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Perspective | Villains? Role models? Champions? Good luck defining LSU.

Perspective | Villains? Role models? Champions? Good luck defining LSU.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

ALBANY, N.Y. — As crazy as it sounds, this column will be about a college basketball team.

One that traveled more than 1,400 miles to play in a basketball game — a very important, highly competitive and deliciously entertaining basketball game, at that. One of the basketball players who made the trip recorded a double-double, flowing — or Flau’in — off the dribble and into the lane like water. Another one made almost every important free throw she attempted, as if a clutch gene was embedded in her DNA. And on a Saturday afternoon, inside an arena where fans filled almost every seat, this basketball team showed the dexterity of hardwood artisans. The toughness of a squad burnished by a season full of challenges, both on and off the court. And the resilience of reigning queens.

The LSU Tigers won this basketball game, outlasting UCLA, 78-69. I promise, it’s true. That real, actual basketball activities involving the LSU basketball team happened in the NCAA regional held in the state capital of New York. And there’s proof because their game was broadcast live on ABC and witnessed by an announced sellout crowd inside. But when it comes to this collection of college basketball players — and the college basketball coach who leads them — the game tends to occupy the back seat.

At times, it’s because they place it there.

They are not merely a basketball team. But the Beatles. At least, that’s what Angel Reese, their superstar whose life-size image appeared in the windows of the Reebok flagship store in New York, said their coach calls them. Fans chase after their charter bus, too, according to Reese.

They’re role models, a task taken seriously by sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson, who, when she’s not being a rapper, is a pitchwoman for a sports drink as well as a website that offers credit scores.

And when anyone outside of their Baton Rouge cocoon hands them a black hat, they will try it on for size and wear it with pride. Because the LSU basketball team says “people” want to see them fall. Humbled and bowed. Their stars sinking back to Earth.

“Being an athlete is hard. Being a student-athlete is hard. And especially where we are right now where we’re household names, we’re technically famous, we’re celebrities not just in basketball but to everybody in the world,” Reese said a day before she played a basketball game in Albany. “So just being able to be inspiring, being able to have an impact everywhere we go. People are running and chasing and want autographs. It’s been great, and it’s also a downside of the negative stuff, too.”

So the Tigers divided their afternoon into their two distinct roles: the defending national champions who advanced to the Elite Eight and the self-appointed martyrs ready for their uninterrupted monologues to go viral.

“We’re the good villains,” Reese said after she played in this basketball game. “Everybody wants to beat LSU. Everybody wants to be LSU. Everybody wants to play against LSU.”

During a postgame news conference, Coach Kim Mulkey provided nine words to answer a question about the game’s officiating. She went on to share her thoughts about inequality in news coverage and Easter. She asked for every mother in the room to raise her hand. Then Mulkey wanted the grandmothers to raise theirs. It was a setup for Mulkey to launch into a four-minute monologue about an article — no, not that one! Another one Mulkey said attacked her young women.

She didn’t mention the positive profile from the New York Times on Johnson’s ascending career as a rapper, which quoted an academic source on how her players are “redefining” what is possible in women’s sports. (Agreed. In the NIL era, how many college athletes have partnered with a company such as Experian? But Johnson has, and when I asked her Friday about that choice, she explained how she wanted to “educate teens and people in my position about money, about credit.”)

Mulkey didn’t bring up that narrative, nor did she send clicks to the New Orleans outlet that wrote about her players’ strong mental focus that allows them to take the slights and keep winning — a piece that also predicted her team would advance to the Elite Eight. Instead, when asked about the team’s “us-versus-them” mentality, Mulkey saw an opening and defended her players from a Los Angeles Times piece she felt was an attack on their womanhood.

“You want to talk about growing the game? Go see our crowds, people,” Mulkey said. “I’m sorry. I come from a different generation. I get it. But I know sexism when I see it and I read it. That was awful.”

The commentary contrasted the reputations of UCLA and LSU by pitting the hometown Bruins as “America’s sweethearts” against the “dirty debutantes” from the Bayou. It went on to reference LSU’s history of talking smack — something the Tigers took part in throughout the game against UCLA — and even after the game, it seems. Reese said she responded to a Bruins assistant coach who “was talking a little crazy” during the handshake line. Also, Johnson said she had some words for Bruins fans. Why? Because the LSU basketball team consists of basketball players and that’s what basketball players do. They talk smack.

So if it’s okay, just for a moment, let’s get into what else these basketball players did Saturday.

The teams entered the final quarter all square. Yet when the Bruins finally started sending decent entry passes to 6-foot-7 center Lauren Betts and hitting their three-pointers, LSU didn’t unravel. When UCLA held a three-point lead with about four minutes to play and Betts had to go to the bench with four fouls, Johnson wisely and deftly glided into the lane for a score, slicing the lead to 63-62.

Then two free throws by Reese put LSU ahead by one with 1:46 to play, and after Reese blocked UCLA’s Kiki Rice on the other end, Johnson secured the rebound and was fouled. Johnson made both — giving LSU a 70-67 advantage that would grow from there — but those foul shots and her 24 points didn’t give her as much delight as her team-leading 12 rebounds.

“Yeah, I had more rebounds than Angel,” Johnson said, sticking out her tongue and playfully chiding her teammate.

“Just one. Just one,” Reese responded with a smile.

And after surviving a fourth quarter against the higher-seeded Bruins, a stretch that showed just how well-coached, fundamentally sound and skilled the Tigers are as basketball players, the LSU basketball team turned back into the Beatles. Or the “good villains” who seek out negativity for nourishment. These LSU Tigers may play basketball, but they willingly stand in the limelight as a phenomenon of their own creation.

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