ARLINGTON, Texas -- Chatter about Michigan usually centers on talent, on the guards' talent, on the point guard's monumental talent, on the overall talent that so vividly exceeded that of Florida. Yet there's an aspect of Michigan that reveals an unusual strand of human toughness.
Put it this way: If your father played in the NBA, nobody should blame you if you veer to some wildly different career such as biochemistry or the harp. So even though the three Michigan players with retired NBA fathers had their advantages, even though they had world-class advice available through their childhoods, even though they had the genes as their marvelous teammate Trey Burke notes, and even though they probably love basketball hopelessly, I still see something hard in their plights.
Their passions go entangled with a human relationship so complicated it has spawned everything from books to No. 1 songs to sappy baseball movies.
Now, all-Big Ten guard Tim Hardaway Jr. says it's not so bad: "It's not hard to play at all. It actually gives you confidence to go out there and just do what you do. It's great just to go out there and play not only for yourself and for your family but also for that last name. It's all about heart when you're playing."
That sounds believable, and everyone is different, but there's a reason people ask rational questions of, say, University of Miami point guard Shane Larkin, about his childhood decision to pursue football, and then basketball, instead of baseball, the love of his Hall of Fame father, Barry Larkin.
There's a reason Shane Larkin then has to explain, very well I might add: "I'm not out here getting out of my Dad's shadow. People call me Barry Larkin's son, and there's no shame in that." Besides, once he explains his dislike for hitting, which stemmed from a dislike of waiting, which seems clear in the brisk way he conducts basketball, you get the sense he wasn't built for baseball even if his father-who-knows-best believes he'd excel.
Certainly, basketball starred in the early consciousness of the Michigan starters Hardaway Jr., a junior by class also, and Glenn Robinson III, a freshman, and the reserve Jon Horford, a sophomore. Tim Hardaway Sr. played for five NBA teams across 14 seasons and in five All-Star games. Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson not only became Naismith Player of the Year at Purdue, but played for four NBA teams across 11 seasons. Tito Horford became the first Dominican player drafted in the NBA, a marvelous achievement, and played for two NBA teams.
Jon Horford even has older brother Al Horford playing for the Atlanta Hawks, deepening my appreciation for Jon Horford's pursuit of basketball, when for carving out my own identity in that scenario, I might pursue something far, far away, such as Fiji.
Said Burke, "I think with the athletes that we have that are sons of NBA players, what they have in common is they're really athletic. And obviously that comes from their genes. It's natural, really." Being 6-foot-6 and 210 like Robinson III, or 6-foot-6 and 205 like Hardaway Jr., or 6-foot-10 and 250 like Horford, does tend to steer one toward sports and away from, say, the harp.
To create some personal space, Hardaway Jr. can refer to size: "Our games are not comparable, really. I'm 6-6, he was six feet. He's a point guard, I'm not. That's basically it, and he could tell you that straight up." He also can recount invaluable advice from a father with the gravitas to give it: "Don't do anything crazy and just trust your teammates and just trust what the coaches are telling you."
For that coach, they got a guy who worked his way up with unusual gradualness, John Beilein having gone from Erie Community College to Nazareth College to Le Moyne College to Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia and to Michigan. His blood cells probably look like basketballs. His players extol his patience. In 2005, his West Virginia team had a 20-point lead in a regional final in 2005 only to lose, and when his Michigan team had its 24-point lead shrink to 11 on Sunday against Florida …
Well, even as a stranger you would have felt horrible for him had that eroded, but as a profound basketball man, he said, "If we never went, it wouldn't be like I missed out on something," and somehow, he, too, sounds believable.
He does cite the advantages of his three sons-of-NBA.
"You know, it's been very good," Beilein said. "And I say it's not just about the fathers, now, too. The fathers are terrific, and their mothers" -- Yolanda (Tim), Shantelle (Glenn) and Elizabeth (Jon) -- "have been tremendous throughout this whole thing. These young men, their work habits, their attention to detail. They've seen it already. They've seen what their fathers and mothers have done to raise them and to provide the life they have for them."
After a pause, he said, "And there's never been a shortage of them getting into the gym, I guarantee you," coaxing smiles from his players. "They're in there, they're working at it, and the best is yet to come for all of them."
They work at it with added risk if you ask me, inasmuch any father who makes the NBA can crowd the premises. Maybe they're too young to notice, but there's also a chance they're too strong.