When Wisconsin's Ben Brust hit the shot of the Big Ten season Feb. 9, a running 3-pointer at the buzzer from nearly half-court to take Michigan into overtime, Mike Weinstein reacted like so many others inside the Kohl Center.
Weinstein's mouth dropped in amazement. His hands gripped his head.
"I couldn't believe that kid just did that,'' Weinstein said, speaking for the entire Midwest.
Many witnesses described Brust's 45-footer in the Wisconsin overtime victory as something they never had seen before — except Weinstein had. He was one of the few fans who had been Brust-proofed, which is why Brust's clutch 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in overtime impressed Weinstein more. Back when Weinstein owned Joy of the Game gym in Deerfield and coached the point guard on the Rising Stars AAU team, Brust drove his coach nuts practicing the impractical until it stopped seeming so crazy.
"Ben's a gym rat so before or after workouts he would fire up half-court shots and I would be like, 'What are you doing?' '' Weinstein said. "What do you know, eventually he developed a knack for making those.''
A major-college long shot no more, the skinny, 6-foot-1 kid from Mundelein High leads Wisconsin back to his hometown this week for the Big Ten tournament. The fourth-seeded Badgers and Brust, coach Bo Ryan's second-leading scorer and most well-rounded player, will play Friday afternoon against Thursday's Michigan-Penn State winner — potentially giving the Wolverines a chance to avenge Brust's heroics. It promises to be the most fun Brust has had at 1901 W. Madison since the 2002 day when his dad surprised him with tickets to Michael Jordan's return as a Washington Wizard.
Besides improving Wisconsin's NCAA tournament seed, cutting down the nets Sunday would allow Brust to complete the arc from tragedy to triumph during an arduous junior year.
It was 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 when Anthony Brust, Ben's 21-year-old cousin, died in a motorcycle accident in Long Grove. Two weeks earlier, Ben took his car into the shop where Anthony, a mechanic, fixed his brakes and provided the family discount. A NASCAR fanatic, Ben helped Anthony in the garage that day and cherishes the memory of their final time together.
"I think of him every day,'' Brust said. "It reminds me to take nothing for granted. Nothing is guaranteed. Everything I've taken from that has shaped me into the person and player I am today. It was a rough period.''
Stephen Brust believes it was rougher on his brother because Ben is the youngest of four and "stuff affects him more.'' Naturally, Ben coped by leaning on his parents, siblings and cousins. What he didn't realize was how many of those family members, over time, would find the same strength watching him play.
"Ben being out there on the court maybe has been a good thing for the family because everybody can see his games on TV and the cousins are so proud,'' Stephen said. "I've noticed more of the cousins saying, 'I love you, miss you.' When you lose someone that age who's close to you, it hits you hard.''
As Ben bounced back, it didn't surprise Weinstein that he channeled frayed emotions into focused basketball. He remembers Brust scoring 40 points as a Mundelein sophomore hours after seeing his grandmother on her deathbed. He saw Brust break his right tibia in January of his junior prep season, which stalled recruiting, yet recover in time to impress colleges on the AAU circuit in April. He watched Brust stay positive despite controversy surrounding his release from a national letter of intent from Iowa after the school fired coach Todd Lickliter in March 2010, which paved a long, winding road to Wisconsin.
"He has really matured as a man,'' Weinstein said. "Adversity comes, knocks him down and he keeps going forward.''
That's the beauty of growing up with two older brothers, right? The range Ben shows in gyms from Madison, Wis., to Lincoln, Neb., started developing with not-so-slight nudges on the Brust family driveway.
"Jonathan and I would stand out in front of a line and say, 'You can't shoot from in front of us,' so he would keep backing up as far as he could and got good from there,'' Stephen said. "Then he'd come home after school telling my mom how he cried after gym class because people would say he was showing off and he was just shooting the ball normally.''
Some days, Brust's shooting still can bring people to tears. But these days the only ones complaining are Wisconsin opponents.