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March 23, 2007When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, everyone wants to talk about their pools.
But this year perhaps the most important pool has been the gene pool.
Look around at the Sweet 16 and you'll find a few players whose fathers passed along a fair amount of athleticism and work ethic. Florida center Joakim Noah is the son of renowned tennis player Yannick Noah. Gators teammates Taurean Green and Al Horford are sons of former NBA players. Ohio State point guard Mike Conley Jr. is the son of Olympic track and field gold medalist Mike Conley. Georgetown sixth man Patrick Ewing is the namesake of a man named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. UNLV guard Kevin Kruger plays for his father, Lon, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year during his days at Kansas State.
"The athletic ability, some of that is inherited, and these kids are picking their sports to use it in," Conley Sr., 44, said. "It definitely makes sense to see those guys having success.
"The biggest asset all of these players have is a father who understands what sports is all about and how to be successful at it."
It's a little different for the Conleys and the Noahs because their fathers weren't pro basketball players. They didn't grow up dunking on Nerf hoops and sitting on the bench as ballboys like some of their counterparts.
But certainly they grew up in environments where desire and hard work were part of what went into making their fathers great athletes. Noah won a Grand Slam singles title (the 1983 French Open) and achieved a high ranking of No. 3 in the world. Conley won a gold medal in the triple jump in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Conley did play basketball growing up in his native Chicago, and he was a good point guard. But he believed his future was in track - and he was right. He maintained a love for basketball, and he sometimes dabbled in it. He won the Foot Locker Celebrity Slam Dunk Contest in 1998, '89 and '92 (Click here for a look at Conley in action.).
When his son gravitated toward basketball at an early age, that was just fine with him.
"(ESPN basketball analyst) Jimmy Dykes, he played at Arkansas when I was in school there, his dad was coaching summer basketball and he saw little Michael at age 9 and said he'd be a Division I player," Conley said. "He just had everything it took. He had the skill level. It wasn't just that he could dribble and shoot, but he had the knowledge of the game."
The elder Conley wound up as his son's summer AAU coach, and that came with the added perk of coaching Greg Oden, Conley Jr.'s high school teammate at Indianapolis Lawrence North.
Kevin Kruger picked up his knowledge of the game by osmosis. His father has been a head coach as far back as Kevin can remember, and that meant his formative years were spent immersed in basketball. Brash and bespectacled, he achieved minor celebrity status as a ballboy for his father's Final Four team at Florida in 1994.
Thirteen years later he's hoping to help his father get to another one.
The elder Kruger always has brought a familial atmosphere to his basketball programs.
"We've made our practices and games and whenever we travel made the families of all of our coaches a big part of it," the Rebels coach said. "All of the kids would be running around at practice, rebounding for the guys, and it was always a fun experience.
"Angie (Kruger's daughter) and Kev were always around the gym and mixing with the players. It was a healthy environment. We had great guys, and they were always super to the kids."
Kevin Kruger transferred from Arizona State to play his final collegiate season under his father. A friend told him about a new NCAA rule, since closed, that allowed players who graduated early and had eligibility remaining to transfer without sitting out a year. UNLV was without a point guard, and Kruger had gotten to know the Rebels players from visits to Vegas to see his parents. Things couldn't have worked out better.
Conley doesn't have quite as good a seat to watch his son as Kruger does to watch his, but both men admit to some nerves watching their boys play.
"Without a doubt it can be difficult to watch sometimes," Conley said. "When it was me competing, I had control. Even as a coach (during the summers) I had a little control.
"But it's exciting, too. I know the work he has put into it. It's great for the world to see it."
Each father hopes the world can still see his son playing in the NCAA Tournament next week.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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