Washington Remembers '98 Tournament Team
Saddi Washington said it wasn't the television cameras that first showed him the weight of the moment. It wasn't stepping into the United Center in Chicago with the tournament decal on the court. It wasn't even watching "Western Michigan" being called on Selection Sunday with the rest of his teammates because, well, the Broncos didn't even watch the Selection Show as a team that night.
No, Washington said he knew what was going on as soon as the team jumped on the bus bound for Chicago and found they had a police escort.
"That was the thing that got us fired up about it," said Washington. "We had never had a police escort for anything. I don't even remember anything about the practice that night, but I remember having the police escort us to and from the hotel."
The 1997-98 Broncos never seemed to need much help getting fired up for games. According to Washington, the team had a chip on their collective shoulders from day one, which he feels was the reason they were able to achieve as much as they did despite an apparent lack of outside expectations.
"We always considered ourselves a bunch of blue collar guys, but we had lots of swag," said Washington. "No really picked us to do much that year."
It became apparent from the outset that maybe the Broncos had been underestimated. They opened the season with a five-point win against Michigan at Crisler Arena, the first of four straight wins to open the season. The non-conference slate also included a trip to Bloomington, Indiana, where the Broncos dispatched a dangerous Charlotte team before just narrowly falling to the Indiana Hoosiers. According to Washington, the marquee stops on the road to start the season only fueled the Broncos' fire.
"We weren't really fazed by big arenas, name opponents" said Washington.
The Broncos tore through the Mid-American Conference schedule, finishing tied for first in the MAC West division with a 14-4 conference record. However, the Broncos were stunned in the first round of the 1998 MAC Tournament, losing at home to Miami by four points.
"We were crushed," said Washington. "The season had gone so well, and to see us lose in the first round...we thought we had just waved the Tournament good-bye. We thought we would have a shot at the National Invitational Tournament, but even that felt like a letdown."
Despite finishing with a 21-8 overall record, Washington and the Broncos had all but conceded that they would be out of the picture for the NCAA Tournament. According to Washington, the team did not even gather together to watch the Selection Show as a group, choosing instead to watch it on their own. When it was announced the Broncos would play as an 11-seed against Clemson in the opening round, the phone lines across Kalamazoo were abuzz.
"It was bananas!" said Washington. "This was before Twitter, before Facebook, before text messages. The phone was ringing off the hook. We got organized and headed to the arena to meet as a team, and we decided we were going to make people remember our names."
The moment bore even more significance for Washington, who was in his final year of eligibility as an athlete. After suffering two ACL tears earlier in his career, the 1997-98 season represented his last shot at making it to the Big Dance.
The team began its preparations for the Tigers, but not all of the strategy required chalk or drills. According to Washington, all the coaching staff needed was one key piece of bulletin board material to get the Broncos fired up.
"I don't know where Coach [Bob] Donewald got it, but had somehow found the clip of Clemson's local news interviewing of their players, asking about Western Michigan," said Washington. "He answered really dismissively, and said he didn't know anything about it, or where it was."
"We said 'It's on, now!'" said Washington.
When it finally came time to tip the ball off, Washington says that he and his fellow teammates in the back court - including Jason Kimbrough and Rashod Johnson - wanted to remind the Tigers of their slight. And they did it every chance they got.
"Between Jason, Rashod and me, we had the biggest mouths in the state of Michigan!" said Washington with a laugh. "At the end of the night, they knew they were playing Western Michigan, from Kalamazoo.”
Johnson backed up his chatter with his shooting ability, as well. The trio of Washington, Kimbrough and Johnson had fed off each other all season ("When one got going, the other two did too," said Washington), and against the Tigers Johnson got hot from beyond the arc, stroking eight three-pointers on 15 attempts.
"If you knew Rashod and followed his career...at Western Michigan, [you] knew he was a gamer," said Washington. "He's one of those guys that when he catches fire, it's going to be a long night for the other team. He was a 'strikeout or home run' guy. At the same time, he was one of our best defenders, usually locked up against the other team's best offensive guy.”
"Offensively, though, once he got going, it was hard to toss water on him."
The Broncos led the Tigers 37-25 at the half, but had to withstand a furious rally from Clemson in the second before claiming the 75-72 victory. That earned the team a game against Stanford, who entered the tournament as a three-seed and finished the year ranked #10 in both the Associated Press and Coaches' polls. The Broncos kept it to within three points at half, but the Cardinals pulled away for the win. Washington says that the loss is still fresh in his mind.
"It's always there," said Washington. "It stung a lot because we were really playing well, and playing with the utmost confidence. We thought we had proven the Clemson game wasn't a fluke."
"You know, I keep up with some of the guys, but we don't meet up as a team that much. When we do meet, we talk about it. I always wonder if we could have made that next step, and have been that Cinderella team."
"There's always one!" said Washington.