An Ace In The Hole

Center Pervis Ellison lifted Louisville to the NCAA championship
April 07, 1986

The plot was hatched in Room 1839 of Dallas's Fairmont Hotel, where Pervis Ellison was sequestered. Louisville coach Denny Crum had declared his 6'9" freshman off-limits to the media, figuring it best to shelter underclassmen from all the hoopla surrounding the NCAA Final Four. Ultimately, Ellison would thrive in the spotlight, dominating a championship game as no 18-year-old had before.

Here was the rule: no press, not even any incoming phone calls allowed. So Ellison and his roommate—also classmate and teammate—Kenny Payne would sit around and talk. They'd wrestle a little on the floor. And sometimes they'd play host to Pervis's mom, Emily. "I asked Mrs. Ellison," Payne says, "not to let Duke abuse Pervis."

Oh, Ellison ventured forth now and then. Once he rode the elevator to the hotel lobby. The doors parted, but the red sea of Louisville supporters before him did not.

"It's Pervis!" one fan shouted, pointing at him.

Ellison spun on his heels, and took the lift right back up again.

But in the wee hours of each morning, Ellison had a way of popping upright in bed and saying, "Kenny, we're gonna get us a ring." And sure enough, Louisville owed its 72-69 victory in Monday night's NCAA championship game over Duke and all its high-toned seniors to the retiring freshman with a gleam in his braces. Ellison scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and figured in just about every big play in Louisville's rousing win. "Just keep throwing it inside to me," he kept telling teammates as he ran back on defense during the second half.

Despite Duke's designation as a "yuppie team"—while the Cards' Milt Wagner carried a Sanyo stereo to practices, Blue Devil star Johnny Dawkins toted a Louis Vuitton briefcase—Louisville may have had the game's most upwardly mobile player, in any sense. Ellison is from Savannah, Ga. He likes roast duck, plays the piano, tuba and trombone—"anything," he says, "in B-flat"—and has been spotted fastidiously ironing his pants in the locker room after games.

Even before Louisville began preseason practice last fall, Crum knew that Ellison would be his starting center. Playing in a man-to-man, up-and-down style at Savannah High, he had developed startling open-court skills and precocious basketball sense. Someone asked Louisville's Herbert Crook when he knew how good Ellison was. "On October 15," Crook said.

Before unleashing his inside skills to take the game from Duke down the stretch in Reunion Arena Monday night, Ellison had kept the 'Ville close in the first half with a steal-and-dunk, and a pull-up, fast-break jumper. By game's end, Ellison had been so impressive that some were proclaiming the beginning of the Ellison Era.

"Ellison was magnificent," said Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Blue Devils.

A coach reaches the NCAA final with players from Mercer Island, Wash.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Bowie, Md., and Rolling Hills, Calif. the same way he gets shu-SHEF-skee out of K-R-Z-Y-Z-E-W-S-K-I: by working hard at it. Duke's nucleus of four senior starters had gone 11-17 as freshmen; this season their 37 wins (against three losses) set an NCAA standard. "I keep hearing about Cinderella," Krzyzewski said. "To me, our guys are Cinderella, only the ball is four years old."

When the game clock showed 4:13 on Monday, it seemed as if it might never strike midnight. Duke led 63-60 at that point, and Crum called timeout. He normally eschews timeouts. He had passed on one when Duke burst out to a 15-8 lead—11 of those Blue Devil points by Dawkins on the way to 24—and he didn't call one after the Devils stretched a three-point advantage at the half to a six-point lead with 11 minutes remaining. "Timeouts aren't the answer to everything," Crum says. "I like to let the players work things out for themselves."

But here he called one, and on the bench he set up something Louisville calls Swing 'Em. It was a play designed to clear four Cards above the foul line and isolate Ellison in the low post against Jay Bilas, where the other members of Duke's superb defense—most notably forward Mark Alarie and guard Tommy Amaker—couldn't provide any help. Studying a videotape of the ACC championship game on the day of the final, Louisville assistant coach Wade Houston noticed that Georgia Tech had used a similar set successfully against the Blue Devils. And here it worked perfectly for the Cards, with Crook finding Ellison, who pinned Bilas on the block and laid the ball in.

With guard Jeff Hall dogging Dawkins man-to-man in the Cards' 1-3 zone, David Henderson tried vainly to take command as his All-America teammate had done in the first half. But, barging through the Louisville zone, Henderson committed his fourth foul and would miss three shots in the last 2½ minutes. Wagner, who hadn't scored a field goal for the first 34:28, hit a backdoor layup on another pass from Crook. Dawkins, who hadn't hit a field goal over the last 15:25, answered with two free throws with 3:08 left. Then forward Billy Thompson sank a hanging jumper in the lane to put Louisville up for good, 66-65.

The game's next bucket came after another Crum timeout, called with 48 seconds left and the 45-second shot clock down to 11 seconds. Hall lofted an airball just right of the rim. But Ellison cradled the ball and laid it in. Louisville led 68-65 with 38 seconds left. "Jeff," Ellison said, "told me it was a pass."

Ellison would make good on both ends of a one-and-one 11 seconds later to finish the job for the Cards. "They have the ability to win in five minutes," LSU's Derrick Taylor had said of Louisville after experiencing a similar deadly Louisville spurt in Saturday's semifinal. "In fact, they did win in five minutes." Well, this time the Cardinals won in four minutes, earning the championship rings that Bill Olsen, Louisville's athletic director, had been confident enough to have the players fitted for two days before the Cardinals left for Dallas.

"Three more, man," said Charles Jones, the former Louisville center (class of '84), as he went from freshman to freshman in the locker room. "You'll almost have enough rings for one hand."

The Cards had earlier received alumni encouragement from Rodney McCray, a member of Louisville's 1980 championship team, who had prepared a three-minute video that was screened before the semifinal. The gist of his message: It's a 'Ville tradition to reach the Final Four, what with six appearances in the past 10 seasons. "But while we should be thankful to be here," as Ellison later recounted, "we hadn't come off with the championship yet. And Rodney was telling us that would be something new."

Despite Louisville's stunning improvement—after a 19-18 season, it went 32-7 this year, winning 20 of its last 22 games—Crum joined such luminous clipboard carriers as Jim Dutcher, the Minnesota coach who quit in January after three of his players were arrested for sexual assault, in receiving exactly one of the 192 votes cast by sportswriters in the Associated Press Coach of the Year balloting. One is also the number of four-year Cardinals that Crum has failed to guide to at least one Final Four in his 15 years at Louisville. Let's hope the electors were trying to make the point that Crum isn't Coach of the Year, but maybe Coach of the Last Fifteen. (Crum voted for Krzyzewski in the coaches' own Coach of the Year balloting; Krzyzewski abstained. "They don't let Polish coaches vote," said Coach K. "Besides, I take offense when I'm asked to mark an X.")

Perhaps Crum is overlooked in these popularity contests because he does so little in extremis. He doesn't overcoach, overprepare or overreact. This season alone, he had one player blithely skip a practice (Wagner), another bolt a game early (Mark McSwain) and a third skip a game altogether (Kevin Walls). In each case his reaction was that of a guy who likes, as Wagner says, "to listen to that Kenny Rogers stuff."

Crum's only real passion is for the novels of Louis L'Amour, author of 100-plus Westerns. "I get so involved in them that they can take my mind off anything," says Crum, who owns many of L'Amour's books. "I've read each one at least twice." Like Crum, L'Amour produces consistently, and like Crum's team, he features rugged individualists who band together to get the job done.

Louis L'Amour, Louisville l'amour. You have to love the 'Ville and its Card-carrying freshman Ellison. Reserve some space on the shelf for the next title.

This was a legends-once-removed Final Four in which John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bob Knight met by proxy. Each had a protégé leading a team: Wooden, Crum; Smith, Kansas's Larry Brown; and Knight, Krzyzewski. And if no one from Minot (N. Dak.) State Teachers College or anywhere else was stepping eagerly forward to claim LSU's Dale Brown as a disciple, no matter; Brown was passing himself off as a whole different breed of believer. "David and Goliath isn't a Greek myth," he said on the eve of the Saturday afternoon semifinal with favored Louisville. "It's a Biblical truth."

Brown's Tigers certainly seemed David-like at halftime Saturday when they led the Cards by eight. LSU had out-scrapped and outhustled the 'Ville. Forward Don Redden, whose head fake could lure a mesquite stump out of an arid riverbed, kept the Cards constantly off balance, and at one point 6'6" Ricky Blanton growled so loudly at Ellison that Never Nervous Pervis was rattled into a bad pass.

At halftime Crum was particularly irked at Wagner, who had gone a tepid 2 for 6 with four turnovers. "Coach is smooth," said Wagner. "Cool Hand Luke. He don't throw no chairs, but he gets his point across. He said, 'You're my senior leader and you're playing like a freshman.' We took his advice and took it to our knowledge."

And took it to LSU. Over those five minutes that Taylor referred to, the Cards went on a 17-1 run. Wagner had four hoops in that stretch, including three long jumpers, while Louisville's press began to take its toll, forcing LSU to shoot sooner than it would have liked. "We couldn't get into a rhythm after we beat their press up the floor," said Brown when the 88-77 loss was over.

Like LSU, Kansas looked terrific early, charging out to an 8-2 lead over Duke. But then the Jayhawks' Ron Kellogg launched an air ball, which only got the notorious Duke student section into the game. The Blue Devils grabbed the lead before Kansas scored again, on a hook shot by 7-foot Greg Dreiling. As for 6'11" Danny Manning, the Jayhawks' star forward spent much of the first half on the bench because of foul trouble and sank only one field goal against Alarie all night.

Final Four week began inauspiciously for Manning. When Kansas checked into Dallas's swank Adolphus Hotel, Manning espied the well-stocked pantry in his room and gobbled a jar of cashews without realizing a $10 charge would be posted to his account. Come Saturday, Alarie similarly devoured Manning. He kept the Jayhawk soph from getting the ball—and thus his favored flick-jumper—and helped goad Manning and Dreiling into the very foul trouble that Larry Brown had said his team would have to avoid to win. Said Duke's David Henderson, "You can tell when an impact player isn't having a big impact."

Manning's only other field goal—it came over Jay Bilas after Alarie was caught in a switch—put Kansas up 65-61 with 4:25 left. "We don't worry at a time like that," said Alarie. "We pick ourselves up and execute more sharply." Dawkins threw in a jumper from the top of the key, Alarie forced a Manning miss and Duke controlled, with a chance to tie. Alarie took Henderson's whip pass, dunked the ball and at the same time drew Manning's fifth foul. Duke was even at 65, and Manning joined Dreiling, who'd fouled out three minutes earlier, on the bench.

The Blue Devils now knew they would have their way in the paint. Moments later, with the score tied at 67, Danny Ferry slapped both palms to the floor, as Dookies—even freshmen Dookies—do to remind themselves to give ground grudgingly, and then he snatched an errant Thompson shot.

With :58 left, Duke caucused. "I told them to take the first available good shot and then hit the boards," said Krzyzewski. Alarie's long jumper from the left side bounded off the rim and into the lane where Dawkins was again loitering. "Or that's what they tell me," shrugged Dawkins, who can't remember tipping the bouncing ball. "It all happened so fast." The ball ended up at the feet of the 6'10" Ferry, who bent over, picked it up and laid it into the basket: 69-67 Duke.

In a minute and a half Ferry, the freshman among seniors, had slapped the floor, cleaned the floor and hit the floor, all in the service of what became a 71-67 Duke win. "A great feeling," Alarie said. "But then, we're not supposed to have fun. It'll ruin our image."

On Monday, though, it was Louisville that had all the fun.

ILLUSTRATION TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLANEllison (43) had some help from Crook... PHOTOMANNY MILLAN...but he surely didn't need much. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTOMANNY MILLANDawkins came in for a lot of close attention from Thompson, among other Cardinals. PHOTOMANNY MILLANCaught in the old squeeze play, the Cards' Tony Kimbro still had a view of the action. PHOTOJOHN IACONOMcSwain's power move cut Duke's lead to one point midway through the second half. PHOTOMANNY MILLANDawkins soared occasionally in the second half, but the Cards kept denying him the ball. PHOTOWalls was held scoreless by Duke, but he didn't let that fact cut into his postgame fun. PHOTOMANNY MILLANEllison's intimidating work near the hoop fueled the Cards' comeback against LSU.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)