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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2002
MADISON, Wis. -- We begin with a break-in.
The hour is late, the building deserted. Four young men, with nothing better to do, have reached the rendezvous point at the back door.
They arrive with arms filled. Towels, a boom box, basketballs. They also carry the aspirations of a dormant basketball program.
This is where it began for Oregon. This is where the journey, now one victory from the Final Four, found its feet.
With a group of players who volunteered to stay in Eugene during the summer months for informal workouts. With four players, in particular, who would sneak into the historic, and maybe decrepit, McArthur Court arena for midnight pickup games.
"It wasn't too hard to get in," Luke Ridnour said. "Anyone could get in there if they really wanted to."
Ridnour didn't even need a sophisticated set of burglary tools. Just a piece of tape he put over a door latch earlier in the day so it would not be locked when the players returned at night.
They were not worried about campus police, though the building itself caused some anxious moments. Mac Court, built in 1927, is the oldest on-campus basketball facility in the nation. It has character and charm. It also has stray cats and bats living in the rafters.
"That place is pretty scary in the middle of the night," said sophomore center Jay Anderson, who joined Ridnour, Luke Jackson and James Davis for the midnight sessions. "The lights would go out and it would be pitch black. You're thinking, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea.' " The idea belonged to Ridnour, an avowed basketball junkie. He and Jackson, who were roommates, broached the topic with Anderson and Davis, who lived across the hall in their apartment complex.
"We got addicted to being in the gym," Jackson said. "We'd turn the radio on and play games for hours. We were getting better and better and we were having fun. Playing games in the middle of the night with your best buddies? It doesn't get any better. I think back about it now, and those were some of the best times I've ever had."
Oregon coach Ernie Kent knew a majority of his players were working out in the gym during the day, but had no idea about the midnight soirees.
Returning from a USA Basketball trip, Kent discovered the rigged door. It took, oh, maybe a minute for him to finger the culprit.
"I questioned Ridnour," Kent said. "He said he did it."
Recognizing his players were doing more good than harm, Kent arranged for Ridnour to get a set of keys to the arena.
"It says a lot that a group of young people can sacrifice their summers to stay around together," said Kent, who was forbidden by NCAA rules to be around for summer practices.
"A lot of them took care of their own expenses to be there for that 6-8 weeks. I thought that sent an incredible statement. I knew we had something special when you can get young people to sacrifice like that."
Their summer soon fell into a routine. Wake up early to hit the weight room -- "You know what kind of sacrifice it is for a college kid to get up at 9 o'clock in the summer?" Jackson asks -- practice at Mac Court for a few hours and spend the rest of the afternoon sunning around a pool.
When they returned at night, the two-on-two games were always the same. Ridnour, a 6-2 guard, got the 6-9 Anderson on his team. Jackson, a 6-7 forward, got the 5-10 Davis on his team.
"Me and Rid would destroy them. We were like (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone running picks," Anderson said. "We'd have to stop because James and Jackson would start arguing. They'd get to the point where they stopped passing to each other. It was hysterical."
Sometimes, the games would run until 3 a.m.
"You never wanted to leave as a loser," Davis said. "After every game, somebody would say, "Okay, one more.' "
The results of the workouts were obvious. Flabby bodies turned hard. Skinny players grew solid.
Of even greater importance, a splintered team came together.
The Ducks went into last summer still living with the disappointment of a 14-14 season. Kent, who was dealing with some personal issues at home, had seemed distant. Players, who had made the NCAA Tournament the year before, appeared to have lost their enthusiasm.
By remaining in town in the summer and working together without supervision, the players created a sense of shared commitment.
Along the way, they brought fun back to a game that had become a chore.
The custom of beginning a new basketball season at the stroke of midnight on the first official day of practice in Ocotber is nothing new. But Oregon's twist on an old theme just might pay off today against Kansas.
Here is a team that got the most out of Midnight Madness.