Four golden days in the desert.
It sounds like the setting for an old-school western, but it’s the middle of Las Vegas on July 21, 2008.
Temperatures outside Valley High soar to near 100 degrees. Inside the gym, however, a fire burns even hotter. Twelve of America’s elite athletes are here for four days of Olympic prep, still smoldering over the state of USA Basketball.
Mike Littlewood, BYU’s future baseball coach, is here too.
“There were guards at the doors and only specific personnel were allowed inside, and there were no cameras,” Littlewood said. “I walked in and the first person I see is TBS broadcaster Craig Sager. Then I see Team USA assistant coach Gregg Popovich, new head coach Mike Krzyzewski and director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo. Across the way, the guys were just milling around and stretching.”
The cornucopia of talent inside the gym is a direct response to 2004 when America’s biggest basketball stars opted out of the Athens Olympic Games. Instead, a B-squad of NBA players took their stripes and limped home with an unprecedented and undesired bronze medal.
“No doubt, all the talk when coach Krzyzewski got them together was about redemption,” Littlewood said. “Coach K said, ‘We owe America this. From one player through 12, we have to be locked in.”
Littlewood and a group of five other game officials are here to referee the drills and scrimmages while Krzyzewski works out a starting five and bench rotation for what the media is calling the “Redeem Team.”
As Littlewood looks on with growing anticipation for the days ahead, he wonders to himself, ‘How in the world did I get here?’”
Two roads to Vegas
Bryant walked into Valley High on the heels of a crushing defeat against the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Boston won the series 4-2. Surprisingly, the Lakers had dropped two of three games at Staples Center in Los Angeles — just 12 miles south of where Littlewood’s journey began — 42 years earlier.
Eight months after the infamous 1965 riots that were sparked by tensions between police and residents in and around the Watts area, Michael Ruybalid was born at John Wesley County Hospital, in the heart of Watts. His mom, Kathy, remembers her son as the only white infant in the entire facility.
Prior to his birth, the biological father walked out and never returned, leaving Kathy and her newborn in south-central Los Angeles to fend for themselves.
Kathy moved to Utah to be closer to family. She was introduced to Don Littlewood, a firefighter in the Sugar House area of Salt Lake. They married and Don adopted Mike and raised him as his own son, and among the things he taught him was a love of sports.
Littlewood honed his skills with Little League baseball in Kearns and high school ball at Taylorsville. He was good, but arrived at graduation with just one scholarship offer, from Utah.
A turning point
“I went and watched BYU play Utah at Derks Field,” Littlewood said. “I sat above the first base dugout and saw Wally Joyner, Gary Cooper, Cory Snyder and Rick Aguilera play. I thought, ‘This is such an incredible team’ and I wanted to be a part of it. That was the turning point for me.”
An offer eventually came via a phone call with coach Gary Pullins. He offered a scholarship for tuition and books (a 1984 value of $820) and it was immediately accepted.
Littlewood married Dani Good, also from Taylorsville, after his freshman year. He grew into a full-time resident at third base and was twice named All-WAC. Three and a half decades later, he remains No. 10 all-time in program history for most games played (201); No. 3 in runs scored (220); and No. 2 in career walks (140).
“Thirty-five years ago, everything was about the batting average. Now it’s all about on-base percentages and runs scored,” Littlewood joked. “Clearly, I was ahead of my time.”
Littlewood started officiating basketball games while in high school with his friend Gary Zielinski. Looking to earn a few extra bucks, they worked the city league games in Taylorsville on Saturdays.
“We had no clue what we were doing,” Littlewood said. “But we loved being around the game.”
The two figured it out. Littlewood developed into a premier college basketball official, while Zielinski officiated 18 seasons in the NBA and is still working for the league in related capacities.
By the time Littlewood arrived at Valley High for the Olympic workouts, he had officiated about 500 Division I basketball games, including multiple NCAA tournaments. He did it while juggling head baseball coaching duties at Dixie College in St. George, where the Rebels won the 2004 Junior College World Series, and he was named national Coach of the Year.
During those exhaustive years, between coaching baseball and officiating basketball, the NBA offered Littlewood a full-time job, but he turned it down. Refereeing in the NBA would take him away from coaching and he just couldn’t do it.
Joe Borgia, NBA senior vice president of referee operations, wrote to Littlewood, “You are the first person to tell me no. We are usually the ones saying no.”
Saying ‘no’ back then made it easier for Littlewood to say ‘yes’ when BYU offered him the head baseball coaching position in 2012. He starts his ninth season, with longtime assistants Trent Pratt and Brent Haring, on Friday when BYU faces Indiana State in Port Charlotte, Florida.
A face in the crowd
If there was a single game among those 500 that helped bring Littlewood to Las Vegas in 2008, it was the hotly contested showdown between San Diego State and Wyoming in Laramie on March 1, 2003.
The Cowboys blew a big lead and head coach Steve McClain blew his cool.
“He walks toward me during a time out and calls me ‘this and that’ and I gave him his second technical foul and threw him out of the game,” Littlewood said. “Then, I go over to the scorer’s table to report it and a water bottle comes flying out of the stands toward me. I had the public address announcer warn that if anything else is thrown down to the floor, the crowd would also get a “T.” Well, down comes a can of tobacco so I tee’d up the crowd.”
After the game, which San Diego State won 86-73, Littlewood and his crew of Gary Burks and Ron Zatcher received a police escort all the way out to I-80.
What Littlewood didn’t know until the following day was that Ed Rush was sitting among the Cowboys fans at the game. Rush was the NBA’s director of basketball officiating. He informed Littlewood’s supervisor that he was impressed with how he handled the situation. From that point forward, Littlewood was on their radar.
“That’s how I got invited to Vegas,” Littlewood said. “That and the FIBA training I had received in June of 2008 on the rules, mechanics and philosophy of officiating international basketball.”
The phone call
“Mike, this is Sam Gibson. How would you like to come work the Olympic team?”
The phone call of all phone calls came to Littlewood in mid-July 2008, from another referee assigned to put a group of officials together for Team USA.
“Yeah, I’d love to,” Littlewood said, despite the invitation included no pay for the work or for expenses. “I figured it would be such an amazing experience that I would have paid them for the opportunity to do it.”
Getting to work
With everyone in place, the guards close and secure the gym doors. The best basketball stars in the country settle into the confines of a high school that hasn’t produced a star of their caliber since the graduation of Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux in 1984.
A whistle screeches and just like that, Littlewood and his colleagues become a small part of Team USA and go to work.
“We worked through the drills and scrimmages and there were times we just sat and watched,” Littlewood said. “It was interesting to see these NBA superstars and multimillionaires hanging around each other, but when coach K spoke, they were all ears.”
Krzyzewski orders a drill where the officials put away their whistles. He tells Littlewood to shout “foul” when there is an infraction. This way, he can stop the team and have Littlewood explain to Kobe, LeBron and the others why he made the call. This is coach K’s way of educating the roster to the international style of competition.
“Kobe was the hardest worker in camp,” Littlewood said. “He would come up and lock down on my arm and ask, ‘Is this OK under FIBA rules? Or ask ‘Is it OK to put my arm on a guy, or hold him this way? Can I do that?’ It was awesome. That was the setting I was in. It would never happen anywhere else.”
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is all business. On Thursday, the final day of camp, the Olympic B-team arrives at Valley High for a scrimmage, including rising star Kevin Durant.
“That was probably the most fun. I remember LeBron hitting a 3-point shot and I turned to run back down the floor. Then I feel his hand on my head,” Littlewood said. “My head felt like a little pingpong ball inside his hand. It was huge. Then he pats me on the butt and says, ‘See that?”
Adding to the moment was Littlewood befriending the security guards to allow Dani and their son Marcus in to see the spectacle for themselves.
The ‘Redeem Team’
USA Basketball took on the mantra of the “Dream Team” in 1992 when Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, John Stockton and the biggest names in basketball suited up to win gold in Barcelona. It was the first time the United States sent its NBA players to Olympic competition.
Team USA won another gold medal four years later in 1996 in Atlanta and again in 2000 in Sydney.
The derailment in 2004 triggered a name-change. Instead of “Dream Team” this group was cast as the “Redeem Team” and Littlewood could feel their motivation.
“I thought, how could this team possibly lose? They were all completely invested in going to China and winning the gold medal,” he said. “They listened to coach K and then actually coached each other. It was so cool to see players coaching players. They had to win. There was no alternative.”
Ready to play
With the four-day camp over, Littlewood returned home to St. George while Team USA destroyed Canada the following night, 120-65 in an exhibition game at the Thomas & Mack Center. Wade, Anthony and Redd each scored 20 points. It was the first of three dominating exhibition victories leading up to the Beijing Games.
When the Olympics began, the beatdowns continued and on Aug. 24, one month after wrapping up their minicamp at Valley High, Team USA beat Spain 118-107 to win the gold medal and restore American basketball to the top of the world. Wade, who today has an ownership stake in the Utah Jazz, led the way with 27 points.
Not surprising, the officiating crew that helped get them ready, were left out of the celebration. That’s life as a referee. If you are easily forgotten, you probably did a good job.
“No gold medal for us,” Littlewood said with a smile. “Not even one of those with chocolate inside, but what an experience!”
Indeed, for Littlewood and his officiating crew, those four golden days in the desert were payment enough.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.