No Ordinary Joe
You remember old Smokin’ Joe, the ducking, the bobbing and the weaving that lulled his opponent into almost a sense of disbelief: I’m fighting this guy? Then, bam, Frazier would unload that widow-maker of a left hook that put a boxer’s front teeth right into the back of his head.
There was nothing pretty about Joe Frazier. Watching Frazier box was like watching sausage being made. But Frazier was one of the few humans on Earth who could beat Muhammad Ali in his prime. And Frazier beat Ali and many others the same way - he wore them down like a bad case of the flu.
Nobody in college basketball will fight you the way Joe Mazzulla does. Lyndon Baines, better known as Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president, used to say this about some of his political enemies (and I am using a heavily sanitized version of the story): “I’d rather have (insert enemy) inside the tent (relieving himself) out, instead of outside the tent (relieving himself) in.”
The point is this: You want Joe Mazzulla inside your tent.
Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun had little if anything to say about Mazzulla’s performance on Wednesday night against his 16th-ranked Huskies.
What can you really say about Mazzulla’s game?
His jump shot is not exactly picturesque. His drives to the basket - arms wailing and body usually landing three or four rows into bleachers – are never a thing of beauty. He’s not a flashy passer. He rarely dribbles the ball between his legs unless it’s for a purpose.
And then you look down at the stat sheet and you see Mazzulla’s stat line: 7 for 10 shooting, 2 for 2 from 3, 18 points, five assists, a steal and just one turnover in 39 minutes.
Then, you look at the guy Mazzulla was guarding, in this case national player of the year candidate and 22.8 points-per-game scorer Kemba Walker, and he goes 8 for 23 shooting with just two free throw attempts in 40 minutes of action. Just the day before Mazzulla said to a bunch of us with microphones pointed in his face that his primary objective was to not let Walker get to the line where he has feasted on opponents.
Mazzulla had a similar performance against eighth-ranked Notre Dame two weeks ago: 6 for 10 shooting, 16 points, five rebounds, seven assists and one turnover in 40 minutes in a big home victory against America's Team.
The guy Mazzulla was guarding, another player of the year candidate in Ben Hansbrough, went 7 for 18 shooting and scored 19 points before fouling out with two minutes left in the game. You could tell Hansbrough thought he earned all 19 of those points by the way he embraced Mazzulla after the game in an ultimate display of respect.
It even takes guys inside the tent with Mazzulla some time to really appreciate his true value.
“I can remember the first scrimmage we had here when I first came back,” recalled West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “Of course we had Darris (Nichols) out there and we’re scrimmaging Virginia and I think Joe had 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. I’m like, ‘We’re going to play this guy at point?’”
Actually, Joe is like that favorite pair of sneakers broken in just right, or that great-fitting faded t-shirt that you just can’t get rid of. It becomes a part of you; really, a part of who you are.
MSN’s Tony Caridi, our popular and highly esteemed chronicler of Mountaineer basketball, wrote on this website a few weeks ago that West Virginia was in search of a face for the program. He thought it might turn out to be sophomore Deniz Kilicli.
Make no mistake: The face of West Virginia’s program this year is Joe Mazzulla.
“I think what makes us good is he really understands what we want done,” said Huggins. “He understands where the ball is supposed to go and where people are supposed to be. He said to me running down the floor one time, ‘How do you want us to guard these staggers?’ There are a lot of guys playing who don’t know what a stagger is.”
The fact that Joe is even still playing basketball is a miracle in itself. When Mazzulla went crashing to the floor at Mississippi three years ago and the doctors later discovered that his left shoulder was more unstable than the San Andreas Fault, no one who really knew what they were talking about thought Mazzulla was going to finish his playing career – especially the way he is finishing it now.
“We all know what Joe has been through,” said Huggins. “He needs to send Doc a Christmas card for the rest of his life for the operation that he did on him. And the work that he put in to get back - we all saw him a year ago when he had to shoot free throws right handed because he couldn’t get his left arm above his shoulder, and for him to come back and do what he’s done now, that’s special.”
Joe says he wants to be a basketball coach one day. I have no doubt in my mind that he will not be a good coach, but a great one – his single-mindedness of purpose, his willingness to put in the hard work and sacrifice as well as his ability to think on his feet – those are some of the qualities that all great coaches have.
Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier was like everyone else. Joe Mazzulla? Yeah, he’s OK but nothing special, no wicked cross-over, no stupid range or crazy dunks in his repertoire. Then he watched Mazzulla wear his teammate Kemba Walker like glove for 40 minutes on Wednesday night.
“I thought Mazzulla couldn’t shoot,” Napier said after the game. “He played terrific … He’s a good guard that I’m going to watch to understand how to play the game better. He taught me a lot today.”
Mazzulla has been teaching all of us a lot lately.
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