February 16, 2007

View From Behind the Mike: Eternal Flame

With the final drops of lighter fluid splashed on the gray sport coat, flames reached 3 feet off the pavement in the parking lot of the Red Lion Inn in Spokane. The throng of about 40 kept their distance from the fire, not using it for warmth, but for entertainment.

"I had a strong suspicion we were going to do it because it was our best chance in the last 10 years. I was a little more prepared (with lighter fluid and matches)," said head athletic trainer Mike Cembellin.

Not only had the Santa Clara basketball team ended the longest home court winning streak in the country, it achieved something that hadn't been done in 15 years and only 3 times since 1979: win both games at Portland and Gonzaga.

Cembellin considered his mustard yellow jacket a fashion statement, while the players would never be seen wearing something so loud, other than at a Halloween party.

The year was 1984.

The tradition started with a roster featuring Nick Vanos, Harold Keeling, Scott Lamson and Steve Kenilvort. Cembellin would wear his mustard-yellow corduroy jacket only to the Nortwest and took nothing but grief from the players. Cembellin offered to set it ablaze if they could pull off the both games of the Northwest trip.

The Broncos won the first game at Gonzaga 68-60 on January 17th, needing one more at Portland for the sweep.

"I don't think they were listening to Carroll's (Coach Williams) chalk talk because they were so focused on the jacket before the Portland game," said Cembellin. "When we won (64-59) they thought they had won the national championship."

The team was so inspired, the players kept their uniforms on, joining Cembellin and the coaching staff under a bridge at Janzen Beach. They used a string and a clothes hanger to elevate the sacrificial jacket. Several players simulated a war dance around the flames.

"We thanked the basketball gods," continued Cembellin, "for giving us strength and support to sweep the Northwest."

The ceremony wasn't without issue with the police and fire departments arriving. They were able to talk themselves out of any trouble. Boys will be boys.

It was a scene that would be repeated in 1992 with Ron Reis, Melvin Chinn, DeWayne Lewis starring as the principals. Since then, it had become the unreachable star over the last 15 years.

Following the first game of this year's trip, Cembellin looked around Spokane to find a yellow jacket, only to receive odd looks or laughter. Unable to track one down, he used a can of yellow spray paint to fulfill the promise to the best of his ability, hopefully appeasing the basketball gods.

Following the upset of the Zags, there was no wild celebration among the players. Sure, the win was significant in terms of the conference race. But there is a bigger picture when it comes to the team goals like winning the conference championship and reaching the NCAA Tournament. The real excitement in the aftermath of the victory was the burning jacket.

"Boy, did it stink", offered head coach Dick Davey. "I think those kind of things are appropriate under the right conditions for remembering specific things in your college career as a player. They are little things that keep the group closer together. It's fine as long as it's not offensive and doesn't create a big problem."

Senior shooting guard Joey Kaempf feels the same way: "30 years from now when you can't remember all the details for the game, everyone will remember standing around a burning jacket."

This year's ceremony included friends and family of the team, many snapping pictures or using the cameras on their phones to preserve history. Point guard Brody Angley sprung off two feet to exchange chest bumps with center John Bryant. Cembellin thanked the basketball gods as the group stared at the flaming fabric. It was 11:52 P.M.

On campus the next day, with the buzz continuing to build, former players embraced their roots while reveling in the present. Reis, a center on the '91-'92 team that swept Portland and Spokane, left a message for Cembellin, hoping he remembered to burn his jacket. Lamson sent him an e-mail, writing he got a phone call from this year's ceremony site. He had tears in his eyes, unable to fall asleep more than 20 years after his playing career ended.

For Lamson and the others who experienced the ceremony of the burning jacket, it will always represent more than just a victory celebration. It stands for the unity of team, the pursuit of a goal, and memory to last a lifetime. It's a flame that will always burn brightly, never to be extinguished.