Back in ’96, UMass basketball was running through the rest of the NCAA with ease en route to a 35-2 overall record and Final Four berth. Led by center Marcus Camby and head coach John Calipari, the Minutemen destroyed the rest of the A-10 Conference and nearly knocked off eventual champ Kentucky–a team they had already beat during the regular season–in the Final Four. During their March Madness run, walk-on Ross Burns agreed to keep a running diary as the team made it’s way through the five rounds of the NCAA Tourney. Burns’ diary was eventually published in SLAM 12 and can be read in full below. Burns is still very much active in the basketball world and is doing some great work in the NYC area both in training and charitable efforts.

We’ll hear much more from Ross next week, but for now, enjoy his take on the best UMass team in school history.

***

by Quin Goodwin from daily interviews with Ross Burns

I’m Ross. Ross Burns. And this is a 12th-man walk-on’s diary of the NCAA Tournament. But yo, dig this: We’re not the Fightin’ Irish and I ain’t freakin’ Rudy.

I’m a guard–a 6-3, frosh, second-string guard. A guard who was named New England’s Class A Player of the Year in ‘95. A guard who, instead of raising the roof in D-2 gyms, chose to go to war–day in, day out–versus Edgar ‘n’ Carmelo, one of college’s best backcourts. It’s trying at times, but just look at the payoff. 31-1. Dishin’ out L’s like the guys in Chi-town. Refuse to Lose. It’s UMass’ motto. Any doubts? Our goal is the swamps of New Jersey. Six wins. NCAA rings. Anything less won’t satisfy us.

Sunday, 3/10

Our flight back from L’ville game touches down. We go straight to coach Cal’s house to watch the selection show. It’s weird, though, ‘cause in the last few years it was big thing, watiting to see what seed and region we’d get. It was always in doubt. But we know we’re getting a once seed in the East, so it’s a little anti-climatic. A few guys hang out for interviews.

Tuesday, 3/12

Noon–We’re wrapping up practice at the Mullins Center at UMass. Once it’s over, we get on the team bus with a fistful of subs. Off to Providence, RI, the site of our first two rounds. At the hotel, I’m roomin’ with Big Dawg (Inus Norville), who’s nursing a bum ankle. 6-10 forward Ted Cotrell, who we call Pook ‘cuz he looks like Chris Rock in New Jack City, gives a few guys haircuts. Can’t do it tomorrow, ‘cause Cal’s superstitious and won’t allow haircuts on game day.

Wednesday, 3/13

9 a.m.–BLAM–BLAM–BLAM. Fester, a team manager who looks like the uncle on The Addams Family, is banging on the door to wake us.

After breakfast, it’s off to Brown University to work-out. We run a few segments of workin’ against zone pressure, ‘cause Cal feels we’re going to see the press a lot in the NCAA’s with teams like Arkansas and G’town in our region.

At lunch, Cal breaks down Central Florida’s plays on “the board.” Prior to every game, Cal breaks down the opposing players’ abilities, strengths, habits and weaknesses. “Watch out for No. 5,” Cal says. “He’s a streak shooter.”

But we know we’re not going to get beat by UCF, so I’m just relaxin for now.

Thursday, 3/14

2:45 p.m.–Cal’s giving us a pre-game talk. “It’s supposed to be fun. Keep that in mind, and don’t forget–you’re 31-1, not them. Put yourself in their shoes. Make it difficult for them to win.”

Fast-forward to three minutes in the first half; we’re up 11. Cal says, “Let’s get a stop and blow this thing wide open.” But instead, UCF scores. Donta gets a foul. UCF scores again. We call a 20 second time-out. We commit a turnover. UCF hits a three. Uh, oh. Going into the lockers, it’s 43-39, us. Only a four point lead to a team that’s 11-18. Cal’s mad. “I want you to play like you’re going to the electric chair,” Cal says.

Enter Edgar. Exit UCF. Edgar only gets seven steals, but he gets his hand on at least 16 balls. UCF couldn’t get the ball past half-court for three minutes. Marcus got a cheap shot to his forehead, requiring a few stitches, but he’s okay.

That night, I catch UCLA getting KO’ed by Princeton. Good.

Friday, 3/15

10 a.m.–Team meeting. Cal’s glad we got a W. But now it’s time to prepare for Stanford, and as go Brevin Knight and Dion Cross, so goes their team. Cal breaks it down.

“Make Dion Cross drive the lane. Force him into Marcus. Last year Marcus had eight blocks in the NCAA’s against this team. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Afterwards, I’m riding the elevator. So is Penn State’s Dan Earl. He’s bumming.

Saturday, 3/16

Stanford game. Cal’s nervous. I think he’s got a bad feeling ‘bout this one. But our game plan’s working. Brevin Knight’s talkin’ trash. At one point, he drives the lane and MC rejects his shot into the third row, telling him, “Don’t bring that shit inside.”

After the win, it’s back on the bus.

Sunday, 3/17

Marcus, Junior, my friend Nils and I go to the mall in Holyoke, MA. Mistake. We can’t walk five feet without MC getting bumrushed for autographs. There’s 15-20 people following us like he’s the messiah.

8 p.m.–The team’s watching the Texas Tech-UNC game and getting juiced with Ham’s shattering of the backboard.

Monday, 3/18

11:45 a.m.–Weight lifting. I bench press 215 pounds at last.

After that, it’s off to practice at the Cage, a gym on campus. Cal puts us through a light workout, and then it’s subs on the bus and a flight out of Connecticut.

Edgar’s in front of me, sleeping the entire flight. I guess the 36-minutes-a-night this year is catchin’ up to him. I’m next to Cal. What a conversationalist. He’s in a trance, watching Arkansas games on a mini-TV. On goes the Discman–Wu Tang. Two hours later, the plane lands in Atlanta. Thank God it’s not Providence.

Tuesday, 3/19

2 p.m.–For practice, we go to G-Tech’s Georgia Dome. G-Tech’s practicing for a game with Cincinnati in the Southeast Regionals. Dana and Charlton know Steph Marbury, so we talk to him and Drew Barry. “Good luck” and stuff.

Once G-Tech’s done, Cal runs us, getting us ready for the Hogs’ 40-minutes-of-hell pressure defense. We run six guys on defense, pressing the starting five’s offense. Our first-string offense is breaking it, and once we go to 5-on-5, it’s all over. Edgar ‘n’ Carmelo are ready. Cal goes over the game plan. “Make Kareem Reid shoot. Get on Pat Bradley’s ass ‘n’ make him create off the dribble,” screams Cal. “They’re not very deep without Jesse Pate and Sunday Adebayo, so take it to ‘em, get ‘em in foul trouble. Attack the press. Scoring’s the only way to beat it.”

Wednesday, 3/20

Oh, shit. Los fell. Carmelo fell.

The starting five were at a media conference, and as Carmelo was walkin’ onto the stage ‘n’ trying to get ‘round Marcus, he lost his footing ‘n’ fell six feet on national television. Once we knew he was okay, we were dying. Donta’s rolling around on the floor in the locker room in hysterics. Cal was laughing too. See, Los is a big jokester, always crackin’ on guys, so we owe him.

After practice we go back to the Omni ‘n’ go to Cal’s room for pizza. We watch Los falling on TV about 100 times.

Thursday, 3/21

Ninety minutes before the game, everyone’s on the bus ‘cept Marcus. He’s five minutes late after getting stuck in traffic. Cal’s rules: If you’re late, you sit. So for the first two minutes, Marcus sits.

7:30 p.m.–Game time. Dingle scores six straight points. Nolan Richardson calls for a 20-second time out. At the half, we’ve got ‘em by 12. Game over.

On the bus, Fester’s got cotton candy for us. Cool.

Friday, 3/22

10 a.m.–Cal takes us to a local hospital to visit Travis Roy, a 17-year-old frosh on the BU hockey team who was paralyzed, crashin’ the boards in his first shift on the ice back in October. We talk and joke with him. He’s a big UMass fan, so we sign a few t-shirts.

Once we’re back on the bus, Cal’s attention turns to G’Town. “Don’t back down. Be aggressive,” he says. “We’re going to play straight man-to-man, with Carmelo guarding Iverson.” Basically G’Town’s just Arkansas with more talent. It’s the same style of play.

10:30 p.m.–It’s Marcus’ birthday, so we get cake ‘n’ ice cream. We sing him the birthday song, crack a few jokes, get corny. Marcus is 22, and I think I know his wish: G’Town.

Saturday, 3/23

2:30 p.m.–We’re shooting around at the Georgia Dome. Cal lays it out. “If Marcus defends and rebounds, we’ll win by 8-9 points. If Marcus socres 20, we’ll win by 20.”

5:45 p.m. –Victor Page’s talking a little trash, telling Donta to get ready cuz “It’s on tonight.” G’Town seems cocky.

Game starts. G’Town doesn’t seem too sure of itself now, ‘cept for one play. AI shifts gears and crosses over on Carmelo. No one’s done that–not Steph, not DeJuan, not even GW’s Shawnta Rogers. But “the Answer” leaves Los flatfooted, blazing by him. AI gets to the paint, takes off and gets from the floor to the rim with no in-between time.

Second half, Camby gets busy, catching the ball tight to the basket, playing with emotion. The game’s winding down ‘n’ I go in with the second string and get a breakaway basket. Two points for Ross. Don’t laugh, it’s two more than Victor Page. Unlike ‘Cuse and the Wildcats after their regionals, we don’t waste time cutting down the nets.

Sunday, 3/24

10 p.m.–On the bust to Amherst, we watch the G’Town game. Guys are cracking up at Ty’s wrestling with AI for a loose ball.

Monday, 3/25

9:00 a.m.–We get the day off form basketball. I get a haircut ‘n’ go to Consumer Studies class with Big Dawg ‘n’ Junior. We’ve got to go to the Mullins Center to sign a few NCAA forms, saying we haven’t gotten any money from agents. I’m safe.

3 p.m.–We’re working out with weights. Marcus is getting strong, pressing 225 lbs. Okay for a skinny boy, huh?

Tuesday, 3/26

6 p.m.–We take the team bus to MSG to catch the NIT semis, with fellow A-10 team St. Joe’s taking on ‘Bama. With a few minutes left and St. Joe’s winning, we take off.

Wednesday, 3/27

5:30 p.m.–Cal’s room. We watch our game vs. Kentucky eearlier in the season. Cal emphasizes that we cut without the ball to the rim. In UK’s game vs. Wake, guys were getting it to Duncan low in the box, but they they’d stand still. So the Wildcats doubleteam was killing ‘em. Cal wants Dingle ‘n’ Bright cutting to the basket in order to give Camby a target to pass to out of the doubles.

Other than that, it’s boring. We’re going stir-crazy. The guys can’t wait for Saturday’s tip-off, so we can get this on.

Thursday, 3/28

At noon, we’re workin’ on UK’s press, practicing at Fairleigh-Dickinson University. Cal coach Todd Bozeman–our assistant, James “Bruiser” Flint, knows him from Philly–comes by to say hey.

5 p.m.–Cal’s showing us film of Kentucky’s game against San Jose State. We’re studying how they broke the press in the first half. Cal’s confident.

Friday, 3/29

2:30 p.m.–We’re going all out at pracitce. We’re ready for Kentucky.

11 p.m.–Back at Cal’s foom. Sanity at last. Pizzas. Sodas. Guys are relaxing, cracking jokes. Marcus says, “If we win the national championship, I’ll get buck naked like Rodman ‘n’ run the stairs at the arena.” Guys are howling-laughing.

Saturday, 3/30

4:30 p.m.–Meeting. Guys are loose. Mayrland’s Keith Booth, who’s Donta’s cousin, is hanging out with us. We’re eating, relaxing, talking ‘bout the game.

6:15 p.m.–Massachussetts Senator Ted Kennedy visits our locker room, saying “Go get ‘em boys” and “Good luck.”

6:40 p.m.–Game starts. Oh, shit, we’re stiff. We’re not coming to play. Cal’s focused. Edgar’s focused. But something’s not right.

At the half, we’re down eight. We’re breaking the press, but we’ve got zero motion in the half-court. Los isn’t getting the ball, so UK isn’t having to extend it’s D.

Second half. We get to within three for a second time. Camby fires a three. It misses. Los misfires on a three of his own. UK’s lead is back to seven. It’s over.

Back in the lockers. Guys are sitting ‘round talking. Emotions are taking over. We’ve been together, 24-7, since August. For Donta, Dana, Edgar, Los and Camby, it’s been three years.

Marcus is in tears. Donta’s crying, too.

Cal’s trying to stay tough, but as we circle ‘round for the last time as a team, he cracks. I feel so sorry for Cal. We let him down. We should’ve beat ‘em. Now I know ho Penn State’s Earl felt. And no, it’s not a good feeling.