Joe Santoro: Wolf Pack getting rid of the ghosts

On some of those cold December nights, when the upper reaches of Lawlor Events Center is desolate, barren and lifeless, you swear to yourself you can almost see them sitting up near the rafters all by themselves and smiling.

"I tell my guys, 'You are going to be haunted by the ghosts,'" said Nevada coach David Carter, a believer in all things spiritual and mystical when it comes to the Wolf Pack basketball Gods. "I tell them, 'The ghosts are real. They are there. Those ghosts came before you.'"

Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sessions, Kevinn Pinkney, Kirk Snyder, Todd Okeson, Gary Hill-Thomas, Marcelus Kemp, Jermaine Washington, Sean Paul, Kyle Shiloh, Mo Charlo, Denis Ikovlev.

The Wolf Pack's Ghosts of NCAA Tournaments Past, every single one of them.

You just know that when the lights are turned off at Lawlor, when the crowd has safely journeyed back home, the music and the scoreboard are turned off and the doors are locked, those ghosts come down from the rafters. They effortlessly slip on their spotless blue and white Nevada uniforms, step out on the court and whip Kansas, UNLV, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Texas all over again.

They never lose. That's the beauty of being a ghost. Ghosts are eternally undefeated. Every shot that leaves their fingers is true and perfect. Every pass crisp and smart. And at the end of the night, before they fly back up to the rafters, they cut down the nets and lift a cute cheerleader on their shoulders and a trophy above their heads.

"I challenge my team to be as good as those ghosts," said Carter, who knew all those silver and blue ghosts personally.

The Pack ghosts take on quite a few different forms. They are the banners that hang from the ceiling, like long and flowing tombstones, complete with dates and titles. Some of them have even taken on a lifelike form, sat courtside, shaken hands and exchanged hugs with well-wishers and gobbled popcorn and soft drinks. But, mostly, their most chilling and frightening form has been the thousands of empty, comatose seats at Lawlor, night after night.

Until now.

The ghosts are being pushed out of Lawlor, finally, after five years. A crowd of 7,016 -- the first gathering of over 7,000 fans at Lawlor for a Pack basketball game since March 6, 2010 -- showed up to see the Wolf Pack beat Fresno State, 74-61, last Saturday night.

Ghosts? What ghosts? The Wolf Pack has its longest winning streak -- 14 games -- since the ghosts also won 14 in a row from January to March, 2006.

"I didn't get to watch those teams that much," said Pack senior forward Olek Czyz, who was winning high school state titles at Reno High when the ghosts were frightening foes from coast to coast from 2004-07. "But, really, we don't focus on what those teams did that much. This group, we don't look at those teams. We are focused on what we have to do."

This Pack team doesn't believe in ghosts.

"I've heard about those teams," sophomore point guard Deonte Burton said. "I know there have been some great players who played here."

But that's about the extent of his knowledge of the eerie demons that live in the Lawlor rafters.

"No, I never really heard about all those teams or those players before I came here," Burton said, not intending any disrespect.

One of the strengths of this year's Pack team is its innocence. And, to be sure, it would be a shame to shatter that innocence just when the party is getting started at Lawlor once again.

But the reason for the innocence is because the ghosts have left them alone before now. There was no reason, after all, for the ghosts to rattle their chains in the middle of the night, no reason to howl when this team was going 13-19 a year ago.

Why bother? A ghost, after all, has to conserve its energy. Why waste all of their ghostly powers on a team that had a knack of scaring itself, a group that didn't even go to a postseason tournament? Last year's team didn't even know enough to be afraid of ghosts.

So the ghosts left them alone.

Until now.

This Pack team, to this point, has only been compared to itself. All of the questions they've had to answer, all of the expectations they've had to meet were all based on last year's 13-19 season. All of the questions have been about their improvement from a year ago, how much they've matured, how the mindset has changed this year, how much weight they've lost or gained, how good it must feel to be in a winning streak.

The expectations heaped upon this team this year, to be honest, have not been great. Last year, don't forget, they couldn't even get invited to a dot com tournament. That's why, after all, 7,000 fans didn't show up for a game this year until the winning streak hit 13.

But that's all about to change. The ghosts are waking up.

The more this team wins, the more it will be compared to the 2004-07 ghosts. The expectations will rise with every victory. The Malik Story of 2011-12 will no longer be compared to a pudgy and winded Malik Story of 2010-2011. He'll now be compared to sleek and tireless NBA draft pick Kirk Snyder. Deonte Burton won't be compared to a deer-in-the-headlights, wide-eyed Deonte Burton of 2010-11. He'll now be compared to a fearless, smart, coach-on-the-floor NBA draft pick Ramon Sessions.

Burton, Story and Czyz and the rest of this team will get to know Fazekas, Sessions, Snyder, Pinkney and Charlo better than they want to know them. They'll hear about the tournament wins over Michigan State, Gonzaga, Texas and Creighton, the Western Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles and, yes, the way northern Nevada was in a Wolf Pack basketball frenzy for four seasons.

And, you can be sure, Carter wants them to hear about it.

"It's a challenge," Carter said. "You want to be challenged by those teams. Those are the expectations we have in this program. That's why when people ask me about winning 12 or 13 games in a row I always answer that we haven't done anything yet. Our goals are not about winning streaks. Our goals are higher than that. We want to win championships."

It might be too early -- and a little unfair -- to start comparing this year's team to the ghosts. No matter what happens this year, after all, the best for this group might be yet to come. The bulk of this group will be back the next two years, just like the 2003-04 team that created the ghosts.

But that's the deal with ghosts. They never show up when you want them to show up. They show up when they want to show up. And, you can be sure, they are back.

"Only champions erase champions, erase those ghosts," Carter said. "That's our challenge. I tell my team, 'If you want people to forget about all those championship teams of the past, then you have to go out and win a championship yourself."

This year's team has it much tougher than the ghosts had it. The ghosts, after all, didn't have any ghosts to haunt them. When the 2003-04 team went to the NCAA Tournament, it had been 19 years (1985) since the Pack had been in the national spotlight. And, with apologies to the likes of Dwyane Randall, Tony Sommers, Rob Harden, Curtis High, Ed Porter, Mike Parillo and Tony Ronzone, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in 2004 who could rattle off a few names from that 1985 team.

This year's team, like all Pack teams since 2007, have had their own personal ghosts.

Fazekas has haunted every Pack forward and center to come after him. Okeson and Sessions have haunted all the point guards. Pinkney has been the standard of toughness that no Pack player after him can compete with. Snyder and Kemp have haunted all the shooting guards. Charlo, Shiloh, Washington and Hill-Thomas have haunted all of the scrappy guards and forwards whose job is to do all of the little things.

Carter, whose ghosts Trent Johnson and Mark Fox are ghosts he helped create as a Pack assistant for 10 years, knows how daunting the personal ghosts can be.

"I always tell my players not to worry about being those players," Carter said. "I told Luke Babbitt, 'Don't try to be Nick Fazekas. You are not Nick Fazekas.' I told Armon (Johnson) and Deonte (Burton), 'Don't try to be Ramon Sessions. You are not Ramon Sessions.'

"But what I tell them is this. 'Your motivation is not to be the next Nick Fazekas or Marcelus Kemp or Ramon Sessions or Kevinn Pinkney. Your motivation is to get people to say after you're gone, 'I remember Olek Czyz. He was a great player. I remember Malik Story. I remember Deonte Burton. I remember Dario Hunt. Those guys could play.'

"I want these guys to become the ghosts for the next generation of players."


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