The problem wasn't that the school was not playing good basketball. A 45-7 record over two years and 21-5 this season is most acceptable. The problem was that not enough people knew about UNCC—and certainly not the people who make up postseason tournaments. It was frustrating, and it shook down into a sure-enough identity crisis. And that's where this story begins.
The low point came a month ago when John Edgerton, a Charlotte, N.C. TV executive, went to Madison Square Garden in New York. How about televising the UNCC games in the National Invitation Tournament, he asked. Never mind that UNCC did not have an NIT bid at the time. "What they told me," says Edgerton, summing it up, was, " 'What's a UNCC?' "
That was the situation, right there. A UNCC, he told them, is the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. There is no hyphen or comma in its name; it is not a branch of the University of North Carolina or North Carolina State, those bigger schools up the road a piece. UNCC was founded in 1965, eight miles from downtown Charlotte. It has 7,500 students. It also has a new basketball coach. Lee Hyden Rose had coached at Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky. In eight years there, his teams had a 160-57 record. Nobody noticed that, either.
Before Rose arrived, UNCC had a pep band, a spirit squad, a hostess committee, Gold Diggers to spur the 49ers and a community that didn't seem to care one way or the other. Then Rose began to roll up victories, beating such notables as Florida 73-64 and Vanderbilt 78-61. But instead of acclaim, those upsets seemed to provoke more yawns.
March 29, 1976
Rose figured that UNCC epitomized the words of Plautus: "How often the highest talents are wrapped in obscurity." And while he wanted to unwrap those talents, an NIT offer, he knew, was unlikely. He sought advice from that past master of attention-getting, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky. Rupp vetoed Rose's plan to call the NIT selection committee. Rose says, "Rupp told me, 'Calling is one thing, but if you go up there and show them you're determined and dedicated, it'll be received much better.' "
So Rose showed them. He hustled to Manhattan to present packets of information about his team to the NIT selection committee, and he called anyone else he could think of who might help in pleading his case. Back in Charlotte, he sat at home by the phone all day Sunday, March 7, waiting for the NIT to call. But it wasn't until the next morning, when he was about to give up in despair, that the phone rang. UNCC was in the NIT.
On Friday, March 12, UNCC faced favored San Francisco in the opening round. At the final buzzer, Kevin King, a 6'6" UNCC freshman, tied the score at 69 with a layup and clinched a 79-74 overtime win when he unfurled a court-length pass to 6'4" Lew (the Machine) Massey, who converted it into an easy basket. Massey, the team's scoring leader with a 22.8 average, wound up with 25 points. Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, a 6'8" junior, had 28.
Sure enough, the game was televised by Charlotte's WBTV, and the folks back home were enraptured. Never had there been such cavorting. The crowds were so lusty that they brought traffic to a halt on Highway 49 in front of the university. Students "rolled" the campus, festooning it with toilet paper. Both the Charlotte Observer and News fired the fever, printing headlines including ECSTASY and DELIRIOUS and 49ERS STRIKE GOLD.
Three days later UNCC met mighty Oregon. With his team down 22-13, Rose ordered the 49ers "out of a passive zone and into an aggressive man-to-man." Mel Watkins, a rugged, 6'3" junior (whose heart is twice the normal size and beats at half the usual pace) covered Ron Lee, Oregon's main man. Watkins cooled off Lee; Maxwell scored 30 points; Massey added 20—and UNCC stunned Oregon 79-72.
A disgruntled Oregon rooter said, "Losing is bad enough. But to come 2,500 miles and get beat by a team nobody ever heard of...."
Back home, the UNCC campus was rolled all over again. The excitement spread wider. Before the NIT bid, Stan Kaplan, owner of radio station WAYS, had been asked to help raise money so the 49ers could visit Australia next August for a basketball tour. Now, he got on the phone and raised it all, $10,000, in six hours. And Loonis McGlohon, the WBTV musical director, whipped up a school fight song called This Is the Day. It begins:
This is the day we shoot for victory,
This is the day we win the game,
Charlotte is home for UNCC,
You're gonna know the name.
The song was sung at the monthly meeting of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Copies were run off for the pep band to play during the upcoming semifinal game. The trouble was, the pep band had bused to New York for the first game and then, out of money, had returned to Charlotte. But the town was jumping now, and an appeal went out for funds. Lunchtime gin-rummy players at the Charlotte City Club gave $30. An auto dealer came up with $100. A self-described "starving student" contributed $1. A quick $5,000 was raised, and the pep band headed back for the Big Apple tooting This Is the Day.
It was the day, indeed. Regardless of how UNCC would make out in the tournament, the semifinal game was it. The opponent would be neighboring North Carolina State, the big prestigious basketball school, the 1974 NCAA champion.
But before this test on the court, the UNCC players had to contend with classroom tests. This is UNCC's exam time. Never fear, said Chancellor Dean W. Colvard. He had textbooks and take-home exams flown to Manhattan for the team; take the exams after the tournament, he told Coach Rose. Just stay up there and play.
And play they did. With 30 seconds left against the Wolfpack, the pretournament favorites, a Watkins jumper put the 49ers in front 80-79. There they stayed, miraculously surviving a State jumper and three taps that danced off the rim in the closing seconds.
While Charlotte rocked some more, Rose and his wife Eleanor celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary at a New York restaurant, arriving at 1:30 a.m. "They gave us a cake and champagne, and they played the Anniversary Waltz" said Eleanor. "All of us have fallen in love with New York," said Rose, which made UNCC even more unusual. "The Garden fans seem to be pulling for us, and I'm sure their cheers have helped."
Stacks of telegrams began to pour in from well-wishers, the hotel room phone jangled incessantly, a parade of people trooped in and out. "Identity," said Lee Rose, spreading his arms wide. "This tournament has established us as a team of prominence."
A team of prominence is one thing, but a championship team is another, and on Sunday UNCC was pitted in the finals against Kentucky, which had gone all the way to the NCAA finals just a year before.
The Charlotte News asked two psychologists, "Is UNCC a team of destiny?" UNCC, replied one, is "having this marvelous feeling that they're being known.... It ought to pull them through."
Well, not quite. It might have been destiny that put UNCC up by seven points midway of the second half, but a three-point play with seven seconds left gave Kentucky a 71-67 victory.
Still, after all that had happened, who could be downcast? The 49ers had gained prominence at last (as an extra measure, Cornbread Maxwell was named MVP), and chances are, they won't be overlooked again. Like Cinderella, they had been to the ball.