Arkansas's Scotty Thurman has always kept his mouth in gear, whether playing the tuba, which he did back at Ruston (La.) High, or serving as president of that school's student council or playing basketball. Before games he'll go up to the referees and tell them straight up: "I just want you to know that I'm gonna talk. I'm gonna talk to you, I'm gonna talk to myself and I'm gonna talk to other people. I'm not going to say anything vulgar. But I'm gonna talk. That's just the way I am."
NCAA championship games are ordinarily occasions for walking it, not talking it. Yet just before halftime of Monday night's final, as the Razorbacks found themselves trailing Duke, Thurman, a 6'6" swingman, complained to referee Jim Burr about the defense being applied to him by the Blue Devils' Antonio Lang.
"Just play, O.K.?" Burr barked back. "Don't be coming to me all night."
Thurman didn't utter a word in reply. He simply tossed the ball through the basket from beyond the three-point arc the next time he touched it, to give the Hogs a one-point halftime lead. When the second half reached an even more critical juncture—score knotted 70-70, a mere 52.5 seconds remaining—Thurman beat a dying shot clock and sent another wordless trey whispering through the net to give the Razorbacks a 76-72 victory and their first NCAA basketball title.
April 10, 1994
Having walked it, now Thurman could talk it. "You're surprised, huh?" he yelled after he bottomed out the game-winner, turning toward press row and the multitudes above, echoing the Dangerfieldian keynote his coach, Nolan Richardson, had sounded all season long.
It's a stretch to suggest that a team picked no worse than No. 3 in the preseason, a team that was voted No. 1 over nine weeks of the regular season (more than any other team), a team that appeared on national television eight times (not including an edition of Nightline last week), a team that was favored in every one of its tournament games, a team whose coach was voted Coach of the Year and a team that the leader of the free world rearranged his schedule to watch is being slighted somehow. But the fury Richardson stokes in the Razorbacks serves a purpose, and he is far too intelligent not to have kept the embers smoldering until he smoked out every last doubter by reaching his ultimate goal. When tournament officials changed the time of Arkansas's 45-minute shootaround last Saturday before its 91-82 semifinal win over Arizona, word never reached Richardson, and the late-arriving Razorbacks got only eight minutes of work in before being kicked off the Charlotte Coliseum floor; Richardson thought to make mention of this more than once. Before the title game, Richardson laid a T-shirt on the locker-room floor; on the shirt was printed a tournament bracket that showed Michigan having beaten Arkansas. Just a couple more slights to help get the Razorbacks through.
This season alone Richardson has invoked images of sledgehammers, broken-down doors, rabid dogs, prairie fires and street fights to describe the M.O. of his team. A few seasons ago he tried to get people to call the Hogs' old home, Barnhill Arena, the Slaughterhouse—presumably making his team the Slaughterhouse Five—and one gets the distinct impression he regrets that the name never caught on. Surely if any team was being dissed, however, it was any one with the temerity to think it could take on the Razorbacks, for Arkansas regarded opponents with a businesslike contempt. I'M SORRY, read a hat Thurman wore last Week. I THOUGHT YOU COULD PLAY.
In Charlotte the Razorbacks executed almost everything that can be done on a basketball court. They scored inside and they scored outside, on standard dial-1 three-pointers and on Alex Dillard's ridiculous dial-011 treys. They scored on sublime high-low passes from Corliss (Big Nasty) Williamson, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, to cutting teammates for layups; they scored on long inbounds passes that must have warmed the heart of that old Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. On defense they pressed full-court and trapped half-court and fell back into a thick zone. They showed themselves to be tough, skilled, tenacious and, undeniably, smart.
Richardson managed his diverse talent superbly. With the development of 6'11" freshman Darnell Robinson, Richardson became more sparing in the use of hellacious defensive pressure, preferring a half-court game in which he could exploit Robinson, Williamson and another 6'11" freshman, Lee Wilson. And on offense, even 6'8", 260-pound Dwight Stewart, who picked up two nicknames (Fat Flight and Big Dog) and multifarious skills in the rec centers of Memphis (where he was a summer league teammate of Anfernee Hardaway's), declined to poach into the lane, lest he interfere with the 6'7", 245-pound Williamson's light-footed moves around the basket. "Keep it wide," said Stewart of the Razorbacks' spacing and deference to Big Nasty, "and let him go."
Williamson dominated the win over Arizona, a game rich with omens. As the First Family looked on—the Clintons were in two skyboxes—a guy named Ted Hillary refereed the game, and Wilbur the Wildcat tore up his knee in a collision with the Razorbacks' mascot. "En garde!" was the Wildcats' publicity slogan this season, a reference to their backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves. But Arizona got only a half out of each of its sterling guards. Stoudamire missed 10 of 11 shots in the first; Reeves bricked eight of nine in the second. Touchè.
Arkansas no longer plays 40 Minutes of Hell, but Richardson's team still delivers brief stretches every game that the devil would approve of. The Wildcats fell victim to one of them. With eight minutes left, Arizona leading 67-62 and Reeves on the bench with four fouls, Stewart tossed in a three-pointer to touch off a 12-0 stretch over the next two minutes, and Arkansas was safely through to the final. "All it takes is one steal, one dunk, one great shot to get us started," said Richardson. "You could write a script." Indeed, said Williamson, "when we get on one of those, it's like watching an old movie you've seen many times before."
Against Duke, a 70-65 winner over Florida in the other semifinal, Arkansas cued up the VCR early in the second half. The Blue Devils had used a 13-0 run of their own to go up 48-38, and the Duke students had taunted the Razorbacks with chants of "Stupid, stupid." When Richardson called timeout, two ticks more than 17 minutes remained. Over the next 8:53, Arkansas outscored Duke 21-6, forced nine turnovers and took a five-point lead. And although the Blue Devils would lurch back, even moving ahead briefly when Chris Collins bottomed out a three-pointer with 5:05 to play, the toll of the Hogs' spurt bore heavily the rest of the way. When Thurman noticed Duke star Grant Hill hunched over, pulling at his shorts with a few minutes to go, he sensed that the game was turning.
Leading 70-67 with more than two minutes to play, Richardson ordered the Hogs into a spread offense. The Razorbacks squandered that possession when Stewart missed a three-pointer, and when Hill canned a three to tie the game, Richardson took a timeout. Only 1:15 remained.
Richardson might have used the timeout to remind himself of his own words: "You coach people, you don't coach X's and O's." Indeed, once play resumed, human nature, both foible and fortitude, carried the moment. Stewart, 0 for 5 on three-pointers until then, had a notion of shooting from the top of the circle. "I was squaring up, but I fumbled the ball," he would say. "And I saw Scotty was open."
From the right wing Thurman knew only a second, maybe two, remained on the shot clock, and Lang, his first-half nemesis, guarded him so closely that, Thurman would say, "his whole body was in my face." As he took Stewart's pass, Thurman thought of the broomstick his high school coach had asked him to shoot over long ago in a drill to develop more arc on his shot. Then, with one second on the shot clock, he dipped his elbow and launched his jumper, which is squeezed off in a trice. "People expect him to jump and shoot," said Davor Rimac, the reserve from Croatia who guards Thurman in practice. "But Scotty just lets it go. He doesn't shoot after he jumps. He jumps into his shot."
Lang came within a hairbreadth of tipping the ball, which air-traffic control could have picked up before it nestled into the net. This was Thurman's third game-winning shot of the season. At Tennessee in January, even after he had shot 2 for 9, the Hogs ran a play for him with 9.3 seconds left, and he won that game. These weren't just shots off a chalkboard. These were shots a player makes.
No one left the floor more creditably than Hill, who had slung this Duke team over his shoulder like a satchel and carried it all season. He closed out four marvelous seasons with 12 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and universal approbation for his valor. But the result made Grant's mom's Wellesley College suitemate's husband—a certain guy from Hope, Ark.—teary-eyed happy.
Three years ago, after throwing down a dunk in UNLV's 112-105 win at Barnhill Arena, the Runnin' Rebels' Larry Johnson had barked at Richardson, "Get yourself some men, my man." Richardson enjoyed the remark for the impertinence of its delivery and the pertinence of its substance. He found the closest thing to a Johnson in Williamson, an Arkansan from Russellville whose parents have been to almost every game he has played since seventh grade, summer leagues included. Williamson's hands and footwork were superb throughout the tournament, as was his ability to recognize a double team and whip the ball back out for open jumpers. "Before I got to Arkansas, I was aggressive," said Williamson in January, "but not as aggressive as I am now."
What nastied him up was two years' worth of exposure to Richardson, who had his razored back up all week. "Did that answer your question?" the coach said to a roomful of journalists on Sunday in response to a reporter's query. "Because if it didn't, baby, I've got some more." Some of his anger at TV pundits spilled over into an interview with CBS's Billy Packer, and he bristled at TV commentary suggesting that Duke would win the title game because it was a "smarter" team. But he nodded his approval when Williamson, accepting that poisonous premise for a moment, said, "If there are two guys in a fight, and one is a big, strong guy and the other's a little, smart guy, who do you think is going to win?"
As a player at Texas Western during the 1960s, when Jim Crow laws kept him from lodging and eating with his teammates on many road trips, Richardson discovered a perverse pleasure. He found he enjoyed basketball more and more with each passing season, even as his scoring average went from 23 a game to 13 to nine. He was pouring himself into defense, into punishing an unjust world with a kind of vigilantism. "From 6'10" to 5'5", I got into stopping people," he says. "It got to the point where I didn't want to shoot anymore."
You see flashes of Richardson's anger when he says, "If I was white, and I did what I've done, they'd build statues to me"; when he refers to peers like Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as "the great white hopes"; and when he says, as he did on the eve of this season, "When I was playing running basketball, it was called niggerball. When Rick [Pitino] did it, it was called up-tempo. If I lose, I can't coach. If I win, it's because my athletes are better."
Yet Richardson is far from a racial separatist. The El Paso in which he grew up was a kaleidoscope of blacks and Bubbas, of Native Americans and Hispanics. In his first coaching job, at El Paso's Bowie High, he enjoyed success with a team of Mexican-Americans, none of whom was taller than 5'11". And he's effusive in his gratitude for white patrons who helped him along his road up the coaching ranks from Bowie High to Western Texas Junior College to Tulsa to Arkansas and thanked many of them by name as Monday night became Tuesday morning. But as he staggered through his first two seasons in Fayetteville (he went 31-30 with players left over from walk-it-up coach Eddie Sutton and struggled with his wife, Rose, as they watched their 15-year-old daughter, Yvonne, die of leukemia), the daggers came out. He hasn't forgotten the boosters and columnists who made his life even more miserable. "I got here late," he says, without having to add that waiting—he was 44 when he arrived at Arkansas—gives a man a lot of time to stew.
Richardson has made a system of his anger. Players with something to prove identify with his sense of aggrievement and thrive. Williamson, Robinson and Wilson were all high school All-Americas, but Thurman was way back in triple digits on those lists ranking high school seniors, despite a splendid puree of skills. "Nobody wanted Corey Beck," Richardson says of the 6'2" point guard from Memphis whom he considered the soul of his team and who grabbed 10 rebounds in the title game. Stewart weighed more than 300 pounds and looked like a cartoon character when he came to Fayetteville. As for Dillard, a former grocery bagger in Birmingham, he had to get a G.E.D. and attend two years of junior college before earning, at age 25, a spot on a Division I team. Even the Razorbacks' lone white player, Rimac, related to his coach's invocations of the rutted road. "It must have hurt him a lot," he says of Jim Crow. "It's like if someone tells me I can't stay with the team because I'm not American."
Rimac, who lived with the Richardsons as a high school exchange student and helped pull Rose out of her depression after Yvonne's death in 1987, will be back next season, as will all but two of these Razorbacks. In fact, Arkansas will be the first national champion since UCLA in 1967 to retain all five starters. "I think we have half the respect we deserve," said Beck. "We have to come back and win it again next year to get the other half."
One of Beck's teammates—a former high school honor student, a current member of the SEC academic honor roll, an orator by nature—wasn't sure he agreed. "If we can't get respect now, I don't think we ever will," Thurman said.
But even if no one else offers the Razorbacks respect, the team they beat on Monday night accorded them plenty. "A great team," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "All credit to Arkansas," said Lang. "The game is played in spurts, and I guess they outspurted us."
"What a great shot," said Collins. "The national championship, a minute left, tie game—he made a great shot."
It was a great shot. But it was a quick-thinking one, too, made by a pretty smart fellow.