By Jake Lawhead
Tucked away in a plush East Memphis neighborhood, Lausanne Collegiate School is probably more known for its academics than its basketball team. Supporters, parents, and students believe the former all-girls school is one of the best-kept secrets in Memphis.
But Lausanne and its basketball program are not likely to be a secret much longer.
The school's halls are filled with excitement because this year's team could prove to be as powerful as it is diverse. The squad features players from Yugoslavia, Spain, Germany, and Russia, as well as a slew of home-grown players. Though much attention has been paid to the addition of Marc Gasol (yep, Pau's hermano), no one is more important to the team than returning point guard and leading scorer Mladen Mrkaic (Ma-la-den Mer-kich). In Mrkaic, Lausanne has what many observers believe is the best-kept secret in Memphis.
"We have enjoyed having international students on the team in recent years, but none has made the impact that Mladen has," says head coach Jason Peters. "He is a relentless competitor whose understanding of the game is the result of intense training and excellent coaching back home in Europe."
Mrkaic's arrival was somewhat of an unsuspected bonus for the Lynx. While walking to one of his classes, Peters noticed the Serbian exchange student shooting around with classmates. The coach had found a gem of a point guard who would not only be his floor general but his leading scorer (17.2 ppg). "He's fundamentally skilled and well rounded as a player, which makes him effective in many ways," says Peters. "He has the ability to shoot the three-pointer, the mid-range jumper, and put the ball on the floor and get to the goal with reckless abandon."
Peters, son of high school basketball coaching legend Jerry Peters, started as coach of the basketball Lynx in 1998. He inherited a program that had won five games in the previous five years. But things changed quickly. His first season the team went 10-17, the second 12-15. And last season -- Mrkaic's first -- the Lynx finished 21-8.
Mrkaic decided to return to the States again this year in hopes of fulfilling hoop dreams and continuing friendships. "I have bonded with the team and I really enjoy my teachers and coaches," he says. "But it's very different here, both culturally and in the style of basketball played." Mrkaic says the European game is more physical, while the American game features more athleticism.
Another difference he notes is the manner in which the players are developed. In Europe the elite players from each town, like Mrkaic's in Serbia, are identified and placed on club teams similar to our AAU system. These players then play together under the same coach for several years before they are ready to compete against other club organizations throughout Europe.
Mrkaic admires NBA stars like Tracy McGrady and Jason Kidd but holds a special place in his heart for fellow Yugoslavs Pedja Stojacovich and Vlade Divac. "Those guys are like a double-edged sword," says Mrkaic. "They understand how to play the game and they can run, jump, and move incredibly well." Mrkaic could well be describing himself. He is being rated as one of the top area seniors.
"He is very mature, he is a true coach on the floor," Peters says."He could make a great point guard for some college program, because you always feel you have a chance to win with Mladen in the game."
"I would love to play basketball in college," says Mrkaic. "I just hope I can get the opportunity and possibly receive a scholarship."
Now that the secret is out, maybe he will.
By Chris Przybyszewski
It wasn't the Super Bowl or the World Series. It wasn't even the playoffs.
But wasn't it something?
As time ran out on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies last Saturday night, forward Pau Gasol tossed the basketball into the stands (the ball actually landed on the scorer's table) and the crowd of over 13,000 stood and raised 26,000 hands, ending what had to be one of the longest teases in professional sports. Little ol' Memphis had just won a game in a "big time" league.
The Grizzlies had toyed with victory a couple of times this season, in each instance dropping the ball in the fourth quarter. This time, against another squad with eight losses, the Grizzlies didn't falter, despite being without the services of two injured starters -- shooting guard Michael Dickerson and center Lorenzen Wright.
The win was a small thing in the context of an 82-game season, but still the game was a milestone. Rookies Shane Battier and Gasol experienced their first NBA win and the team showed it was at least good enough to win against an equally woeful Cavalier team. And if a team can win one, then it can win another. Now there's hope.
Members of the Griz squad took the game in stride, but their relief was obvious. Shouts echoed throughout the locker room; rap music played loud, making the job of transcribing quotes near-impossible. But quotes weren't necessary as Gasol bobbed his head and mouthed lyrics and forward Stromile Swift smiled bright and easy into the glaring cameras.
Point guard Jason Williams was instrumental in the win with 14 assists. The Grizzlies also created match-up problems for the Cavaliers by putting Battier at off-guard spot, moving Swift into both forward spots, and playing the seven-foot Gasol at forward and center. Despite the win, Williams remained characteristically low-key. "No relief," he said. "It's just a win. Every win feels good." Williams played for a team that won 55 games last year. He can put a single win in perspective.
Battier seemed to have a similar outlook, coming off his storied college career: "We made some plays," he said. "There is no magic. We can win a ball game here and there." That's right. Here and there the Griz can win.
The U of M football squad also tasted victory over the weekend with a 42-10 romp over the Black Knights of Army. The win puts Memphis at 5-5 and one game away from a winning season and bowl eligibility. Tiger head coach Tommy West knew that his team's approach to this game would be a defining moment. The team didn't let him down.
"We treated it more business-like," West said. "Like a work day." The win makes this week's game against C-USA foe Cincinnati actually mean something.
Wide receiver Bunkie Perkins and the rest of the Tigers are well aware of the situation. "At the beginning of the season," Perkins said, "Coach West told us to take it one game at a time. The most important game is the next game. [Cincinnati] is the most important because it is the next game. And it's the last one. If we don't perform in this game, we don't have a chance to perform again. [We] have to look at it like that."
So for the first time since 1994 the Tigers stare at the possibility of a winning season and even the possibility of a bowl bid. The galleryfurniture.com bowl, the GMAC bowl, or the Motor City Bowl aren't exactly big time, but few U of M faithful would turn up their noses at a bid.
In the same way that the Grizzlies win over the Cavaliers marked a milestone for the franchise, Memphis' win over Army drew a line in the sand for the program.
But other tests are right around the corner. West said it best minutes after the Army game. A reporter asked how long he could savor the moment of being 5-5 and in position to accomplish so very much. "We have time to feel good until tomorrow morning," West said. That's when the Tigers went back to the practice field to start preparing for Cincinnati.
But still, wasn't it something?
Memphis Grizzlies forwards Pau Gasol (13.6 ppg) and Shane Battier (13.0 ppg) are ranked one and two, respectively, for rookie scorers in the NBA. Gasol also leads all NBA rookies in rebounds per game (6.1), blocks per game (2.22), and field-goal percentage (.532). Center Lorenzen Wright is second in the league, with 12.6 rebounds per game.
Point guard Jason Williams ranks seventh in assists, at 8.2 per game, and third in steals, with 2.11 per game.
Tigers quarterback Danny Wimprine accounted for five touchdowns Saturday against Army, four passing and one rushing. Wimprine also passed senior Neil Suber and junior Travis Anglin as the all-time top-ranked freshman quarterback.
"I tried to put this team under as much pressure as I could. I think they responded." -- Tiger head coach Tommy West on the urgency of the win over Army
"I just told [Grizzlies forward Stromile Swift], 'That guy can't guard you.'" -- Grizzlies coach Sidney Lowe on Swift's 10 fourth-quarter points to help the team to its first season win
"They played like men tonight." -- Lowe, on his team's performance in last Saturday's game
"I was wondering why it has been so long since I heard so much hype about an incoming college basketball freshman, then I realized most great incoming freshmen never 'in-come.' They just go straight to the NBA. Then there's Dajuan Wagner, a guy who, if you looked up the word 'phenom' in the dictionary, you'd probably see Diogenes' corn-rowed head looking at you. 'Shorty' averaged -- I mean averaged -- 42.5 points per game as a high school senior, went for 50 nine times. He's a freshman at Memphis. His daddy, Milt, who won championships in high school, college, and the NBA, is a Memphis assistant. I know what you're thinking. Maybe. Maybe not. But who cares? Milt has the credentials, his son has game. John Calipari has players. Don't scrutinize. Just enjoy a rarity: a college freshman who just might live up to the hype." -- ESPN Radio's Stuart Scott.