Friday, March 21, 2003

Crenshaw torn about playing during war


More to life than just hoops

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It's a mutual support society now, fans and troops, civilians and combatants. We the fans need their confidence. They the military need our assurance things are OK back home. On the fence between the two is Matt Crenshaw, dangling.

He is 6 feet, 3 inches of ambivalence. The star of this IUPUI season and beyond - "Matt's shot changed the university forever," said his coach, Ron Hunter - is wondering whether his skills should be put to different use.

The 26-year-old Jaguars junior, whose last-second basket won the Mid-Continent Conference championship game last week, is also a six-year Navy vet whose best friend died in the Pentagon Sept. 11. When former Petty Officer Crenshaw is not in the gym, he's reading e-mails from buddies in Kuwait. He's watching CNN.

You think you've got a hole in your March Mayhem soul? Try being Matt Crenshaw.

"I really can't get into the true spirit of the tournament," Crenshaw said Thursday. "I have a lot of other things to think about."

In times like this, we watch games so we don't have to think about other things. We put that burden on others. Usually, they're not players. "If he had his choice, he'd rather be fighting for his country than playing Kentucky," Hunter said.

Crenshaw, in fact, doesn't think anybody should be playing. "Basketball is not everything. Sports is not everything. I know there's a lot tied into it, as far as money, but lives are worth more than money," he said.

When the Jaguars try to do the near-impossible this afternoon against Kentucky, Crenshaw will lead them at point guard. It's fitting. He has been leading them all week. On Wednesday, just before the team boarded a bus in Indianapolis for the trip south, Crenshaw called an impromptu meeting.

Enjoy this, he told them. Understand your good fortune. He talked of his Navy experience. He served in Egypt. He served in Washington, where he also played basketball in a military league. That's where he met Yokum.

"Petty Officer Yokum," Crenshaw said. "He's from Louisiana. We always go by last names in the military."

Crenshaw was at IUPUI when the suicide plane killed Petty Officer Yokum.

Crenshaw had been All-Navy in 1997. He drew the attention of a few college coaches, Ron Hunter among them. One thing led to another and when his Navy hitch ended, Crenshaw moved to Indy to attend college and play ball.

On Wednesday, when he told his teammates about Yokum, Crenshaw cried. "I was shocked," Hunter said. "He's such a hard kid."

Crenshaw is playing for his teammates and for the soldiers in Kuwait. After the conference tournament, he got an e-mail from Marine Sgt. Gabori Partee, another close friend. Sgt. Partee sought to cure Crenshaw of his ambivalence and his guilt.

"Go out and play. Have a good time like you would if the situation wasn't going on" was the gist of the message. "I don't want to let him down," Crenshaw said.

He is slight and soft-spoken. Crenshaw has two children, 5 and 4, and a faraway look in his eyes. At some point, he must have looked like he was 26 years old. That was a while ago. "Some situations you can't change," he said.

The show goes on. The Jaguars are a No. 16 seed; No. 16s are now 0-74 since the tournament went to 64 teams, in 1985. The Jaguars have as much chance of beating UK as bourbon has of being made on the moon. Yet you admire their spunk.

Said Odell Bradley, a junior swingman: "(Kentucky) is not going to walk on that court and win with the Kentucky name. They're going to have to make baskets just like we make baskets."

"If we end up completing this Cinderella story (Friday), y'all going to see some antics that (you) will never see again on this planet," promised Josh Murray, IUPUI's best player. He was talking about the excitable Hunter, who actually fractured his leg stomping while coaching a game.

From the press conference podium, Bradley howled at the image. Murray got a good chuckle. Crenshaw rubbed his wispy goatee.

He stood in the hall a few minutes later. A few steps away, one TV showed the end of the Cal-North Carolina State game. Another showed Dan Rather. Contradictory drumbeats of passion, played in an extraordinary and difficult time. Probably, we needed to see both.

That didn't make the day any easier for Matt Crenshaw, who was torn and feeling it. "I went to school to better myself for my children," he said. "But it's going to be hard hearing the anthem."

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E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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