The center who escaped war-ravaged Sarajevo, the forward who endured his father's imprisonment, the coaches chasing their second national championship.
The point guard's toe, the freshman's knees, the icon's farewell.
The favorite's dominance, the underdog's cause.
College basketball's national-title contest tonight offers more compelling characters than an Elmore Leonard novel.
Question is, can North Carolina and Michigan State deliver a compelling game?
Heaven knows this NCAA tournament could use it.
Think about it. Much as we anticipate our annual bracket busting, 2009 has produced few indelible moments.
The simultaneous, first-round overtimes showcasing Siena-Ohio State and Wisconsin-Florida State kept folks up past midnight. The East Regional final between Villanova and Pittsburgh merited two hours of rapt attention and left those of us at Pearl's Oyster House in Memphis hoarse from the cheering — for both teams.
Otherwise, the last three weeks have been rather tepid.
If the Tar Heels (33-4) and Spartans (31-6) play to form tonight, that's unlikely to change.
Not because North Carolina housed Michigan State 98-63 at this very venue, Ford Field, on Dec. 4. That knockout, the Spartans' worst in 13 years, was an aberration.
Center Goran Suton, who as a 6-year-old fled Bosnia with his family, missed that game with a knee injury. Freshman forward Delvon Roe played — he was scoreless in 20 minutes — but still was recovering from surgery on both knees.
Plus, the Spartans were fatigued from four games in seven days, the first three at a tournament in Florida.
But as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Sunday: "If we had everybody perfect, the way they played that night, instead of winning by 35 they could have beat us by 20. If we play good and they play good, we're losing. …
"They are the best team in the country, and have been that. … I don't feel bad about saying that. I don't feel like I'm demeaning my team. I'm realistic. I'm semi-intelligent. I've watched enough film."
But if athletes were automatons and the best teams always won, who would watch? Besides, Michigan State isn't Saginaw State, and this isn't Hickory High against South Bend Central in "Hoosiers."
The Spartans won the Big Ten regular season and were seeded second in the Midwest Regional. They defeated No. 1 seeds Louisville and Connecticut in their most recent outings, and a victory tonight would make them the first team in history to beat three No. 1s in succession.
Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas is the Big Ten's player of the year, running mate Travis Walton the conference's defender of the year.
"You don't get this far on grit," Izzo said. "There are some talented guys here in their own right. I think they're trying to build their own legends."
Izzo and North Carolina's Roy Williams are the first championship coaches to meet in the NCAA final since Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson in 2001. The winner will join Krzyzewski, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Florida's Billy Donovan as the only active coaches with multiple titles.
Izzo and his players have embraced their role as beacons for a state reeling from the economic crisis.
"It's a storm in the city, so we're trying to bring sunlight," Lucas said.
Williams and his players are attempting to reach a pinnacle many, including themselves, envisioned after Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough chose another year of college instead of the NBA after last season's Final Four loss to Kansas.
"I probably have dreamt about winning a national championship since I was little, even playing on my Fisher-Price court," Lawson said. "Counting down from five, me hitting the game-winner. I've been waiting for this."
Lawson's painful big toe injury — semifinal victim Villanova will attest to his recovery — was the most recent drama surrounding the Tar Heels but hardly the only. Green continues to field questions about his father, who last season was released from prison after serving about two years on a drug charge; Hansbrough, the ACC's all-time leading scorer, is concluding a storied college career.
The Tar Heels could become the first champions since Indiana in 1981 to win each of their tournament games by at least 12 points.
"It's been surprising," Carolina forward Deon Thompson said. "When you think of the magnitude of these games, you don't expect to it to be as easy as it's been for us. When we were sitting on the bench last night, Ed (Davis) and I were joking around because it didn't seem right that we were up by so much. I do expect a fight out of Michigan State."
Let's hope so. Let's hope Carolina-Michigan State joins Kansas-Memphis, Syracuse-Kansas, Carolina-Illinois and Duke-Arizona as this decade's memorable championship games.
And if the Tar Heels spoil the Spartans' feel-good mission, so be it.
"I do realize they have a cause," Williams said. "Well, we also have a cause. We want to win a national championship, period, the end. And if you would tell me that if Michigan State wins, it's gonna satisfy the nation's economy, then I'd say, 'Hell, let's stay poor for a little while longer.' "
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.