The Eastern was clearly the class regional. The four teams were all from the Top 20, they had the fewest losses among them, and the most celebrities. Notre Dame has been on network television so often that Coach Digger Phelps is becoming "The Green Shadow." Virginia offered up the basketball writers' Player of the Year, Ralph Sampson, while Brigham Young countered with the wraithlike Danny Ainge, in his valedictory season of playing for free. Tennessee was no match for any of that, but its fans were the most vociferous (why is it that all teams with orange as their primary color always overdo everything, the orange especially?), and its cheerleaders the most luscious. Coach Don DeVoe and his three assistants all dressed in matching fraternity-house outfits, looking very much like a sh-bop quartet auditioning for American Bandstand.
Yet lurking beneath this glamorous surface was the reality that the top teams don't actually have to win anymore to qualify for the NCAA, and there was legitimate doubt that any of the fancy four had the least idea how to deal with that quaint anachronism known as a "must game." This suspicion was heightened last Thursday night when Notre Dame, trying to sit on a lead, only succeeded in squashing it. Did anybody here know how to play to win? The answer, it developed, was Danny Ainge for eight terrific seconds, and Virginia for two good halves.
The fuzzy-cheeked Ainge is a mythic figure who will get $500,000 over three years playing third base for the Toronto Blue Jays starting this season. His best sport, his father swears, was football, but, after all, a fella has to give up something in order to become the leading vote-getter on the Academic All-America team. too. Two weeks ago, in the first round, Ainge personally destroyed UCLA, occasioning a black scout from the NBA to tear after Ainge, screaming at him, "You got to sign with the NBA, Danny! You got to! It's white boys like you who make it better for us." But Danny is committed to the Blue Jays, where he is promoed as "the next Brooks Robinson." Yes, one Brigham Young loss and his basketball career would be done forever.
The Notre Dame-BYU game turned out to be an absolutely perfect athletic version of a worthy old stand-up gag. This is the one in which the Pope has all the cardinals at the Vatican, and an archbishop comes in and says there's a very important phone call for His Holiness. When the Pope returns, he tells the cardinals that he has some good news and some bad news. The good news is, it was God on the phone. The bad news is, He's calling from Utah.
March 30, 1981
The good news is, Coach Phelps conjures up a box-and-one for Ainge, he goes 0 for 4 (with a sacrifice fly) in the first half, and as late as midway through the second half Notre Dame is up 40-29. Then, as Irish Forward Kelly Tripucka lamented afterward: "We stopped being aggressive. We got on the defensive." Still, BYU's huge 6'8", 6'10" and 6'11" front liners, the Mormon Tabernacle Towers, couldn't hit either, and Ainge struggled to reach double figures for an NCAA-record 111th time. He moaned to the refs and snapped at his teammates, especially when he erred himself. He is a consummately assured young hero, recalling Rick Barry. "I wasn't frustrated because of myself," he explained. "I was frustrated because I was taking up two players to guard me, and the other guys were missing good shots."
Finally, though, Notre Dame backed up to 48-49, and only got ahead again, 50-49, because Tripucka swished a gutsy long corner shot with 10 seconds left. Whereupon, after a time-out, Ainge did the most extraordinary thing. He took the inbounds pass, and, guarded tight all the way, dashed up the right sideline and slashed through three men at midcourt, while dribbling behind his back. "Oh my heavens," Cougar Forward Steve Trumbo said to himself, watching in disbelief upcourt. Ainge then went left past the fourth of the Irish at the free-throw line and slipped a shot over the fifth and final defender for a lay up just before the buzzer. 51-50, BYU. It was the stuff of legends, and of winners. Long afterward, in the half-light of the darkened arena, Cougar Coach Frank Arnold went up to Ainge's father and embraced him. "Don," he said, "I just want to thank you for giving us your boy."
So BYU met Virginia in the final, and lost to the Wahoos in a game almost eerily reminiscent of how Virginia whipped Tennessee in the opener. In that game Virginia blew an early lead when Sampson came out for his constitutional breather and was still down 31-36 several minutes into the second half. Then, suddenly, Jeff Lamp, the Wahoos' other All-America, called for the ball and banged in a jumper. "That's when it's funnest for me, when it's tight," Lamp says. Next, Pow! Sampson blocked a shot. Fast-break bucket by Othell Wilson. Two more Lamp baskets. Turn out the lights. After 31-36, 31-12. Final: 62-48.
BYU was a Xerox. Early Wahoo lead turns to dust when Sampson takes mid-half coffee break. With its 2-3 zone, BYU holds to 33-30 into second half, even though Ainge is off again. But Lamp (7 for 11 in the first half) keeps Wahoos close. Then Sampson starts playing with a vengeance, and, like that, the whole game turns: from 33-30 BYU to 41-35 Virginia, and on, without incident, to the 74-60 conclusion.
Surely it is no coincidence that these games fell into the same pattern, for Sampson—"Stick"—is not yet fully formed, and he casts shadows altogether different from those of the other great giants before him. Chamberlain was overwhelming, force of size. Russell was pride, a triumphant ugly duckling. Mikan had been some of both: brawn and a late bloomer. Alcindor was moody mysterious, but street smart and often playing against the world. Walton was flamboyant, the rare big man unembarrassed by his size. He reveled in it, and in his idiosyncrasies. Whatever their attribution, they all dominated the action. They ruled. By contrast, Sampson is often removed from the heart of the battle. Imagine: he scored only nine points against Tennessee.
But never mind, for ultimately his presence—"his existence," as Ainge characterizes it—can do in the opposition, physically and emotionally.
Sometimes, too, especially in the early going, he discombobulates his own teammates, who start working unnaturally to force his involvement. Against James Madison this season, in his home-town of Harrisonburg, Va., he played his worst, almost costing Virginia the win with bad foul shooting in the clutch. But afterward, utterly unperturbed, he moved about the team bus, passing out fudge. No one knew quite what to make of it. Above all, as we saw so well in Atlanta, Sampson's greatest power lies not in what he does, but in the fear of the unknown that he casts upon the scene—what he might do. There is really no telling what demands he will make in Philadelphia this week. All we know for sure is: attention must be paid.
As for Danny Ainge, heaven must wait for another day on another friendly field of strife.