OMAHA, Neb. — Tommie O’Quinn couldn’t stop shaking.
Green beads hung around his neck, next to a thick gold chain. A Norfolk State hat perched on his head, about to fall off. His left hand absentmindedly clutched a green and gold pompom. Under his right arm was the letterman’s jacket the 69-year-old waved and clutched and wore the previous two hours.
The jacket belongs to his son, Kyle. The same Kyle who sprinted toward a television camera at the CenturyLink Center Friday night, clutching the basketball and screaming seconds after No. 15 seed Norfolk State stunned No. 2 Missouri 86-84 in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve got to get some rest,” Tommie O’Quinn said. “I don’t know who’s going to pay my hotel bill tonight.”
The words tumbled out, preaching to the near-empty arena.
“Yeah, baby, yeah!” he shouted toward the vast ceiling. “N-S-U! N-S-U!”
A stranger took his picture with Tommie O’Quinn. A handful of police officers watched and grinned.
O’Quinn knew this could be his son’s last college game. So, the New York landlord and his 34-year-old stockbroker son, Carroll, scraped up around $1,000 each. They booked a hotel room in Omaha for two nights.
They swore they weren’t surprised by what unfolded, as Norfolk State became only the fifth No 15 seed to win in NCAA tournament history. But they couldn’t stop smiling or shaking their heads. They knew the story.
One Division I scholarship was offered to Kyle O’Quinn out of Campus Magnet High in Jamaica, N.Y. Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans was struck by O’Quinn’s 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame. But O’Quinn was raw, after just two years of organized basketball.
Go to college and play a sport, Tommie O’Quinn encouraged his son. Baseball, basketball, football. Didn’t matter which one.
“I tell you, he surprised us,” Tommie O’Quinn said. “We didn’t know he could do this. We had no idea he could do this.”
After 26 points and 14 rebounds from Kyle O’Quinn on Friday, his father scrambled for words to describe what happened. The center averaged 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds this season and ranked 14th in the country in blocked shots. But most of those came in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference that Norfolk State won. This was different. This was wow. That’s what Carroll O’Quinn thought.
“I believed in him, and I knew he could do this, but man …” he said.
There was Kyle O’Quinn’s put-back of a missed jump shot in the final seconds, followed by him hugging teammates on the bench. Or fighting three Missouri defenders for a rebound to force a jump ball. A few seconds later, he smiled and nodded and mouthed words at his father during a timeout. That’s the fellow his teammates know, the jokester and would-be rapper who amuses them with awkward dance moves he invents. The day before the game, he admitted to “jitterbugs.”
Sure, he missed two free throws with 3.8 seconds left. Every man, woman and child was on their feet. Nervous conversation rippled through the arena.
Tommie O’Quinn held up the letterman’s jacket.
Two point nine seconds turned into Phil Pressey’s 3-pointer rimming off and into Kyle O’Quinn’s arms.
In the locker room, the whiteboard still listed six keys to Norfolk State’s first-ever NCAA tournament game in green marker. Things like “transition defense” and “wear them down.” Players waded through dozens of texts on their smart phones. Called mothers. Pointed out web sites where they decorated the front page. Mentioned President Barack Obama and basketball analyst Charles Barkley picked against them. Evans never had time to address them.
“Oh, my goodness,” one shouted.
“Teachers might as well pass us all,” bellowed another.
“We’ve got to be trending right now,” senior Marcos Tamares said, then grabbed up his phone. “Twitter, oh, my god.”
A manager picked her way between the television cameras and microphones and over bottles of Minute Maid orange juice and blue Powerade.
“You all done being famous?” she said. “You’re not messing up the routine.”
She held a clear plastic garbage bag to deposit uniforms in.
Shouts of “O’Quinnsanity” followed Kyle O’Quinn into the locker room.
Down the hall, out the tunnel and in the arena, Tommie O’Quinn wondered if his wife, Regina, passed out at game’s end. Wanting to save money, she stayed home in New York.
“She’s going to be ashamed of herself for not coming, I’m telling you,” Tommie O’Quinn said. “Penny-wise and pound-foolish. … She may have been too nervous.”
He looked around, eyes wide behind gold-framed glasses.
“Unbelievable,” he shouted. “Unbelievable.”