From the moment Dr. Naismith tacked the first peach basket to the YMCA wall, people have been criticizing big men. It comes with the territory. Wilt. Shaq. Caswell Cyrus. The gawky kid on your sixth-grade team. In a game ruled by giants, the big man can never do enough.
Size is the ultimate advantage, a gift from the basketball gods. The average fan looks at a 7-footer and concludes that the gift could have been bestowed on someone more worthy (himself, for example), someone who could exploit it more fully. When it comes to the big man, people always want more.
"Yeah, they do," said Darren Fenn, Canisius' 6-10 senior. "A lot of times, it's the guards who control the game. They're the ones who are responsible for taking control of the team. But the big man gets a lot of attention, because to have a strong, physical inside presence is somewhat rare nowadays and there's a lot of focus on what a big man should or shouldn't do. I think you're always going to take criticism when you're in the paint."
Fenn is no exception. Oh, he's had four good years at Canisius, but there's a sense of a career unfulfilled. Fair or not, you always found yourself wondering if the Griffs' center had a little more inside him.
He is eighth on the career scoring list at Canisius, third all-time in rebounding. A year ago, he became the third player in school history to collect 500 points and 300 rebounds (along with Hank Nowak and Larry Fogle) in a season, and was named to the all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference first team.
Fenn, a Canisius High graduate, proved a local high school player could stay home and be happy. He is scheduled to graduate on time with degrees in biology and psychology in the honors program. He will probably be playing pro ball overseas somewhere at this time next year.
A steady stream of local products, from Brian Dux to Hodari Mallory to Dewitt Doss, has followed him into the program and given Griffs coach Mike MacDonald a solid foundation for the future. The Griffs are 17-10, their turnaround from a 10-20 1999-'00 season representing the second-greatest improvement over one season in the school's history.
Well, it would be nice if Canisius made a run in the MAAC Tournament just once in Fenn's career. The Griffs have never even reached the semifinals in his three seasons. They won a play-in game last year before losing to Siena in the quarterfinals. They are 0-3 in the quarters under MacDonald.
That's why, in our midseason evaluation of the Big 4 programs, the writer said it was up to Fenn to determine how he will be remembered: As a winner, a Griff center who led his team to the NCAA Tournament in the very end, the way Micheal Meeks did in 1996? Or as a numbers player who never took his team anywhere?
How about it, big guy?
"You never like to read something like that about yourself," Fenn said. "But at the same time, there's some truth to it. Maybe that's why it does sting. It wouldn't sting if he was lying. I think I've had a successful career here. A couple of times, we didn't get to that next level. But I just hope people remember me as someone who came to play every game and worked hard and really fought for Canisius, because that's how I tried to play every game."
There were times when Fenn played with an evident passion, when he demanded the ball and was the most dominant player on the floor. But at other times, he appeared almost passive, content to drift away from the basket and take mid-range jump shots.
Defensively, he could be a shot-blocking force when he put his mind to it. Occasionally, he seemed unwilling to challenge shooters in the paint, and the Griffs' interior defense suffered as a result.
Outwardly, he often seemed to lack intensity and the team's play reflected it.
"I think I play best when I get angry," Fenn said, "but I try to leave emotions out of it, because emotions can mess with your mind and your game. Players who are really emotional have huge highs and huge lows. I try to stay steady. I'm always intense."
This was a particularly difficult year for Fenn. In his junior year, the offense flowed through him on almost every possession. The Griffs were breaking in three freshmen. They didn't have a lot of options. He had to be The Man.
Things changed his senior year. Tory Jefferson became eligible. The freshmen (Toby Foster, Dux and Mallory) were sophomores, and ready to contribute more. Andrew Bush and Clive Bentick emerged as scorers. Suddenly, the Griffs didn't need Fenn to touch the ball on every possession, or to score 20 points every game. It was an adjustment.
"It has been," he said. "People say, "Last year you averaged 17 (points) and 10 (rebounds), now you're averaging 14 and 7.' But as I've been telling people all year, we were 10-20 when I had those numbers last year. Now we're mixing it up more.
"We play our best ball when we have three, four, five guys all around 10-14 points and everyone's happy."
"At times he has to do a better job posting up," MacDonald said. "But he's been very worried about the team, and wanting to win and that's all you can ask from a senior. He said, "Coach, I've been all-MAAC, I want to win.' I give him a lot of credit. Many kids in their senior year would come in and demand the ball, "Everything goes through me', and he's been the opposite. He said he understands."
Fenn also understands he has to be at his best for the Griffs to win the MAAC Tournament this weekend. It's fine to defer to your teammates, to let the offensive touches be spread around. But this tournament is invariably won in the low post, by the team that establishes its domain underneath the hoop, at both ends of the floor.
For Canisius to win, he has to be the best big man on the HSBC Arena floor, a two-way force in the middle.
"Yeah, he could be the difference," Bentick said. "Darren is the best rebounder on our team and we lose games when he doesn't rebound. He has to rebound. He'll be a big difference."
Two years ago, the Griffs were upset by St. Peter's in the quarterfinals here. Fenn had a great game in defeat. Afterward, with tears in his eyes, he said, "I'll tell you this much. I'm not going to lose in the first round again."
Technically, he hasn't. Canisius won its first game a year ago, then lost to Siena in the quarters. They'll play another play-in game Friday, and will have to win four games to win it all. That's a daunting assignment. But the Griffs have a favorable draw, and they're home. Over the last couple of weeks, Fenn has played with uncommon fire, as if it's finally dawned on him that his career is nearly over.
This is it. One last chance for Fenn to win a MAAC tourney and an NCAA bid, and to expand his legacy. Just once, he would love to be jumping center on Monday night, in the title game on national TV.
"Oh, I'm thirsty for it," Fenn said. "There's nothing left, really, for me to accomplish. I did put up the numbers. I had a good career. But we haven't won that tournament. If I'm fortunate enough to be in that final game, I'm going to cherish it. If not, I won't look back on my career with any regret."