LONG BEACH, Calif. — Since September, Long Beach State’s four senior starters — Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps — would head upstairs to coach Dan Monson’s office after their Friday morning workouts and plop down in the black leather sofa and the matching side chairs that bookend it at the far end of the trapezoid-shaped room.
It was there that they would talk, sometimes about basketball, but mostly about trust and how they could become better teammates.
It is easy to view the 49ers’ season, their 21-7 record and their profile as an intriguing NCAA Tournament darkhorse, as an inevitable turn for an experienced group that has been toughened by years of playing one of the nation’s most rigorous schedules.
Except that earlier in the fall, there was nothing inevitable about it.
The 49ers had rolled to the Big West Conference title last season, but for the second year in a row lost to UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament championship game and missed out on the NCAA Tournament. Though Ware, a dynamic guard, was the Big West Player of the Year, Anderson and Robinson had been All-Big West players, and Phelps was a valuable defensive cog, there was clearly something missing.
It wasn’t that the players were selfish, but when circumstances got tight, the ball stopped moving and each one seemed to have his ideas about how to get the team through. Also, with all of them approaching their final season, there was concern that pro aspirations were taking too prominent a place on their agendas.
They were all good players, but they did not feel like much of a team.
“The definition of insane is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” Monson said. “They were talented enough, but to me you either need to change personnel or the personnel needs to change. So I told them: either you guys are going to change or I’m going to have to cut somebody out of the group to improve the chemistry, but we can’t just keep doing what we’re doing.”
That is the message Monson laid out for them last fall, when after a skirmish during a workout, he asked Ware, Anderson, Phelps and Robinson to meet with him each Friday to work through these issues.
“Every year it’s been a little somethin’-somethin’,” Phelps said. “Just childish stuff, like somebody wouldn’t pass somebody the ball. Coach was like ‘it’s our last year, we might as well get the elephant out of the room.’ The meetings were to get all the anger out of us and let everything go.”
The players were skeptical. They had known each other for four years, and had formed bonds before that. Anderson, who is from Long Beach, met Robinson, a Connecticut native, when they played against each other at New England prep schools, and encouraged him to go west with him. Phelps and Ware were under-the-radar recruits from different parts of Los Angeles, who befriended each other on MySpace and thought their games complemented each other.
By now, though, as they achieved their individual successes, their roles and ideas about themselves — and the others — had only hardened.
In some ways, the 49ers’ strength lies in their individual’s talents — their ability to create problems for opponents in space rather than by their execution.
Robinson, a 6-foot-8 forward, is the Big West’s all-time leading rebounder, Ware is the school’s all-time assists leader, and Anderson, a rangy guard, holds the mark for career steals. Phelps, who at 6-foot-7, 235 pounds is a center by necessity, is sixth in blocked shots and rebounding at Long Beach State.
By the end of the season, all are likely to be among the school’s top-20 leading scorers.
As they sat down for that first meeting, there was an air of uncertainty. Anderson is the only extrovert in the group, so he seemed the most likely candidate to say what was on his mind.
Instead, it was Robinson, who came to Long Beach State just after his mother died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, his father pushing him to follow through on his commitment, who spoke up.
Then Phelps chimed in.
Their complaint was a universal one from big men to guards: You don’t pass us the ball enough.
“Actually, I was kind of mad,” Anderson said. “We pride ourselves on getting assists so it was a blow to me. Really? I do extra stuff to pass you the ball and I’m getting turnovers, but I don’t pass you the ball?”
Some weeks the meetings were more productive than others. Monson recalls kicking them out of his office on occasion, telling them they were b.s.-ing each other and that he would see them next week.
Now, Anderson and Ware laugh about that first meeting and shrug. Robinson and Phelps still let them know they’re not getting the ball enough, but that’s just basketball. What they’ve all learned is to communicate better. There is less yelling, more understanding of where the others are coming from, and greater consideration given to what might be best for the team.
“In here, in September, it’s a lot easier to iron that out than it is in February out there, in a game,” said Monson, pointing out the window of his office toward the court. “One of the things they started doing is seeing the other side, they’ve just grown up. Earlier in their career, I think they were all dogs trying to get to the same fire hydrant. They’re all trying to be the guy and are all kind of worried about individual things. This year they realized that you know what — we’re all going to be 1,000-point scorers, we’re getting all these records and yet our legacy is not going to be defined that way. You can’t be a great player if you don’t take your team to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve really bonded with that common goal and I think it shows.”
Said Ware, simply: “We realized we’ll be special by winning.”
Monson has in previous years put the 49ers through a rigorous non-conference schedule with games at Duke, Syracuse, Texas, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Kentucky, among others. This season, though, he figured his team was in a position to win some.
They have beaten Pittsburgh, Xavier and Auburn, and lost at San Diego State in overtime, at Creighton at the buzzer, at North Carolina by six and at Kansas by eight. In a 79-66 loss at Louisville, the 49ers were within five with less than seven minutes left.
“My first big game was as a freshman against Syracuse and we lost by like 40 (actually only 24) and they had this dude named (Arinze) Onuaku who’s like 6-9, 270 and I had to guard him,” Phelps said. “I’m thinking, damn, it’s totally different than high school. Now, when we go out there, it’s a whole different feeling.”
Their only blowout was a 17-point loss to Kansas State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic on Christmas Day. That game was also notable because Ware made just 5-of-18 shots. Afterward, the coaches went through video of the game with Ware, showing their point guard all the places that he did not trust his teammates as much as he trusted himself.
Since then, there have been few hiccups.
The 49ers have lost only once, the 81-79 defeat at Creighton, and appear to be peaking. They pounded UCSB for the second time last week and routed UC Riverside, which had taken them into overtime earlier this season.
Though they would likely be awarded an at-large berth if they do not win the Big West Tournament, they are playing as if they have no intention of leaving things to chance.
“We’re playing our best basketball at the right time,” Monson said. “Last year, we weren’t. We look fresh, we look hungry.”
That was evident last week against Santa Barbara, a victory that clinched the Big West regular-season title and was attended by scouts from 17 NBA teams, including Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Clippers general manager Neil Olshey. Unlike last season, students did not rush the court afterward. And the cutting down of the nets was a perfunctory exercise rather than a celebratory one.
The edge the 49ers are playing with comes from a determination not just to reach the NCAA Tournament, but to leave an imprint, to be remembered for something Long Beach State has not done since Jerry Tarkanian was coach in 1973 — win an NCAA Tournament game.
Phelps, Anderson, Robinson and Ware watched Butler reach the NCAA championship game two years in a row, and be joined by Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four a year ago, and St. Mary’s, Richmond, Cornell and Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16 over the last two years.
They think back to December, taking Kansas and North Carolina to the wire, and wonder if a neutral court, two months of improvement and an underdog’s courage could be the difference.
“It’s our time,” Anderson said, understanding the significance of the moment, knowing that when the four senior starters sit down together years later, be it on a black leather couch or not, they could have plenty to talk about.