This game never lets go. Nineteen years are gone now since
Villanova senior forward Dwayne McClain stumbled to his knees and
elbows on the floor of Rupp Arena, then cradled the last precious
inbounds pass in his right arm and shot his left fist skyward as
time expired. Nineteen years have passed since Villanova's 66-64
victory over Georgetown on an April Fools' night thrust the
Wildcats into underdog lore as a team that played the perfect
game on the grandest stage against the toughest foe. Coaches
everywhere were instantly and forever given license to dream
aloud, inspiring their teams to do the impossible: Boys, let me
tell you a story about a basketball game back in 1985. Nineteen
years, yet this game hasn't loosened its grip. Lives turned on
the outcome, and lives are affected still: touched, guided,
The 14 Villanova players who dressed in blue that night in
Lexington, Ky., are immortalized in a 150-foot-long mural just
inside the main entrance to The Pavilion, where present-day
Wildcats play their home games and are measured against the
images in tight shorts on the wall, always falling short. The
memory of the game moves many of the 85s to the edge of tears.
"Just talking about it, right now, the hair is standing up on the
back of my neck," says Wyatt Maker, a reserve sophomore center on
the championship team, who sat on the bench during the title
game, clutching the hand of junior teammate Chuck Everson, twin
seven-footers willing balls into the basket like schoolgirl
Others hold more than just memories. Harold Jensen, the sophomore
head case recruited from Trumbull (Conn.) High to shoot from the
outside, conquered his self-doubt only during the tournament run
and made the most important shot in Villanova history, an 18-foot
jumper that gave the Wildcats a 55-54 lead with 2:37 to play in
the title game. Four years later, at the age of 24, Jensen and a
partner started Showtime Enterprises, a marketing company that
now employs 125 people in six offices. "That season, that
tournament was a turning point in my life beyond the sport," says
Jensen. "It taught me to believe in myself, and I've taken that
through my whole life."
The championship elevated spidery 6'9 1/2" center Ed Pinckney to
the 10th pick in the NBA draft, launched a workmanlike 12-year
NBA career and eventually steered him back to Villanova, where he
is now a first-year assistant coach under Jay Wright. Not a day
passes when somebody doesn't ask him about 1985, and just last
month a security guard gave him a yellowed copy of the
Philadelphia Daily News from April 2, 1985. Pinckney pulled it
out of his desk drawer recently, held it up for a visitor and
shook his head in disbelief.
March 29, 2004
They were an unusually close group of players and resistant to
common obstacles. On the day before his team beat Memphis State
in the Final Four semifinals, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino
allowed the players to choose sides for a public workout at a
nearly packed Rupp Arena. Villanova elected to make it black
players versus white players, seven-on-seven. They called the
scrimmage "the Brothers versus the Joeys." Their bond was tested
and their cherished memory dented two years after winning the
title when Gary McLain, the relentless cherub they all called Giz
(short for Gizmo, the wide-eyed character from the 1984 movie
Gremlins), the point guard who played 40 minutes against
Georgetown's suffocating pressure and committed only
two--two!--turnovers, wrote an 18-page, first-person story in
Sports Illustrated, detailing his cocaine use during the
championship season. McLain vaguely implicated his teammates with
broad generalizations and also implied that Massimino did little
to stem his drug abuse.
The coach, a round, cartoonish man with a special gift for
building team chemistry and employing zone defenses to confuse
opponents, would leave Villanova seven years later and spend the
rest of his coaching career simultaneously chasing the standard
his Wildcats set in Lexington--"As close to the perfect game as
any team [has played], ever," says San Antonio Spurs assistant
P.J. Carlesimo, who was then the head coach at Seton Hall--and
insisting that success hadn't made him a different man. The
McLain story would scar him terribly. "How long did it take me to
get over it?" Massimino said recently. "It took a long time."
Massimino's assistants would quickly become head coaches. "Not
because of [how good] we were," says UMass coach Steve Lappas, a
first-year college assistant on the '85 Villanova staff, "but
because we were Rollie Massimino's assistant coaches." The
profession would not be kind to any of them
The title game, stolen from Georgetown, deprived coach John
Thompson's hard-ass Hoyas of their second consecutive national
championship and status as a minidynasty. "It was painful," says
Thompson, "but I would be disappointed as hell if the sum total
of any of our guys' lives was that loss to Villanova." And yet
the sadness lingers. Billy Martin, the power forward whose pass
bounced off teammate Horace Broadnax's shin while the Hoyas were
holding the ball and a lead late in the second half, can sit in
his office outside Chicago and describe the critical play as if
it had just been on SportsCenter.
"We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did
not win the game," says Patrick Ewing, whose four-year era at
Georgetown ended that night. "I said it then, and I'll say it
Nineteen years. But in many ways it is April 1, 1985, forever.
II. THE FAMILY
Every coach has a shtick. Massimino's was family. Come to
Villanova to play basketball, and you'll be part of a family.
We'll eat pasta dinners together and talk about life. We'll win
because you'll love one another like brothers. If it was a sales
pitch, it was nonetheless heartfelt. The youngest child of an
immigrant shoemaker who had a sixth-grade education, Massimino
would have five children, and they would give him 16
grandchildren. "Even on the road Rollie never wanted to be
alone," says Mitch Buonaguro, his top assistant in '85.
It was also a pitch that recruits--and their parents--were
buying. "His family atmosphere was absolutely key," says Harold
Pressley, who in 1982 as a senior at St. Bernard High in
Uncasville, Conn., was an All-America. "He came in, lounged
around with my mother, seemed real comfortable. It worked. It was
believable. And it was real."
The '85 team came together in one huge chunk and then in the
small pieces that followed. In the summer of 1979 Howard
Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Camp in the Pocono Mountains was
attended by a stunning roster of future Hall of Fame players,
including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Ewing, Chris Mullin
and Karl Malone, all of whom would enter college in the fall of
'81. Among the other recruits at the camp were McLain, a Long
Island native living with his high school coach in southeastern
Massachusetts; McClain, a willowy 6'6" forward from Worcester,
Mass.; and Pinckney, a solid big man from Adlai Stevenson High in
the Bronx who was underrecruited. The three of them became
friends, and when Buonaguro induced McLain to commit to
Villanova, McLain put the heat on McClain to join him, and
McClain in turn applied pressure on Pinckney. "It was nothing
complicated," says McClain. "We connected. We all wanted the Big
East, and we knew with a point guard, a small forward and a big
man, maybe we could do something."
As freshmen and sophomores, the big three played on good teams
that were beaten in the Sweet 16, in 1982 by Michael Jordan's
North Carolina team and in '83 by Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma.
"Eighty-three was the best team we ever had," says Massimino. A
year later the Wildcats went 19-12 and lost to Illinois in the
The seniors reported to preseason conditioning in the fall of
1984 with 67 wins on their resume, yet no trophies in the case.
"But they had experience," says Steve Pinone, a sophomore reserve
on the '85 team who later became an assistant coach under
Massimino and Lappas. "They had been to two Sweet 16s and fought
tons of Big East battles." Pinckney, McClain, McLain and the
junior Pressley had been joined in the starting lineup by junior
shooting guard Dwight Wilbur from Paterson, N.J. Jensen would
back up Wilbur, while the hulking Everson and Mark Plansky, a
6'7" freshman sapling from the Boston area, would get frontline
minutes off the bench. They struggled throughout the regular
season. "I still don't know why," says Pinckney. "The
chemistry--that senior year, it just wasn't happening."
A soft early schedule and some nice wins got the Wildcats to 13-3
heading into a January nonleague game at Maryland's Cole Field
House. The game was NBC's featured Sunday-afternoon telecast with
the fabled announcing team of Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, and the
Terps beat Villanova 77-74. Plansky, seven months removed from
his high school graduation, found himself subbing for Pressley
and guarding Maryland All-America forward Len Bias. "As soon as I
came into the game Lenny drops to the low block and starts
screaming, 'Mismatch! Mismatch! Give me the rock!'" says Plansky.
"I've got a tape of the game. After Lenny gets about his fifth
basket over me, Al McGuire says, on TV, 'Mr. and Mrs. Plansky,
it's not your son's fault. He's just guarding a superstar.'" Bias
finished with 30 points, and that defeat sent Villanova into a
regular-season-ending tailspin that included six losses in its
last 11 games.
These were heavy days in the Big East, and among Villanova's nine
regular-season defeats were two each to Georgetown (both close, a
fact that would be widely overlooked in Lexington) and St.
John's, teams that volleyed the No. 1 ranking all season. The
most humbling was the regular-season finale. With his team
trailing Pittsburgh 40-23 at the half in Pitt's Fitzgerald Field
House, Massimino told his starters at halftime, "You've got two
minutes to show me something, or you're coming out." He gave them
three before yanking them for good. Shock troops played the last
17 minutes. Pitt won 85-62. Villanova slunk home to Philadelphia
with an 18-9 record, right on the NCAA bubble.
What happened next is a mystery of camaraderie that none of the
Villanova '85 family can fully explain, even through the prism of
time. "I've thought about this a lot through the years," says
Pinckney. "During our run, there wasn't a lot of talking on the
court. Guys just suddenly knew what other guys were going to do
before they did it. The chemistry in those two weeks was
incredible, and I still don't know what triggered it. Maybe going
through so many wars over the years, three seniors getting so
comfortable with each other. There was just so much ... trust."
On the first Thursday in March the Wildcats beat Pittsburgh 69-61
in the first round of the Big East tournament, a win that ensured
them an NCAA bid. After losing to St. John's in the Big East
semifinals, Villanova was made the No. 8 seed in the Southeast
region. It was the first year of the 64-team field and the last
year in which the tournament was played without a shot clock. (A
number of Division I conferences, including the Big East, had
used a 45-second shot clock "experimentally" during the regular
season, but the clock was shut down in the tournament.) The lack
of a clock played to Massimino's strength, and he used tempo like
a billy club, mixing up the 55 defensive sets in the Villanova
scheme (Massimino still has them at home in a
playbook--"multiples," he called them) and working each offensive
possession as if a missed shot would lead to incarceration.
Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight with wins over Dayton
(51-49), No. 1 seed Michigan (59-55) and Maryland (46-43).
Ultimately the Wildcats would average 55.2 points in the
tournament, the lowest for a champion since Oklahoma A&M's 46.3
The toughest of those games was the first one. With the NCAA
still permitting teams to play in their home arenas during the
tournament, Villanova was shipped out to play in Dayton. A taut
battle of wills left Dayton in possession with the game tied
49-49 with less than two minutes to play. The Flyers held for the
last shot, but Pressley stole a pass, and Villanova spread the
floor in a four corners. With 70 seconds to go, Jensen dribbled
from near midcourt to the top of the key, encountered no
resistance and continued all the way to the basket for a layup
that gave Villanova the lead and, eventually, the win. "Pressley
doesn't make that steal, Jensen doesn't get to the goal, there's
no Miracle of '85," says Lappas.
Jensen's drive was a bold move by a player who had struggled all
year with his psyche. After a late-season loss to Boston College
he was so upset that he hyperventilated in the postgame locker
room and needed treatment from the Villanova medical staff. "A
very, very intense guy," says Plansky. "Very hard on himself. We
called him Norman Bates because he had this snappability; he
could just go nuts."
Massimino nurtured Jensen all season, quietly massaging his ego
in long, fatherly chats. "We spent a lot of time crying
together," says Jensen. "At that time in my life I was putting
incredible pressure on myself. Coach Mass helped me through it. I
was a difficult kid, and he was incredible."
Villanova reached the regional final and played North Carolina on
a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham. Massimino's teams had gone this
far three times previously but had never made it to the Final
Four. At halftime Villanova trailed 22-17. Massimino pulled a
chair into the center of the room. "I don't need this," he
shouted. "You know what I'd like right now? A big bowl of spags,
with clam sauce." He was laughing madly as he said it, spreading
his hands as if to illustrate a massive vat of pasta. The players
started softly chuckling, until the tension was sucked out of the
room. Then Massimino took a deep breath. "Hey, guys," he said.
"Just go out and play."
As Massimino left the locker room, the Reverend John Stack, a
Catholic priest and Villanova dean of students, who was in the
locker room, grabbed Massimino's arm. "Best [expletive] halftime
speech I've ever heard," Stack said. Villanova blitzed North
Carolina in the second half and won 56-44. The Wildcats began
celebrating on the floor with a minute to play when Tar Heels
coach Dean Smith chose not to challenge the ball (for which
Massimino is eternally grateful). There were tears and hugs all
around, and kisses on the bare noggin of 74-year-old trainer Jake
Nevin, who, suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, was confined to
a wheelchair and had become the team's emotional touchstone.
"I've never felt closer to a bunch of people in my life," recalls
Jensen. Massimino had his wish. They were a family. And they were
going to the Final Four.
III. HOYA PARANOIA
In the early and mid-'80s Georgetown was portrayed as the Evil
Empire of college basketball. John Thompson, a 6'10", 300-pound
former backup center to Bill Russell, took over the Hoyas'
program in 1972 and transformed a midsized Catholic university
with a respected, albeit ancient, basketball tradition into a
national powerhouse. By the time the 7-foot 240-pound Ewing
arrived for the '81-82 season, Georgetown had reached the NCAA
tournament five times in seven years, but it was with Ewing that
the bar was raised. The Hoyas played for the national title three
times in his four years and won the school's only national
championship, in 1984. While the glowering Thompson coached with
a white towel draped over his shoulder, his Hoyas played hard,
fouled hard and didn't talk much about it afterward.
The Hoyas were a target as broad as Thompson's torso, and the
media took endless shots: Georgetown's image was summed up as
"Hoya Paranoia"--a phrase popularized by The Washington Post's
Mark Asher in 1980 and intended only to describe the insecurity
of longtime fans who felt their team was slighted by the media in
favor of Maryland. "It came to mean something quite different,"
The players themselves found this coverage hilarious. "That whole
era, we had a ton of fun as a team," says Michael Jackson, a
junior point guard on the '85 team. "Of course people outside the
program believed, with Hoya Paranoia and all that s---, that we
were a bunch of thugs. We just listened and laughed. That image
sold papers and made people watch us on television."
Reality lay somewhere between the media myth and the team's sweet
memory. Martin, the '85 power forward who played for four years
alongside Ewing, says, "We had a black coach and [most years] an
all-black team. We were physical, and we were aggressive. We knew
we intimidated people, and we milked that, and John was the
leader, along with Patrick. I remember once early in my junior
year, John said to me, 'Son, I think you've been homogenized. If
you don't know what that means, look it up, and then we'll talk
about it.' Well, it means to purify, which I took to mean make
whiter. He was telling me that I was playing soft, and I took
serious offense at that. Sometimes the things he said to people
got pretty personal."
Yet Thompson was much more than a scowling manipulator. On Martin
Luther King Jr.'s birthday Thompson turned practice into an open
discussion of King's and Malcolm X's influence. During the '85
Final Four newspapers were stuffed with stories detailing the
Hoyas' being sequestered in Louisville, while the other teams
partied in Lexington. It was reported that Villanova took a day
trip to Calumet Farm to watch stallions gambol in their paddocks.
And Georgetown? "We watched Seattle Slew make babies," says
Jackson. "Twice. But everyone assumed we were locked in our
As for being unpopular, Thompson shrugged then and shrugs now.
"We sold more product [Nike T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc.]
than any program in the country," he says. "I didn't care about
being liked. I just wanted our program to be respected. And in
1985 I don't think there was a living ass in the country who
didn't think we were the better team."
IV. THE SHOCKER
On the Saturday of final four weekend Villanova's befuddling
array of defenses humbled Memphis State, and the Wildcats
advanced to the title game with a 52-45 win. "I'll bet [Tigers
point guard] Andre Turner is still confused," says McClain. "We
were very confident they would have trouble." The Villanova
players then sat in the stands to watch what many observers
viewed as the de facto national championship game; the Wildcats
silently rooted like hell for Georgetown to defeat St. John's.
"We could not beat St. John's," says Pinckney. "Bad matchups, bad
history, everything." Villanova got its wish: The Hoyas prevailed
At 5 a.m. on Sunday the Villanova coaching staff met in
Massimino's hotel room and plotted a strategy. The Hoyas had
beaten Villanova 52-50 in overtime at the Spectrum and 57-50 in
Landover, Md. "Coach Thompson wasn't going to change much for us,
we knew that," says Buonaguro, who was responsible for preparing
the championship game scouting report. "So we stuck with what we
did, and added a couple of little wrinkles." The Wildcats would
play their array of zone defenses and, on Georgetown's first
pass, would often switch to a matchup or man-to-man. "The goal,"
says Lappas, "was to make Georgetown run a zone offense while we
were playing man-to-man, and they wouldn't realize it." They also
dropped a guard down to double-team Ewing, but from his blind
side, which they had not done in the regular season.
"Offensively," says Massimino, "we just tweaked a few things to
make sure we got the ball to Eddie. He loved to play against
Patrick." One other thing they would do: Put the ball in McLain's
hands and let him beat Georgetown's swarming, 94-foot defense
with his skills, his head and his heart. It was a daunting
assignment and would require the game of his life.
On Monday afternoon Villanova gathered in a meeting room at the
Lexington Ramada Inn for its pregame Catholic mass and meal. The
meal was customarily a time for family fun. "Like Sunday dinner
at the Massiminos'," says Everson. Massimino had never delivered
a postmeal speech, but on this day he did. First he spoke softly
about former Villanova coach Al Severance, who had died that
morning at age 79. "He'll be up on the basket swatting Georgetown
shots away," Massimino said. And then he went in another
direction. "Go back to your rooms," he said. "Close your eyes and
picture yourself playing this game to win. Don't play this game
not to lose. Play it to win. Believe you can win." And then he
sat back down.
"It was incredibly moving," says Jensen. "And effective. It gave
us a sense of calm, almost in a meditative way. I could feel a
real quiet confidence in the room. Not rah-rah, like we're going
to run over these guys. But like we know them, and we can play
Several hours later Villanova players sprinted onto the floor of
Rupp Arena, filled to its capacity of more than 23,000 fans,
raucous in their support of Villanova. Backers of Kentucky's
Wildcats had made Villanova's their own for the weekend, and any
other neutrals in attendance lined up behind the underdog.
Massimino shook hands with Thompson before the tap, walked back
to his bench and said to his assistants, "We've got 'em. His
hands are sweating."
The game that unfolded in the ensuing two hours was a work of
art. It started when Pinckney took the ball directly at Ewing on
an early possession and dealt a soft pass to Pressley, who willed
in a wild reverse layup. "I thought, What is this?" recalls
Jackson. McClain dunked on the next Villanova possession. Before
the night was finished Villanova would make 22 of 29 field goal
attempts, a mind-boggling 78.6%, including nine of 10 in the
second half. ("The one we missed, Patrick blocked, and I was
actually passing to Ed," says McClain. "In reality we were nine
for nine.") McLain was flawless and cocksure with the ball
against pressure, Jensen shot 5 for 5, and Pinckney, playing with
the flu, had 16 points and six rebounds to Ewing's 14 and five.
"We played fine," says Ewing now. "They shot the heck out of the
A viewing of the game 19 years later yields two nuggets.
--Despite the common perception of the game as a "shot-clock
victory" for Villanova, the Wildcats held the ball more than 45
seconds just twice all night, both times enabled by a passive and
atypical Georgetown zone defense. True to Massimino's pregame
speech, 'Nova played to win.
--Villanova's game was not without flaws. The Wildcats had 17
turnovers (to Georgetown's 11). Jensen had six. Part of what is
so fascinating about the game is that Villanova, when it did not
turn the ball over, almost always scored.
Among many critical moments in an excruciatingly tense game, two
stand out. Trailing 28-27 with 1:58 left in the first half,
Villanova took possession off a Georgetown miss and went into a
four corners delay. Georgetown stayed in a passive 1-3-1 zone,
allowing Villanova to hold the ball. On the telecast CBS's Brent
Musberger observed the momentary stall and, referring to the
impending introduction of the shot clock, intoned, "What you are
seeing is a relic." Pressley scored over Ewing with four seconds
left in the half to give Villanova a 29-28 lead, and the Hoyas
raced upcourt for one last shot. David Wingate's bomb bounced off
the rim, while underneath the basket, Everson--giving Pinckney
precious rest--bodied Hoyas guard-forward Reggie Williams. As the
horn sounded Williams threw his arms into Everson's neck and face
and then ran off. Everson pleaded for a foul, and Massimino ran
onto the court. After getting no satisfaction from the officials,
Massimino sprinted off the floor with his team, famously pumping
his right fist as he disappeared from the television image.
"That incident just swept the whole team into the locker room on
a wave," says Marty Marbach, one of the assistant coaches.
Massimino began shouting, "Great job, Chuck, great job." And then
to the whole team: "They are not giving that intimidation s--- to
us. Who the f--- do they think they are? Do they think we're going
to lie down for them? That is not happening. They're trying to
chump us, and it's b-------!" He calmed down after several
minutes, but the energy remained and carried Villanova into the
second half. (Years later, when Pinckney was playing for the
Miami Heat, he found himself alone in an elevator with coach Pat
Riley. As the elevator hummed upward, Riley, a master motivator,
turned to Pinckney and said, "Someday you've got to tell me what
Massimino said at halftime of that game.")
The Wildcats built a 53-48 advantage with six minutes to play,
but Georgetown ran off six straight points to take the lead,
forced a Villanova turnover and went into a four corners in an
attempt to coax Villanova into a man-to-man defense. The stall
lasted less than half a minute before Martin's hard pass bounced
off Broadnax's shin.
"I threw a bad pass that Horace Broadnax was too lazy to bend
over and catch," says Martin. Is he kidding? After all these
years? "It was a low pass," Martin says. "Personally, I would
have caught it."
Broadnax says, "A lot of people said it was a tough pass. If
you're going to win championships, you've got to catch those. Got
to." He has never discussed the play with Martin. The two have
not seen each other since Martin graduated in the spring of 1985.
Following the turnover Villanova held the ball for 62 seconds
until Jensen bravely drilled the wide-open jump shot from the
right side with 2:37 left on the clock. The Wildcats did not
trail again. When they returned to their hotel, so many fans
awaited that the players couldn't get off the bus. "We were like
the Beatles," says Pinckney. The party raged until dawn, when the
sun rose and a chartered jet ferried them back to Philadelphia
for a parade.
V. THE UNDERSTUDIES
In the wake of Villanova's 1985 championship, Massimino's
assistant coaches were hot properties. "When we won the title,
the players handled themselves with class in interviews, and
Rollie went on television and talked about the family atmosphere,
and everybody wanted a piece of that," says Lappas. Massimino,
ever the patriarch, was happy to push his guys into jobs.
Buonaguro, who had joined Massimino's staff in 1977 when he was
24, was hired at Fairfield shortly after the '85 title game. His
first team went 24-7 and played in the NCAA tournament. His
second went 15-16 but also made the tournament. His next four
teams averaged 20 losses. "Mitch is a great X's-and-O's guy and a
great recruiter," says Plansky, "but a woeful manager. When he
got his own reins, it was mass chaos." Buonaguro resigned under
pressure after the 1990-91 season. He spent five years as an
assistant at Texas A&M, seven at Cleveland State under Massimino
and now, at 50, is an assistant at North Carolina-Greensboro.
Along the way he lost his marriage and his naivete, yet continues
to live the life of a bench soldier. "I've had a real roller
coaster since Villanova," he says. "It's a very tough business at
In 1987 Marbach was hired at Canisius, dragging his pregnant
wife, Denise, with him, even though her CPA career was
blossoming. "I was so consumed with climbing up the coaching
ladder, that I lost sight with things," says Marbach. "I should
never have gone." His teams went 49-94 in five seasons, and he
was fired after the '91-92 season. At that point Marbach, now 51,
got off the coaching treadmill. He went to Albany, N.Y., where
Denise was a partner at Coopers & Lybrand. Marbach sold real
estate and did radio commentary on Siena games for five years. In
'97 the family moved back to the Philadelphia area, where Marbach
is a junior high school athletic director and coaches his
youngest daughter, Elizabeth.
Lappas was the last to leave. He had joined the Villanova staff
straight from coaching at Harry S. Truman High in the Bronx. One
year after hosting his annual Final Four party in Queens, he was
on the floor in Rupp Arena, hugging Massimino after the buzzer.
"Unbelievable!" he says, recounting the swift climb. "A year
earlier I would have been happy if you'd told me I could get a
ticket to the Final Four."
After four years at Villanova he became Massimino's top assistant
at age 34. Then Manhattan hired him, and Lappas righted a
struggling program, winning 25 games in his fourth--and
final--year. When Massimino left Villanova after the 1991-92
season, Lappas replaced him (after Pete Gillen, then coach at
Xavier, turned the job down). Once like father and son, Massimino
and Lappas have not spoken since.
"He told me not to take the Villanova job," says Lappas, 50. "He
said, 'It's a bad job, and I don't want you to take it.' I
believe he was so angry at Villanova at that time that he didn't
want anybody he knew to take the job. And then I took it. I had
to take it."
Massimino says, "That story is not true." He says that Gillen
should have taken the job, and since he didn't, John Olive,
another former Villanova assistant, should have gotten it.
Massimino describes Lappas's move as a disruption in the line of
succession. "Lappas wanted to do his thing," he says, "and
separate the old stuff from the new stuff."
Lappas won 174 games in nine seasons at Villanova, including the
school's only Big East tournament title (in 1995). However, he
won just two NCAA tournament games and left under fire after the
2000-01 season. He just finished a 10-19 season in his third year
at Massachusetts. Others have tried unsuccessfully to bring him
together with Massimino. "I feel bad about it," Lappas says of
their estrangement. "Very bad."
On a midwinter morning Gary McLain escaped a heavy, humid rain
and walked through the front doors of a West Palm Beach, Fla.,
hotel, dressed in long khaki shorts and a billowing white
T-shirt. In 1985 he had the joyful, expressive face of a child,
and that face is still there, now covered by layers of hard
living. He has done few interviews in the last 19 years, but he
has agreed to talk to SI because "life is beautiful right now,
and I want everyone to understand who I am today and that there's
a bigger story to my life than one article."
The article appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED two years after that
magical night in Lexington, under the byline GARY MCLAIN, AS TOLD
TO JEFFREY MARX. At the time Marx was an investigative reporter
with the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, and he had shared a 1986
Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles exposing corruption in
the Kentucky basketball program. McLain's story remains one of
the longest single pieces published in SI--and one of the most
incendiary. The text began on the cover with the chilling line:
"I was standing in the Rose Garden, wired on cocaine." McLain
went on to describe his drug habit in vivid detail, including his
account of being high while playing against Memphis State in the
national semifinals and while visiting the White House. With two
sentences McLain brought every player on the national
championship team under suspicion: "Some of my teammates and guys
in my dorm knew I did drugs. Some of them did drugs with me."
He wrote that Massimino knew about his drug use but didn't try to
expose him because that might have led to the discovery of other
users and damaged the team. "Coach Mass cared about us a lot,"
wrote McLain. "I don't think he wanted to lose us."
Massimino read the story in his office at The Pavilion,
surrounded by his assistants. "It absolutely gutted Rollie," says
veteran NBA coach and TV analyst Mike Fratello, an early
Massimino assistant and longtime confidante. "And he carried the
hurt with him for a long time." Villanova players from '85
publicly disputed the details of McLain's account and claimed
they knew nothing of McLain's drug use. Some tell a different
story now. "I knew Gary was using drugs in college," says
McClain. "Sure, I knew that. But I never thought he had a drug
Stack says, "After the article students came up to me and said,
'Well, everybody knew it.' There was a perception that the
administration knew it. Would I have bet my golf clubs that Gary
McLain was using cocaine? Well, probably. But not in a way that I
could take action. I'm sure his story was largely accurate."
McLain had not just been a rock of consistency in the
championship game but also was the emotional center of the team
for four years, the guy who kept bus rides alive with his sharp
wit and lacerating humor. "He was hilarious," says Pinone. Now he
was the traitor who besmirched the Cinderella story. "If I saw
him right now I'd put a fist through the back of his head," says
Maker. Most others have moved past their initial anger and
forgiven McLain. Pinckney has loaned him money on several
occasions. McLain did not return to Villanova until 1995; he
received a warm ovation at a reunion of the '85 team. He came
back again four years ago, when the team was inducted, en masse,
into the Villanova sports hall of fame.
The 85s remain an extraordinarily close group. Pressley talks to
Pinckney on the phone at least three times a week. Plansky and
Jensen chat all the time. Everson stays in touch with everybody.
("The social director," says Massimino.) Jay Wright runs a summer
golf-alumni basketball tournament that brings many former
Wildcats together. McLain has yet to attend. He occasionally goes
on phoning binges with old teammates and then seems to disappear.
"I have been humbled in this life," says McLain. "For years after
the article came out, there were a whole lot of times when I
said, Damn, man, I wish I didn't write that article. But if you
ask me right now, in 2004, if I regret writing that
article--hell, no, I don't regret it. It was real. I was 22 years
old, and I came hard at people. I said things, and I paid the
price for saying them."
He has had numerous jobs in the last 17 years, with a few of what
he calls "employment gaps." He once lived on a horse farm in
rural Florida and once was in a relationship with a woman who ran
an escort service. He says he has lapsed into drug or alcohol use
"a couple of times" but is currently sticking with a 12-step
program and attending meetings. "How long have I been clean?" he
says. "Just say today. I'm clean today." He has been divorced for
six years, but his 11-year-old daughter, Jade Alexis McLain,
lives nearby in Florida and stays with McLain every other
weekend. He has worked since October for a company that places
doctors in temporary positions. He says he wants to write a book
about his life and perhaps to deliver his cautionary tale to
kids. On Sunday mornings he plays pickup basketball on a West
Palm Beach playground.
McLain says SI paid $35,000 for his words in 1987, but after he'd
shared the fee with Marx and paid off some debts, he had $6,000.
"Maybe people thought I was a rat or I did something bad just for
money," he says. "But one incident doesn't determine who I am."
And there is this, from somewhere deep in his soul: "I am
incredibly thankful to Coach Mass for the way he ran that
program. The discipline. The sense of family. That was no joke.
I've got nothing but love and respect for Villanova University. I
do look back sometimes. And damn, I was a champion."
VII. DADDY MASS
The beige suits and yellow power ties have been swapped for
Bermuda shorts and golf shirts. Rollie Massimino's preferred mode
of transportation is the golf cart he drives to meet a visitor at
the front gate of the Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Fla. Here
he often plays 27 holes or more a day and lunches with roundball
cronies like Chuck Daly and Billy Cunningham. Not long ago they
sat around a table and pecked away at each others' golf handicaps
and careers. Golden Girls meets Dr. Naismith. Massimino, 69,
looks healthier than the night he coached Villanova to the title,
frightened into good behavior by a ministroke last spring. "I was
out to dinner with two of my sons, when my left arm just drops
right into my lap," he says. "My strength is coming back now, but
I'll tell you...." He shakes his head, revealing the intensity of
Massimino left coaching only last March, when he resigned after
seven years at Cleveland State. Daly, who as the head coach at
Penn once hired Massimino as an assistant, needles his old
protege, saying he'll sign on any day with Palm Beach Community
College. "You're a lifer," Daly says. Massimino doesn't deny it.
"I miss practice, I miss being around players," he says. "But
it's gotten better as the season has gone along. All those years
I worked from early morning until late at night while my wife
raised our family. Now I'm doing something for her."
Massimino can't get out three sentences without dropping the
names of half a dozen former players or assistant coaches, each
of whom is referred to--sincerely, it seems--as a "dear friend."
During a two-hour interview he gets three calls on his cellphone,
all from former players. "A couple of days ago I heard from eight
players in one day," he says.
It never got better than April 1, 1985, for the man called Daddy
Mass. (Well, it briefly got a little better. Massimino's image
shone even brighter when, in the summer following the title, he
turned down a lucrative offer to coach the New Jersey Nets,
endearing him even more to the Villanova community and college
basketball purists.) Of his last seven Villanova teams, however,
only four made the NCAA tournament and just one advanced past the
second round. Massimino was knocked in Philadelphia for not
getting enough city recruits and for his ponderous style, which
critics say was made obsolete by the shot clock. Worse yet, he
was accused of pulling Villanova out of the annual Big Five round
robin with LaSalle, Penn, Saint Joseph's and Temple. "That was a
university decision," says Massimino. "But when you look at it,
we were playing in the Big East, where you could lose six or
seven games a year, and then you've got four games in the Big
Five. You lose two of those, you're in trouble and you might not
make the tournament." His last Villanova team, in '91-92, was
It's possible that Massimino could have survived all of this.
What damned his relationship with Villanova in the end was the
feeling--often rumored, seldom spoken publicly by anyone--that he
had gotten too full of himself. That he had changed. "Jimmy
Valvano warned me that would happen," says Massimino. "My inner
sanctum never changed. You can't be friends with everybody."
Stack says, "People say Rollie changed when he won the title.
Rollie always had a big ego. But after he won the title, more
people were watching."
Plansky, who played three years for Massimino after the '85
title, says, "All of a sudden Rollie's got people giving him tens
of thousands of dollars to make motivational speeches, and a lot
of people want to shake his hand. So sometimes he'd shake their
hand while he's looking away, and that guy tells people, 'Rollie
Massimino's an ass.'"
In the spring of 1992 Massimino stunned the basketball world by
accepting an offer to succeed Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, which at
the time was an outlaw state, the opposite of cuddly, Catholic,
graduate-'em-all Villanova. His reputation had suffered so badly
that at the Villanova press conference announcing Massimino's
resignation--he was not present--students cheered his departure.
He lasted two years at UNLV and left amid controversy when it was
disclosed that he had agreed to an under-the-table contract
paying him $375,000 a year beyond his annual salary of $511,000.
Former UNLV president Robert Maxson, who cut the deal with
Massimino, insisted that it was done ethically, and Massimino
agrees. UNLV bought out the remaining three years of his contract
for $1.9 million.
There was one more stop. At Fratello's urging, Massimino took
over at Cleveland State in 1996 and coached seven seasons. The
Vikings improved from nine wins in Massimino's first season to 19
in his fifth but tailed off and went 8-22 in 2002-03. It was an
ignominious finish to his career, and '85 seemed ever more
distant. "I should have stayed at Villanova," Massimino says.
"That's where I belonged, and that's where I should have finished
my coaching career. I can see that now."
That old wound is slowly healing. On Dec. 28, at Wright's urging,
Massimino and his extended family attended Villanova's game
against North Carolina-Greensboro at The Pavilion. A family
portrait was snapped, on the floor, before the game. When
Massimino's name was announced, he received a standing ovation.
Next year, says Stack, a banner will be raised to the rafters in
his honor, long overdue.
Unlike all of his players from the miracle team, Massimino has
never watched the entire championship game tape. A little of the
first half, a little of the second, but never the whole game and
never the finish. "You know why?" he asks, leaning forward in a
lounge chair at his country club. There is a pause, and
Massimino's eyes dance like old.
"I'm afraid we'll lose."
"I should have stayed at Villanova," says Massimino. "I SEE THAT
"Hell, no, I don't regret writing that article," says McLain.
"IT WAS REAL."
"WE MADE A MISTAKE, turned the ball over, and the better team did
not win the game," says Ewing.
"The chemistry in those two weeks was incredible," says
Pinckney. "There was just SO MUCH ... TRUST."
Part of the fascination is that Villanova, when it did not turn
the ball over, ALMOST ALWAYS SCORED.