You've read the book. You've seen the movie. Now here was the play: Hoosiers On The Blink. Only they didn't.
Indiana won the NCAA championship game 74-73 on Monday night because its workaday, in-the-flesh Hoosiers refused to bat an eye. Not when the unsung boys from Syracuse were running up an eight-point lead in the second half and, even more impressive, not when the Orangemen were shaking off a typical Knight-time rally to take command again in the final minutes. Not when the man from Syracuse, Derrick Coleman, a freshman at that, was tearing them apart off the backboards. Not when the Orange had totally outplayed Indiana over the expanse and excess of the Louisiana Superdome and finally shut off Steve Alford's three-point bombs. Indeed, Syracuse held Alford scoreless in the last four minutes and tried to protect its 73-72 lead by boxing him out of any options he had to climax his storybook career. But this simply allowed another Hoosier to steal the closing scene of yet another breathtaking national title game.
Blink? The Hoosiers merely got the ball to a former McDonald's fry cook, motorcycle accident victim, junior college no-name who last appeared in the Dome as a Boy Scout ushering pro football fans to their seats "way up there by the windows." And when Keith Smart had finished scoring 12 of his team's last 15 points, including the winning 16-foot jump shot from the left side with five seconds remaining under massive pressure, most of Indiana didn't even care that the film Hoosiers' Dennis Hopper hadn't won the Oscar for best supporting actor just so long as this real-life Hoosier named Smart had.
Ironic, isn't it, that Indiana coach Bob Knight's third NCAA championship arrived in the year of his hated three-point basket? Alford struck for all seven of his three-pointers in the first 29 minutes—the final one coming in the midst of a 10-consecutive-points Hoosier comeback that wiped out the biggest lead of the game and put Indiana ahead 54-52 with 9:48 left. Two straight Alford threes at the end of the first half had given the Hoosiers a 34-33 lead at intermission. Later, Alford's diligence from half-moon-ville kept the wolf at the Syracuse door, and now the favorites were obviously out of danger.
April 5, 1987
However, the one sure thing about this college season has been that nothing is sure. Syracuse, which in big games has long been synonymous with ex-cuse, had won several testing contests (Florida, North Carolina) to get this far in the tournament, and Orange coach Jim Boeheim's changing defenses would continue to confound the master—"keep us guessing," said Knight. "They never let us get the ball where we wanted it."
In his own personal time of change—encompassing divorce, repudiation of the best-selling A Season On The Brink, grudging occasional use of the zone defense and revitalization of the red sweater industry—the most bizarre Knight move of all was injecting the dreaded juco transfer into his disciplined program, in the persons of center Dean Garrett (10 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and a neutralization of the Orange's Rony Seikaly) as well as the 6'1" Smart.
When the General first surveyed his new little grunt at Garden City (Kans.) J.C., Smart had already served time as a "burger flipper" (Smart's term) back home in Baton Rouge. As a high schooler who grew from 5'3" all the way to 5'9" in two years, he broke his wrist, missed most of his senior season and drew interest only from Division III William Penn College in Iowa. To make matters worse, he suffered a serious motorcycle accident before enrolling in junior college. He was a five-gold-chain-wearing dude with an arrowhead haircut. "You let all your——guys look like this?" Knight asked Jim Carey, the Garden City coach.
"I heard Coach Knight beat his players, but that isn't exactly true," Smart recalled last week.
It figured that a Bayou-bred guide would eventually lead the way in New Orleans. Why, if it weren't for him. Smart's Hoosier teammates wouldn't have had the foggiest notion what to do with those crawfish they were served at a team dinner in their New Orleans hotel. "I couldn't believe they didn't know how to suck 'em up," Smart said.
Moreover, when it came time for Indiana to suck 'em up in the final minutes against Syracuse, Knight desperately needed Indiana's best athlete since Isiah Thomas to overcome the Orange's Sherman Douglas (20 points, 7 assists), who had outquicked the Hoosiers for seven straight Syracuse points and a 61-56 lead with 7:22 left. Smart had been benched for nearly 4½ minutes earlier in the half. "I had to gather my thoughts about what was going on. It was a big game," he said.
Smart's spectacular leaping bank shots and layups tied the game at 61 and 63 and put Indiana ahead 67-66. And, following Douglas's own enthralling fake-behind-the-back-pass, driving layup that returned the lead to Syracuse at 68-67, Smart deadlocked the contest once more at 70 before he missed a baseline jumper that would have tied it at 72 with 39 seconds left.
Syracuse's Howard Triche made the first of a one-and-bonus to put the Orange up 73-70, but when he missed the second, Smart sprinted the length of the court for a leaner in the lane that made it 73-72, a basket that, Boeheim said later, "hurt us most of all. If they don't get that transition basket, it takes them 10, 15 seconds to set up." And Indiana would have required more three-point magic from Alford, who needed only two points to become the Big Ten's alltime scoring leader.
The Hoosiers would have been hurting if Syracuse's Coleman—fouled immediately by Smart on the inbounds pass—had converted both ends of his one-and-one to give the Orange a 75-72 lead. The 6'9" rookie had already pulled down 19 rebounds in the game, viciously clearing away and woofing at Hoosiers as he went. But DC, as his teammates call him, is no Steve Alford at the free throw line; his season's average was a puny 69%, which was, albeit, above average for his team.
This time, with none of his teammates lined up to rebound along the lane—Boeheim didn't fear a miss so much as another IU transition bucket—Coleman fluttered up a rock that barely grazed the iron, Syracuse's ninth brick in 20 free throw attempts.
Trailing by one point with 28 seconds to go, Indiana searched for an opening as the clock wound down. At :10 Alford still was not free, dogged by Douglas in the box-and-one, and Smart knew he had to make something happen. Daryl Thomas posted up on the baseline. Smart zipped it to him, and Thomas tried to fake Coleman off his feet, but the freshman didn't budge. Triche, however, committed inside to double-team Thomas, so Thomas passed back out to Smart. "I just tossed it up. I didn't know where the ball went," said Smart.
Where it went was through the hoop, destined for the IU trophy case, but not before the thoroughly stunned Seikaly and Coleman seemed to freeze and let the clock tick off...:04...:03...precious seconds...:02...:01...while waiting to call timeout. Coleman's hope-against-hoop in bounds pass was intercepted by—naturally—Smart who, with his 21 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds tucked away in victory, joyfully heaved the ball into the crowd toward those Superdome "windows" he once escorted spectators to.
"We won't go down in history as one of the dominant NCAA champions," Knight said when it was over. "I'm still not sure we're a really good team." But while the Hoosiers came within a couple of seconds of losing to Syracuse and to LSU in the Midwest Regional, they were good enough to beat the consensus No. 1 team and rage of the age, Nevada-Las Vegas, at their own wild and woolly game in Saturday's semifinals.
Proving anew how closely the Final Four reflects our social consciousness, the Indiana-UNLV game seemed to be another battle in the raging televangelistic wars: this one between the Midwestern Fundamentalists and the Desert Charismatics.
Lots of time and lots of newsprint had been devoted to portraying Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels as a glitzy, smarmy, wayward bunch. Despite the Rebs' NCAA record-tying 37 victories against a single loss and their fearsome triple-threat (per single shot) offense, the team's appearance in the Final Four evoked the kind of ridicule—"Go back to jail!" some Indiana fans shouted—that a four-armed, oboe-playing ventriloquist might get back at the lounge in the Stardust.
Guard Freddie Banks displayed his number, 13, shaved into the rear of his fade haircut while a popular Vegas fans' T-shirt carried the RUNNING REB HITLIST, including such victims as DICK VITALE and BIG EIGHT REFS.
Tarkanian was seriously concerned about the Final Four officiating, specifically the way Knight might influence the zebras after his slam-a-telephone technical in Indiana's Midwest Regional victory over LSU. Tark's pal, Oklahoma City coach Abe Lemons, had warned him that "they" (Who? The NCAA? The refs? The CIA? The Contras?) "are never going to let you win it." And the numbers seemed to back him up. The Hoosiers—those aggressive, bumping-and-running purveyors of the moving pick—got 14 more foul shots than LSU, 15 more than Auburn, 18 more than Duke. Such was the concern of the NCAA basketball committee that a conference call was held early in the week partly to discuss Knight's intimidating behavior.
So what? So this: On Saturday, Knight had one of his lackeys slip a pink toy phone onto the NCAA officials' table at courtside. Teh-heh. What a neat guy. All is forgiven. Let's play ball.
And how both teams did play. Bodies collided and strategies corroded under the intensity of divergent philosophies. Inevitably, Indiana's 97-93 victory emerged as a classic piece of Knight magic negotiated at a croupier's tempo that, boppin' Bob deduced, actually gave his less nimble crew a better chance than did a contest "with all kinds of patience and a lot of passing and dribbling." So the Hoosiers ran with the Rebels, played the game "at 90," as Knight said, rather than "at 60." Had Indiana played at its normal speed, Knight said, "We might score 60 and they might score 85."
Knight's best hope was that the mechanical white-on-white Alford would duel UNLV trey for trey. Before the game, Knight told the NCAA rules honcho, Ed Steitz, whom he called the American father of the three-point shot, "I hope that child you gave birth to doesn't kill us."
And it nearly did, because while Armon Gilliam hammered home 32 points inside, Banks, the Rebel marksman they call Fearless Freddie, was doing even more damage, twanging in 10 bombs from beyond 19'9" on the way to 38 points. But Banks didn't do nearly as well from the close-in environs of the foul line or the paint, where he missed a pair of free throws and a layup late in the game, allowing Alford (33 points, including 11 free throws), Garrett (18 points, 11 rebounds) and company to survive.
The myth of the Vegas offense was that it had an offense. No, it was Gilliam and Banks and Let's Give Thanks. Gerald (Furniture) Paddio, once a threat, had turned into a Barcalounger weeks ago, leaving the Rebs, in Tarkanian's words, with "three dead spots in our lineup." If UNLV point guard Mark Wade had hit a few early buckets, Indiana might have had to defend straight-up and probably would have gone straight out of the tournament. But though Wade is a stellar defender and passer—his 18 assists set a tournament record (with Banks on the receiving end, of course, Wayne Newton could have set a record)—his shooting arm is pure tin.
From a 63-61 second-half lead, Vegas seemed to let up, failing on six of seven possessions while Alford took control of the game. Indiana scored 21 of the next 30 points, with Alford repeatedly emerging from behind those barbed-wire Hoosier screens for 12, while missing—stop the presses—two free throws. Nobody, outside of Tarkanian and a few thousand screaming Las Vegans, seemed to notice when two strange calls, offensive fouls away from the ball, deprived the Rebs of key possessions.
With the Indiana lead inflated to 82-70 and 5:35 left, Knight said he felt confident that "we could withstand anything they would do later."
Well, all Banks did was bank 15 points in barely more than four minutes. But that was the last Rebel yell. With Vegas trailing 92-88 after a missed Indiana free throw, Banks took one final toss from trifecta land, missed, retrieved, was fouled and blew the one-and-bonus at :28. "My shooting was tremendous," Banks said later, probably remembering the first 39 minutes (12 for 20) rather than the last 60 seconds (0 for 4). "But the refs didn't protect me as much as they protected Steve."
A downcast Tarkanian said, "We thought our defensive pressure could catch up to Alford but he killed us. He's not as slow as everybody says. White guys are never as slow as they look."
On the undercard, Syracuse's 77-63 win over Providence could not have been uglier: the most miserable, both-teams-guilty semifinal in decades. By upsetting North Carolina and Georgetown in the regionals, the Orangemen and Friars had prevented a reprise of the brilliant Heel-Hoya title game of '82 in this very same Superdome. Instead, we got a farce that saw the Friars' "Rainbow Coalition" backcourt brick on 24 of 33 shots, and Orange hero Coleman flail a roundhouse rabbit punch at an opponent which—like the teams' combined .403 shooting—missed everything. "I saw guys swinging so I swung," said Coleman with typical Big East logic.
"Not exciting? A bad game?" Seikaly said. "Definitely. I felt that. This game was ugly, very ugly."
As for the new champs, Knight's Indiana (or is it the other way around?) isn't all that pretty either. But if this third national title represented Sir Bob's coronation—his giant step beyond the Smiths and Crums and Thompsons toward Wooden-land—he couldn't have asked for a more prototypical monument to his coaching genius. Alford and Thomas: slow, deliberate, limited in natural ability. Rick Calloway: a star in the regional, scoreless in the final game. Smart and Garrett: juco free-lancers woven into the fabric of a controlled, even repressive, system. Joe Hillman, Steve Eyl: stiff, obedient, role-playing benchmongers.
Taking his triple crown in luxuriant stride, Knight credited this wholesome yet colorless band only with playing "beyond its potential." But, really now, who else on God's green earth could have won the national championship with a team like that? No, not even Gene Hackman. It was reassuring to hear Knight throw a bone to Alford who, from swaddling clothes to husband-to-be (he'll marry sweetheart Tanya Frost in July), may be the hardest-working Hoosier ever. "If Steve has an everlasting claim to basketball immortality, it's what he got out of himself," Knight said.
To which one might say of the Indiana coach's claim to immortality: It's what he got out of others.