There was a time, long ago, when the world was young and uncomplicated and comparatively drug-free, and when nobody cared about the Final Four. The thing was lowercased then rather than a registered trademark, like Xerox or Ping-Pong. It was merely an event, not a spectacular, certainly not Serious Business.
Early this basketball season, when a newspaper reporter writing about the format of the NIT-Big Apple tournament referred to its conclusion in New York City as the "final four," he received an admonitory letter from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, pointing out that the Final Four belonged to the NCAA. Well, sure it does, but it belongs to more than just the NCAA. The momentous occasion has become so popular, so national, a sort of people's park of sport, that while Ronald Reagan might not dial up the winners' locker room, he does invite the victors to the White House, same as the World Series and national spelling-bee champs.
Back when nobody cared, however, a man (then a boy) remembers the Final Four belonging only to himself. This boy appreciated baseball and football and Howdy Doody and Annette and peanut-butter sandwiches and all the other spectacular thrills of youth, but the national collegiate basketball championship was something extra special, probably because it was his alone, his secret thing. At least, that's what he thought. This was before the Weather Channel, remember, before something called "mass communications," before the global village. Though the NCAA tournament began in 1939, the very year commercial television was invented, the two didn't merge on a national basis for 15 years, and even then very few stations picked up the 1954 championship game between La Salle and Bradley. Why, a boy had to listen to the radio back then and could only imagine what Tom Gola looked like. (Tom Gola, by the way, was Bill Bradley before Larry Bird was a twinkle in his mama's eye.) And, too, a boy could only imagine what La Salle's uniforms with sleeves looked like.
So the boy grew up, he went to as many local college games as he could. He kept score, all the points and fouls, on the radio games, too—in anticipation of the big tournament. One March night in 1956, during the broadcast of an NCAA first-round game, he was forced to leave hearth and home and go with his family to an ice-cream parlor for dessert. Normally he would have loved this sojourn, for the parlor had the best homemade ice cream that ever had filled his chubby face. But that rainy night the boy refused to go into the parlor. He sat outside in the car and listened to the end of the game—N.C. State versus Canisius. It went four overtimes, and before it was over (Canisius, 79-78) the announcer, Bill Mazer, went completely hoarse. Sitting alone in the old family Nash, the boy thought this was all fairly amazing; that this national college basketball tournament must really be something. The best part of all was that nobody knew about it but him.
March 31, 1986
Soon the boy chose his college partly because he figured it might get him closer to the NCAA tournament. And he may even have chosen a career, a way of life, so that he could take part in it. After all, he still knew the secret of the NCAAs, something nobody else seemed to know.
In the mid-'50s the NCAA was still begging the Associated Press to move the tournament bracket on the wire, and even as late as 1972—four years after the Houston-UCLA game in the Astrodome drew 52,693 and supposedly transfixed the country—only a small portion of the nation's TV households got to see both semifinal games in the Final Four in Los Angeles. "A regional sport," the networks kept calling college basketball. Fine, the man kept thinking, they'll never figure it out, and it's still my event, to have and to hold.
But just the other day the man stumbled upon some bittersweet figures. For a long time, he was forced to admit, the secret had been out. In 1973, the championship game was moved from its traditional Saturday afternoon to Monday night prime time. By 1981, NBC was paying $10 million to televise the tournament, and a year after that, CBS swiped the package, adding far more tournament games than had ever been shown before. This year CBS is paying $32 million to the NCAA; each Final Four school will receive about $825,000.
Amid the swirl of numbers out of the 1985 Final Four, the man found these very instructive: Over the breadth of a year, the NCAA received 140,000 applications in the mail, each requesting four seats at $43 per, which meant the organization could have sold 560,000 tickets worth $2.4 million to the two sessions in Lexington. And there was also this: The 1985 radio broadcast drew an adult (over-18) audience of 20,280,000 listeners, roughly 12% of the entire adult population of the U.S.
Uh, oh. With that the man took himself back, metaphysically at least, to that rainy night outside the ice-cream parlor. But it wasn't the same. Never again could he sit in the car and listen to his tournament on the radio and consider himself alone with his closet passion. There was nothing to do but go in and order a banana split.
In the history of the Final Four there are as many landmark years—turning points that have helped ingrain the event in the American consciousness—as there are favorite teams, players and plays:
•1942 Stanford-Dartmouth, the first true meeting of East and West, the one-handed shot in ascendance.
•1946 Oklahoma A & M-North Carolina, the first time four teams converged at the finals site.
•1951 Kentucky-Kansas State, the first expansion, a doubling of the field to 16 teams, primarily because Adolph Rupp bitched so when his Kentucky team went uninvited in '50.
•1957 and 1963 North Carolina-Kansas and Loyola-Cincinnati, the giant-killing upsets, the audience-enhancing thriller climaxes.
•1966 Texas Western-Kentucky, confirmation of the black player's dominance. "We could all stop counting then," says Al McGuire.
•1969 UCLA-Purdue, the never-before, never-again, third outstanding player award to the great Lew Alcindor.
•1974 North Carolina State-UCLA, the kingdom overthrown.
•1979 Michigan State-Indiana State, Bird-Magic and Ray Meyer to boot.
•1982 North Carolina-Georgetown, 61,612 in heaven right here on earth, the infant Jordan over the infant Ewing, the Dean finally come true.
Still and all, two years, '75 and '80, define the tremendous explosion of interest in the national tournament more accurately than any others. For fully a decade, UCLA had crystallized the event into a David-Goliath confrontation. The Bruins of coach John Wooden were a national entity: a Yankees/Cowboys/Celtics-type target to love or hate but never to neglect. Doubtless, UCLA gave the NCAAs significance and verve. But by the early '70s—in the midst of the school's 10 championships, seven in a row—the tournament seemed to be running in place; it was in danger of losing its allure. Monotony had set in.
Any teams starring Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton would have earned their keep anywhere, but it is also true that under the tournament's old and rigid regional format—West versus Midwest in one bracket, East versus Mideast in the other—UCLA had only to win the Pacific Eight (easily the toughest league west of the Mississippi), then get by an occasional Long Beach State to reach the championship game.
But in '73 the NCAA began rotating the regional matchups in the Final Four, and sure enough, in '74 UCLA had to face its Grim Reaper, North Carolina State, in the semis. Then in '75 the tournament fathers went a huge step further, expanding the field from 25 to 32 teams and inviting more than the standard one team per conference. By '80 the NCAA field had been enlarged to 48 and, more important, the tournament draw was balanced by a seeding system whereby any team from anywhere could be placed in any one of the four regions.
In the 1975 tournament, for the first time, UCLA had to play five games to win it all. With a last gasp—and it was a gasp—the Bruins barely escaped Montana in the second round and, Dame Fortune abounding, both Louisville and Kentucky in the Final Four at San Diego. Then Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, finally retired. In the next four years, 16 different teams advanced to the Final Four. The NCAA's expansion balancing had done the trick. From that came other improvements. Through 1981—43 tournaments—there were but three one-point games in the final. And then: three of the next four championship games decided by a single bucket. The shocking victories by N.C. State in '83 and Villanova in '85 are vivid reminders of the inherent possibilities in sport—of the underdog factor, of surprise, bewilderment, drama. Of life itself.
What the expansionists created was not so much a newfangled Final Four as a magical Final Month. And even if there is little mystery left, there is a good side to that, too. "When we played Wilt in '57," says Tommy Kearns of North Carolina's undefeated NCAA championship squad, "he was a god, one of the most famous guys in the country. Wilt the Stilt, jeez. But we had never really seen him." A god like Kansas's Wilt Chamberlain could never develop in darkness today. Because of summer camps, all-star games and the dusk-to-dawn explosion of cable TV, college basketball players from coast to coast know each other as brothers, angling for a chance to show each other up in late March.
The very first national collegiate championship was won by Oregon in 1939 when Howard Hobson's Tall Firs—who towered an outrageous 6'4", 6'9", 6'4" across the tree line—cut down Ohio State 46-33 at Patten Gym in Evanston, Ill. Buckeye captain James Hull later said his team had simply been "not interested in playing in this tournament. It was just so new...unheard of." The Buckeyes themselves had not even heard of it until after they had won the Big Ten because their coach, Harold (Oley) Olsen, whose idea the national tournament was, did not bother to tell them. Oley, Oley in free. The Firs, meanwhile, had earlier in the season barnstormed across the country, all the way to New York City, where The New York Times took one look at center Urgel (Slim) Winter-mute and labeled the team the "Giants from the Far West." Wintermute is believed to be the charter member of the charter all-name team.
For the first seven years of the tournament there was no such thing as a Final Four, or even a final four; only two teams advanced to the final game from a pair of four-team regions. Oregon won that first final but nearly lost the championship trophy when 5'8" Bobby Anet, a fern among the firs, dived for a loose ball over the top of a courtside table and clipped the basketball player figurine off the top of the trophy. "When they presented the trophy to us...they had to hold the figure on top. It was a two-handed presentation," said John Dick, who had led the winners with 15 points. Wintermute was mostly mute, finishing with four.
Last April, Hull, now an orthodontist in Columbus, received a call at his office from a bar in New Jersey. "Thersh not much differensh between then and now in thish NCAA basketball shtuff, ish there?" the caller slurred. "Thish guy Ewing got 14 points in the finalsh and losht and you got 14 in the finalsh and losht. No differensh."
Hull was kind enough not to tell the drunk that there was a difference. Hull scored 12 points in the 1939 championship game.
Contradictions. In the 1974 semifinals at Greensboro, UCLA had blown an 11-point lead over N.C. State not once but twice in regulation and a seven-point lead in the second overtime. The Wolfpack had an insurmountable 80-75 lead when Bill Walton scored his final college basket of championship play. As he loped down the floor with four seconds left—the string of seven straight championships broken, the Bruin dynasty crumbling—Walton nodded to teammate Greg Lee, as if to say, "It's over...yeah...but it's O.K."
Nearly 12 years later, Walton said of such moments, "Those are the ones that really kill you.... At UCLA you didn't play to win a conference or to come in second. Your goal was the championship. [The defeat] really stays with you. I was really down that day. When I think about it—like now—I get down."
In the 1979 Final Four in Salt Lake City, Larry Bird of Indiana State, who had not talked much all season, was chirping like a canary about his 33-0 Sycamores. "The Final Four means more to my teammates than it does to me," he said. "I thought we should have been here last year. If we win or lose it don't make no difference to me. I'm gonna get my money anyway."
When it was over, 75-64 to Magic Johnson and Michigan State, Bird sat on the bench sobbing into a towel.
Doggie Julian, the Holy Cross coach, in the locker room before the 1947 NCAA championship game: "Dermy, you start, and George, you start, and Kaftan, you start, and O'Connell, you start, and Greek, you start." Both Dermy and O'Connell were one Dermott O'Connell while George, Kaftan and Greek were all George Kaftan. But the Cross figured it out, put five men on the court (freshman Bob Cousy came off the bench) and beat Oklahoma 58-47.
Trivia. Who is the only man from a fourth-place team to win the outstanding player award in the Final Four? Answer: Jerry Chambers of Utah in 1966.
The Coach. Don Haskins was 36 years old when his Texas Western Miners won the national championship. That was 20 years ago, and Haskins—his school is now known as Texas-El Paso—hasn't been back. Hasn't been close.
It was a different era then—a line from the 1966 Final Four preview in this magazine read: "All seven of the Texas Western regulars are Negroes...." The victory, over Kentucky's all-white squad (Rupp's last of six Final Four teams, and one of only two to lose), shocked the nation but, as Haskins says, "It was surprising to everyone but us. Our team simply thought they'd never lose."
The thing was, Haskins seemed to recognize every nuance of his team's opportunity. He says now, "I should have enjoyed it more." But back then he was an unknown coach from an unknown school, venturing into the vast unknown. Aspirin and cigarettes were his staples at the team motel in College Park, Md., the Final Four site, and Haskins constantly mused over the once-in-a-lifetime experience. He called himself "a young punk" and explained how it was "a thrill just playing against Mr. Rupp, let alone beating him." More than once he concluded, "This may never happen to me again."
Observers were no less stunned at the shrill way he treated his crew—among them Nevil (The Shadow) Shed and David (Big Daddy D) Lattin—than at the players' meek obeisance. "Isn't this the laziest bunch you've ever seen?" the coach yelled at a practice after benching Bobby Joe Hill, the little guard who would steal the title right away from Kentucky All-America Louie Dampier.
At a team meeting before the semifinal game with Utah, everyone was sitting around a motel room when Haskins looked over in the corner, and there was Hill...fast asleep, a toothpick hanging out of his mouth.
Of Rupp, Haskins said, "I really wonder whether he knows who I am yet." Then, on championship eve, his thoughts were disrupted by something else: a gang of Maryland students carousing in the motel parking lot. Haskins was afraid they would wake his players, so he invited the besotted collegians into his room. And then, through the early hours of the day he would win the national championship, he drank beer and shot the breeze with a group of kids he had never seen before.
Finally, Haskins offered them some brews to get them to go, and they did, quietly. "Once in a lifetime," he said, leaning back with a last beer. "You know, this is once in a lifetime." A friend pointed out that Haskins was young and that there would be other Final Four teams for him to coach. "No chance," he said. "Mr. Rupp is 64 and he made it a lot, but it's probably going to be just once in a lifetime for me."
Student athletes. In 1942, three members of Stanford's NCAA title-winning squad were sent final exams, to be administered by coach Everett Dean at the championship site in Kansas City. In 1980, Louisville's Wiley Brown left his artificial thumb on the breakfast table the morning of the championship game in Indianapolis; it was later retrieved from a garbage dumpster. In 1974, Marquette's Bo Ellis tapped the grotesque and enormous cardboard head of the female member of UCLA's mascot tandem, Josephine Bruin, and inquired, "Hey, if you be cute, how 'bout a date?"
Was Cinderella a Mormon? In 1944, Utah was led by freshman Arnie Ferrin, the great-grandson of a pioneer who had struggled across the mountains with Brigham Young to found Salt Lake City. Initially, the Utes had turned down the NCAA tournament—the Final Four was to be held at New York City's Madison Square Garden that year—to accept a berth in the more lucrative NIT, also at the Garden. But they were beaten in the first round of that tournament. Because an auto accident had caused the Arkansas squad to withdraw from the NCAAs, however, Utah was once again invited to fill the NCAA field. This time Utah accepted, and the Utes went on to win the NCAAs. Ferrin, dazzling blond hair flashing through the Garden haze, scored 22 points in the 42-40 overtime championship victory over Dartmouth. Then the Utes beat NIT winner St. John's in the annual Red Cross "Champion of Champions" face-off in the Garden.
The Utes' victory was the second of three straight for the NCAA champ over the NIT champ. By the following season, after Oklahoma A & M's 7-foot Bob (Foothills) Kurland outsmarted DePaul's 6'10" George Mikan in history's first Duel of Titans and the Aggies completed the trifecta, the NCAA tournament had achieved runaway dominance.
Contrasts. 1983: North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano on reaching the Final Four: "Awesome...the promised land.... It's akin to a religious experience.... Just saying it, the alliteration, the Final Four, is great.... Ring the doorbell at my house and you hear the last 44 seconds of our championship game.... If anybody enjoyed it more than I did, everything about it, it had to be sinful."
1982: Eric Smith of Georgetown, whose team was quartered in Biloxi, Miss., 85 miles from the Final Four site, was asked if he missed being in New Orleans. "I don't know what I've missed. Can't you see? I ain't here."
Trivia. Name the two players who participated in the Final Four for two different schools. Answer: Bob Bender, Indiana (76) and Duke ('78), and Steve Krafcisin, North Carolina (77) and Iowa ('80).
The Referee. Hank Nichols, chairman of the education department at Villanova in civilian life, has worked in six Final Fours and was a standby in three others. "I don't know if the phenomenon of the tournament can be explained," he says. "In 1974—the first time I was a standby—I remember the look of disbelief on the faces of the UCLA players. They couldn't believe anybody could beat them. In 1975 the semifinal between UCLA and Louisville was a smooth-flowing game, maybe one of the best I've ever officiated. It came down to the end and the Louisville kid [Terry Howard] hadn't missed a foul shot all season long. A lefthanded kid, he was in to dribble, pass and get fouled. But he missed the front end of a one-and-one that would have given Louisville the game. It was kind of sad.
"In the final that year, UCLA-Kentucky, I reported a technical foul on Dave Meyers, and John Wooden got up hollering. I couldn't believe it. I turned to one of my partners and said, 'I always thought he was a real gentleman.' But his eyes were rolling and he wanted to get me. [Wooden screamed at Nichols, 'You crook!'] That was kind of a shocker.
"Then there was 1982, North Carolina-Georgetown. I remember calling goaltending on Ewing on the first five or six North Carolina shots. I turned to my partners and said, 'I wonder how long he's going to do that? I wonder if he thinks we're not going to see it?' Then I called a foul that John Thompson didn't like and I knew he was going to give me guff, so when the Georgetown cheerleaders came on court, I got right in the middle of the biggest guys and hid so he couldn't find me.
"And 1983, Houston-Louisville, the semis. When Houston had a pass intercepted, Guy Lewis got up and threw a towel right in front of me. 'Hank, I didn't mean it, I swear,' he said. I said, 'Coach, I don't mean this personally either, but that's a T' But what a dunking show! The guys on both teams were congratulating each other as they ran upcourt, saying, 'Helluva dunk, helluva dunk!' It was so devastating I ran right out of the way after being underneath the basket on the first one. I got out of there fast, right back in with the band."
It was Saturday evening, March 22, 1969, and Alcindor lay on his motel bed in Louisville, the three straight NCAA championships won, the three MVP awards received, the quest resolved. How many men, athletes or otherwise, ever achieve their full potential? "I'll just say it feels nice," he said. "Everything was up in my throat all week. I could see ahead to the end, but there was apprehension and fear. Fear of losing. I don't know why, but it was there. Before the other two, it didn't feel that way. But this one did. Wow, I was excited! We just had to bring this thing down in front again, where it belongs."
The annual convention of the National Association of Basketball Coaches is nearly as important a part of the Final Four as the games. Question: What is the easiest way to get one of the most coveted tickets in the universe? Answer: Join the NABC. Just convince the association you're a coach—even if you're not. An associate membership costs $15 a year and might entitle you to purchase a ticket to all Final Four games.
Nowadays exhibitions, displays, free meals—a cornucopia of basketball commerce—envelop the coaches' hotel headquarters. But in antiquity, a floor-finishing company known as Hillyard's supplied a lively hospitality room, a veritable den of crusty immortals, where Rupp and Henry Iba, for two, would debate strategy, yaw and growl and move chairs around the room as X's and O's while younger coaches packed around them 10-deep, enthralled. Much of the action now takes place in the lobby, where younger bucks swap recruiting information and other lies, seek out patsy schedules and knife each other for the open jobs.
One observer's Coaches' All-Lobby team: Pete Newell, former USF and Cal coach, now guru emeritus, the captain of the Dawn Patrol.
George Raveling, Iowa coach and basketball's Liz Smith of gossip. He beat every reporter in America to the John Wooden Retires scoop.
Joe Dean of Converse Rubber Company and "String Music" telecaster fame. Not really a coach, but don't tell him. Hires and fires and knows more coaches than the NCAA thought existed.
Abe Lemons, Oklahoma City coach, the delightful hoopsologist who once said of the Final Four: "It's just another UCLA bullfight. You gore the matador all night. In the end, he sticks it in you and the donkeys come on and drag you out."
Jim Valvano, before he went high-toned, not to mention off his rocker. "O.K., O.K., I was one of the guys who didn't even need a room," says V. "The best way to attract attention in a crowd of coaches is to stand up and say, 'I'm looking for two road games.' Gets them every time."
Final Four as recruiting tool? Between the 1981 semifinal games, Dartmouth coach Tim Cohane stood in the lobby of the Spectrum in Philadelphia, pumping quarters into a telephone and calling every prospect he knew. Holding up the receiver so the clamor of crowd noise could be heard at the other end, he bellowed something like, "With you, we could be here next year!" The following season, Dartmouth won 10 games. Cohane is now a stockbroker in New York.
In the 1952 NCAA championship game, St. John's strongman, Solly Walker, stuck a finger in the eye of Cumulus Clyde Lovellette, the massive 6'9" Kansas center who was in the process of scoring 33 points, establishing seven individual tournament records and offensively dominating a Final Four as no other player has ever done. As the enraged Lovellette came to the bench, he blurted to KU coach Phog Allen, "Dammit, Doc, I'm going to kill the——." Lovellette's mother, sitting nearby, stepped in and reminded Clyde as to how she'd raised him to be "a good Christian."
"O.K., Mom," Lovellette answered meekly. "I won't kill him, but I'm sure going to mark him up."
On the night of March 30, 1981, with the President of the U.S. lying wounded in a hospital bed, Indiana's Bob Knight, North Carolina's Dean Smith and tournament committeeman Dave Gavitt—America's last three Olympic coaches—huddled in a broom closet in the bowels of Philadelphia's Spectrum, awaiting word on whether the championship game would proceed. At one point the three men just stared at each other, whereupon Smith said, "Co-champions?"
The Siege of the King's Inn began tamely enough when several hundred Marquette fans arrived in Greensboro for the 1974 Final Four. Compared to Wisconsin winters, the weather in Carolina was moderate, which still didn't help the police understand why 25 lawn chairs, two chaise lounges, one soda machine and 14 forms of human life were found floating in the inn's swimming pool at different times. On three occasions Greensboro's tactical squadrons were called to the King's Inn, once in response to a complaint that Marquette coeds were roaming naked through the halls, carrying television sets.
This behavior ultimately ceased following negotiations with the motel's management, for which occasion a Marquette student committee purchased several more cases of beer. It was not exactly the Treaty of Ghent. The King's Inn representative, who, alas, found himself drinking one-on-seven, finally said, "Awwww, yew gahs are awwwwright," and went to sleep.
Later the Marquettes encountered a couple of ACC fans who had innocently wandered in upon the carnage. "We're glad you boys aren't in the league," one of the locals said. "Nobody down here'd be alive."
Basketball was five years young when Nat Holman was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1896. One of 10 children of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Holman's first basketball was a sack stuffed with rags. Holman once estimated that in 53 years as player, coach and spectator, he had been involved in more than 7,000 games, the most notable of which were those played by his team at City College of New York in 1949-50. That team—C'mon, let's hear it: "Allagaroo, garoo, garah. Allagaroo, garoo, garah. Ee-yah, ee-yah, Sis, boom, bah!"—became the first, last and only one to win both the NIT and NCAA championships in the same season.
What were the effects of such an accomplishment? When CCNY crushed Kentucky in the NIT final by 39 points—weep some more, my ladies—the Cats' Rupp told his team, "Thanks, boys, you bring me up here and then you embarrass the hell out of me." A member of the Kentucky state legislature proposed that state flags fly at half-staff.
But that was nothing compared to the emotional distress suffered in Peoria. For, you see, with 15 seconds left in the NCAA final at Madison Square Garden and CCNY ahead 69-68, Bradley's Squeaky Melchiorre picked off a pass and drove the opposite way for the winning basket. By all accounts, what happened next wouldn't play in Iwo Jima, much less Peoria. Melchiorre's drive was cut off by the entire CCNY team, which converged upon poor Squeaky, smacked him around and knocked his shot "actually sideways," according to Pete Newell, who was there. "Squeaky was hammered so hard, the ball looked like a horrible golf shank. It was the most flagrant non-call of all time." CCNY intercepted the shank, sped the other way, scored again and had its coveted double, 71-68.
Weeks later, local theaters in Peoria still ran newsreels of the alleged assassination, the marquee of the downtown Madison reading: WAS SQUEAKY FOULED? YOU BE THE JUDGE.
What CCNY had fouled, it turned out, was all of sport. Within a year of the grand slam, some of the Beavers were convicted of shaving points during the golden season. A spiritually broken Holman—and the college game—would never be the same.
Trivia. The Defender of the Faith Award goes to what poor soul who held Jerry West to 38 points and Oscar Robertson to 39 on successive nights in the Final Four of 1959? Answer: John Turner of Louisville.
The Fan. Since 1978, Merrill Lamb, the president of Cozzoli's pizza parlors in Miami, has traveled to the Final Four with a group of friends and business associates. "It's like real therapy," he says. "We play cards, we laugh. We feel like we're back in college again." Tickets? "We wait till we get there and deal with the students," says Lamb. "See, the television network wants a lot of them downstairs to generate excitement so the students get the best seats. We see where loyalty to the school parts company with the dollar. We try to get the business majors. I'd say it's usually at the $100 per ticket level that he hands over his girlfriend's ticket.
"The easiest ticket in America is the one to the Monday night final because the losing teams want to get the hell out of town. You've never seen anything as depressing as the two schools that lose on Saturday afternoon."
So Lamb cases the stands where the losers are sitting as the semifinal games near conclusion. "If you want the good seats, you have to move fast," he says. "I've bought tickets from kids as the buzzer sounded and their team just lost in overtime and they had tears running down their faces."
Would you buy a pizza from this man?
At halftime of the 1960 NCAA championship game, Ohio State had made 16 of 19 shots and taken a 37-19 lead over defending champion California. Cal coach Pete Newell slammed the door to his locker room. "Men," he said, "we have to get more defensive rebounds."
"Coach," center Darrall Imhoff said, "there've been only three, and I got 'em all."
Tribute. Iowa's Bob Hansen on Darrell Griffith of Louisville, the Outstanding Player of the 1980 Final Four: "I've guarded guys who could leap high before. But all of them came down."
Non-tribute. North Carolina's Bones McKinney, while guarding and woofing at Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A & M, the Outstanding Player of the 1946 Final Four: "All-America? You're not even all-Madison Square Garden!"
Trivia. What father of a famous 1984 U.S. Olympian made two free throws in an NCAA championship game? Answer: Ron Retton (Mary Lou's dad) for West Virginia in 1959.
By the time UCLA's Walton had made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points against Memphis State in the championship game of 1973, it had already been forgotten that the best individual 12 minutes of that or any other Final Four might have been played in an earlier game and in defeat. In the first half of Memphis State's semifinal victory over Providence, the Friars' 6-foot Ernie DiGregorio was simply the greatest guard who ever lived. With an assortment of exquisite shots, whiplash dribbling, lob bomb passes and between-the-limbs playmaking, DiGregorio blew the helpless Tigers out of the St. Louis Arena. He sent an 80-foot behind-the-back bounce pass to Marvin Barnes for a layup; then a 60-foot chest pass to Kevin Stacom for another; and again a 40-foot behind-the-backer to Barnes for a third. This marvelous athlete had astonished witnesses roaring and itching to see what Walton and mighty UCLA could possibly do against his brilliant legerdemain.
At halftime, Providence led 49-40; DiGregorio had scored 17 points and was responsible for 15 of the team's 22 baskets. But Ernie D did not step inside that Friar locker room. At the 12½-minute mark of the opening period Barnes had gone to the bench with a knee injury, and so DiGregorio paced furiously in the corridor, pounding his fist against the wall, seething with frustration and hurt. He knew that with Bad Marvin down, the Friars were out. And he was right.
Pete Blackman played for UCLA in 1962, Wooden's first Final Four team, the Bruin club that finished fourth. In January 1963, while he was serving in the Navy in Hawaii, Blackman received a letter from Wooden, which included a bit of free verse:
"However, Pete, there's optimism
Beneath my valid criticism
I want to say—yes, I'll foretell
Eventually this team will jell,
And when they do, they will be great,
A championship could be their fate,
With every starter coming back
Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack
And Fred and Freddie and some more
We could be champs in sixty-four."
Twelve years and three months later, the Bruins had been NCAA champions 10 times over.
The Player. Benny Anders was something of a mythic figure before he reached the Final Four. Hip, flashy, and bright, Benny already had learned how to act and talk on his feet and look like a movie star. At Houston, however, he got the reputation of being the puerile Akeem Olajuwon's walk-around guy. In reality, Akeem was Anders's foil. "All I get is some vicious pine," said sixth-man Anders in a memorable State-of-the-Phi Slamma Jamma message, "but I got the utensils. I drop a dime on the big Swahili, he got to put it in the hole."
In the 1983 semifinals against Louisville, Akeem did just that and so did Benny and the rest of the Houston fraternity, 14 phenomenal dunks' worth, in as electrifying an athletic performance as has ever been seen in a Final Four.
Anders was in full, glorious cry, once fashioning the most spellbinding slammer of them all: a quarter-court leap over a flock of taller Cardinals followed by a dive across Albuquerque's "Pit" in which, he said in another classic line, "I took it to the rack and I stuck it." He arose from this incomprehensible play to stomp and parade in front of the enraptured Houston rooting section, clapping and crowing while some of his awestruck teammates rushed from the bench to watch the replay on a nearby TV monitor.
In the championship game, Houston met sudden doom at the hand of N.C. State. But even with that, Benny almost won it. Barely an inch more, and the lunging Anders would have intercepted a shaky Wolfpack pass and gone the distance for the winning jam.
The following year Houston and Olajuwon and Anders were back in the Final Four but trouble was abrewing. Benny had temporarily quit the team and now he was at the far end of the vicious pine. Still, he arrived in Seattle duded out in a tuxedo with a smashing pink bow tie and cummerbund. What Anders wore to the semis, however, was, he claimed, "the wrong brand of sneakers," and that's why coach Guy Lewis did not put him in against Virginia.
In Houston's championship-game loss to Georgetown, Anders played briefly (10 minutes) and rallied the Cougars with his quickness, smarts and zest for combat. But, as he said, "This was a battle of the benches. How can the man [Lewis] forget the athletes he has on the bench? I could have scored at will."
Nonetheless, as Benny lolled around the huddles, a banner was unfurled in the Kingdome stands, reading: BENNY ANDERS FOR PRESIDENT. Back at the hotel Anders met his constituency: two guys from Jackson, Ky.
A week later, one of the Kentuckians, John Gambill, received a package in the mail. Inside was Benny Anders's Phi Slamma Jamma warmup. "I'll never let it go," Gambill says. "But the best part was Benny in the flesh. We met the man behind the legend."
Anders sat out the '84-85 season at Houston with a knee injury. Then, in May, things took a turn for the worse. One day at Jeppesen Fieldhouse on the UH campus, he got into an argument with a fellow student "because the guy wanted to play basketball with Benny," according to prosecuting attorney Cheryl Turner, "and Benny didn't want to play. The argument got heated, and the other guy threw a [sprinter's] starting block at him." Anders went outside to his car, got a gun, returned and aimed the pistol at the guy who wanted to play basketball with him.
A university police officer arrived, and Anders ran off. Eventually, Benny returned and took the police to the weapon. Fully loaded and cocked, it lay in a gymnasium shower. Anders, sentenced to three years' probation, is still enrolled at Houston, and once in a while he showed up at a basketball game. "Finishing school, that's my main priority," he says. He is majoring in sociology and intends to graduate even if he doesn't play basketball, which he won't.
It is a shame, but wonders do cease. Benny Anders has sat on the vicious pine and taken it to the rack and worn a tuxedo with a pink bow tie and cummerbund and run for President at his last Final Four.