Game 104: Nevada 77, at Vermont 62Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Patrick Gymnasium - Burlington, VT
Interstate 89 northbound is a long drive for someone with nothing to think about. There are plenty of "Next Exit 15 Miles" reminders, too many unsettlingly incomplete gas/food/lodging triads, and trees, lots of trees. By Thanksgiving, the leaf peepers are all gone away - all that's left along the roadsides are ghoulish galleries of dark fingers stripped to their bones, all clawing skyward.
The long and desolate drive up from Boston to Burlington (five hours or so) provides plenty of time to ruminate on the state of the Vermont
basketball program, where it's been and where it's going. They were so bad for so long, rallying around a succession of low-wattage stars who were destined to become parts of the local business community, not NBA prospects. Then, in the early part of this decade, they hit upon a magical combination of people and time and place.
A giant reason for that recent success - the three straight Tournament appearances, the 13-over-4 upset
back in March - was thanks in large part to Taylor Coppenrath, a 6'9", 250-lb. manimal that Tom Brennan discovered in nearby West Barnet. He dominated the America East conference for three years after a rough, raw freshman campaign. But he's gone now, off to Greece to play basketball for money.
I stop at a tiny gas-and-go five miles off the highway, far outside the normal acceptable range for a blue-sign Interstate advertisement. The station has Citgo signage, but someone has gone through a lot of trouble to cover the "Go" on each logo with black tape. There are two ancient and rusty pumps, there at that "Cit" station.
As soon as I pop the gascap and grab hold of the side-swivel pump, a tall, thin old man with a bushy beard approaches me. He must be in his sixties, but even with his slumped-over countenance he has small-forward height to my point-guard-sized frame.
"Gimme the gun, sonny," he says in a harsh, raspy voice. "I do all the pumping around here."
As he takes the handle from me, I can't help but notice how enormous his hands are. They're nearly twice the size of mine.
They say it's tough to recruit at UVM, and as the miles add up I can see why. I imagine a pimply 18-year-old blue-chip riding shotgun on that long highway, GameBoy batteries long dead, each grey asphalt-coated mile offering more and more opportunity to think about other schools, ones that aren't so far away from civilization. Or maybe a switch to lacrosse.
Heading back south after the game, I stop at a convenience store on the outskirts of Burlington to gas up again, pick up a snack and coffee for the long road ahead. The person behind the counter wears two mismatching flannel buttonups over each other, and has long black hair that reaches to the shirts' edge. The reason why I can't immediately figure the cashier's gender is because of a high degree of muscle tone.
She rings up the chip bag, but doesn't figure the coffee into the transaction. I helpfully point it out with a "this, too."
"I can't charge you for that," the cashier says with flashing, hyper-intense eyes. "Have you tasted it? It's like diarrhea in a cup."
Once again, I don't know what to say. "Happy Thanksgiving?" is the best I can do.
"Go Cats," comes the reply. She gives me my change in crisp two-dollar bills.
They say you can't teach size, but you can certainly mold it and shape it into a basketball monster, then unleash it on an unsuspecting opposition. People say that Taylor Coppenrath was a once-in-a-lifetime player, a rough gem whose combination of ferocity, size and footwork will never been seen again at the University of Vermont.
But after travelling the I-89 corridor, I'm absolutely convinced that there must be another Coppenrath out there, hidden somewhere in amongst those cold, black trees. And if the UVM coaches and staff are willing to brave that deep and foreboding forest, they'll probably find him.
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