The Greatest Upset Never Seen
Merv Lopes, 75 now, still wades into the Pacific off the Big Island of Hawaii to throw a cast net. He loves fishing for the sheer lottery of it, for never knowing exactly what he'll take in -- yet he's as sure as the tides that he'll eventually catch the big one. "And after you catch the big one," he says, "you never stop talking about it."
A quarter century has passed since Chaminade, the NAIA school on a Honolulu hillside whose basketball team Lopes coached, found in its net the nation's No. 1 team, the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers of Ralph Sampson, the 7' 4" center who would be a three-time NCAA player of the year.
Islanders and mainlanders alike still talk about what happened on the night of Dec. 23, 1982, in the Neal Blaisdell Center, even if -- or perhaps because -- fewer than 4,000 people witnessed it. "It still gives you the chicken skin," says Lopes, using an Islandism for goose bumps. And it has given college basketball much more. The game helped usher in an era of upsets and parity, heralding the astonishing NCAA title won that spring by North Carolina State. It led to the creation of what has become the Maui Invitational, the sport's most prestigious in-season tournament. And it assured that ESPN and its cable spawn would henceforth permit virtually no game to go untelevised.
Chaminade, with an enrollment of just 900 and run by the Marianists, paid Lopes only $10,000 a year to serve as coach, so he also held down a day job as a junior high guidance counselor. He begged towels from Waikiki Beach hotels. He drove the team's old Navy surplus van. He washed the players' uniforms himself in the Shack, the athletic department offices, which had been a boiler room when the campus served as a military hospital during World War II. And he yielded first dibs on time at McCabe Gym to St. Louis High, whose campus Chaminade still shares. "Never complained once," he says, "because who the hell was gonna listen?"
Although Lopes's roster was every bit as jerry-built as his program ("a little bit of this and a little bit of that," in his phrase), in the fall of 1982 the Silverswords retained their top six players from the previous season, when they had gone 28-3, the program's best record in its seven-year existence. "The guys came from all different backgrounds and weren't too stable," Lopes says. "But they played hard and played together."
Forward Richard Haenisch, who had arrived in Hawaii from Frankfurt, Germany as a 10th grader, enrolled at Chaminade because Lopes was the only coach to offer him a scholarship. Six-foot Tim Dunham, a preacher's son from Stockton, Calif., with a 42-inch vertical leap, "didn't drink and didn't smoke," Lopes recalls, "and didn't go to class too often."
Lopes found Dunham's backcourtmate, Mark Wells, playing pickup ball on L.A.'s Venice Beach, next to the bodybuilders. "He'd say things like, 'What you put in the washer, you take out of the dryer,' " Lopes says. "I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded pretty good to me."
A former Silversword turned Lopes on to the lunch-bucket forward Ernest Pettway, then haunting a rec center in Pasadena. "He didn't shoot very well, but at least I didn't have to tell him not to," his coach recalls. Lopes landed another starter literally at home. Guard Mark Rodrigues, Lopes's distant relative, starred at St. Louis High and, finding himself recruited by cousin Merv, concluded that "you can't say no to blood."
Then, on the eve of the 1982-83 season, Lopes fielded a call from an Air Force enlisted man on Oahu. The airman told him he had a 6' 8" brother who was out visiting. Tony Randolph stood closer to 6' 6", but fatefully hailed from Staunton, Va., the town just down the Shenandoah Valley from Harrisonburg, where Ralph Sampson grew up. Randolph had guarded Sampson in high school and played rec ball against him dozens of times. He had even gone out with Ralph's sister Valerie.
Lopes asked Randolph to jump into a workout. After he threw down a dunk from the wing during a 3-on-2 drill, Lopes says, "We enrolled him, and that was it."
"Most of the players on our team felt they were Division I caliber," says Haenisch, now a stockbroker living in Beverly Hills, Calif. "So every time we played a D-I opponent, it was a kind of vendetta. Every time, Tony Randolph would
For Virginia's part, its date with Chaminade fell in the midst of a December designed as a kind of valedictory tour for the Cavaliers' senior center. In the locker room after Alabama-Birmingham had eliminated Virginia from the NCAA tournament the previous March, athletic director Dick Schultz announced plans for a trip to Japan, with a Hawaiian stopover on the return -- surely a carrot to combat the NBA's hardship rule and lure Sampson back for one final season. On Dec. 11, at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Virginia defeated Georgetown and Hoyas sophomore Patrick Ewing in a made-for-Ted Turner event hyped as the Game of the Decade. Sampson scored 23 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked seven shots even though he was sick and "played because he kind of had to," remembers Jim Miller, who played at forward alongside Sampson.
Right afterward the Cavaliers were to fly to Tokyo, by way of New York City and Anchorage, to participate in the Suntory Ball, a three-team tournament sponsored by a Japanese distillery. Organizers would pay Virginia a $50,000 appearance fee (more than twice Chaminade's annual basketball budget) and bill the Cavaliers' opening-round date with Houston and Akeem Olajuwon as another Georgetown game. But a blizzard delayed Virginia's departure. "By the time we got to Japan, we were basically hallucinating from sleep deprivation," remembers Virginia forward Tim Mullen. "Japanese people were walking up to all the black guys and saying, 'You Sampson?' "
Somewhere en route, bored in an airport between connecting flights, Miller and Mullen reached into the carry-on bag of Virginia broadcaster Mac McDonald and pulled out a tape recorder. They launched into mock play-by-play of the Game of the Decade on what they thought was a blank cassette. Only it wasn't blank. In what might have been a kind of inadvertent voodoo ritual, they recorded over much of the radio account of Sampson's extraordinary performance against Georgetown.
With Sampson already dehydrated from the Georgetown game, the long flights only exacerbated his intestinal virus. The president of Suntory paid a personal visit to his Tokyo hotel room, entreating Sampson to play, notwithstanding the IV to which he was hooked up. "I give him anything!" he told members of the Virginia party.
Any coach who has taken a team to Hawaii can identify with then Maryland coach Lefty Driesell's after-the-fact "explanation" of what befell Terry Holland and the Cavaliers: "I don't know, you know, they probably went over there to Japan and ate a lot of squid. Then the kids went in those bathhouses and let those girls walk on their backs. Then they got to Hawaii and lied [sic] out on the beach and got all tan and ate a lot of pineapple." Or choose from a menu of other possible reasons: Body clocks whipsawed by the time changes; Christmas stockings hung prematurely; distractions courtesy of a place that specializes in them. When not at the beach, several Cavaliers hung with the USC women's team -- featuring the leggy McGee twins, Pam and Paula -- which was also billeted at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki.
Moreover, Chaminade seemed to give the Cavaliers little reason to fret. True, a week earlier they had beaten Hawaii, the state's lone Division I basketball school, for the first time ever. But two days before they were to face the Cavaliers, the Silverswords lost at home to Wayland Baptist, an NAIA team with a 5-9 record. And Chaminade had played Virginia in two of the previous three seasons, getting drubbed both times.
Before each of those games Lopes had handed a broom to the Silverswords' 5-foot-tall manager, Curly Fujihara, and asked him to stand on a chair to simulate what it would be like to face Sampson. This time Lopes didn't bother, for he regarded Job One as scraping the Silverswords' spirits off the floor following the Wayland Baptist loss. Besides, the Virginia center would be primarily Randolph's concern, and Randolph's coach at Robert E. Lee High in Staunton had also employed the broom.
Before tip-off Lopes turned off the lights in the locker room and ordered his players to take responsibility for every thought that would enter their heads. "He'd tell us to take what happened during the day and let it go," recalls Randolph. " 'The only thing that matters is the moment,' he'd say."
"Merv was a great motivator," adds Rodrigues, who lives in Tustin, Calif. and is the West region manager for a Japanese chemical company. "And genuine. 'If your opponent takes 40 steps, there's no reason you can't take 41.' That kind of thing."
Lopes went through the lineup and queried each starter. To Wells: "Mark, do you think [Virginia guard] Othell Wilson can jump higher than you?" To Haenisch: "Richard, is [Virginia guard] Rick Carlisle any quicker than you?" And so on. "Then I got to Tony," Lopes recalls, "and thought, 'Jeez, what do I say here?' " He forged ahead. "Tony, what makes Ralph Sampson any different from you?"
The Silverswords cracked up. Then they took the floor, loose and emboldened in just the right measure.
Television may have given the game a miss, but a videotape of remarkable quality, shot from the stands by a fan, has kicked around Chaminade for 25 years.
After the Chaminade cheerleaders deliver a pregame peck on the cheek and hang leis around the necks of the Cavaliers, the Silverswords jump out to a 6-2 lead. Randolph tap-dunks home Wells's missed layup to begin the run. One thing strikes you immediately, besides the players' short shorts and Lopes's white Hawaiian-print sport coat: the confidence with which the Silverswords take the game to their guests. The shot clock would not be introduced for three more seasons, but Chaminade plays no stall ball and deploys no gimmicky defenses, other than a disciplined sag in the post, which is what any coach would order up if forced to play Sampson with a 6' 6" center in the days before the three-point shot. Indeed, the Silverswords seem quicker than Virginia on the wings, and every bit a match for the Cavaliers' backcourt of Wilson and Carlisle. Chaminade even runs on made baskets -- a pushing of the pace that the Cavaliers might have expected from the Phi Slams in Japan, but probably not here.
As for Randolph, he has every reason to take his 7' 4" counterpart in stride. Ralph is just a country kid from down the valley. During warmups, Sampson and Randolph had caught up briefly and agreed to go out after the game.
By the time Chaminade edges out to a 19-12 lead, Randolph has already begun to drift outside, feathering in jump shots from 17, 18, 19 feet -- what will be nine all told in 12 attempts. (Looking at this tape, he'd realize how close Sampson came to blocking many of them.) Stocky, mobile, undersized post players like Maryland's Buck Williams tended to give Sampson trouble, and Randolph is perfectly cast. By moving outside the post, he opens up the middle for sallies by Dunham, Wells and Haenisch, and gives the sturdy Pettway room to work underneath.
Meanwhile the Cavaliers are having the devil's own time making shots, and not just the ones conceded them. "I remember us getting like 10 rebounds per possession and missing layups," Mullen recalls. "The ball would not go in."
Kenton Edelin, Sampson's backup, finishes off a pretty drive to put Virginia briefly up 22-21, but the Cavaliers fail to establish a working margin. At one point Virginia jumps into a half-court trap, only to watch Chaminade pass crisply out of it. Late in the first half, after being fouled inside, Sampson briefly lets his frustration show. Randolph comes by and gives him a consolatory whack on the rear.
As the teams leave the floor at the half, it's 43-43. "Coach," one Silversword tells Lopes, "let's go to the hospital and say we're sick."
Indeed, Virginia builds a 56-49 lead early in the second half, and it looks like that deadlocked first half will be Chaminade's bragging point. Only, the Silverswords pull even again, and this time it's less that they tie the game than how. A local kid named Jasen Strickland sets a back screen for Dunham along the left baseline. Dunham zags to the basket, then hoists all six feet of himself into the air to grab and flush a lob from Rodrigues. "Lord," Mullen remembers thinking, "this may not end so well."
The score is now 58-all. Sampson looks skyward and shakes his head.
Several minutes later, with the game tied at 62 and a little more than five minutes to play, Lopes signals his guards to work some clock. Dunham responds by launching a long jumper, all net.
A few days later, pointing to Virginia's 21 offensive rebounds, Holland would say, "I don't think we stunk the place up. We played hard. We just played poorly."
Lopes doesn't disagree. "My guys didn't back down. That was the biggest thing: We weren't in awe. Every time Ralph got it, we put everybody on him. They should have gone to him more. [Sampson pulled down 17 rebounds but only took nine shots.] Instead they shot from the perimeter the whole time. They made just enough that they wanted to keep taking them."
For the final few minutes it's hard to make out the action, as fans aware of what's unfolding now stand and gesticulate, blocking the camera. Down 74-72 Virginia has the ball in an attempt to tie with time running out, whereupon one of the local officials, Giff Johnson, whistles Wilson for a carrying violation on a spin move. Members of the Virginia party still bring up that call today, but as Ricky Stokes, the Cavs' backup point guard who now lives in Greenville, N.C., and is an NBA scout for Marty Blake & Associates, Inc., says, "It never should have gotten to that point." Borderline call though it may be, the whistle marks Virginia's 25th turnover, which, combined with 39% shooting, is enough to do in the Cavaliers. Three final free throws, then bedlam. Chaminade 77, Virginia 72.
Haenisch sprints to one end of the court and, shinnying up by the basket brace and backboard, sits atop the rim. Someone hands him a pair of scissors, and soon he's brandishing the net, a giddy kid whose glee will be translated into the phrase that will grace T-shirts that all of UVA's rivals will covet: yes, virginia, there is a chaminade.
But that iconography takes a while to materialize. If a No. 1 falls in the Islands and no one on the mainland hears it, does it make a sound? The game ends after 3 a.m. Eastern time on Christmas Eve. McDonald, the Virginia radio man, phones CBS Radio Sports to offer an on-the-scene account -- and is told not to bother, for the morning report is already in the can. On the set of ESPN's
The result fails to make most Christmas Eve papers. If accounts find their way into print on Christmas Day, a Saturday, they go largely unread. By Dec. 26, big as the news had been, the sports world had moved on.
One paper might have lucked out. With Maryland's football team set to play in the Aloha Bowl,
"Just played a hunch," Solomon replies wryly.
The news ultimately does make it out, to be sure -- in that halting, word-of-mouth, no-film-at-11 way that tends to make for myth. TV anchors mispronounce the victor's name so it rhymes with
A quarter century later, as the game tape winds down in Henry Hall, a voice yells, "Watch Curly!" Coaches are conditioned to catch the telling detail in any video, and Lopes has found it. "Curly, go get 'em!"
Some bodies pinball about in jubilation. Others walk dolefully off the floor. And there in the midst of it all is the Chaminade manager, making sure to collect every last towel from each bench, as if the very survival of the Silverswords' program depends on it.
Hike up to the Chaminade campus and you can gaze out to Diamond Head -- if, that is, your senses aren't sidetracked by the color and scent of the bougainvillea. This is the setting in which Tony Randolph regards his life as having essentially begun. The youngest of 10 children, he had been raised in Northwest D.C., in as bleak a precinct as there is, until age 11, when his mother, Eva, died of heart trouble. With his father, Charles, a World War II vet, suffering from the aftereffects of strokes that prevented him from caring for his kids, Tony and his siblings scattered. A churchgoing aunt in Staunton took him in. But learning got lost in the chaos of his childhood, and Randolph found few options after graduating from Lee High, despite being an all-conference quarterback and a fine basketball player. "I didn't have good grades because my mind-set was surviving day to day," he says on a November afternoon, sitting at a picnic table a few steps from McCabe Gym. "I'd lasted half a season at Panhandle State in Oklahoma. I was a kid searching, trying to find something to hang on to. Coaches became father figures to me. And here the Marianist brothers did too. You'd walk around campus and they'd smile at you, and you'd feel a peace."
Randolph, who to this day addresses male strangers as "brother," gave pro ball the obligatory try, then returned to campus as a graduate assistant to complete his degree in criminal justice. In the Chaminade chapel he married Diane Bulosan, a former cheerleader, who with her family introduced him to Hawaiian culture. He has earned the status of
For most of the past two decades Randolph has worked as a counselor at a juvenile detention home. "I see adversity and dysfunctional families and can give the advice that at one time I really needed," he says. "Over the years I've looked at this Chaminade thing as if there's a divine power and we're just tools."
Randolph and Sampson never did go out together after the game. A few years later Randolph swung by the Sampson home in Harrisonburg, but he felt a chill during an awkward visit of no more than 20 minutes. The arcs of their respective lives intersected for one night in the middle of the Pacific, but traced wholly contrasting paths.
You can never perform the one act sure to endear you to the American public -- confound expectations and pull off the upset -- as the 7' 4" leader of a No. 1 team. Sampson once spoke of reinventing the center position, by bringing to it the dribbling and shooting skills of a guard, but as his coach at Harrisonburg High, Roger Bergey, once suggested, Sampson may have been "too good for his size."
After he partnered with Olajuwon in the Houston Rockets' forecourt to reach the 1986 NBA Finals, the slide began. A succession of knee injuries foreclosed what might have been a long, dominant run as a pro. Sampson retired in '92, after failing to restart his career with the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Washington Bullets and in Spain. He tried coaching, first at James Madison with Driesell, then for the Richmond Rhythm of the International Basketball League. He made promotional appearances, ran youth sports camps, developed real estate and worked in marketing for a mortgage provider. Then in May 2005 federal agents came to his home in the Atlanta suburbs and arrested him on charges that included nonsupport of two of the eight children he has fathered by five women. (One of the eight, 6' 10" Ralph III, a senior at Duluth [Ga.] Northview High has signed to play for Tubby Smith next season at Minnesota.) A plea deal reached in September '06, in which Sampson admitted to mail fraud, obliged him to serve nearly 60 days in jail and pay almost $290,000 in past and future child support.
"Ralph was the center of attention," says Randolph. "He carried that burden as far as he could. I just wish that people would see Ralph for the person he really is. Yes, he was blessed with a 7' 4" frame, but he bleeds and has a heart like everyone else."
Haenisch is first to acknowledge that every David needs a Goliath to play off of: "Ralph is part of the reason we became as big as we did." For all of Sampson's struggles, two Silverswords fell on even harder times. Pettway is serving out a rape conviction (which he is appealing) outside San Diego, and three years ago a hiker on North Maui found the body of Wells, who had been homeless and battling drug problems, with multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
For a while Sampson bristled at questions about the Chaminade game, insisting that it hadn't really mattered, that he had been sick, that people should let go of it. Then, five years ago, Maui Invitational organizers paid his way out to the Islands for a 20-year reunion of the game's principals. At a press event he was gracious and philosophical. "That's what life is all about," said Sampson, who didn't return phone calls for this story. "It's about winning and losing. Hopefully you can learn from your losses. That was definitely a learning experience. But it did lead to the creation of a great tournament.... It was special for Chaminade and the players and fans. Me? I'll remember the Georgetown game."
As they prepared to fly home for Christmas, a few Cavaliers talked hopefully among themselves that no one would care about the upset -- that, maybe, no one would even learn of it. "Just goes to show how stupid you are in college," says Mullen (the chief investment officer at a Charlottesville, Va., bank) with a laugh.
But Miller, a wealth-management adviser at another Charlottesville bank, adds, "I don't think we got hung up on that loss. By the time we got home, we were ready to get back into the ACC schedule. Now, the N.C. State thing -- that's another story."
Miller is referring to another shock squad -- Jim Valvano's Wolfpack -- and how it sneaked up to win everything that spring, touching off a run of nine different champions in nine years. N.C. State only landed an NCAA bid by beating Virginia in the ACC tournament final. And it reached the Final Four by coming from behind to beat the Cavaliers again, this time by a point for the West Regional title.
A few years later, with Virginia in Hawaii for a tournament, Lopes (who would retire in 1989 after 12 seasons at Chaminade) took Terry Holland cast-net fishing on the Big Island. "I almost got killed in the surf on the rocks," Holland says. "Cut my shins up pretty good." There is irony here: Now, as athletic director at mid-major East Carolina, he's in a position in which he, too, can occasionally try to land the big one. And during a turn as chair of the NCAA basketball committee, Holland helped navigate college hoops through, and capitalize on, many of the changes that the Chaminade upset brought about.
"The Chaminade game was a sign that parity was coming," says Doug Elgin, who was Virginia's sports information director and now presides over one of the agents of that competitive balance as commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference. Many things have accelerated the trend, from scholarship limits, to the ability of so many schools to get on TV, to the attenuated college careers of the top recruits who light out early for the NBA. Today, if the Chaminade players have something to say about the Virginia game, it's likely to be a plea that they be recognized for demonstrating such incipient parity -- that their win not be regarded as a fluke. Rodrigues points out that in the next two seasons the Silverswords beat Louisville, Louisville again and SMU, teams at the time ranked, respectively, Nos. 14, 12 and 4.
If the Virginia players have something to say about the Chaminade game, it's likely to be less about the moment than its context. Miller frames it thusly: "In a period of two weeks we won the Game of the Decade and lost the Game of the Century."
Today, 25 years later, we've cycled all the way through. It's Ralph Sampson, onetime big fish, who' s finally in a position to surprise people, to come from behind, to stage an upset and perhaps hear the cheers that Tony Randolph once did.