In the early 1980s I was working in the sports department for the old Milwaukee Journal and one day our sports editor, Bill Dwyer, ask me to drive to Platteville to see what was going on with some basketball coach named Bo Ryan.
Platteville, I discovered, was closer to Dubuque, Iowa, than it was to Madison and the drive, in the middle of winter, was a lot of two-lane road with snow all around.
The word was that this Ryan guy was playing an unusual brand of basketball and was someone who needed to be watched.
I got there and went to a basketball game on campus. I don’t remember the opponent or the score or much of anything about the game. I do remember that Ryan had five white players who started the game and that this team seemed to pass the ball a lot before finally taking a shot. I also remember that the other team had to work real hard to get shots.
After the game I asked someone where the postgame news conference was. He was perplexed because back then Ryan didn’t have postgame news conferences. I did get to talk to him a bit and while trying to get him to define his philosophy, we never got beyond, "I want players who play hard all the time."
Move ahead three decades and Ryan is the head coach at Wisconsin. He still starts mostly white players. He still has a team that passes a lot and makes the other team work hard for shots.
And this team is ranked among the top teams in the whole country and a legitimate threat to win a national title come March. And Ryan is featured in national media, like yesterday's lengthy piece in The New York Times.
There has been artistic criticism of Ryan’s style.
Some people call it plodding, totally unlike the speed game of most of the rest of college and pro basketball. But those people miss the point.
Ryan’s team can run. When the opportunity arises they can run a fast break with the best of them. The thing that makes the Badgers great is that they only run when the opportunity is there, they don’t force things. When they set up in the half court they pass and pass and pass again, until someone takes a shot.
If you want to understand Wisconsin basketball, watch Ryan when one of his players takes a 25 foot jump shot with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. Ryan looks like he’s about to have a stroke.
Once, the late Rick Majerus and I rode up north to see some high school basketball player, and Majerus was talking basketball. He got to the point where he took a look at Ryan.
"Bo runs a pancake offense," Majerus said. "Most of the time his players look like they are running in syrup until a big bite appears and then they gobble it up."
This year’s edition of his basketball team may well be the best ever, and depth has always been a hallmark of a Ryan team. He has built what is certainly the best basketball program in the state, leaving the others, like Marquette and UWM in his rear view mirror.
The Badgers lost their leader, senior guard Traevon Jackson several weeks ago but Wisconsin didn’t miss a beat when sophomore Bronson Koenig stepped into the starting lineup and the Badgers continued their inexorable march through the Big Ten.
This edition of Ryan’s team is most likely going to produce three players who play in the NBA in Frank Kaminsky, Sam Decker and Nigel Hayes. Koenig also stands a chance because the NBA loves guys who can shoot.
Sometimes you shake your head in wonder about how good this team is. Sunday they took apart a streaking Illinois team by 19 points. The victory came on the day that it was announced that Ryan was a candidate for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. If there is any justice in the world, he’s going to get the nod.
But Ryan basketball is not about any one person, even a coach. He has an unshakable belief in the strength of a team being greater than the strength of the individual.
The evidence is clear. Wisconsin is one of the few top basketball teams in the nation where the players wear jerseys that don’t have their names on them.
Us, not me. That’s Ryan’s way and it has worked for decades.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.