VILLANOVA'S HISTORIC UPSET OF GEORGETOWN in the 1985 NCAA championship game remains one of college basketball’s most memorable and compelling moments. Eleven years ago I wrote a retrospective of that game that was published in the March 29, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated. This year, in anticipation of the game’s 30th anniversary, I returned again to the subject and conducted fresh interviews with many of the principals. What follows is an expanded and annotated version of my original story, with additional material from my 2004 reporting and updates on the lives of those who were playing and coaching on that evening in 1985. All additions and annotations are indicated in blue below.
This game never lets go. Nineteen (Thirty) years are gone since Villanova senior forward Dwayne McClain stumbled to his knees and elbows on the floor of Rupp Arena, then cradled the last precious inbounds pass in his right arm and shot his left fist skyward as time expired. Nineteen (Thirty) years have passed since Villanova’s 66-64 victory over Georgetown on April Fools’ night in 1985 thrust the Wildcats into underdog lore as a team that played the perfect game on the biggest stage against an unbeatable opponent. Coaches everywhere were instantly and forever given license to dream aloud, inspiring their teams to do the impossible: Boys, let me tell you a story about a basketball game back in 1985. Nineteen (Thirty) years, yet this game hasn’t loosened its grip. Lives turned on the outcome, and lives are affected still: touched, guided, haunted.
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The 14 Villanova players who dressed in blue that night in Lexington, Ky., are immortalized in a 150-foot-long mural just inside the main entrance to The Pavilion, where present-day Wildcats play their home games and are measured against the images in tight shorts on the wall, usually falling short (including this year's edition of the Wildcats, who were awarded a No. 1 seed, yet lost to North Carolina State in their second tournament game.) The memory of the game moves many of the 85s to the edge of tears. “Just talking about it, right now, the hair is standing up on the back of my neck,” says Wyatt Maker, a reserve sophomore center on the championship team, who sat on the bench during the title game, clutching the hand of junior teammate Chuck Everson, twin seven-footers willing balls into the basket like schoolgirl cheerleaders. Others hold more than just memories. Harold Jensen, a sophomore head case recruited from Trumbull (Conn.) High to shoot from the outside, conquered his self-doubt only during the tournament run and made the most important shot in Villanova history, an 18-foot jumper that gave the Wildcats a 55-54 lead with 2:37 to play in the title game, a lead they did not relinquish. Four years later, at the age of 24, Jensen and a partner started Showtime Enterprises, a marketing company that now employs 125 people in six offices (Showtime was subsequently acquired by Sparks Marketing Group, for which Jensen is an Executive Vice President.) “That season, that tournament was a turning point in my life beyond the sport,” says Jensen. “It taught me to believe in myself, and I’ve taken that through my whole life.” (Jensen stands by that, 11 years later. “I’ve had some challenges, some health challenges, not life-threatening, but difficult times in my life,” he says, “And I called upon the perseverance I learned back in that season.”)
The championship elevated spidery 6'9 1/2" center Ed Pinckney to the 10th pick in the NBA draft, launched a workmanlike 12-year professional career and eventually steered him back to Villanova, where he is now a first-year assistant coach under Jay Wright. (Pinckney stayed at Villanova until 2007, spent three seasons as an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves and since 2010 has been an assistant with the Chicago Bulls.) Not a day passes when somebody doesn’t ask him about 1985, and just last month a security guard gave him a yellowed copy of the Philadelphia Daily News from April 2, 1985. Pinckney pulled it out of his desk drawer recently, held it up for a visitor and shook his head in disbelief.
They were an unusually close group of players and resistant to common obstacles. (It remains a tight group. Last November Villanova’s basketball team hosted Northwood University, where ’85 head coach Rollie Massimino is the 80-year-old head coach, and turned the weekend into a celebration of the ’85 team’s 30-year anniversary. All but two players and every coach and manager were present. Massimino calls it “one of the most memorable experiences my wife and I will ever have.” Harold Pressley, a starting forward on the championship team, says, “From the time I got off the plane until the time I got back on, it was nonstop laughs. It was like we were in 1985 all over again.”) On the day before his team beat Memphis State in the Final Four semifinals, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino allowed the players to choose sides for a public workout at a nearly packed Rupp Arena. Villanova elected to make it black players versus white players, seven-on-seven. They called the scrimmage “the Brothers versus the Joeys,” and not for the first time. Their bond was tested and their cherished memory dented two years after winning the title when Gary McLain, the relentless cherub they all called Giz (short for Gizmo, a wide-eyed character from the 1984 movie Gremlins), the point guard who played 40 minutes against Georgetown’s suffocating pressure and committed only two turnovers, wrote an 18-page, first-person story in Sports Illustrated detailing his cocaine use during the championship season. McLain vaguely implicated his teammates with broad generalizations and also implied that Massimino did little to stem his drug abuse.
The coach, a round, cartoonish man with a special gift for building team chemistry and employing zone defenses to confuse opponents, would leave Villanova seven years later and spend the rest of his coaching career simultaneously chasing the standard his Wildcats set in Lexington—“As close to the perfect game as any team [has played], ever,” says San Antonio Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo, who was then the head coach at Seton Hall—and insisting that success hadn’t made him a different man. The McLain story would scar him terribly. “How long did it take me to get over it?” Massimino says. “It took a long time.”
(When this story was published in 2004, Massimino and McLain had spoken twice since McLain’s SI story was published—once briefly at a team reunion in ’95 and later on the phone. Neither interaction fully bridged the divide between them. In the summer of 2005, Everson brought them together, unbeknownst to both men, at the summer basketball camp that Everson runs on his native Long Island. “At the end of the day, it’s me and coach with the kids and I say to coach, ‘Okay, Gary is over there in a room and he wants to talk to you.’ Coach says, ‘I will kill you for this.’ And I said, ‘Look, this ends here. I’m tired of this [feud]. All the guys are tired of it. So coach went into the room. HBO was there, filming B-roll for a documentary and they had no idea the story was in the other room, a few feet away. There was screaming in that room, and there were tears. And then Coach Mass and Gary came out, arm in arm and we went out and had a little pasta.” Even this reconciliation has been tenuous, though not hostile. Keep reading.)
Massimino’s three top assistants would quickly become head coaches. “Not because of [how good] we were,” says UMass coach Steve Lappas, a first-year college assistant on the ’85 Villanova staff, “but because we were Rollie Massimino’s assistant coaches.” The profession would not be kind to any of them.
The title game, stolen from Georgetown, deprived coach John Thompson's hard-ass Hoyas of their second consecutive national championship and status as a mini-dynasty. They had come into the title game with a 35-2 record, having lost only back-to-back January games to St. John's (which ascended to the No. 1 ranking afterward) and Syracuse by a total of three points. What Kentucky is today, Georgetown was in 1985, only with older players. "It was painful," says Thompson, “but I would be disappointed as hell if the sum total of any of our guys’ lives was that loss to Villanova.” And yet the memory lingers for them, as well. Bill Martin, the power forward whose pass bounced off teammate Horace Broadnax’s shin while the Hoyas were holding the ball and a lead late in the second half, can sit in his office outside Chicago and describe the critical play as if it had just been on SportsCenter. “We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did not win the game,” says Patrick Ewing, whose four-year era at Georgetown ended that night. “I said it then, and I’ll say it now.”
Nineteen years. But in many ways it is April 1, 1985, forever.
Every coach has a gimmick. Massimino’s was family. Come to Villanova to play basketball, and you’ll be part of a family. We’ll eat pasta dinners together and talk about life and then we’ll win because you’ll love each other like brothers. It was a sales pitch, wrapped in genuine emotion. The youngest child of an immigrant shoemaker who had a sixth-grade education, Massimino would have five children of his own, and they would give him 16 (17 now) grandchildren. “Even on the road Rollie never wanted to be alone in hotel suite,” says Mitch Buonaguro, his top assistant in ’85. “He always liked to have people around him.”
In the early 1980’s, many prospective recruits and their families were eager to buy a piece of Massimino’s schtick. “His family atmosphere was absolutely key,” says Harold Pressley, who in 1982 as a senior at St. Bernard High in Uncasville, Conn., was an All-America. “He came in, lounged around with my mother, seemed real comfortable. It worked. It was believable. And it was real.” Jensen says, “I was recruited by Providence, Syracuse, UCLA and South Carolina. I felt very comfortable with the community that Coach Mass had built at Villanova.”
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The ’85 team came together in one huge chunk and then in small pieces that followed. In the summer of 1979 Howard Garfinkel’s Five-Star Basketball Camp in the Pocono Mountains was attended by a stunning roster of future Hall of Fame players, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Ewing, Chris Mullin and Karl Malone, all of whom would enter college in the fall of ’81. Among the other prospective recruits at the camp were McLain, a Long Island native living with his high school coach in southeastern Massachusetts; McClain, a willowy 6' 6" forward from Worcester, Mass.; and Pinckney, a solid big man from Adlai Stevenson High in the Bronx who was under-recruited. The three of them became friends, and when Buonaguro induced McLain to commit to Villanova, McLain put the heat on McClain to join him, and McClain in turn applied pressure on Pinckney. “It was nothing complicated,” says McClain. “We connected. We all wanted the Big East, and we knew with a point guard, a small forward and a big man, maybe we could do something.”
As freshmen and sophomores, the big three played on good teams that were beaten in the Sweet 16, in 1982 by Jordan’s North Carolina team and in ’83 by Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma. “Eighty-three was the best team we ever had,” says Massimino. A year later the Wildcats went 19-12 and lost to Illinois in the second round. The seniors reported to preseason conditioning in the fall of 1984 with 67 wins on their résumé, yet no trophies in the case. “But they had experience,” says Steve Pinone, a sophomore reserve on the ’85 team who later became an assistant coach under Massimino and Lappas. “They had been to two Sweet 16s and fought tons of Big East battles.” Pinckney, McClain, McLain and the junior Pressley had been joined in the starting lineup by junior shooting guard Dwight Wilbur from Paterson, N.J. Jensen would back up Wilbur, while the hulking Everson and Mark Plansky, a 6' 7" freshman sapling from the Boston area, would get frontline minutes off the bench. They struggled throughout the regular season. “I still don’t know why,” says Pinckney. “The chemistry—that senior year, it just wasn’t happening.” A soft early schedule and some nice wins got the Wildcats to 13-3 heading into a January nonleague game at Maryland’s Cole Field House. The game was NBC’s featured Sunday-afternoon telecast with the fabled announcing team of Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, and the Terps beat Villanova 77-74. Plansky, seven months removed from his high school graduation, found himself subbed in for Pressley and guarding Maryland All-America forward Len Bias. “As soon as I came into the game Lenny drops to the low block and starts screaming, ‘Mismatch! Mismatch! Give me the rock!’” says Plansky. “I’ve got a tape of the game. After Lenny gets about his fifth basket over me, Al McGuire says, on TV, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Plansky, it’s not your son’s fault. He’s just guarding a superstar.’” Bias, who would be dead of a cocaine overdose 17 months later, finished with 30 points, and that defeat sent Villanova into a regular-season-ending tailspin that included six losses in its last 11 games.
These were heavy days in the Big East, and among Villanova’s nine regular-season defeats were two each to Georgetown (both close, a fact that would be widely overlooked at the Final Four in Lexington) and St. John’s, teams that volleyed the No. 1 ranking all season. The most humbling was the regular-season finale. With his team trailing Pittsburgh 40-23 at the half in Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House, Massimino told his starters at halftime, “You’ve got two minutes to show me something, or you’re coming out.” He gave them three before yanking them for good. Reserves played the last 17 minutes and Pitt won, 85-62. Villanova slunk home to Philadelphia with an 18-9 record, firmly on the NCAA bubble, even from the most powerful conference in the country.
What happened next is a mystery of camaraderie that none of the Villanova ’85 family can fully explain, even through the prism of time. “I’ve thought about this a lot through the years,” says Pinckney. “During our run, there wasn’t a lot of talking on the court. Guys just suddenly knew what other guys were going to do before they did it. The chemistry in those two weeks was incredible, and I still don’t know what triggered it. Maybe going through so many wars over the years, three seniors getting so comfortable with each other. There was just so much trust.”
On the first Thursday in March the Wildcats beat Pittsburgh, 69-61, in the first round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, a win that ensured them an NCAA bid. After losing to St. John’s in the Big East semifinals, Villanova was made the No. 8 seed in the Southeast region. In the spring, both the institution of college basketball and the NCAA Tournament were on the cusp of significant change. It was the first year of the full, 64-team bracket and the last year in which the tournament was played without a shot clock. (Several Division I conferences, including the Big East, had used a 45-second shot clock “experimentally” during the regular season, but the clock was shut down in the tournament. There was also no three-point shot until the 1986-87 season). The lack of a clock played to Massimino’s strength, and he used slow tempo like a billy club, mixing up the 55 defensive sets in the Villanova scheme (Massimino still has them at home in a playbook—“multiples,” he called them) and working each offensive possession as if a missed shot would lead to incarceration. Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight with wins over Dayton (51-49), No. 1 seed Michigan (59-55) and Maryland (46-43). Ultimately the Wildcats would average 55.2 points in the tournament, the lowest for a champion since Oklahoma A&M’s 46.3 in 1946. (This still holds; no champion since ’85 has come close to ’Nova's average.)
The toughest of those games was the first one. With the NCAA still permitting teams to play in their home arenas during the tournament, Villanova was shipped out to play in Dayton. A taut battle of wills left Dayton in possession with the game tied 49-49 with less than two minutes to play. The Flyers held for the last shot, but Pressley stole a pass, and Villanova spread the floor in a variation of North Carolina coach Dean Smith’s notorious four corners offense, a setup that could be used to control a game for minutes on end if executed properly. With 70 seconds to go, Jensen dribbled from near midcourt to the top of the key, encountered no resistance and continued all the way to the basket for a layup that gave Villanova the lead and, eventually, the win. Jensen’s drive was a bold move by a player who had struggled all year with his psyche, even as the coaching staff tried desperately to utilize his outside shooting ability. After a late-season loss to Boston College Jensen was so upset that he hyperventilated in the postgame locker room and needed treatment from the Villanova medical staff. “A very, very intense guy,” says Plansky. “Very hard on himself. We called him Norman Bates because he had this snappability; he could just go nuts.” Massimino nurtured Jensen throughout that sophomore season, quietly massaging his ego in long, fatherly chats. “We spent a lot of time crying together,” says Jensen. “At that time in my life I was putting incredible pressure on myself. I remember in the latter part of the regular season, I was really wondering about myself. I was wondering if I could really make it at this level of basketball. Coach Mass helped me through it. He would tell me, ‘You’re here for a reason. You’re good enough. Don’t hesitate to shoot the ball.’ I was a difficult kid, and he was incredible.”
On the decisive play in the Dayton game, Jensen had the ball in the middle of the floor, far from the basket. Villanova was in no hurry, but the center of the defense suddenly parted. “I’m sure they were expecting us to hold for the last shot,” says Jensen. “I took two dribbles and laid it up. One of their big guys swatted at it, but he missed and it went in.” Dayton couldn’t answer and Villanova advanced. “Pressley doesn’t make that steal, Jensen doesn’t get to the goal, there’s no history,” says Lappas. “There’s no Miracle of ’85.”
Villanova reached the regional final and played North Carolina on a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham. Massimino’s teams had gone this far three times previously but had never made it to the Final Four. At halftime Villanova trailed 22-17. Massimino pulled a chair into the center of the room. “I don’t need this,” he shouted. “You know what I’d like right now? A big bowl of spags, with clam sauce.” He was laughing madly as he said it, spreading his hands as if to illustrate a massive vat of pasta. The players started softly chuckling, until the tension was sucked out of the room. Then Massimino took a deep breath. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Just go out and play.” As Massimino left the locker room, the Reverend John Stack, a Catholic priest and Villanova dean of students, who was in the locker room, grabbed Massimino’s arm. “Best [expletive] halftime speech I’ve ever heard,” Stack said.
“The spaghetti speech,” says McClain. “Classic.”
“Villanova blitzed North Carolina in the second half and won 56-44. The Wildcats began celebrating on the floor with a minute to play when Tar Heels coach Dean Smith chose not to challenge the ball (for which Massimino is eternally grateful). There were tears and hugs all around, and kisses on the bare noggin of 74-year-old trainer Jake Nevin, who, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, was confined to a wheelchair and had become the team’s emotional touchstone.”I’ve never felt closer to a bunch of people in my life,” recalls Jensen. Massimino had his wish. They were a family. And they were going to the Final Four.
In the early and mid-’80s Georgetown was portrayed as the Evil Empire of college basketball. John Thompson, a 6'10", 300-pound former backup center to Bill Russell, took over the Hoyas’ program in 1972 and transformed a midsized Catholic university with a respected, albeit ancient, basketball tradition into a national powerhouse. By the time the 7-foot 240-pound Ewing arrived for the ’81-82 season, Georgetown had reached the NCAA tournament five times in seven years, but it was with Ewing that the bar was raised. The Hoyas played for the national title three times in his four years and won the school’s only national championship, in 1984. While the glowering Thompson coached with a white towel draped over his shoulder, his Hoyas played hard, fouled hard and didn’t talk much about it afterward. The Big East prospered in large part through media friendliness and access, but Georgetown was the exception. Reporters seeking postgame comment from Hoya players were subjected to a narrow window, with a publicist’s countdown from 10 minutes: “Seven minutes! Four minutes! One minute! Locker room is closed!” An interview could end in mid-question, or answer. (The publicist usually charged with policing the locker room was Bill Shapland, a loyal lieutenant to Thompson who suppressed his own good nature beneath an enforcer’s exterior in service of the program. Shapland died at age 57 in April of 2013.)
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The Hoyas were a target as broad as Thompson’s torso, and the media took endless shots: Georgetown’s image was summed up as “Hoya Paranoia”—a phrase popularized by The Washington Post’s Mark Asher in 1980 and intended only to describe the insecurity of longtime fans who felt their team was slighted by the media in favor of Maryland. “It came to mean something quite different,” says Asher.
The players themselves found this coverage hilarious. “That whole era, we had a ton of fun as a team,” says Michael Jackson, a junior point guard on the ’85 team. “Of course people outside the program believed, with Hoya Paranoia and all that s---, that we were a bunch of thugs. We just listened and laughed. That image sold papers and made people watch us on television.”
Reality lay somewhere between the media myth and the team’s sweet memory. Martin, the ’85 power forward who played for four years alongside Ewing, says, “We had a black coach and [most years] an all-black team. We were physical, and we were aggressive. We knew we intimidated people, and we milked that, and John was the leader, along with Patrick, who was about as intense an individual as I have ever met. I remember once early in my junior year, John said to me, ‘Son, I think you’ve been homogenized. If you don’t know what that means, look it up, and then we’ll talk about it.’ Well, it means to purify, which I took to mean make whiter. He was telling me that I was playing soft, and I took serious offense at that. Sometimes the things he said to people got pretty personal.”
Yet Thompson was much more than a scowling manipulator. On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Thompson turned practice into an open discussion of King’s and Malcolm X’s influence. During the ’85 Final Four newspapers were stuffed with stories detailing the Hoyas’ being sequestered in Louisville, while the other teams partied in Lexington. It was reported that Villanova took a day trip to Calumet Farm to watch stallions gambol in their paddocks. And Georgetown? “We watched Seattle Slew make babies,” says Jackson. “Twice. But everyone assumed we were locked in our rooms.”
As for being unpopular, in truth the Georgetown program of the mid-1980s was the precursor to UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels of 1990-91 and Michigan’s Fab Five of 1992 and ’93, teams comprised primarily of African-American athletes who played with toughness and style (though Georgetown preceded the baggy shorts era that lives today) and made White America just a little uncomfortable. Thompson shrugged then and shrugs now. “We sold more product [Nike T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc.] than any program in the country,” he says. “I didn’t care about being liked. I just wanted our program to be respected. And in 1985, that might have been the best team I had. I don’t think there was a living ass in the country who didn’t think we were the better team.”
On the Saturday of Final Four weekend Villanova’s befuddling array of defenses humbled Memphis State, and the Wildcats advanced to the title game with a 52-45 win. “I’ll bet [Tigers point guard] Andre Turner is still confused,” says McClain. “We were very confident they would have trouble.” The Villanova players then sat in the stands to watch what many observers viewed as the de facto national championship game; the Wildcats silently rooted like hell for Georgetown to defeat St. John’s, which had beaten Villanova in two competitive regular season games, but had bounced the Wildcats from the Big East Tournament in an 89-74 blowout. “We could not beat St. John’s,” says Pinckney. “Looking back on them. They had a great team: Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, guys who had long NBA careers. Georgetown didn’t have players like that, except Patrick. We had a terrible time with [St. John’s forward] Walter Berry. Bad matchups, bad history, everything.” And Villanova got its wish: The Hoyas won easily, 75-59.
At 5 a.m. on Sunday the Villanova coaching staff met in Massimino’s hotel room and plotted a strategy. The Hoyas had beaten Villanova 52-50 in overtime at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and 57-50 in Landover, Md. Both games had been tense, grinding battles, which history has lost when establishing the magnitude of the championship game upset. Georgetown was the better team, but anyone close to the programs, or the Big East, expected a fight. “Coach Thompson wasn’t going to change much for us, we knew that,” says Buonaguro, who was responsible for preparing the championship game scouting report. “So we stuck with what we did, and added a couple of little wrinkles.” The Wildcats would play their array of zone defenses and, on Georgetown’s first pass, would often switch to a matchup or man-to-man. “The goal,” says Lappas, “was to make Georgetown run a zone offense while we were playing man-to-man, and they wouldn’t realize it.” They also dropped a guard down to double-team Ewing, but from his blind side, which they had not done in the regular season.
“Offensively,” says Massimino, “we just tweaked a few things to make sure we got the ball to Eddie. He loved to play against Patrick.” One other thing they would do: Put the ball in McLain’s hands and let him beat Georgetown’s swarming, 94-foot defense with his skills, his head and his heart. It was a daunting assignment and would require the game of his life. On Monday afternoon Villanova gathered in a meeting room at the Lexington Ramada Inn for its pregame Catholic mass and meal. The meal was customarily a time for family fun. “Like Sunday dinner at the Massiminos’,” says Everson. Massimino had never delivered a postmeal speech, but on this day he did. First he spoke softly about former Villanova coach Al Severance, who had died that morning at age 79. “He’ll be up on the basket swatting Georgetown shots away,” Massimino said. And then he went in another direction. “Go back to your rooms,” he said. “Close your eyes and picture yourself playing this game to win. Don’t play this game not to lose. Play it to win. Believe you can win.” And then he sat back down. “It was incredibly moving,” says Jensen. “And effective. It gave us a sense of calm, almost in a meditative way. I could feel a real quiet confidence in the room. Not rah-rah, like we’re going to run over these guys. But like we know them, and we can play with them.”
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Several hours later Villanova players sprinted onto the floor of Rupp Arena, filled to its capacity of more than 23,000 fans, raucous in their support of Villanova. Backers of Kentucky’s Wildcats had made Villanova’s their own for the weekend, and any other neutrals in attendance lined up behind the underdog. Massimino shook hands with Thompson before the tap, walked back to his bench and said to his assistants, “We’ve got ’em. His hands are sweating.” The game that unfolded in the ensuing two hours was a quirky work of art that included both phenomenal shooting and plenty of carelessness. It started when Pinckney took the ball directly at Ewing on an early possession and dealt a soft pass to Pressley, who willed in a wild reverse layup. “I thought, What is this?” says Jackson. McClain drove the lane and dunked thunderously on the next Villanova possession. Before the night was finished Villanova would make 22 of 29 field goal attempts, a mind-boggling 78.6%, including nine of 10 in the second half. (“The one we missed, Patrick blocked, and I was actually passing to Ed,” says McClain. “In reality we were nine for nine.”)
And McLain? He was flawless and cocksure with the ball against pressure. “Every possession, we’d take the ball out and give it to Gary,” says Pinckney. “And then hold our breath. Because of their pressure, you couldn’t break to a certain spot and be open. It was all on Gary. And he played great. Georgetown was so tough and nasty and we worried about getting the ball over halfcourt. The game is worth watching again just for the way Gary played.” Also: Jensen shot 5 for 5, and Pinckney, playing with the flu, had 16 points and six rebounds to Ewing’s 14 and five. “We played fine,” says Ewing now. “They shot the heck out of the ball.”
Thompson says, “Villanova deserves a hell of a lot of credit. They beat the best team in the country.”
Nineteen (Thirty) years later, a viewing of the game yields two nuggets.
• The game is widely regarded as a “shot-clock victory,” for Villanova, but that’s not entirely true. The Wildcats played very deliberately (“Like snails,” says Pinckney), but almost always with purpose. Villanova had 58 possessions in the game and only four times held the ball more than 45 seconds (the duration of the first college shot clock, in 1985-86), including a nearly two-minute possession at the end of the first half, when Georgetown refused to come out of a passive zone. On 41 of those 55 possessions, Villanova shot, was fouled or committed a turnover in less than 30 seconds. True to Massimino’s pregame speech, ’Nova played to win.
• Villanova’s game was not flawless. The Wildcats had 17 turnovers (to Georgetown’s 11). Jensen alone had six. Part of what is so fascinating about the game is that Villanova, when it did not turn the ball over, almost always scored.
Among many critical moments in an excruciatingly tense game, two stand out. Trailing 28-27 with 1:58 left in the first half, Villanova took possession off a Georgetown miss and went into a four-corners delay. Georgetown stayed in a passive 1-3-1 zone, allowing Villanova to hold the ball. On the telecast CBS’s Brent Musburger observed the momentary stall and, referring to the impending introduction of the shot clock, intoned, “What you are seeing is a relic.” Pressley scored over Ewing with four seconds left in the half to give Villanova a 29-28 lead, and the Hoyas raced upcourt for one last shot. David Wingate’s bomb bounced off the rim, while underneath the basket, Everson—giving Pinckney precious rest—bodied Hoyas guard-forward Reggie Williams. As the horn sounded Williams threw his arms into Everson’s neck and face and then ran off. Everson pleaded for a foul, and Massimino ran onto the court. After getting no satisfaction from the officials, Massimino sprinted off the floor with his team, pumping his right fist as he disappeared from the television image. “That incident just swept the whole team into the locker room on a wave,” says Marty Marbach, one of the assistant coaches. Massimino began shouting, “Great job, Chuck, great job.” And then to the whole team: “They are not giving that intimidation s--- to us. Who the f--- do they think they are? Do they think we’re going to lie down for them? That is not happening. They’re trying to chump us, and it’s b-------!” He calmed down after several minutes, but the energy remained and carried Villanova into the second half. (Years later, when Pinckney was playing for the Miami Heat, he found himself alone in an elevator with coach Pat Riley. As the elevator hummed upward, Riley, a master motivator, turned to Pinckney and said, “Someday you’ve got to tell me what Massimino said at halftime of that game.”)
(In 2013, Everson attended the NCAA Tournament games at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. As he walked toward his seat, he heard his name shouted. It was Reggie Williams. They stood and talked for a long time, with Everson’s teenaged son.)
The Wildcats built a 53-48 advantage with six minutes to play, but Georgetown ran off six straight points to take the lead, forced a Villanova turnover and went into a four corners in an attempt to coax Villanova into a man-to-man defense. The stall lasted less than half a minute before Martin’s hard pass bounced off Broadnax’s shin near the sideline in front of the Georgetown bench. “I threw a bad pass that Horace Broadnax was too lazy to bend over and catch,” says Martin. Is he kidding? After all these years? “It was a low pass,” Martin says. “Personally, I would have caught it.” Broadnax says, “A lot of people said it was a tough pass. If you’re going to win championships, you’ve got to catch those. Got to.” He has never discussed the play with Martin. The two have not seen each other since Martin graduated in the spring of 1985. (Asked recently if that silence still remains, Martin said, “I talked to Horace a few days ago. I called him to gauge his interest in my son playing for him at Savannah State.” Broadnax has been head coach at Division I Savannah State since 2005. Martin said this was not the first time they had spoken. “I saw him a few years ago at a Georgetown function.” Have they ever talked about the turnover? “No,” said Martin.)
(In Georgetown’s stall, Jackson was supposed to receive a return pass from Broadnax, but was denied by the Villanova defense, forcing Broadnax to pass to Martin and, subsequently, the pass that led to the critical turnover. “I’ve got to get open to get that ball back,” says Jackson. “So Horace didn’t have to pass to Billy and Billy didn’t have to pass back to Horace. But I don’t think about it. And I slept fine that night.”)
Ewing says, “One turnover cost us the game, but I don’t blame anybody. They played a great game. Did what they needed to do.”
Following the turnover Villanova held the ball for 62 seconds until Jensen drilled the wide-open jump shot from the right side with 2:37 left on the clock. “A rhythm shot,” says Jensen. “I had been shooting the ball well the whole tournament.” The Wildcats did not trail again. When they returned to their hotel, so many fans awaited that the players couldn’t get off the bus. “We were like the Beatles,” says Pinckney. The party raged until dawn, when the sun rose and a chartered jet ferried them back to Philadelphia for a parade.
In the wake of Villanova’s 1985 championship, Massimino’s assistant coaches were hot properties. “When we won the title, the players handled themselves with class in interviews, and Rollie went on television and talked about the family atmosphere, and everybody wanted a piece of that,” says Lappas. Massimino, ever the patriarch, was happy to push his guys into jobs. Buonaguro, who had joined Massimino’s staff in 1977 when he was 24, was hired at Fairfield shortly after the ’85 title game. His first team went 24-7 and played in the NCAA tournament. His second went 15-16 but also made the tournament. His next four teams averaged 20 losses. “Mitch is a great X’s-and-O’s guy and a great recruiter,” says Plansky, “but a woeful manager. When he got his own reins, it was mass chaos.” Buonaguro resigned under pressure after the 1990-91 season. (This section of the original story caused problems 11 years ago. At the time, Buonaguro was desperately hoping to get one last chance to run his own program and he felt that being described by a member of the fabled ’85 Villanova team as a “woeful manager,” would damage his chances. He was hurt and angry at Plansky. Massimino was also angry, as if Plansky had violated the group’s collective omerta. Planksy called me, seeking relief. He wished he hadn’t said those things about Buonaguro and he wished I hadn’t written them. I felt badly, too, but I also felt that Plansky had been honest in his original assessment, and he never pulled back from that. Eleven years later, Plansky says, “Those things happened. I felt bad. Mitch was an unbelievable game coach and Rollie needed somebody like that. And Mitch and I are good now.”) Buonaguro spent five years as an assistant at Texas A&M, seven at Cleveland State under Massimino and now, at 50, is an assistant at North Carolina-Greensboro. Along the way he lost his marriage and his naiveté, yet continues to live the life of a bench soldier. “I’ve had a real roller coaster since Villanova,” he says. “It’s a very tough business at times.”
(And Buonaguro did get another chance. In 2005, his boss at North Carolina-Greensboro, Fran McCaffrey, was hired as the head coach at Siena, outside Albany, N.Y. McCaffrey brought Buonaguro with him and Siena took off on the most successful period in the program’s Division I history. In three seasons from 2007-10, Siena went 77-26, won three Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and twice earned first-round victories in the NCAA Tournament. McCaffrey’s 2008-09 team was a No. 9 seed, beat Ohio State in the first round and narrowly lost to Louisville in the second round. There was talk that Siena could become a mid-major power like Butler or Gonzaga.
McCaffrey left after the 2009-10 season to become head coach at Iowa. Siena named Buonaguro as his replacement, and the Saints struggled badly, going 35-59 in three seasons and never finishing higher than sixth in the MAAC. Buonaguro, now 62, was fired. He lives in a suburb between Albany and Saratoga Springs and has done some television work. “When Fran left and I got the job, it was a difficult thing,” says Buonaguro. “We lost a lot of good players and we were coming off an incredible run.” Buonaguro was a basketball coach for 38 years and says now he misses it, and would consider a “less stressful” coaching job somewhere in the business. “I’m a good example of what coaching is all about,” he says. “The ups and downs. But I wouldn’t change anything.”)
In 1987 Marbach was hired at Canisius, dragging his pregnant wife, Denise, with him, even though her CPA career was blossoming. “I was so consumed with climbing up the coaching ladder, that I lost sight with things,” says Marbach. “I should never have gone.” His teams went 49-94 in five seasons, and he was fired after the ’91-92 season. At that point Marbach, now 51, got off the coaching treadmill. He went to Albany, where Denise was a partner at Coopers & Lybrand. Marbach sold real estate and did radio commentary on Siena games for five years. In ’97 the family moved back to the Philadelphia area, where Marbach is a junior high school athletic director and coaches his youngest daughter, Elizabeth. (Since 2008, Marbach, 61, has been working as a sales rep for Ampro Sports in Philadelphia. “I wear the ring and the watch from ’85,” he says. “It’s a nice icebreaker around Philadelphia.”)
Lappas was the last to leave Villanova. He had joined the Villanova staff straight from coaching at Harry S Truman High in the Bronx. One year after hosting his annual Final Four party in Queens, he was on the floor in Rupp Arena, hugging Massimino after the buzzer. “Unbelievable!” he says, recounting the swift climb. “A year earlier I would have been happy if you’d told me I could get a ticket to the Final Four.” After four years at Villanova he became Massimino’s top assistant at age 34. Then Manhattan hired him, and Lappas righted a struggling program, winning 25 games in his fourth—and final—year. When Massimino left Villanova after the 1991-92 season, Lappas replaced him (after Pete Gillen, then coach at Xavier, turned the job down). Once like father and son, Massimino and Lappas have not spoken since. “He told me not to take the Villanova job,” says Lappas, 50. “He said, ‘It’s a bad job, and I don’t want you to take it.’ I believe he was so angry at Villanova at that time that he didn’t want anybody he knew to take the job. And then I took it. I had to take it.”
Massimino says, “That story is not true.” He says that Gillen should have taken the job, and since he didn’t, John Olive, another former Villanova assistant, should have gotten it. Massimino describes Lappas’s move as a disruption in the line of succession. “Lappas wanted to do his thing,” he says, “and separate the old stuff from the new stuff.” Lappas won 174 games in nine seasons at Villanova, including the school’s only Big East tournament title (in 1995). However, he won just two NCAA tournament games and left under fire after the 2000-01 season. He just finished a 10-19 season in his third year at Massachusetts. Others have tried unsuccessfully to bring him together with Massimino. “I feel bad about it,” Lappas says of their estrangement. “Very bad.”
(In the summer of 2014, Marbach’s older daughter, Michelle, was married to Jon Yost in the Villanova chapel. Marty and Denise Marbach invited both Massimino and Lappas and seated them, with their wives, at the same table. Many people in the ’85 family felt that Marbach had purposely thrown Massimino and Lappas together in an attempt to force them to mend fences. Marbach says, “I did not set out with a master plan. They’re adults. That day was about our daughter.” Massimino and Lappas spoke. During the November reunion, Massimino called the entire group together for a photograph and when Lappas hung back, Massimino shouted, “Steve Lappas, get in here.” The extent of the healing depends on who is describing it.
Massimino says, “I never had any big problems with Lap.”
Lappas, who was fired at UMass after the 2004-05 season and now works as a broadcaster for CBS, says, “We’re cordial. Better than 20 years ago. We don’t talk every day or anything like that, but we’re fine.”)
On a midwinter morning Gary McLain escaped a heavy, humid rain and walked through the front doors of a West Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, dressed in long khaki shorts and a billowing white T-shirt. In 1985 he had the joyful, expressive face of a child, and that face is still there, now covered by layers of hard living. He has done few interviews in the last 19 years, but he has agreed to talk to SI because “life is beautiful right now, and I want everyone to understand who I am today and that there’s a bigger story to my life than one article.” The article appeared in Sports Illustrated two years after that magical night in Lexington, under the byline “Gary McLain, as told to Jeffrey Marx.” At the time Marx was an investigative reporter with the Lexington Herald-Leader, in Kentucky, and he had shared a 1986 Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles exposing corruption in the Kentucky basketball program.
horror novel thinner, by Richard Bachman (the pseudonym of Stephen King), reaches No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
McLain’s story remains one of the longest single pieces published in SI—and one of the most incendiary. The text began on the cover with the chilling line, “I was standing in the Rose Garden, wired on cocaine.” McLain went on to describe his drug habit in vivid detail, including his account of being high while playing against Memphis State in the national semifinals and while visiting the White House. With two sentences McLain brought every player on the national championship team under suspicion: “Some of my teammates and guys in my dorm knew I did drugs. Some of them did drugs with me.” He wrote that Massimino knew about his drug use but didn’t try to expose him because that might have led to the discovery of other users and damaged the team. “Coach Mass cared about us a lot,” wrote McLain. “I don’t think he wanted to lose us.” Massimino read the story in his office at The Pavilion, surrounded by his assistants. “It absolutely gutted Rollie,” says veteran NBA coach and TV analyst Mike Fratello, an early Massimino assistant and longtime confidante. “And he carried the hurt with him for a long time.” Villanova players from ’85 publicly disputed the details of McLain’s account and claimed they knew nothing of McLain’s drug use. Some tell a different story now. “I knew Gary was using drugs in college,” says McClain. “Sure, I knew that. But I never thought he had a drug addiction.” Stack says, “After the article students came up to me and said, ‘Well, everybody knew it.’ There was a perception that the administration knew it. Would I have bet my golf clubs that Gary McLain was using cocaine? Well, probably. But not in a way that I could take action. I’m sure his story was largely accurate.”
McLain had not just been a rock of consistency in the championship game but also was the emotional center of the team for four years, the guy who kept bus rides alive with his sharp wit and lacerating humor. “He was hilarious,” says Pinone. Now he was the traitor who besmirched the Cinderella story. “If I saw him right now I’d put a fist through the back of his head,” says Maker. (Eleven years later, Maker says, “I was still very angry then. But Gary is a family member and he’s had problems. You have to forgive. Time heals all wounds.” Several of McLain’s teammates used that expression in describing their relationship with their point guard. Many of them are on the north side of 50, when anger takes too much effort to hold.) Pinckney has loaned McLain money on several occasions. McLain did not return to Villanova until 1995; he received a warm ovation at a reunion of the ’85 team. He came back again four years ago, when the team was inducted, en masse, into the Villanova sports hall of fame.
The 85s remain an extraordinarily close group. (This is still true.) Pressley talks to Pinckney on the phone at least three times a week. Plansky and Jensen chat all the time. Everson stays in touch with everybody. (“The social director,” says Massimino.) Jay Wright runs a summer golf-alumni basketball tournament that brings many former Wildcats together. McLain has yet to attend. He occasionally goes on phoning binges with old teammates and then seems to disappear. “I have been humbled in this life,” says McLain. “For years after the article came out, there were a whole lot of times when I said, Damn, man, I wish I didn’t write that article. But if you ask me right now, in 2004, if I regret writing that article—hell, no, I don’t regret it. It was real. I was 22 years old, and I came hard at people. I said things, and I paid the price for saying them.” (In a 2014 interview with the Associated Press, McLain said of the SI story, “It hurts me that I hurt people.”) He has had numerous jobs in the last 17 years, with a few of what he calls “employment gaps.” He once lived on a horse farm in rural Florida and once was in a relationship with a woman who ran an escort service. He says he has lapsed into drug or alcohol use “a couple of times” but is currently sticking with a 12-step program and attending meetings. “How long have I been clean?” he says. “Just say today. I’m clean today.” (He told AP in 2014 that he was using drugs up until 2005.) He has been divorced for six years, but his 11-year-old daughter, Jade Alexis McLain, lives nearby in Florida and stays with McLain every other weekend. He has worked since October for a company that places doctors in temporary positions. He says he wants to write a book about his life and perhaps to deliver his cautionary tale to kids. On Sunday mornings he plays pickup basketball on a West Palm Beach playground.
McLain says SI paid $35,000 for his words in 1987, but after he’d shared the fee with Marx and paid off some debts, he had $6,000. “Maybe people thought I was a rat or I did something bad just for money,” he says. “But one incident doesn’t determine who I am.”
And there is this, from somewhere deep in his soul: “I am incredibly thankful to Coach Mass for the way he ran that program. The discipline. The sense of family. That was no joke. I’ve got nothing but love and respect for Villanova University. I do look back sometimes. And damn, I was a champion.”
(McLain remains mecurial. I texted him in early March and after getting no response, called his cell phone three days later. “Tim, I got your text,” McLain said, exuberantly, as if he remembered me and was anxious to talk. “I’m about to go into a meeting, but I’ll be free after 5 p.m. today. We can talk then.” McLain did not call after 5 p.m. and did not answer subsequent calls or texts. Everson called on my behalf and says, “We had a great talk, for like 30 minutes. Gary was unbelievable. But he said ‘I don’t have to talk to anybody. They all want to talk about the bad stuff. Nobody wants to talk about how I’m recovered and helping people.’”
His ’85 brothers consider McLain back in the fold, and for this, they’re happy. Everson’s daughter, a freshman basketball player at Bryant College, calls him Uncle Gary. Dwayne McClain says, “I’m elated to have Gary close with us. He’s still one of our brothers, and we love him dearly.” Yet McLain often drops off their collective grid for long periods and when this happens, they worry together. He came to the November reunion and asked to sing the National Anthem (teammates say McLain has a beautiful voice, but they talked him out of performing that night), and arrived at the Villanova-Northwood game wearing a black velour tuxedo and sneakers. He will always be Giz.)
The beige suits and yellow power ties have been swapped for Bermuda shorts and golf shirts. Rollie Massimino’s preferred mode of transportation is the golf cart he drives to meet a visitor at the front gate of the Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Fla. Here he often plays 27 holes or more a day and lunches with roundball cronies like Chuck Daly and Billy Cunningham. Not long ago they sat around a table and pecked away at each others’ golf handicaps and careers. Golden Girls meets Dr. Naismith. Massimino, 69, looks healthier than the night he coached Villanova to the title, frightened into good behavior by a ministroke last spring. “I was out to dinner with two of my sons, when my left arm just drops right into my lap,” he says. “My strength is coming back now, but I’ll tell you....” He shakes his head, describing the intensity of the scare. Massimino left coaching only last March, when he resigned after seven years at Cleveland State. Daly, who as the head coach at Penn once hired Massimino as an assistant, needles his old protégé, saying he’ll sign on any day with Palm Beach Community College. “You’re a lifer,” Daly says. (Chuck Daly died five years later at age 79). Massimino doesn’t deny it. “I miss practice, I miss being around players,” he says. “But it’s gotten better as the season has gone along. All those years I worked from early morning until late at night while my wife raised our family. Now I’m doing something for her.”
(In 2004, arranging an interview with Massimino was problematic. After McLain’s screed was published in ’87, Massimino vowed never to speak with SI again. He wouldn’t return phone messages I left with him and intermediaries couldn’t get him to budge. Finally I wrote a letter and sent it via FedEx overnight to his home in Florida. Two days later, he called me and invited me to come to Florida).
Massimino can’t get out three sentences without dropping the names of half a dozen former players or assistant coaches, each of whom is referred to—sincerely, it seems—as a “dear friend.” Some go back as far as days coaching high school in Hillside, N.J. During a two-hour interview he gets three calls on his cellphone, all from former players. “A couple of days ago I heard from eight players in one day,” he says. Even as the Georgetown game maintains an outsized place in history, Massimino lets it go—“Like yesterday’s wrinkled-up newspaper,” he says—and holds to the relationships built in those moments. “We had a Mass before every game,” he says, “and nobody ever complained about going. We laughed together, we cried together.” (As always, McLain was the complex exception. “He wanted to be a member of the family again, and of course I accepted that,” Massimino said in mid-March. “He’s still a part of the family. But he doesn’t come around as much as he did after we first got back together.”)
It never got better than April 1, 1985, for the man called Daddy Mass. (Well, it briefly got a little better. Massimino’s image shone even brighter when, in the summer following the title, he turned down a lucrative offer to coach the New Jersey Nets, endearing him even more to the Villanova community and college basketball purists.) Of his last seven Villanova teams, however, only four made the NCAA tournament and just one advanced past the second round. Massimino was criticized in Philadelphia for not getting enough city recruits and for his ponderous style, which critics say was made obsolete by the shot clock. Worse yet, he was accused of pulling Villanova out of the annual Big Five round robin with LaSalle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Temple. “That was a university decision,” says Massimino. “But when you look at it, we were playing in the Big East, where you could lose six or seven games a year, and then you’ve got four games in the Big Five. You lose two of those, you’re in trouble and you might not make the tournament.” His last Villanova team, in ’91-92, was 14-15.
It’s possible that Massimino could have survived all of this. What damned his relationship with Villanova in the end was the feeling—often rumored, seldom spoken publicly by anyone—that he had gotten too full of himself. That he had changed. “Jimmy Valvano warned me that would happen,” says Massimino. “My inner sanctum never changed. You can’t be friends with everybody.”
Stack says, “People say Rollie changed when he won the title. Rollie always had a big ego. But after he won the title, more people were watching.”
Plansky, who played three years for Massimino after the ’85 title, says, “All of a sudden Rollie’s got people giving him tens of thousands of dollars to make motivational speeches, and a lot of people want to shake his hand. So sometimes he’d shake their hand while he’s looking away, and that guy tells people, ‘Rollie Massimino’s an ass.’”
In the spring of 1992 Massimino stunned the basketball world by accepting an offer to succeed Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, which at the time was an outlaw state, the opposite of cuddly, Catholic, graduate-’em-all Villanova. His reputation had suffered so badly that at the Villanova press conference announcing Massimino’s resignation—he was not present—students cheered his departure. He lasted two years at UNLV and left amid controversy when it was disclosed that he had agreed to an under-the-table contract paying him $375,000 a year beyond his annual salary of $511,000. Former UNLV president Robert Maxson, who cut the deal with Massimino, insisted that it was done ethically, and Massimino agrees. UNLV bought out the remaining three years of his contract for $1.9 million.
There was one more stop. (Actually, there would be another). At Fratello’s urging, Massimino took over at Cleveland State in 1996 and coached seven seasons. The Vikings improved from nine wins in Massimino’s first season to 19 in his fifth but tailed off and went 8-22 in 2002-03. It was an ignominious finish to his career, and ’85 seemed ever more distant. (In the fall of 2006, Massimino, then 72, took over as head coach at Northwood University, an NAIA program in West Palm Beach. His teams have a 245-61 record in nine years. “I really enjoy it,” says Massimino. “We have a great administration, great assistant coaches. We even have pregame pasta meals.” Massimino had a pacemaker installed a few years ago, but remains the last member of the ’85 team still actively involved in college basketball. Some of his former players have made a tradition of visiting Massimino on Super Bowl weekend and attending a Northwood game. “He still yells,” says Everson. So Chuck Daly was right. But still….) “I should have stayed at Villanova,” Massimino says. “That’s where I belonged, and that’s where I should have finished my coaching career. I can see that now.” That old wound is slowly healing. On Dec. 28, at Wright’s urging, Massimino and his extended family attended Villanova’s game against North Carolina-Greensboro at The Pavilion. A family portrait was snapped, on the floor, before the game. When Massimino’s name was announced, he received a standing ovation. Next year, says Stack, a banner will be raised to the rafters in his honor, long overdue. (The banner was hoisted in 2005. Massimino’s former players remain disappointed that he hasn’t been elected into the Hall of Fame, like his Big East brethren Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Lou Carnesecca and John Thompson.)
Unlike all of his players from the miracle team, Massimino has never watched the entire championship game tape. A little of the first half, a little of the second, but never the whole game and never the finish. “You know why?” he asks, leaning forward in a lounge chair at his country club. There is a pause, and Massimino’s eyes dance like old. “I’m afraid we’ll lose.” (Massimino says he still hasn’t watched the finish. Of course, you never know. That could be schtick.)