Sports

Battling Bears: Florence and Emerson have gone from discord to dynamic duo

Now, they laugh, with and at each other.

Now, they’re on the same page.

But then? The early days weren’t the good old days for James Florence and Danny Emerson.

Florence grins and shakes his head. A belly laugh erupts from Emerson’s 6-foot-7, 235-pound frame.

“It was not,” Florence said succinctly, “a match made in heaven.”

Emerson sits back on a bench at the recollection of, well, an on-court disagreement back in the spring of 2007 and starts laughing and clapping.

“Ahhh, man,” Emerson said, letting out a sigh. “Actually, that was the second one.”

The “second one” was the second time that Florence and Emerson went at each other, and not necessarily along the lines of simple competition.

Fact is, that Florence and Emerson enter this season as one of the nation’s top 1-2 punches in NCAA basketball is a pleasant surprise for, yes, Florence and Emerson.

They’re the two players outsiders focus on most when discussing Mercer’s upsets last year of Auburn and Alabama and near-surprise of Georgia Tech, and of the Bears 17-win season, as well as the Bears’ chances to meet high expectations in a season that includes the school hosting the A-Sun tournaments.

Even Dick Vitale raved about the pair during his visit to Mercer last month.

If only he knew.

This wasn’t Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon.” There weren’t playful disagreements followed by fuzzy handshakes and a chuckle.

“It was,” Emerson said, “a shaky start.”

Just getting them to co-exist on a team was going to be an accomplishment, but merely co-existing wouldn’t be nearly enough.

Chemistry wasn’t all that hot before Emerson came on board full time.

He had almost grown up at Mercer and old Porter Gym, regularly attending games to watch oldest brother Scott carve out hall-of-fame career. Then middle brother Will came to Mercer and had an all-star career, so Danny made more trips.

Emerson all but grew up with former Mercer head coach Mark Slonaker as almost his uncle in Macon, so familiar were they with each other. But Emerson had a little bit bigger upside than his brothers, and signed with Western Kentucky, a bigger-name mid-major than Mercer.

Soon, it was clear that he and then-coach Darren Horn weren’t a good fit, and Emerson started looking.

Florence had completed his freshman year at Mercer as Emerson finished his second at WKU and had decided to transfer to Mercer.

Slonaker was ecstatic for two reasons: it offered the unique opportunity to coach three brothers from one family, and he knew how good Emerson was.

Mercer had a new president, and Slonaker’s contract status became shaky. As Emerson watched the 2007-08 season from the bench as a redshirt who worked on the scout team, the Bears struggled to an 11-19 finish, and Slonaker’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Emerson saw Florence digress as a player, shooting more and scoring less and not exactly earning a reputation as a defensive stopper or elite decision-maker, his numbers going backward from his freshman to his sophomore season.

It was near the end of the season when Florence and Emerson first got riled up at each other after Emerson and the scout team won a scrimmage. Then Slonaker was let go, and the coachless Bears were on an intramural court one day, and things got chippy.

And Florence had to be a young leader on the team, a difficult role.

“(Florence) didn’t understand how to use his words — once you use words, you can’t get ‘em back, they’re powerful,” Hoffman said. “Especially on a team, words hurt like crazy.”

Emerson’s patience had worn thin regarding Florence’s word usage at times.

“I came around a screen,” Florence remembered, “and he just leveled me. Just leveled me.”

And the two had to be separated. That was “the second one.”

It was almost inevitable, on two levels.

First, the people involved.

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we’re both alpha males, you know?” Emerson said. “We were both alpha males.”

Said Hoffman: It was basically fighting for the lead dog.”

Second, the situation.

“Things were OK during the season, but as the season wore on, they got worse and worse,” Emerson said. “Slon, halfway through the season, the writing was on the wall, and I came here for Slon.

“It was pretty obvious what was going to happen. I was upset, everybody was stressed out, frustrated.”

Watching the pickup game was Paul Johnson, who in days would join the staff of new head coach Bob Hoffman. Emerson and Florence cringe at the memory.

“(Johnson) comes in there and see his two all-conference players basically just trying to get into a fist-fight with each other,” Emerson said. “I wasn’t sure we’d get a coach after that.”

They did.

“We had a little, as I call ‘em, ‘come to Jesus’ meeting, and told ‘em how it was gonna happen,” Hoffman said. “I asked ‘em. ‘Danny, can we be a successful team without Flo playing at a high level?’ ‘No.’

“’Flo, can we be a successful team if Danny’s not playing at a high level?’ ‘No.’

“’OK, so this is the deal. You guys have got to figure out how you’re going to do this together.’”

There was no music, awkward smiles and a hug, but the ice began melting, first for Emerson.

“That meeting was the first time somebody forced us to sit in a room, in an area together,” he said. “We had to talk to each other, we had to explain our side of the story.

“After hearing him talk, I realized he wanted to win as bad as I did. He wasn’t trying just to get his (shots and points). He wanted to win. Once I realized that and recognized that, we started understanding each other.”

Florence, Emerson thought, believed he had to play that way for the Bears to have a chance. The two kept in touch over that summer, and the ice continued to melt.

It became a puddle in the August before their first season together as Emerson went from redshirt and scout teamer to full-fledged teammate, and the Bears played some exhibitions in Canada.

“I just saw that he played with the same kind of passion I believe I play with,” Florence said. “I was like, ‘He really just wants to win more than anything. He doesn’t care about the accolades or anything like that.’

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do is win.”

Florence is almost embarrassed to reminisce.

“I ran the team for two years, and I’m like, ‘this kid is coming supposedly save our program? No, I’m the one,’” Florence said. “It’s like a new kid in the house. I’m the only child and here’s a new kid in the house and the kid’s taking away my attention.

“I was really immature, I really was.”

They finished their first season together earning all-conference honors, Florence on the first team and Emerson on the second. They helped Mercer earn some national recognition for the SEC sweep of Auburn and Alabama, and the Bears broke a long losing streak to Belmont.

They begin their final season together facing expectations.

ESPN.com’s Fran Fraschilla listed Florence as a player to watch in the site’s “Best of the Rest Shootaround” and he was Blue Ribbon magazine’s conference player of the year.

Athlon lists Florence as the No. 8 top mid-major player and Emerson 27th.

From Rivals: “Florence and forward Daniel Emerson have a chance to be the most productive scoring duo in the nation this season.”

Another Rivals.com story in May listed Florence and Emerson as potentially one of the top five inside-outside duos in the nation this season.

And from yet another Rivals.com offering on mid-majors: “Mercer returns one of the most impressive statistical duos in the country. Florence is a top-five returning scorer at 20.8 points per game, and senior Daniel Emerson is a top-five returning rebounder. The only other team to have a player in both top fives is Notre Dame (Luke Harangody, in both categories).”

From Collegehoops.net’s line on Mercer: “Arguably the most underrated inside-outside combo in the country resides here, in James Florence and Daniel Emerson.”

From Midmajormadness.com: “Keep an eye on guard James Florence and forward Daniel Emerson as they have a chance to be the most productive scoring duo in the nation this season.”

Hoffman, needless to say, is grateful to be coaching a pair of players who are that good, but who also grew up and buried their baggage. Florence and Emerson admit to being a little surprised that a relationship that began with impatience and overwhelming negativity has grown to be so solid on and off the court.

“I envisioned we could be really good, but we’ve exceeded my expectations,” Florence said. “He creates stuff for me, I create stuff for him. I’m so thankful for him now. I mean, we can’t wait for this season to start.”

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