Fire and Ice

by Cub Buenning

This past weekend marked the opening of the college football season. With the Labor Day holiday coinciding with the annual fall kickoffs, I was able to hunker down to watch an inordinate amount of pigskin.

One of the marquee early season match-ups, featured the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers, both teams with major expectations to go along with their high national rankings. The result of the game is unimportant to this post (‘Bama pounded the higher ranked, but continually underachieving Clemson squad) but one thing in particular actually brought my thoughts back to the game of basketball, the much ballyhooed Clemson running back tandem of James Davis and CJ Spiller.

Aside from Spiller’s kickoff return for a touchdown, both were pretty much held in check by the stout Tide defense, but their weather-related nickname was brought up throughout the telecast.

“Thunder and Lightning,” James brings the power and force, while Spiller is as quick as…well, lightning. Corny nicknames like this are abundant in sports. (The Steel Curtain, Run TMC, Broad Street Bullies, and The Bash Brothers to name a few).

But to me, one stood out above all else, the dynamic backcourt duo of North Carolina State’s Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe, aptly named, “Fire and Ice.”

While there are several other backcourts that could be argued as the best in college basketball history, few produced more together than the Wolfpack tandem. From 1988-1991, the two combined to rewrite not only the school’s record book, but also the ACC’s, and several national ones, as well.

If you are strictly a follower of the professional game, you might be oblivious to these two cats, but if you are a college hoops fan, you are more than versed on how Corchiani and Monroe dominated the game, all while playing in the nation’s elite conference.

Simply put, they did things as a partnership that were never done before and haven’t been replicated since.

For starters, the two both came to Raleigh as their respective state’s top all-time leading prep scorers (Monroe in Maryland; Corchiani in Florida.) Although it almost didn’t happened, they were able to play all four years in Raleigh and were drafted in the 1991 NBA Draft’s second round just five selections apart. Neither spent much time in the league, but both enjoyed fruitful and lengthy professional careers abroad, before returning to the states to start post-playing professional careers.

“Fire” was unmistakably Corchiani, as the 6-foot floor general was intense, emotional, and extremely combustible (to wit, the two’s first meeting ended in on-court fisticuffs during a freshmen fall pick-up game.) He was the first in the history of the college game to amass over 1000 assists and he finished as the school’s leader in steals, to boot. During the 1990-91 season, Corchiani topped the nation with 10 dimes a contest.

Monroe was a smooth, deadly 6’3” sniper who earned the “Ice” nickname for his cool and composed demeanor on the court. He could score from anywhere. In my opinion, he ranks as one of the college game’s most threatening offensive players ever (Ray Allen, aside.) Ice was deadly from long-range, could hit the pull-up, one-dribble jumper over anyone, and had a keen sense of open spots on the floor where his point guard could and would find him.

For a guy of his size and stature, Monroe was a demon in the low post. Whenever he was guarded by an opponent of similar or lesser size, Monroe would eventually find his way down low for his patented turn-around jumper. The Baltimore-native averaged over 27 a night during his senior season and finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer and the conference’s 4th all-time, netting over 2500 points along the way.

Oddly enough, Monroe and Corchiani might be most known for what they endured during their last two seasons in North Carolina. Legendary coach, Jimmy Valvano was immersed in a recruiting scandal which stretched into the pair’s junior seasons and the university made an unpopular decision that following summer when they dismissed/forced a resignation from the legendary coach that had brought home the NCAA title just seven years prior. Corchiani was ready to transfer; Monroe was going to test the NBA waters.

In the end, however, both came back to play for Les Robinson, a coach they were both familiar with as a Wolfpack assistant and through their time with USA Basketball. The two spurred the Pack to 20 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Monroe was named ACC Player of the Year and Corchiani broke the national assist record (before Duke’s Bobby Hurley outdid him just a couple years later).

But why did neither of these collegiate greats become stars of the NBA? Size had to be the most determining factor. Although Corchiani actually enjoyed more time in the NBA, Monroe always appeared to be the better prospect.

At that point in the history of the NBA, however, teams were moving to the taller, longer guards which have become the norm in today’s game. For example, Monroe was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks who in addition to having Dominique Wilkins on the wing had also picked up UNLV’s Stacey Augmon in that very same draft.

The Hawks wanted to make Augmon into a 2-guard and Monroe was left with little chance to break into the rotation. He wasted little time toiling at the end of the bench, immediately bolting for stints around the world that included Australia, Israel, and Greece, before settling into a seven-year career in Italy. (I always felt that if Monroe been more patient here in the states, he could have found a good fit and enjoyed a long NBA career.) “Corch” followed a similar path, playing a couple years with Boston and Orlando before bumping around the European continent.

While scientists have longed prove that the boom of thunder always follows a lightning strike, not even the dimmest would concede that fire and ice can even coexist with out one dampening the other. In the case of Corchiani and Monroe, though, there wasn’t a better suited partnership.