Joe Santoro: A love affair in Reno

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

RENO — Northern Nevada has fallen in love with the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.

“When you come up to the arena two hours before the game and the students are lined up 100 deep, you get chills pulling into the parking lot,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said Saturday night. “The community support around this team is special.”

The Wolf Pack’s winter of love with Northern Nevada culminated in a Mountain West regular season championship Saturday. The smiles on the faces of the 11,662 fans at Lawlor Events Center were only surpassed by the smiles on the faces of the Pack players and coaches after the 85-72 conference-clinching victory over the Colorado State Rams. There was simply an overwhelming feeling of warmth, affection, and rapture in the building not felt in a decade. Think Burning Man on the hardcourt.

“The way these guys play makes the community proud of them,” said Musselman, explaining the affection the community seems to have for his 25-6 Wolf Pack. “They are resilient, they work hard. If they were just a talented team, I don’t think you get that connection (with the community). It’s about how they play the game.”

The Wolf Pack allowed its overflowing student section onto the court after the game to celebrate with the team and coaches. There was no pushing and shoving or unruliness. It wasn’t a bunch of fans just wanting to be seen or make a scene. It was just a student body and a college basketball team showing each other how much they appreciate each other. Cam Oliver stood up on the scorer’s table and showed off his Mountain West championship t-shirt. Players posed for pictures with fans. Fans hugged players, players hugged everyone they met. Musselman ran around slapping everyone’s back and loudly thanking everyone for their support.

“How does it feel?” Musselman said with a big smile afterward. “I just spent 45 minutes celebrating out on the court. How do you think it feels?”

It felt like nobody wanted it to end.

“It’s real important for us to enjoy this moment,” senior D.J. Fenner said.

There might not be a Wolf Pack men’s basketball team in the school’s long history that has connected with its community like this one. The numbers certainly show it. The crowd on Saturday is the Pack’s sixth this season of 10,000 or more. The Wolf Pack also set a school record this season with an average attendance of 8,922, breaking the record of 8,903 by the 2006-07 team.

But it’s about more than just the numbers. Winning teams draw fans. The 2004-07 NCAA Wolf Pack tournament teams each averaged, in order, 8,061, 7,927, 8,371 and 8,903 fans a game. And those four teams will always have a special place in the hearts of Pack fans.

As Musselman says, though, this year’s connection between team and community goes deeper than attendance figures. This year just feels more personal.

The fans jumped on this team’s back almost from the start of the season. A crowd of 8,090 showed up for the second home game of the year against Oregon State. The first crowd of 10,000-plus showed up right after Christmas to see lowly San Jose State on Dec. 28. A school record four consecutive crowds of 10,000 or more showed up starting in late January.

The Colorado State game was the Pack’s second sellout this year and the third largest crowd to ever see a game at Lawlor. Two of the top three Pack crowds in Lawlor’s history took place this season. And this team hasn’t even been to an NCAA tournament in a decade.

“You could feel the electricity going into this game,” Musselman said.

That electricity ignited the Wolf Pack past Colorado State. The Pack started out slow, as the sentimentality of senior night for Fenner and Marcus Marshall, as well as the pressure of trying to win a Mountain West title, seemed to suffocate them for a while. Colorado State jumped out to a 19-11 lead midway through the first half as the Pack missed its first five shots.

“Before the game I turned to D.J. and just said, ‘I’m kind of nervous,’” Marshall said.

All of the nerves were long gone by the time the Pack squeezed out its first lead with 15 minutes to go in the second half. It’s important to note the lead changed hands once on Saturday. That’s it. Just one time. That wasn’t an accident. Once the Pack got the lead, there was no way Colorado State or the 11,662 fans at Lawlor would let them give it up.

“We didn’t get the crowd involved until the second half,” Musselman said. “And then we rode that.”

Musselman might be the single biggest factor in why this Pack team has connected so strongly to the Northern Nevada community. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and basically throws them all out there on the court during the course of a game for everyone to see.

His players play the same way. And the crowd loves it.

“Look at him,” smiled Fenner, referring to Musselman. “He lets us show our emotions for sure. He’s emotional, too.”

Nobody on the Pack plays to the crowd as much as Oliver. The sophomore is certainly not shy. One minute he’s waving both his arms in the air trying to get the crowd riled up coming out of a timeout. The next minute he’s putting up three fingers to tell everyone he just made a 3-pointer. After one windmill dunk on Saturday in the second half, he stood under the basket, pumped out his chest, faced the crowd, flashed a huge smile and just winked.

“I’m a real crowd pleaser,” he said with another smile. “I love it. I love having everyone engaged in what we’re doing. It’s just a great feeling. When I play in front of an audience and the crowd is into it, that’s just my little secret weapon that I have.”

It all starts with Musselman. He allows his players to be who they want to be. The 2004-07 teams were great and fans loved to watch them play. But the coaches of those teams, Trent Johnson and Mark Fox, didn’t exactly allow their players to be individuals or play to the crowd. Coach David Carter, who coached under both Johnson and Fox, was the same way. This year’s team feeds off the players and the players feed off the crowd.

“I give a lot of credit to Muss,” Fenner said. “He just does a lot of things a lot of coaches don’t do. He walks around campus, advertising our games. He would walk around handing out fliers asking people to come to the game. For us to sell out games, that’s amazing.”

The community’s love affair with this Pack team might have something to do with the affection the Pack players show each other.

“We yell ‘brotherhood’ when we come out of a break,” Oliver said. “We all love each other on this team. We’re brothers on this team. When we see each other smiling and doing great things, it just makes you happy.”

The love affair is now over, at least at Lawlor Events Center. The Wolf Pack now hope to never play another game at Lawlor this season by winning the conference tournament next week in Las Vegas and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We’re not done yet,” Oliver said. “This (winning the regular season title) was just one of our goals.”


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