In the instant when everything mattered, Laron Mann jumped.
He stretched his arm. He extended his palm. Later he would say it was the highest he had ever leaped in his life, farther than he ever imagined he could coerce his body to go. But the last 2 ½ months had been about reaching heights never imagined; why should this be any different?
And now an opponent’s shot rose in the last second of Saturday’s Division III Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference basketball tournament final, carrying with it the dreams of tiny La Roche College and the greatest wish of its late coach Scott Lang: an NCAA Tournament bid. La Roche led by two points. If the shot went through the rim, La Roche could lose. If it missed, La Roche would go to its first NCAA Tournament ever, which was the tribute its players desperately wanted to give their fallen coach.
So Mann pushed, lunging, straining. Video would later show he almost seemed to be flying. He had to do something, anything to be sure he blocked that shot and left nothing to fate in a season where fortune had been a fickle visitor.
Then his hand felt ball. A miraculous block, really. One that sent the ball careening toward a balcony above the court at La Roche’s Kerr Fitness and Sport Center. The buzzer sounded. The game was over. La Roche was going to the NCAAs. And Laron Mann began running.
“I don’t even know where I went,” he told ThePostGame.com by phone this week. In the bedlam of the moment, it didn’t seem to matter.
Students poured from the stands. A roar, like none ever heard in the Kerr Center, bounced off the walls. Players, coaches and students gathered in a prayer circle at center court, right on the school insignia where Lang died on Dec. 10 after collapsing at practice. They were silent for a moment then erupted in a great shout of “Scott Lang!”
“I don’t think any of us has stopped smiling,” said Hermie Carmichael, a former La Roche guard who is one of four coaches guiding the team after Lang’s death.
For 15 years, Lang was La Roche basketball. He became the school’s coach at age 27 and until his death at 41 he agonized over every detail, sitting in his office until 3 a.m. watching film, washing uniforms and designing drills for the next day’s practice. He had chances to leave, to go to bigger places -- including several offers to be a Division I assistant -- yet he turned them all down. The little Catholic school in McCandless, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh, was his home, he decided. It was where he belonged.
He longed for La Roche to be great. And there were so many rules he had for everything. Players couldn’t wear untucked jerseys or untied shoes on the practice floor. They had to push in their seats and clean up their trays in the school cafeteria or on road trips. They were required to thank the restaurant manager every time they stopped as a team at a place to eat along the highway. He did this to give them discipline, a base they could rely upon for getting through any challenging moment.
How could he know he was giving them a blueprint for going on after his death?
The cruel irony is this was his best team -- one filled mostly with freshmen and sophomores -- led by two senior guards in Mann and Nate Wojciechowski, who the coaches almost see as extensions of Lang. At times the coaches marvel at the two guards, watching in practice as they do things exactly the way Lang would have wanted. It’s almost like the coach himself is out there.
A few days before Lang died, he met with Mann and Wojciechowski for three hours to talk about ways La Roche could be even better. More than anything, that’s what Mann remembers about his coach: those moments they talked basketball for hours.
Then when Saturday’s game was over and La Roche had beaten Penn State-Behrend to go to the NCAAs, Mann stood in the din of the tiny gym and thought about a one-time La Roche player named Cliff Foster. Like Mann, Foster was a guard, a piece of Lang who also had those three-hour talks, plotting strategies, dissecting film. One of Foster’s teams won La Roche’s only other AMCC Tournament in 2004 and for an instant he imagined the joy Foster must have felt when he saw Lang after the tournament had been won and was able to say: “Coach, we did it!”
“I wish we could all have celebrated together,” Mann said.
Instead the Redhawks, who are 25-2, will go to Marietta, Ohio, for Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Wittenberg with only the memories of Lang, just as they have all those other times since that horrible afternoon in December.
Still, it feels to them as if their head coach is never far away, as if he is watching all of this, marveling at the team he built -- knowing all along it was going to be this good.
On Saturday, players said they knew he was there. And after the tournament had been won, just as the ladder was being put in place for the La Roche players and coaches to clip the nets from the rim, they sat on the floor for a team picture. Photographers lined up before them. Suddenly somebody shouted “Wait!” In the frenzy, they forgot Lang.
Bob McGraw, an assistant coach, who was Lang’s best friend, jumped up and ran out of the gym to pull down a giant framed photograph of Lang that hangs now at the entrance to the court that also now bears his name. McGraw came back into the gym, passing the departing Penn State-Behrend players, holding Lang’s photo high above his head.
Another roar rose inside the Kerr Center.
The camera motor drives whirred as players and coaches smiled, holding Lang’s photo before them.
And from the stands the fans chanted: “Lang! Lang! Lang!”
A few days later, just before he headed out to practice, Jenkins was asked if all this could have happened if Lang had lived, if perhaps the emotion from his death has driven the team farther than it could have gone.
“I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think we would have been successful. I still think we would be in the position we’re in now, but coach built this for us. I think these young men will become better men for this.”