carry a team all by himself.
Everyone remembers D-Wade’s triple-double, but Travis Diener had a bunch of key assists. The whole year, Travis was our floor general. He wasn’t the talk-talk-talk leader guy. He just went to work. When the game started, you know you had a bulldog. And if you weren’t ready to work, he would be pissed.
I was only a freshman and it my first NCAA Tournament. Suddenly we were playing for a Final Four appearance. This was by far the biggest stage I had ever played on. And I had nothing to compare it to.
My game was simple: stand behind the three-point line and catch and shoot. That whole year, there was so much attention on D-Wade and Travis, I just knew I had to get the hell out of the way and I’d be open. They pretty much got me all of my shots. I got hot and ended up hitting five threes on eight attempts.
I remember one moment the most because it kind of defined the way the game was going. Travis passed the ball to Dwyane, if I remember right, and it slipped through his hands and ricocheted right to me up top of the key. Wide open three. It was just one of those karma plays. We should’ve turned the ball over, but instead it’s a wide open three. Everything was going right for us.
I was the coach’s son growing up. That’s how I became a shooter. I’ve always been tall, but to be honest, I never wanted to play like a big man. I think it’s maybe because I spent so much time in the gym at my dad’s practices. I was the little kid shooting baskets while the practice was going on — you don’t practice drop-step moves when you’re by yourself in a gym. You see how deep you can hit a three from.
The thing about the Tournament is that you can get knocked out in the first round or you can go all the way to the Final Four. Not every team, but a lot of teams. In 2003, Marquette was one of those teams. We barely got past Holy Cross in the first round, but then we almost won it all. Did I know Dwyane Wade was going to be a future Hall of Famer? Did I know we had four or five future pros on our team? Not really, we were just underdogs up against Kentucky. That’s why March is so special.
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