Jimmy Patsos bursts through the doors and starts working the room like a politician, shaking hands and patting backs. This room happens to be a gymnasium, and there's never a doubt about the man responsible for bringing everyone together.
Patsos, the Loyola men's basketball coach, wears a dark blue jacket, no tie. He's 40 years old, yet his name draws more cheers from the student body than any player's. After turning around the school's program with a two-year finger snap, he has given Loyola reason to talk about the postseason again. That's why they're chanting Jim-my! Pat-sos! Clap-clap-clapclapclap just as the show begins.
From the opening tip, though, everyone can tell that something is different. The game has started, yet the volatile coach remains seated. He watches the action move back and forth, a pensive look on his face.
"I can get them only so far," Patsos says later, explaining this eerily calm demeanor. "They have to take it the rest of the way. They're the ones who have to play and who have to want to play."
His team builds a lead - 13 points at one point - but Patsos' usual antics are nowhere to be seen. He doesn't leap into the air, isn't barking at the officials, doesn't wave his arms as though he's trying to catch flight. Something is different.
The opponent, Canisius, mounts a first-half comeback, eventually tying the score at 30. Patsos calls a timeout with 3 1/2 minutes to go in the half and looks as if someone just slipped fresh batteries into him. The old firecracker inside is fighting to get out.
This is a man who grew up in Boston, studying Rick Pitino at Boston University, Jim Calhoun at Northeastern, Gary Williams at Boston College and Bill Fitch with the Celtics. And then he spent 13 years as an assistant at Maryland under Williams, a passionate leader whose flame rarely flickers. "Yeah, I learned a lot from Gary," Patsos says with a laugh.
Energy and fire
It's a delicate tightrope. Any coach who fancies himself a motivator wants to light a fire under his players without scorching their spirits. This night's calm was inspired by an epiphany of sorts.
After a game last month, Shane James, one of Loyola's two seniors, told Patsos that he couldn't take the yelling, that it wasn't helping him and he was thinking about leaving the program. "I made a deal with him," Patsos says. "If he plays better without it, then that's the way to go. If you can't play being yelled at, then why should I be yelling?"
It's Patsos' energy and fire that have brought the program this far. The season before his arrival, the Greyhounds finished 1-27. In 2004-05, they were 6-22 and last season 15-13. Now, they carry a 14-11 record into their final four regular-season games. Even more important, they're just one game out of first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the Greyhounds, whose only NCAA tournament appearance came in 1994, could enter the conference tournament in good position for a run.
With just under a minute left in the half, players from both teams tumble to the floor and the whistle blows. It's a foul against Loyola. Patsos leaps from his seat like a Pop Tart and just as his mouth opens, the ref is already answering. "Jim! What do you have to say now?! You don't think that was a foul? You seriously don't think that was a foul?"
Patsos doesn't argue, though his cool is fizzing out like a tire that's sprung a leak.
Loyola blew its lead thanks to some poor perimeter shooting, and a voice from the crowd behind him mockingly asks, "Why don't we shoot another three?"
Patsos ejects from his chair and spins. "Who said that?" he says. "You got something to say? Why don't you come to practice?'
Patsos is the one who built up this rowdy student section, which has the energy, if not the numbers, of a University of Maryland crowd. The undergraduate student body at Loyola numbers only 3,500 and it looks as though one-third of the enrollment is here. One fan is dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants and another as a dragon. One student apparently knew cameras would be at Reitz Arena, broadcasting the game on ESPNU. His sign reads: "SportsCenter is next ... on another channel."
There are times, of course, when Patsos wonders whether he's being too hard on his players. That's when he turns to his assistants, Terrell Stokes and Matt Kovarik, both of whom played at Maryland under Williams. Kovarik laughs. "Are you kidding? You're getting away with murder."
As the clock starts to roll in the second half, Patsos abandons his seat on the bench and plops down in a chair at the opposite end. He's suddenly closer to the gym's exit doors than to midcourt, sitting between a trio of Baltimore youths, regulars at Patsos' summer camp who have courtesy seats on the bench this night.
The score remains tight and so do Patsos' nerves. With nearly 12 minutes left, a Canisius player drives in for a layup and a Greyhound hits the court hard. There's no whistle, but Patsos sees a charge. He pops up and meets the referee at center court, walking with him for 25 feet or so, his lips flapping the entire way.
Later, Patsos will make the exchange sound rather innocent. He contends he told the referee. "I didn't like the call, and I want my timeout." The referee says he heard, "I didn't like the call and I want my 'T' now."
Patsos is slapped with a technical, his 10th of the season. The NCAA doesn't chart such things, but it's tough to imagine another coach in basketball with that many right now.
"Hey, you gotta lead the country in something," Patsos says.
Sure, his face can get red, but he usually retains control. He thinks it's his New England humor that causes trouble. "Were you officiating in the NCAA tournament last year?" he asked one ref. "That's why." Technical. Another time, he chided an official: "You're from upstate New York, right? Isn't that where Siena's from?" That drew a technical, too.
Patsos is methodical about his technicals. He won't get one in the final 10 minutes because he doesn't want his actions to cost his team. But this one against Canisius is hurting. The Griffins score six straight points and take the lead. Patsos remains seated the entire time.
It soon becomes apparent that this game will go down to the wire. Sitting still might be Patsos' biggest challenge of the season.
He looks happy, though, as his team fights back. Josko Alujevic, a senior forward, spins left and puts up a one-handed five-footer that gives Loyola a four-point lead with 30 seconds remaining. Five seconds later, though, Alujevic fouls out. As the crowd chants an expletive, Alujevic returns to the bench and Patsos greets him with a smile. He shakes the player's hand and pats him on the back.
Canisius struggles to make a comeback. One of the Griffins is on the line with 10 seconds remaining and a four-point deficit. Patsos is standing now, but his back is to the court. "Don't tell me if he makes it," he tells one of his student managers. The shot clangs off the rim, which Patsos notes by the crowd reaction.
"We love you, Jimmy!" someone yells from the student section as Patsos takes his seat. He can't resist. The coach stands again, turns and smiles. "I love you, too."
The Greyhounds win the game and the players make a beeline to the locker room. Patsos is several minutes behind them. He circles the arena. There are more hands to shake, more people to thank.