CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dr. Glenn Perry finished up orthopedic surgery Wednesday and looked up at the clock. Fifteen minutes until the Cougars practiced for today’s NCAA tournament game.
His lunch hour was coming up. Then, he had a patient at 1 p.m. Bah, he could make it.
He jumped into his car and sped down to Bobcats Arena. There was one man he wanted to see: Washington State University men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett.
“It made my day to be able to see Tony Bennett and to see him do so well,” said Perry, who was the head team physician for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets when Bennett played here more than a decade ago. “I would be run out of town on a rail, but I’m telling you, if (the University of North) Carolina lost, I wouldn’t be all that upset. Especially if it was (to) Tony Bennett’s team.”
Washington State goes toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels at 4:27 p.m. (PDT) today, in their Sweet 16 matchup. And for any local, rooting against top-ranked North Carolina “would be heresy,” Perry said.
It’s been 13 years since Bennett was on the basketball sidelines here. That was when he was in the NBA, a backup point guard for the Hornets from 1992 to ‘95. The Hornets are now in New Orleans, and Charlotte has the Bobcats.
This week, Bennett’s back in North Carolina after leading the Cougars to the Sweet 16. The squad from Pullman is ranked 21st nationally and is a No. 4 seed in the tournament.
“When the brackets came out, my wife and I said, ‘Oh, this would be sweet to go back to Charlotte,’ ” Bennett said. “But, I don’t think too many people will remember me and will be pulling for the Cougs. … I think most of them will be pulling for the Carolina Blue.”
True, the Tar Heels have been playing all of their NCAA tournament games in their home state. True, Charlotte is not even 150 miles west of Chapel Hill, home to UNC’s main campus. And true, the lower bowl of Bobcats Arena was full of baby-blue jerseys for basketball practice Wednesday.
But the Cougars, after finishing their shoot-around, got a fair amount of applause from the North Carolina enthusiasts. Some of the crowd surely must remember Bennett from his days as Muggsy Bogues’ backup for the Hornets.
Bennett was “a very good defensive player,” said David Floyd, a Cornelius, N.C., resident and Tar Heels fan who watched the Cougars practice. “And if I recall, he just seemed to be a very intense ballplayer.
“I guess the No. 1 thing that stuck out to me is he was very fundamentally sound. And I know he wasn’t a superstar, but he just didn’t make many turnovers and (was) pretty solid all the way around.”
Washington State basketball fans might recognize those adjectives. You could replace “he” with “the Cougars,” and you’d end up with a common description of Bennett’s current team.
That’s why some North Carolina fans said Wednesday they are a little scared of the Cougars. Bennett’s back, and he’s brought the second-best defensive team in the nation.
“Of course, he grew up as the son of a coach,” Perry said, referring to Dick Bennett, a former coach at Wisconsin and Washington State. “So basketball was his passion. He loved it. He worked his tail off. I mean, let’s face it, he wasn’t a tall guy, he wasn’t physically gifted. But, boy, he worked himself into a nice quality backup point guard.”
Tony Bennett played three seasons for the Hornets before an injury took him out of the NBA in 1995. He remembers guarding Michael Jordan. He was on the court when Alonzo Mourning shot a buzzer-beater to catapult the up-and-coming Hornets into the second round of the 1993 NBA playoffs.
“It was real special,” Bennett said of his three years with the Hornets. “One thing that my father instilled in me: Good basketball knows no divisions or limits. And, you know, I didn’t have the pedigree or the background of some of those players in the NBA.
“Maybe our Washington State team doesn’t have the tradition of some of those schools that are in the NCAA tournament,” he added, alluding to North Carolina. “If you do things the right way, if you play good basketball, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to have a chance to compete and advance and get to where you want to get to – as a player, as a team.”
His days in Charlotte were also highlighted by meeting his wife at church. Laurel Bennett, who is from Baton Rouge, La., was an assistant youth pastor in Charlotte when Tony was asked to talk to the youth group.
“I said, ‘Hmm, now I know why the good Lord brought me there,’ ” Bennett said.
After the NBA and a few years playing in Australia, Bennett went back to his home state of Wisconsin as an assistant basketball coach under his father.
Dick Bennett built up the University of Wisconsin basketball program and led the Badgers to the NCAA tournament Final Four before retiring. But he came out of retirement in 2003 to coach at Washington State, to build up the Cougars’ program, and brought Tony with him.
Tony Bennett took over last season – when the Cougars appeared in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years – and was named national coach of the year. “I’m not surprised a bit to see him following in his father’s footsteps,,” Floyd said from the bleachers Wednesday. “I’m probably one of the biggest Tar Heels fans you’ll ever find … and I have to say that, while I’m confident the Heels are going to beat Washington State, I know it’s not going to be a cakewalk.”
Sportscasters have been blazing Bennett’s name around the airwaves as a possible replacement for Indiana University’s Kelvin Sampson, who was fired earlier this season for breaking NCAA regulations. But Washington State fans are crossing their fingers that Bennett will stick around Pullman.
“He’s quite a nice young man,” said Perry, now head physician for the Bobcats. “And if he’s had this kind of early success, he will build on that, and I predict him to ultimately be one of the top college coaches in the country.
“You wait and see.”