Air Force men's basketball coach Dave Pilipovich often talks about the inscription he expects to see on his gravestone.
"I would have lived five years longer if not for Max Yon," Pilipovich said, etching his stone as he celebrated a surprising 73-72 victory over Utah State on the opening day of Mountain West Conference play.
Yon often frustrates Pilipovich with his questions and his skepticism, but there was no frustration on Wednesday night at Clune Arena. Yon, a junior, scored 21 points, including 15 in a superb second half.
Allow me to admit I was surprised by the win. This is the same Air Force team that lost by a combined 47 points in consecutive home losses to Colorado and Richmond in late November. The Falcons, who lost lost all five starters from last season, did not walk into this MWC opener burdened by great expectation, or much of any expectation.
We're watching the backups from last season's team that won 13 of 15 games at Clune and delivered some of the biggest upsets - and thrills - in Air Force history.
Yon was one of those backups. He spent last season sitting behind shooting guard Michael Lyons, one of the finest athletes in Air Force history. Yon also spent last season sparring with Pilipovich. Yon, by his own admission, is the type who wants the last word even as he seeks to understand why Pilipovich wants him to do this and do that. Nobody has ever described Yon as easygoing.
"Yeah, I drive him crazy," Yon said. "I think he loves and hates that about me. I'm a competitor, and there's nothing that is going to silence me. I like to show emotion and passion when I play. . Yeah, we have an interesting relationship."
Yon's relationship with Lyons was interesting, too. At most practices last season, the two players guarded each other. Yon respects Lyons immensely, but this was not a friendly rivalry. Lyons and Yon shoved and shouted in these daily battles.
"There would be days where you can't even talk about what would happen," Yon said. "We would get after each other's throats. That kind of thing."
And the language?
"Explicit," Yon said with a laugh.
A basketball fire roars in Yon's gut, and sometimes the flames threaten to leap out of control.
And yet .
You could see his relentless drive take over the team in the second half. Utah State ripped to a 55-46 lead, silencing the small but loud crowd at Clune, and a rout seemed imminent. The Falcons were wandering around lost.
Yon rescued his teammates, scoring 11 points in the next 10 minutes. Lyons, now a prep school coach, applauded his former teammate/adversary from the stands.
This was a team victory. Nobody on the current Air Force roster even approaches Lyons in talent. But Yon remembers a home game from last season against Colorado State.
"Mike put up 45 points," Yon said. "And we lost."
Yon probably won't score 21 points in Air Force's next victory. On this season's no-star team, somebody else will emerge as the star of the night. And that's fine with Yon. He embraces the team concept.
He's also learning - and this is tough for a thoroughly stubborn young man - to gracefully surrender in discussions/arguments with Pilipovich.
"He's always right," Yon said with a slight smile. "He's the coach."