Inside a cramped Palestra locker room, Villanova guard Phil Booth was getting changed Tuesday after the nation's top-ranked NCAA hoop squad had gotten past La Salle. Not changing out of his uniform, just a sharp blue suit, Booth's game attire lately, into more casual clothes.
There should be a rule, NCAA or International Order for Good Karma or some such body, that if you deal with a knee injury, get through it without complaint or even comment and come off the bench to be the leading scorer for the winning team in an NCAA title game, the next season should be a rewarding ride.
Phil Booth knows life makes no promises.
He isn't complaining. He certainly isn't panicking. He'd just, of course, prefer to be playing.
It still could be a lot of fun for him this season. It's a long season and the knee pains Booth's dealing with now, he said, don't compare to what he went through last season. If this were the NCAA or even the Big East tournament, he'd be playing. February? Let's guess then, too.
Still, doesn't seem fair.
Let's stipulate the high likelihood that the Wildcats aren't NCAA champions without Booth, the odds high there would be no game-winner at the buzzer in Houston if Booth already hadn't scored 20, in 25 minutes, making 6 of 7 shots from the field and all six of his free throws, in one of the great performances by a reserve player in Final Four history.
What if Booth didn't make those two free throws with 35 seconds left, 'Nova up one? History changes.
Remember that fadeaway jumper in deep traffic, shot clock about to expire, Villanova up three in the last four minutes? Booth's shots kept falling as the pressure built.
The announcement came from Villanova a month later: Booth had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Does he allow himself moments of this ain't fair? Booth kind of laughed. "I mean, everybody wishes they could be 100 percent healthy going through the season. I wish I could have been."
He was talking about last season. I meant this season.
"Oh, it's just bad luck, man," Booth said Tuesday after he came out of the locker room. "You work so hard to get back, you're feeling good, and then something happens. It's just one of those things that you have to mentally fight through."
Is the pain in his knee related to the earlier surgery? "Yeah, I think so," Booth said.
It obviously makes complete sense that Booth goes conservative now, with the biggest games all ahead. "Exactly, just take it easy now," Booth said.
His day now, Booth said, is "very light. I do some running. Anything that causes pain, I don't do. I do rehab in the morning."
"Simple little weights on my ankle, lifting my leg up," Booth said. "Strengthening. That's mostly what the problem was. I have a weak leg and it caused a lot of pressure on my knee, so just strengthening my knee and my leg around it, that's mostly what I try to do throughout the day."
When Villanova was in Charleston in November, Booth played the first game, felt pain afterward so sat out the next day's game. After a day's rest, he warmed up for the final, but again felt something so stayed out of the game and hasn't played in the three games since. No official word on Saturday's Notre Dame in Newark.
"It feels better than last season," Booth said of his knee. "We're just being very cautious and very conservative. It feels way better than last season, not even close."
"He played injured last year,'' Jay Wright said after the La Salle game. "He had minor arthroscopic surgery. He worked his butt off to get back. He was a monster all fall, you ask any of our guys-all fall. Then he started getting little twitches, in a different area, which wasn't serious, but he was frustrated."
The conversations, Wright said, are along the lines of "Just be patient. Let's get it right. It's not serious, but let's strengthen your leg, make sure you have no pain, and let's not do what you did last year."
Last season, Wright said, "He said, 'I'm fine, I'm fine.' He wasn't. We found out at the end of the year. We're really being careful with him because he's a tough, tough kid. The conversations are: 'Be honest, if there's any pain, tell us.' "
His whole mental outlook, Booth said, is good, happy to be around the guys, cheering them on, communicating what he sees-anything he can contribute, rebounding for guys, he's happy to do it. "I'm always all in,'' he said.
On the question of when he's back, "I don't even know. It's a day-by-day thing. It doesn't really have a timetable or a certain date."
As for being the top scorer in the NCAA final, Booth handles that with equal grace. He talks the same way he talked afterward that night in Houston, that he was in a rhythm and guys were finding him.
"It had to be somebody on the team,'' Booth said. "It happened to be me."
Yo, Good Karma folks, at least pick up the phone.