I loved that my alma mater LSU's basketball team drew the University of San Francisco in the first round of the NIT tournament. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities, and as a sports history buff, I've long appreciated the University of San Francisco's athletics heritage. On one visit to San Francisco, we were driven on a moonlit night around the university's beautiful mission-stye campus, and I had chills remembering the school's sports legends.
Not only do the Dons have one of the great all-time basketball histories, with famous coach Pete Newell and national champsionship teams led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. San Francisco, before dropping the sport because of finances, was one of the West Coast's football powers. The 1949 team is considered among the all-time best, with Gino Marchetti and Ollie Matson and other future NFL stars. The undefeated team refused to travel to a deep-South bowl game because the black Matson wouldn't be able to play because of segregation.
The NIT game promised to be one of LSU's memorable sports chapters. I'd hoped that the players would get the chance to experience some of San Francisco's culture, but appaently they stayed by the airport far out of town and saw the city just when they were driven to the game. But even traveling through the beautiful city by the bay is a wonderful educational adventure.
When the game began, I was excited that former UCLA and NBA great Bill Walton was doing the commentary. But while he was at times entertaining, Walton often sounded like a half-crazed hippie who'd done too much LSD. He also got a few facts wrong. However, he endeared himself to me with his fond and generous remarks about LSU and Louisiana culture. Walton mentioned visiting Baton Rouge and working with then LSU center and future NBA standout Shaquille O'Neal during Dale Brown's great LSU basketball era, a time I remembered. Although Walton's wordy attempts to draw grand historical theories crashed, he did show an appreciation of literature and cultural rarely if ever displayed during sports events.
I particularly enjoyed one of his unexpected references, to the eminent LSU history professor and author T. Harry Williams' classic biography of Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who emerged as a national populist figure during the 1930s. The Kingfish's assassination at the soaring Louisana state Capitol he erected remains a subject of fascination and controversy.
Williams, who also wrote classic Civil War books such as "Lincoln and His Generals, " was one of the stalwarts of a time when LSU was known as much for academic excellence as sports success, a legacy established by Long, as Williams memorably recounts. Alas, those days are gone. From the great ambitions of Huey Long, the state has sunk into the small-minded regime of the beady-eyed Bobby Jindal, himself a national figure, mystifyingly. Jindal is one of the stars of the lunatic GOP, while Long's progressive ideas energized the great Democratic Party of FDR.
While many view Long as a venal dictator who did more harm then good, he undoubtedly brought Louisiana into the modern world. Williams in his book shows the broader cultural and social atmosphere of Long's epoch. Revisionists say Williams took too benign a view of Long. But no recent works have matched Williams' book in its breadth of scope.
So, I'll give Walton a pass for some of his nutty flights. LSU won the game, San Francicso's great history was honored, and T. Harry Williams and Huey Long were mentioned on ESPN U, its U for once almost justified. All in all, a memorable night.