It dawned on me recently that I’ve been addicted to the NCAA Tournament for 33 years now, an awesome basketball number for apparent reasons, albeit one that leaves me wishing I’d noticed that mesmerizing fold-out bracket in Sports Illustrated just a few years earlier.
The matchup in the 1979 final between Indiana State and Michigan State remains the highest-rated college basketball game of all-time, and that’s only right. It was the beginning of one of the legendary and enduring rivalries in sports, the first showdown between our No. 33, Larry Bird, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who actually wore No. 33 in college before dropping down a digit with the Lakers due to some tall, bald sky-hooking part-time airline pilot in goggles already owning the number.
Though Magic’s more talented Michigan State squad cruised to victory and left Bird in tears during the title game, I’ll nod in unison with anyone who wants to cite ’79 as the most important tournament ever. For the Magic-Larry effect alone, I’ll listen to the argument that it was the best ever. But it would not be my choice.
That first one I watched, in 1983, culminated with North Carolina State beating Houston on Lorenzo Charles’s put-back, buzzer-beating dunk. Akeem Olajuwon hadn’t added the H to his name or learned to box out at that point, and so he had the best view in the house of the did-that-just-happen? winning bucket.
Oh, yeah, that was a great one. Jimmy Valvano ran in a dozen directions at once looking for someone to hug, and it was the biggest title-game upset we’d see until, oh, two years later, when Villanova shot something like 103 percent from the field in taking down Patrick Ewing’s fierce, final Georgetown team.
I’m also partial to 1988, when Danny Manning – a clever, gifted do-it-all-superstar in college who was never quite the same after suffering a Clippers’ Curse knee injury as a rookie – put Kansas on his back and carried the Jayhawks to the title.
(As for this year? With a few shining moments from Wisconsin and Duke still to be determined, I’d rate it somewhere in the middle of the pack. Not enough star power beyond Kentucky’s top half-dozen players, and the chalk, save for Villanova, more or less advanced as expected.)
But my favorite tournament? This one has no close runner-up. It’s 1990 for me, and by a bigger margin than the 30-point gap between champion UNLV and loser Duke in the title game. The Runnin’ Rebels – has there ever been a more appropriately nicknamed college team? – were a ferocious, trash-talking crew led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony, and they were everything Michigan’s Fab Five aspired to be a few years later.
Sure, the final was anticlimactic. Then again, who didn’t like watching Duke get its comeuppance then? Hell, we still do. Wisconsin is America’s team tonight, right?
The reasons why I loved the 1990 tournament, which is somehow celebrating its silver anniversary this year, are as plentiful as the big-time prospects who played in it. And man, was there ever talent in this tourney, a varied and versatile assortment that included Johnson, LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson, Duke’s Christian Laettner, Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, Michigan State’s Steve Smith, Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott, Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens, and a roster or two of others who would go on to have distinguished NBA careers.
Also, Arkansas’s mad-chucking Todd Day was involved, which was fun to watch right up until he brought his ridiculous act to the Celtics.
The talent-level in ’90 was exceptional, a generational collection. And if you’re a believer in the seedy but unavoidable concept of college coaches as stars, well, consider this level of clipboard-carrying fame: Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun, Lou Carnesseca and John Chaney were among the prominent coaches in the field – at that was in the East Regional alone.
There were personal reasons for favoring this one. I’ll try to avoid stepping too deep in the nostalgia here, but that tournament took place during my sophomore year in college. Those players were hardly my peers – I suspect my experiences at UMaine don’t mirror hot-tub dweller LJ’s at UNLV or, say, Rick Fox’s at North Carolina, for instance. But they were the same age, and they do allow a fading athlete to think of such things as Shaq or Zo will be the No. 1 pick in my draft class. They’re relatable, even if they are not.
It was the first year I ever ran a pool, and if you’re going to accuse me of skimming off the top all these years later to feed my Pat’s Pizza and Schaefer beer habit, I’m going to have to plead no contest on that one.
Mostly, though, it was about the basketball. I cannot recall a tournament that delivered so many highlights such as Rick Fox’s buzzer-beater …
… and Tate George’s buzzer-beater …
… and the awesomely hateable great Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater …
and stories and interesting players and teams along the way. I’d agree that there may have been teams as fun as Georgia Tech’s ’90 Final Four squad in the history of college basketball, but I’m not going to believe that there are many – if any, save for maybe (H)Akeem’s Phi Slamma Jamma Houston teams – that were more fun than Lethal Weapon III.
Kenny Anderson was never better than during his freshman year as a Yellow Jacket, and if you consider that faint praise, then you never saw him in his electric youth. He was an exceptional slashing point guard, working in unison with long-range marksman Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver, a 6-4 wing player whose intelligent, well-rounded game didn’t quite translate to the NBA.
En route to that Final Four, Georgia Tech knocked out a stacked LSU team starring Chris Jackson, who was arguably the most exciting scoring guards in college basketball since Pete Maravich lit up the same campus. Jackson would take a three from anywhere at any time, often off a creative dribble (and sometimes at the expense of Shaq getting touches. Dale Brown was no tactical wizard.). He’s the closest thing I can think of to a precise predecessor of Steph Curry … that is, if Curry had a selfish streak, that is. Like Anderson, Jackson should not be judged by the disappointments and foibles of his pro career. In college hoops, he was a joy.
There’s was sadness too, though it soon shared the stage with inspiration. During the West Coast Conference tournament, Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed after a dunk and died from a heart condition. The tournament was immediately canceled, and the high-scoring Lions were given the conference’s automatic bid to the tournament. Led by Gathers’s childhood friend, Bo Kimble, the Lions became the sentimental favorite in the tournament, though expectations were tempered for obvious reasons.
Instead, they became a team to remembered for all-time, with their relentless run-and-gun style leading to an upset of defending champion Michigan in the second round and a ride all the way to the Elite 8, where UNLV proved too potent. But no basketball fan will forget what they accomplished amid tragedy, symbolized by Kimble taking – and making – lefthanded free throws in honor of his fallen friend.
Sure, UNLV got the banner, clobbering Duke, a result that makes for a memorable tournament by itself. But in 1990, there were so many memories accumulated along the way, with great college players running headlong into other great college players time and again every step of the way. In my 33 years of watching the tournament, there’s never been one quite as magical.
Oh, and for this weaselly-UNLV-of-pool-runners, the dubiously obtained pizza wasn’t bad, either.