AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Patrick Beilein, formerly of North Buffalo and St. Mark's parish, had one pressing question when I showed up in front of his locker Saturday afternoon in the Palace of Auburn Hills.
"So, what's up with the Bills?" Beilein asked.
Yes, you can take the boy out of Buffalo, but you can't take away his boyhood teams. Beilein, the sixth man on sixth-seeded West Virginia, is still a fan of the Bills and Sabres. He has fond memories of our city, where he was a ball boy for his dad's Canisius College teams and played grammar school hoops for Kevin Spitler at St. Mark's.
As a kid, Beilein dreamed of playing for the Golden Griffins. He remembers all those nights at the Koessler Center, watching John Beilein's great teams in the mid-'90s. The players were like gods to him. He can still see the fans storming the court at Memorial Auditorium after Canisius beat Washington State to reach the Final Four of the NIT in 1995.
"It's the little things that I'll always remember," he said. "I remember Micheal Meeks reaching down to give me a rub on the head that night. I loved watching those guys. I see kids looking at me that way now, out of the same eyes I had back then -- those huge eyes."
Of course, it wasn't really the Griffs he longed to play for, but his father. When John Beilein took the Richmond job in 1997, Patrick dreamed of becoming a Spider. When his father went to West Virginia five years later, he dreamed of being a Mountaineer.
"I more or less recruited myself. I told my father I wanted to play for his team," he said.
There was one problem. It was one thing to dream of playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, or even the Atlantic 10. But the Big East? The 6-foot-4 guard remembers how his father would sometimes answer the phone when the recruiters called. He remembers that none of the calls were from big-time coaches.
Patrick was one of the top high school players in Virginia. But no major colleges recruited him. Until John got the West Virginia job, Patrick was planning to play at Richmond. But his father had told him he would redshirt. No way he was going to play ahead of Richmond's veteran guys.
So in 2002, when John recruited his oldest son to play for him at West Virginia -- a Big East program -- people began to whisper. They weren't looking at Patrick with the wide, admiring eyes of little boys, but the dubious glares of adults.
"When he was a freshman, I expected it to be hard for him to play in the Big East, or ever have any success," admitted John Beilein, whose team meets Northwestern State today in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, the Mountaineers were desperate for players in Beilein's first year. They had won just one Big East game the year before. The program was in disarray. Players had quit or been nudged out. Patrick wasn't the greatest athlete, but he was a shooter, a basketball player. He got regular minutes off the bench that first year and made the most of it.
Fans in hostile arenas yelled "Daddy's boy!" but Beilein proved he belonged. He was a perfect fit in his dad's unique system, which favors smart players who can pass, shoot the three-pointer and make the proper decisions in his 1-3-1 zone.
Beilein has a one-dimensional reputation, and with good reason. More than 80 percent of his shots during his four years have been three-pointers. He has canned 236 threes, the most in school history. But over his four years, he made himself into a complete player, a terrific shooter who chips in the timely rebound, assist or steal off the bench.
"I think that I've done a lot this year to establish myself as doing the little things," he said, "like getting a rebound or taking it to the hole. I've worked on all parts of my game since I got here."
Beilein, who averages 7.7 points a game, has a knack for the big moment. He was at his best last March during West Virginia's stirring run to the Final Eight. He had 10 points in the Sweet 16 against Texas Tech, 13 in the overtime loss to Louisville in the Final Eight. In the Mountaineers' first-round win Friday over Southern Illinois, he had a fine all-around game with nine points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
"Each game, he got a little better and did more things," John Beilein said. "They say he's not real quick, but his mind is quick. He's got a toughness about him, a moxie similar to that of players I had at those other schools."
It hasn't always been easy for them. At times, John felt he was too soft on his son. At others, he wondered if he was too tough. At times, Patrick felt singled out for criticism, but felt it was his responsibility to prove he belonged.
John Beilein said he will probably look back one day and realize he should have enjoyed the experience more.
Patrick plans to be a coach some day. His father says he'll be a good one, because he has a coach's vision for the sport. One thing is certain, neither would trade these four years for anything.
"I never thought I could make it this far," Patrick said. "Playing in the Big East, making NCAA Tournaments back-to-back. It's been very special to experience it with my dad. I just wanted to play where my father coached, so I guess it worked out for both of us."