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Milligan's Garden roots run deep

With UMass in NIT semifinals, senior makes a heavyhearted trip home

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2008

It wasn't a matter of giving up, Dante Milligan insists. And it wasn't really a matter of letting go - as much as the 24-year-old University of Massachusetts senior had come to regard that as a kind of maturity. You get to a certain point in life and you realize that loss is inevitable. Certainly he had seen that.

No, as Milligan looked up at the scoreboard last Tuesday night at the Carrier Dome and saw Syracuse leading UMass in the second half, 54-32, it was a matter of being realistic.

"I was just trying to make it respectable," he said. "I knew we didn't want to go out like that."

Difficult things were possible, he knew. Almost-impossible things were possible. What was that old saying? The one about the journey of 1,000 miles?

When Syracuse's Paul Harris missed a 3-point attempt, Milligan grabbed the rebound.

It begins with a single step.

He wanted so much to win this game. A victory would take UMass to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. That meant that UMass's other two scholarship seniors, Gary Forbes and Etienne Brower, would get to finish their careers where they started them, in New York.

And Milligan would, too - not just in the city where he had grown up, but at the "world's most famous arena."

It was more than that, though, much more. For Milligan, and for his only sibling, his kid brother, Alonzo, the Garden had always been a magical place.

Milligan had some people rooting hard for him to get there. For sure, his mother, Ruby, was watching the Syracuse game. He always keeps Ruby close. Her picture is tattooed on his chest with the words, "My heart, my soul."

And Milligan had little doubt that Dan Schoenberg would be watching. The vice president of public relations for MSG Media, Schoenberg was more than a close family friend. For years, he had been Alonzo's Big Brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. When Dante was home from boarding school, he, too, would connect with Schoenberg. They would meet at Asphalt Green on 90th Street to play ball, Alonzo and Dante walking from their home in East Harlem, Schoenberg rollerblading from his apartment on 80th Street and 2nd Avenue.

Schoenberg had opened up their world. Over and over again, the Milligans would get on the subway down to 34th Street and walk star-struck into the Garden. Through Schoenberg, the boys became well-known in both the corporate offices and the Knicks locker room. They went to concerts and prize fights and lots of basketball games, college and pro.

One day, Dante used to tell Alonzo, you're going to see me play on this court.

Maybe Alonzo was watching that game at Syracuse, too, odd as that might sound. If so, he would have enjoyed looking at Dante's sneakers, the ones with "R.I.P. Zo Millz" written on them. And perhaps he would see the tattoo on Dante's right arm. He would recognize the words. They came from a poster Ruby had put up in the childhood room the boys shared, an inspirational one about the A-to-Z lessons of life. Long before he was killed, Alonzo had tattooed the "E" message on his own arm: "Enjoy life today. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come."

Those words are now inked on Dante's shoulder just above a picture of his brother.

The college carousel

As children, Dante and Alonzo loved to go to the Boys' Club of New York on 111th Street. That was where they made their first friends, where they learned to play ball. Ruby, too, became a fixture, meeting the administrators, finding out about programs that would enhance her sons' lives.

When Ruby and her husband, Michael Harper, separated, Ruby figured the boys needed another good male role model and applied to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Alonzo got matched with Schoenberg. The fit was perfect.

"I love Dan," said Ruby, an assistant teacher of special education. "He was a slim, tall, Jewish guy. I just loved his sense of humor. He was for real."

According to Ruby, Alonzo blossomed with Dan's help, which became ever more important when Dante was accepted into boarding school through a Boys' Club program. Buying a couple of suits and a tie, the slender eighth-grader from Harlem went off to the Rectory School in Pomfret, Conn.

Separated for the first time, the Milligan boys nevertheless stayed close. According to Ruby, every time Dante came home, Alonzo had to be there at the door, or to meet the bus at the Port Authority.

When he was home, Dante loved to join Alonzo at the Garden. He met players such as Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Allan Houston. He came to know the executives who worked alongside Schoenberg.

"Everybody in that environment all kind of knew us," he said. "It was another home."

Finding a home in college would not prove so easy. In 2003, Milligan accepted a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, but before he arrived, coach Ben Howland left for UCLA. Howland's replacement, Jamie Dixon, elected to redshirt Milligan for his freshman season.

Returning in the fall of 2004, he injured his thumb, and got in a dispute with the staff about whether he required surgery. In the first semester, he played through pain in parts of five games, scoring 7 points.

Frustrated, he decided to transfer after the semester to UMass, whose coach at the time was Steve Lappas. Milligan knew he would have to sit out two semesters as a transfer, but it felt like the right move. He liked Lappas's style of basketball, and he figured he could have the surgery on his thumb and learn the system. But after the 2004-05 season, Lappas was fired and replaced by Travis Ford.

Milligan, who had played exactly 23 minutes of college ball, was already on his fourth head coach.

Caught in crossfire

That summer, Dante was staying at his mother's apartment on 24th Street, where she had moved a couple of years earlier. On the night of June 25, Alonzo, then 19 and a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, visited the old neighborhood. He went with some friends to a baby shower.

What could be more innocent?

According to Ruby, there had been a neighborhood dispute in the preceding days. She thinks it had to do with a bicycle. After the baby shower, there was a confrontation, and suddenly a hail of gunfire. Alonzo saw a friend go down and raced over to him when he was shot, just behind the hip, the bullet tearing into his midsection.

It was a horrific scene. Hysterical, Ruby called Dante and left a message with Schoenberg, who was away for the weekend on Long Island. When Schoenberg got the message Sunday morning, he sped into the city to Harlem Hospital.

"Alonzo," he said, "it's Dan, man. You've got to keep fighting, kid. You've got to keep fighting. We love you. We're here for you."

Alonzo managed to open his eye, and a tear fell.

There had been massive internal bleeding, but it seemed that Alonzo might make it. Late on Sunday night, Schoenberg convinced the exhausted family to go home and get some sleep. In the wee hours, things took a sharp turn for the worse. Schoenberg noticed a bevy of activity in Alonzo's room, and called Dante.

"He was just crying and crying," Dante recalled.

There was, of course, no coming back from that. Ruby, who had already lost three of her siblings in unrelated deaths, had now lost her baby boy. She sought what comfort she could from counseling, from friends like Schoenberg, from her work with young children, and from the rock that her eldest son was becoming.

"I could not figure out how he did it," Ruby said, pointing out that in the aftermath of the tragedy Dante declared a double major (in sports management and communications) and had his best semester in the classroom. "Some kids would just give up, but for some reason Dante kept strong. Not only did he do it for himself; he did it for his brother, who never got the chance."

His chance arrives

Everywhere Dante went, he brought the obituary card from Alonzo's funeral. He still refers to it as his prize possession.

On the court, progress was slow. In his first semester of eligibility, he played sparingly. One of those games, though, was at the Garden when UMass played Saint Peter's in the Holiday Classic. At halftime, Dante and Ruby went out to center court to present checks to the first recipients of the Alonzo Milligan Mentorship Award, scholarship money for promising kids from the Boys' Club. Jamal Crawford of the Knicks cut the first check to launch the program.

"It was an unbelievable moment," said Schoenberg. "I've been at the Garden for 12 years. It's probably the greatest memory I have here."

Milligan was a redshirt junior last year when UMass fell just shy of the NCAA Tournament, making it to the NIT, winning one game.

Milligan knew he would get a chance to shine for the first time this season. Expectations for the Minutemen in most circles were not very high.

They surprised in the early going, however, running off an 11-3 nonleague record. The highlight was a startling 107-100 victory at Syracuse, the most points the Orange had ever given up at the Carrier Dome. Players began to express hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament, where UMass had not played in a decade.

But in A-10 play, UMass faltered. The Minutemen started out 4-6. On Valentine's Day, the season hit its nadir as UMass dropped a game at home to Fordham. Hopes for the NCAA Tournament all but vanished. Ford turned emphatically to Milligan, the long-armed, 6-foot-9-inch player, and told him he needed more.

In the next game, playing against a Saint Louis squad that had already beaten UMass, Milligan put up a career-high 21 points. That got the Minutemen rolling on a six-game winning streak to close the regular season at 21-9.

"Our team can't win unless Dante is playing significant minutes," Ford concluded. "And we can't win if he's not playing his best."

UMass probably needed one win in the A-10 tournament to earn that NCAA berth. The Minutemen appeared to be home free with a 17-point halftime lead against Charlotte.

Then came the avalanche as Charlotte stormed back. The Minutemen grew tentative. After the 69-65 loss, several players had to be helped off the floor.

After absorbing the disappointment, Milligan recalibrated his goals. The NIT? Three wins? A trip back to the Garden.

Epic comeback

Some questioned whether UMass would be sufficiently motivated in the NIT. In the first game against Stephen F. Austin, Milligan put up 24 points in an 80-60 win. In Round 2, UMass rallied from 12 back in the second half to beat Akron.

That set up a rematch with Syracuse, one of the gold standards of college basketball. Not since 1923 had an opponent won two games in the same season at Syracuse. And the memory of the 107-point ambush in December had to be fresh.

With Ruby cheering from home, Milligan scored the first points of the game. But by the time Schoenberg tuned in midway through the first half, ESPN announcers Sean McDonough and Fran Fraschilla were chronicling a double-digit deficit for the Minutemen. By halftime it was 43-24.

Then it got worse.

The deficit stretched to 22 with 14:37 remaining when Milligan grabbed that rebound off the Harris miss.

UMass closed the gap, but still trailed by 14 with 7:48 left.

With 1:36 remaining, and UMass down, 76-71, Syracuse's Donte Green was fouled. On the broadcast, McDonough said, "Their 5-man is Milligan, who's really out of position. He's playing valiantly, trying to be a 5-man, but that's not really his natural position."

In her apartment, Ruby looked at Green at the line and invoked her "sixth man."

"Knock it out, Zo!" she said.

Green missed both free throws.

On the other end, Brower missed a 3-pointer, but Milligan grabbed the rebound and fired it off the glass to make it 76-73.

"So much for Dante Milligan being out of position as a 5," said McDonough. "He had great position inside."

UMass's Ricky Harris nailed a 3-pointer to make it 77-76. Less than a minute remained.

Brower then deflected a Syracuse pass to Forbes as more than 20,000 Syracuse fans looked on in disbelief. After a missed shot and a scrum, the Minutemen inbounded with 45 seconds remaining.

Chris Lowe sent a pass to Brower, then got the ball back behind the 3-point arc. He spun into the lane, drew the double-team, and fired a pass inside. Milligan grabbed it and hammered it through for a 78-77 lead.

There was still time for a Green drive to be swatted away by Milligan, a single free throw by Lowe to make it 79-77 with 17.1 seconds left. Then Syracuse's Jonny Flynn drove into the lane. There's probably no need to mention who came up with the steal.

Milligan sent the ball up to Harris, who got fouled with 4.4 seconds left. Two free throws later, the game was over.

Tonight Dante Milligan leads UMass onto the Garden floor against Florida, winner of the last two NCAA Tournaments. He will have his fans very much in mind.

"I can't describe in words what Dan means to me and my family," he said.

About Ruby, he said, "Every time I go out on the court, I try to play for her, especially now."

There's one other fan, of course, a young man who always wanted to see his brother play a college basketball game.

"My whole goal for wanting to get back to the Garden was because I knew that was the one place where he had always gone where he could make a serious connection with me," Dante said. "That's why it was so important."

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