NEAL CONAN, host:
Over the past few weeks, little known George Mason University left almost everybody's NCAA's brackets in tatters. The lightly regarded Patriots staged a series evermore improbable upsets, strewing goliaths in their wake on a magical run to the men's Final Four. On Saturday, George Mason plays the University of Florida for the right to play for the National Championship. Part of the fun has been the joy on the face of Patriot head coach Jim Larranaga. His infectious enthusiasm helped keep his team loose under pressure. The coach's two sons are also along for the ride. They're both basketball players themselves and sometimes consultants to their suddenly-famous father.
If you have questions for them of about the emotional roller coaster of what has to have been a true March Madness, give us a call at 800-989-8255, or zap us an e-mail, email@example.com. John Larranaga joins us here in Studio 3A. His brother Jay joins us on the phone from Roseto(ph), Italy, where he plays for Carpeza(ph) Basketnopoly(ph), a team in the Italian A-1 league. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JOHN LARRANAGA (son of George Mason University Patriots coach): Thanks for having us.
Mr. JAY LARRANAGA (son of George Mason University Patriots coach): Thanks very much.
CONAN: And Jay, let me turn to you. We understand you guys essentially watch the games together. How does that work? You're in different countries.
Mr. JAY LARRANAGA: Well, it actually worked out really well this year that CBS offered an on-demand internet broadcast of the games. And so I was able to watch through the internet and I knew my brother was at all the games, so I would be able to call him while I was watching on the internet and hear what it was like live, also.
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: It worked for Jay because he got to watch it, but I'm the one who kept receiving phone calls during the game, that, none of it worked out that well for me.
CONAN: Well, what does he call you about? I mean, does he have tips for your Dad?
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Well, we've grown up in a family of coaches. My dad's always been a basketball coach, always been a teacher. So I think Jay and I both inherited that gene. So whenever one of us sees something that we don't like or that we think could be better we feel like its our obligation to let everyone else know that, hey, that can be better. So, whenever Jay saw something he felt like he needed to let me know, and tell me to let my dad know he needs to change things around.
CONAN: Well, Jay, I understand during the North Carolina game in particular, you saw something your dad absolutely had to fix. And you were a little adamant about it.
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: Well, I was at, we were watching the game, it was about three or four in the morning over here, and I was watching the game on the internet with my wife. And, you know, it was one of those things. I knew what I was doing was kind of idiotic, and my wife couldn't believe I was doing it, but, you know, when you love someone so much, you know, sometimes you're willing to take any chance if you think you can help them a little bit. And I knew there was probably nothing that could be done, but I would've really regretted not doing everything I could, you know, to try and help my dad win that game.
CONAN: So John, he says, Go tell dad that when they screen and roll, don't have the guys flash high.
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Well, he was right. It wasn't like he was right, he was making a good point. I knew exactly what he was saying, I could picture it in my head. But you have to understand, we're at a game where there's 15,000 people watching. They have security everywhere. And there's no possible way I can get down onto the floor, get on the floor would be one thing but then go up to my dad and give him instruction? I think he would have chocked me if I tried doing that.
CONAN: Maybe semaphore flags...
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Right. Right.
CONAN: ...you could try that...
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Or hand signals.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the line. Again, if you'd like to join us its 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelly's on the line, Kelly from Boston, Massachusetts.
KELLY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
First, I want to say I'm a very proud Connecticut fan, and I just want to say congratulations to you guys. It was a, just a very exciting and great won victory for you guys. So I really am happy for you for that. And I was at U-Conn, a long time ago, back when we used to say, boy, someday maybe we'll have a team as good as Massachusetts. So I remember the first time, you know, when it all starts rolling its just so exciting. So, congratulations for you.
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Thanks Kelly.
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: Thank you. It'd be nice if ten years from now George Mason will be considered how U-Conn is now.
CONAN: As a national powerhouse almost every year. But during the U-Conn game, Mason had the lead, we're coming down to the end of regulation time. Two point lead, with time running out, and a Connecticut player gets the ball, runs the length of the court, does a reverse lay-up. Jay, what did you think?
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: I was actually watching the game with a bunch of teammates over here, and everyone, you know, when my dad's player went to the foul line, Tony Skinn, for the end of the game, everyone just couldn't believe, wow, your dad's team is going to go to the final four. This is incredible. And then when Danim (ph) Brown made that reverse lay-up, the entire room just went totally silent. And then everyone looked at me like, man, your Dad's team is not going to the final four, I guess. But, you know what, I think my dad handled that situation well, and he's just been giving confidence to his players the whole season and the whole tournament. And they showed that they were resilient and were able to come back and win it in overtime.
CONAN: John, everybody says, you know, when Cinderella is caught at the wire, very unlikely that they're going to be able to handle that emotional let-down in overtime. George Mason went right back in front in overtime, but they missed one shot in overtime?
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Yeah, well, I think in that situation, everyone's heart just stops. You think you have the game won, the people around me were saying, hey, congratulations, we're going to the final four, this is amazing. I actually told them, stop talking, don't jinx this right now. We still have a couple of seconds left. But everyone's heart just stops, and I think my dad really did a great job of getting the team motivated and getting them ready to come right out in the second half and keep playing some basketball. There was really a lot of time left and it's a matter of just taking the bumps and bruises and keep playing your game.
CONAN: We're talking with John and Jay Laranaga, they're the sons of George Mason University Coach Jim Laranaga, who's going to be playing for the National Championship this weekend in Indianapolis. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let me ask you both, you both played for your dad as players, what kind of a coach is he? John?
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: I think he's a great coach, but after playing for him I tried playing professionally for a couple years. And then I decided, you know what? I need to get out of this basketball world and try something new. So now I'm working for the Meltzer Group from Bethesda. We're a financial services company, we help individuals with their life insurance and estate planning needs, and we work with companies on all their employee benefits. But after playing for my dad, we really, the team, that was kind of the starting point of this whole process. My dad's first year here they had a losing record. I think it was seventh in a row at George Mason. And then my freshman year we won the regular season and won the conference tournament and went to the NCAA tournament for the second time in George Mason history. And I love seeing him succeed. Getting to this level. For, it's great for basketball and the sport, but just, especially when it's your family, you get to see the growth of the program, and it really just makes you feel good deep down inside.
CONAN: Jay Laranaga, you're still playing professional ball there in Italy now. How much longer do you think your career is going to go on?
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: Well, I have one more year on my contract, so hopefully at least one more year. I don't know, you know, I've really enjoyed, this is my ninth year, and I've really enjoyed my career. And it's something I'm still able to do, and I'll probably keep doing it until they stop paying me.
CONAN: Now let me ask you both, in all seriousness, I think this is your father's, about to celebrate his ninth anniversary at George Mason. When he got that job, had either of you ever heard of George Mason University?
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: I had never heard of it, and to honest with you, after -- I was going to be a senior in high school and came here, worked out with my dad's players, and after the first workout there was actually a fight. A guy broke his foot, and I went to my dad and said, Did you sign your contract yet? I don't know if this is the right place for you. But he knew, it was a diamond in the rough, and just saw the potential. And we loved coming to the D.C. area.
CONAN: And Jay, your father's talked about how, at the age of, what, he's in his mid-50's now? And he began to think maybe, maybe this, the magic will never happen for me. Maybe it never will. And this time around, boy, it's in spades.
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: Yeah, it's really great for him. You know, I think it gives hope to a lot of people too that, you know, maybe if you've worked hard for, my dad's been a coach for 35 years, if you keep working hard, you know, you never know when your chance is going to come. I know my mom has spoken to a number of wives of friends of my father that are coaches that have not been able to make the final four. And they said, you know what, we've got a lot of hope now, you know. We're 51, 52 years old, we've got five more years before we're Jim's age, you know? So, I think it's a great story, and I think, like my brother said, it's a testament to just hard work and dedication and that eventually all that will pay off.
CONAN: Let's get a call in from David. David, from Arlington, Virginia.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. Oh, it's so great to be on the show. I'm a Dukey myself, a classmate of Grant Hill, and I'm so, so, so psyched for George Mason. You know, George Mason is for real. I don't see this as a Cinderella run. You know, I've watched a lot of Duke Basketball, and this is really something else. My question is, I've read a lot, you know, again, sort of, a lot of the Cinderella-type theme, but I haven't really read a lot about what is so special about each of these individual players. I'd like to just hear, especially because it's so obvious that the forwards, how they've played, but especially with the guards. What is it that makes them individually special, what do they offer?
CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left, and John, you can answer that if you wish, but I also want to hear about a player who isn't on the team this year. A player your father credits for helping develop the program, a guy named Sarge.
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Right. Well, to answer your question, the one thing I noticed over the weekend in the Sweet Sixteen, the players have really bought into my dad's system, to the program, and they believe in what the coach's are preaching. That's not always true with teams, and these guys really believe in what the coach's are telling them and they're performing on the court. Regarding George Evans, he was the guy that kind of got everything started. He was an amazing player, three-time CIAA Player of the Year. He's been playing overseas now for five or six years, and what he did going into college, I think he was 25 when he started at George Mason...
CONAN: A military veteran.
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: Military veteran. Was in the military I believe seven or eight years. And to do that is amazing. I mean, I don't see how anyone that age can go back to college, being around a bunch of teenagers, but he was able to do it and he really set the example.
CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. And we'd wish John and, you're heading off to Indianapolis, I assume?
Mr. JOHN LARANAGA: I leave tomorrow. I think Jay gets in there on Saturday.
CONAN: So, you're flying across the country to go to the Final Four, Jay?
Mr. JAY LARANAGA: Yes, I have a 6:30 a.m. flight from Rome to Amsterdam, then I go Amsterdam to Detroit and then Detroit to Indianapolis. I'm scheduled to get in with my wife and my daughter and son at, I believe, 2:30 p.m. So, it'll be close, but hopefully they'll hold the game for me.
CONAN: Well good luck to you both, and to George Mason University. Thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today. We're going to lead you out today with GMU's favorite locker-room song, perfect for a team with a habit of wearing green jerseys and bringing down seemingly invincible teams; the Purple Ribbon All-Stars, with Kryptonite. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
PURPLE RIBBON ALL-STARS (Musicians): (Singing “Krytonite”) ...on you homes suppose the po-po get whiff of the spliff that you just smoke, them folk gone trip, probably will cause canines, move it the side of the road let's take a sniff, arf, shit, the only thing we riding dirty is GBK CD, Tackleberry, so may we be on our merry way, cause you just ain't gone find no yea, play, I got a tough team of attorneys, take a judge lean like he sippin syrupy, they play dirty, he can't touch me, verdict be not guilty, search me...