BY ALMOST ELIMINATING TOP SEED GEORGETOWN IN A 1989 FIRST-ROUND TOURNAMENT GAME, PRINCETON MADE SURE CINDERELLA WOULD ALWAYS GET INVITED TO THE BALL
I SEE THE RIM. I see the rim. A quarter century later Bob Scrabis can still see the rim.
Seven seconds remained in the 1989 first-round NCAA tournament game between Princeton and Georgetown when Scrabis, the Tigers' captain and lone senior, rose to shoot. Before the game Scrabis's coach, the chronic pessimist Pete Carril, had set the betting line. "I think we're a billion to one to win the whole tournament," he said. "To beat Georgetown, we're only 450 million to one." Yet Carril's 16th-seeded Tigers trailed the Hoyas, the most dominant and polarizing program in college hoops, by a single point, 50--49, when Scrabis dribbled off a screen from his center, Kit Mueller, near the top of the key.
Mueller's defender, freshman center Alonzo Mourning, still lurked in the lane. "Look how far away he is," Scrabis says, watching a replay today. "I'm a foot behind the three-point line."
March 17, 2014
I got it, Scrabis thought. A St. Patrick's Day audience, the largest up until then for a college basketball game on a young network called ESPN, was going to see a 16th seed beat a No. 1 for the first time, and Scrabis would be responsible for it. As he says, "It's the shot you want when you're playing by yourself in the driveway, dreaming of something like this.
"But 6'10" guys aren't hiding in the hedges."
Mourning pounced from the foul line to swat away Scrabis's shot. The loose ball skittered toward the sideline, where an official ruled it Princeton ball.
One second remained in the game that saved March Madness.
The NCAA basketball tournament, which tips off on March 20, now enjoys broad cultural cachet, in large part because of its underdogs and upsets. But 25 years ago some of those upstart small schools risked being shut out. As the tournament boomed through the 1980s, more and more colleges began to coalesce into Division I leagues, in hopes of landing tournament bids that would deliver exposure and revenue. Eventually the major conferences, determined to freeze the field at 64 teams and grab the highest possible share of the money that went with the 34 at-large bids, became fed up. They hatched a plan to deny each of the two weakest D-I conferences an automatic bid. Moreover, they proposed to pick the outcasts on Selection Sunday, which would strip a bubble conference's postseason tournament of much of its drama. To extend the metaphor trotted out each March, a couple of would-be Cinderellas wouldn't even get to leave their charwoman's posts for the ball.
The Princeton-Georgetown game halted that discussion. It also drew a huge rating that helped convince CBS executives that their network, not a cable outfit that reached barely half of U.S. homes, should air the first-round games that gave the event so much of its charm. By the end of 1989, CBS would sign a seven-year, $1 billion deal to carry the entire tournament. "The Princeton-Georgetown game happened, and suddenly people said, There's merit to these people being in," says former ESPN programming executive Tom Odjakjian. "When CBS decided to do the first two days, that gave the tournament even more credibility."
By mid-March 1989, after Georgetown swanned through the Big East tournament, coach John Thompson's team sat astride college basketball.
Markhum Stansbury, Hoyas team manager: "At some point during the season, me and [guard and Big East player of the year] Charles Smith had this thing. Before each game I'd go out to the court for warmups, watch the opponent shoot around, then go to the locker room to report back. 'Smitty, you're not going to believe this,' I'd say. 'They actually showed up.'"
Mark Tillmon, Georgetown junior guard: "Any player in America will tell you when you see a lower seed, you think you're going to beat them handily. We felt we were gonna beat Princeton pretty bad."
The Hoyas' coaching staff knew better. Craig Esherick, Georgetown assistant: "You can tell everybody in five days of practice, Watch the backdoor. But Princeton does a bunch of stuff in its early offense to get you out of thinking about watching the backdoor."
John Thompson: "I knew Pete was a good coach. But I was more impressed with what I knew about him as a man. That's why I let my son go to school there."
John Thompson III, who played for Carril from 1984--85 through '87--88: "It was just a terrible matchup from my vantage point. One team had to lose. Just knowing this was the end of the year, you worked so hard to get here—you didn't want it to be at the expense of the other."
After four seasons of watching other Ivy League teams go to the NCAA tournament, Carril and his staff were relieved to have beaten Harvard on the last night of the season to win a conference title. CBS revealed the brackets on Selection Sunday, soon after Georgetown routed Syracuse in the Big East final.
Bill Carmody, Princeton assistant: "So I go over to Chuck's Cafe for some wings. This is a great night, you know you're in. And, boom, the very first thing: East Regional. Providence, Rhode Island. Georgetown-Princeton. I didn't eat a wing."
At practice Carril told his players of a 1969 game at UCLA in which Princeton led until the final seconds: "They beat us at the buzzer. Sidney Wicks made a shot. What I did for that game is exactly what I'm doing for this game: prepare us to win."
Princeton's coaches had the starters go five-on-six to simulate Georgetown's pressure defense.
Kit Mueller: "Everyone tried to pass this off as, Oh, it's just another game; we can play with these guys. Then I was at a side basket with [assistant] Jan van Breda Kolff, and he was holding up a broom to simulate Mourning's reach. Yeah, it's just another game—the absurdity of that."
Scrabis: "The underclassmen decided to get their heads shaved. So here we are at shootaround, with cotton warmups, flattops, doing star passing, where we throw the ball to each other in a circle."
Mike Gorman, who did the play-by-play: "They looked like the high school team that stumbled into the wrong gym."
In his pregame comments from ESPN's studio in Bristol, Conn., analyst Dick Vitale ridiculed the matchup: "If Princeton can beat Georgetown, I am going to hitchhike to Providence.... I'm gonna be their ball boy in their next game, and then I'm gonna change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform. And I'm gonna lead all the cheers. Let's go, Tigers! ... Never happen."
Gorman, on the air: "The entire country now [has] a reason to root for Princeton, so we can see Dick Vitale here in a cheerleader's uniform come Sunday."
ESPN's Odjakjian had conferred with his boss, Loren Matthews. "I'm telling Loren there's a compelling David-and-Goliath thing here," Odjakjian recalls. "I'm not saying they will [win], but if Princeton can keep it close, this would be our highest-rated game.
"Loren said, 'Ah, it's your Princeton bias.' [Odjakjian had worked there.] But he eventually agreed. So we asked the NCAA to put it in prime time, and we picked it as one of our five live games."
Everything about the scene in the Providence Civic Center seemed to highlight Princeton's role as interloper, from the plaid jackets and straw boaters of the band to the pirouettes of the Tiger mascot. Princeton reserve Chris Marquardt nonetheless turned to a teammate right before tip-off and made an audacious remark: "Wouldn't it be cool if we were leading at the first TV timeout?"
On Princeton's first possession Mueller found Scrabis on a backdoor cut through the lane. Georgetown's John Turner blocked the forward's shot with ease.
Scrabis: "There was a little bit of, O.K., I hope this doesn't go on all night."
A half-minute later Mueller unfurled a hook over Mourning. The shot banked off the backboard for the first basket of the game.
Mueller: "I got one of those broomstick hooks early on. The first dribble, I was kind of tentative. Then Mourning almost kind of opens up for me."
On Georgetown's next possession Scrabis stripped the ball from Mourning in the post, sending it out-of-bounds. Mourning smiled.
Mueller: "It's almost like a joke. He just got scored on at the other end, and he's laughing."
Mourning: "We did kind of take them for granted."
Ron Thompson, Georgetown reserve guard, son of John Thompson: "How we play defensively is great for Princeton. It lends itself to backdoors. Our instincts, our motor—it's kind of hard to change what you are for one game."
Mourning: "They kind of lulled us to sleep with the backdoor cuts and running the shot clock down. As soon as we slipped up defensively, they took advantage."
Jerry Doyle, Princeton sophomore guard: "After the first minute there was a realization that as great as they were, they were basketball players just like us. And there were five of them just like us. And we could compete."
Mourning soon delivered his first basket, a jump hook in the lane. As the game progressed, he would find more and more shots around the basket. On defense Georgetown switched from its man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone, to better close off the backdoor. A few possessions later Mueller tried another hook. This time Mourning batted the ball over the baseline, snarled and shook his head.
On the Princeton bench Marquardt smiled. At the first TV timeout Princeton had doubled up on Georgetown 8--4.
Carril made his first substitution after that timeout, sending in junior forward Matt Lapin, a Washington, D.C., native who had attended John Thompson's basketball camp as a kid. He would score 12 points, including a couple of improvisations near the basket. After several plays Lapin pumped his fists, firing up the crowd. "I was a demonstrative player," he says. "Now, in hindsight, I wish I hadn't been. I was caught up in the whole moment." But as Princeton built its lead to 28--21 near the end of the first half, Lapin's enthusiasm began to spread around the country.
Jerry Canning, central New Jersey resident: "My dad was out of town and my mom was leading a prayer group, so I had to watch the game by myself in another room. Every few minutes I'd pop my head in and hold up cards with the score or pantomime updates. It was like, Mom, can you believe this? She was into it. All these theologians in the prayer group couldn't have cared less."
For John Thompson III, who had a seat in Section 109, the game was torture: "I spent most of my time walking the concourse. Taking a peek in, trying to go back and sit down, getting up and leaving. It was just too hard."
With one second left, a frustrated Smith slapped Scrabis and was whistled for an intentional foul. The Princeton senior sank one of two shots. Halftime score: Princeton 29, Georgetown 21. The crowd roared for the Tigers as both teams headed for their locker rooms.
Gorman kicked the game back to the ESPN studio, where the nation saw a TV first: Dickie V on mute.
Studio host John Saunders: "Before halftime I said, 'Dick, let's have this astonished look on our faces and just be speechless.' I'm thinking of the impact it's going to have, to have Dick Vitale not say anything. Princeton actually got Dick Vitale to not talk."
Saunders and Vitale stared at each other for several seconds before Saunders broke in: "The only thing I can say, Dick, is that the head of the Princeton cheerleading squad just called...." Vitale dropped his head down and grabbed his bald pate. " Wanted to know what size tutu you wear."
In Princeton's locker room, Marquardt says, "it was the only time I can remember [Carril] speechless. He had a superstitious side. It was like the seventh inning of a no-hitter. You get the sense that Coach didn't want to put the whammy on us. So there wasn't much said."
Mourning: "By the end of the first half I knew that, O.K., they don't have anyone who's going to stop anything we do inside. Let's take advantage of that."
Saunders: "My whole mind-set going into the second half was that this was still an aberration. Georgetown is going to get its act together and win by 50."
But on the first possession of the second half Princeton struck again. Lapin threw a one-handed bounce pass to a cutting Doyle, who converted yet another backdoor layup. At 31--21 Princeton had its largest lead.
Scrabis: "It got the crowd right back into it, got us back into the flow of where we left off. If Georgetown comes out strong and we go cold, it changes the mind-set of both teams. That was a very important basket, one of the biggest of the game."
During halftime, countless people watching on ESPN had phoned others to make sure they tuned in. And if anyone hadn't placed a call to relatives or friends before the second half began, Doyle's layup gave him urgent reason to do so. A 16th seed holding a double-digit lead over a No. 1, in the second half of an NCAA tournament game, made for the closest thing to a viral meme that an era predating social media could offer.
Saunders: "You didn't have Twitter and Facebook. What you did have was people calling the control room, the switchboard lighting up, people running into the studio going, 'Do you believe this?'"
The prospect of an unprecedented upset accounted for much of the buzz, but Georgetown's involvement counted for something too. Earlier that season Thompson had walked off the court before a game to protest an extension of Proposition 48 that would have denied scholarships to freshmen who didn't meet certain academic standards. Thompson felt the proposal would disproportionately affect poor black students. In style and substance the Georgetown coach invited people to take sides.
Todd Boyd, cultural critic and USC professor: "He was a proud, strong black man who stood his ground. He didn't scratch when he didn't itch, and he didn't laugh when things weren't funny."
The perceptions were set: Opposite Georgetown's dragon stood Princeton's white knights.
John Thompson III: "There was Georgetown and everything it stood for—or what people perceived it as standing for, I should say—and what people perceived Princeton as standing for. Most people would think they were polar opposites, when the two programs are as similar as similar can get. And the two people leading those programs, Coach Carril and Pops, they're twins in many ways. There's no doubt that there was a big racial element to how Georgetown was portrayed. And there's no doubt that there's a racial element to how Princeton was portrayed."
Ron Thompson: "Pops didn't go out of his way to try to say, We aren't hoodlums, we aren't thugs. We just did what we did. He would always say, You don't have to spend a lifetime explaining to people who you are because they're going to have their own opinions."
Scrabis: "The racial side of it, that's just society looking at it that way, but for basketball players and competitors, it was more about their style against our style."
Saunders: "The biggest factor was the underdog. It's human nature. It didn't hurt that people didn't like Georgetown, for whatever reason."
Tillmon: "Everybody wanted to see the underdog beat the controversial coach. Not just Georgetown, but Coach Thompson. Take it a little further, white against black. People wanted to see that."
Princeton owed its 10-point lead in part to Doyle's hard cuts on offense and active defense at the top of the zone. But not two minutes into the second half, as the Tigers led 31--23, Doyle heedlessly fouled Georgetown's Bobby Winston. He left the game with his fourth personal.
Doyle's ballhandling had helped grease the gears of Princeton's offense. But the Hoyas began to creep back largely because Mourning took over. "I told my teammates, Listen, if you see an opening, throw me the ball," he says. "Throw it high, let me go up and get it. They threw the ball high, I caught it high, I finished high. I kind of manhandled them inside."
During the first eight minutes of the half, Mourning scored on three layups and a dunk to ignite the run that carried Georgetown to its first lead 39--37, with 10:25 left. Still, three minutes later Princeton led again 43--41.
Saunders: "While watching the game in the second half, Dick is going, 'I don't really have to do it, John. No. I was joking around. John, come on.' He was in panic mode."
With just more than four minutes to play, Georgetown delivered the ball to Mourning again. As he caught it, Lapin fouled him. But Mourning had had enough of getting tangled in double teams. After the whistle he swung an elbow into Mueller's face, bloodying his lip.
Mueller: "I was bleeding, but it was definitely minor. I tried to play it up for more than it was. Typically, it's going to be a technical. He gets ejected, who knows? That could have been a huge turning point."
None of the three officials whistled Mourning for a foul.
Ron Thompson: "Us playing UNLV, he would have done that. But again, Oh, it's Princeton, he's a dirty player, swinging an elbow. Alonzo was just an intense player. Pops taught us to grab a rebound, put your elbows out, get your ass out. Throw 'em both. Asses and elbows."
Charles Range, referee: "Oh, God, yes, there should have been a call. It just happened to be the type of play that none of the referees saw. That may have changed the whole game. I sort of got mad at myself and said, God, I wish I would have seen that."
Carril: "I wish he would have seen it too."
Mourning: "I've done that a million times. If I did hit anybody with an elbow, I'm sure it's healed up by now." The freshman made both ends of a one-and-one to tie the game at 45.
Ivy League executive director Jeff Orleans had no plans to leave his office in Princeton, N.J., to travel to Providence for the game. Then Bob Myslik, the Tigers' athletic director, urged him to go, and Orleans went based on nothing more than Myslik's hunch that the game would be worth the trip.
If Orleans hesitated, it was because an urgent challenge had left him buried at work. Months before the game Orleans had begun lobbying to preserve a tournament open to all. At the very least, he argued, let the weakest leagues "play in" to the 64-team bracket.
From his seat in the Civic Center, Orleans had no way of knowing what would transpire in the final minute. But the night's events had already immeasurably strengthened his hand.
Princeton radio color man Chuck Yrigoyen, who would join the Ivy League office the following fall: "It looked like the leagues likely to be left out would be the [historically black] Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and there's no way that was going to fly politically. The MEAC was definitely at the bottom of the barrel [in the power ratings] at that point. So even if its winner had a good Ratings Percentage Index, it would be S.O.L. under the proposed rules. In the SWAC there'd easily be some 20-win team that would be left out."
Indeed, with the basketball committee uncomfortable over excluding those conferences, a play-in began to look more and more appealing, even if it might technically expand the field beyond 64 teams.
Meanwhile, the game in Providence would prove to be a milestone in the history of sports television. Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president: "The drama, the hope, that a 16 can beat a No. 1 is part of the mystique of the tournament, and the Princeton-Georgetown game created public anticipation and awareness."
Ted Shaker, CBS Sports executive producer: "Here we are 25 years later, still talking about it. That's a pretty good indicator. A game like that shows that the first round was something you should covet. [CBS] should be there."
For the moment, however, ESPN was on the scene. Princeton led 47--45 with just under three minutes left. And Doyle found himself in the open floor with a two-on-one opportunity, if a situation in which Alonzo Mourning is the lone defender can be considered an opportunity. Doyle, who had scored on a wonderfully funky shot in the lane in the first half, chose to go right at Mourning again.
Doyle: "It was a move I did countless times on the playground. Fake pass, quick shot. It was sort of comical, looking back, to think I could get away with it."
Mourning pinned the ball against the backboard with one hand and cradled the rebound. A runner from Tillmon tied the game. But moments later Doyle shot through the lane from the top of the key, knocking once more at the backdoor. He took a quick pass from Mueller and, with three Hoyas surrounding him, flicked the ball quickly up.
The shot fell, Doyle redeemed. Tigers back up by two, 1:55 left.
If Doyle's shot sent the crowd into a kind of religious fervor, one Princeton supporter back in New Jersey had seen enough praying.
Jerry Canning: "At that point I just couldn't keep quiet. I said, Mom, everyone, that's it, you've got to come out and watch the last two minutes of this game. My mom came racing into the TV room. Most of the others did too. Even they cared by now."
Though down a basket and at risk of becoming victims of the greatest tournament upset ever, the Hoyas didn't panic. They again lofted the ball into the post, and once more Mourning, who entered the game as a 65% foul shooter, converted both ends of a one-and-one. For the fifth time in the half, the game was tied, now 49--49. There was 1:41 to go.
A little more than a minute later Scrabis fouled Mourning again. Mourning converted the front end, but when he sent his second shot long, Princeton chased down the rebound. The Tigers would have a final shot. Despite Scrabis's quiet second half, it would be his shot to take.
In the huddle Scrabis hadn't yet thought to pull his mind's eye back for some historical wide shot: "I'm just trying to win a basketball game. I have 15 seconds left in my career, and there's this opportunity. It's that surreal kind of movie-type thing, where you're not cognizant of what's going on."
Princeton got what it wanted: A clean look for Scrabis with seven seconds left.
Mourning: "I knew somebody had to get a shot up, and the clock was ticking down. So I made sure I was nearby."
Scrabis: "He jumped from the middle of the lane."
Still, even after Mourning's block, the game wasn't over. Princeton kept possession. One second remained.
Lapin found Mueller with a pass. Mueller wheeled to shoot. Mourning got a piece—of what, we don't know. The horn blew to end the game. Georgetown 50, Princeton 49.
Carril grimaced, nearly crying for a call. Carmody, the Princeton assistant, held his wrist in the air in supplication. Dave Pavelko, a Princeton reserve, charged toward referee Dick Paparo, screaming, "He got hit!"
Paparo: "The last play was not a foul. They can run that play back 10 times. There was no foul."
Craig Esherick: "Alonzo was really good at the discipline of not bringing his arm down to block shots. He would block it with just a flick of the wrist."
John Thompson III didn't see the final shot: "I was out walking the concourse."
Mourning treats the foul question as he did so many Princeton shots that night. He knows it's coming and swats it away: "I blocked it, man. I blocked that one, and I blocked the one before that. I think I had maybe five or six blocks that game. [He had seven.] I think I led the country in blocks that year, if I'm not mistaken." He's not mistaken.
Mueller: "I think the reality is, he got ball. His fingertips are touching a bit of my hand. I don't think you call that. I think it was a great play by Mourning. I'd love to say, Oh, we got cheated. I don't think we did."
The game had supplied that rarest of things in a sports event on a big stage: an outcome that left both teams with some measure of satisfaction. Mourning had dominated both ends, yet 14 of Princeton's 21 baskets had come from incursions into his space, on layups.
Scrabis: "I remember seeing [Carril] with his rolled-up program, eyes closed, pointing to the top of the arena, laughing. All of a sudden it's over. Over. The air goes out of our balloon."
Carril told the team, "As bad as you feel, feeling this bad is better than never getting a chance to feel this bad."
Ron Thompson: "As I always tease [my brother] John, Princeton gets celebrated for almost winning. I bust his chops [over that] all the time."
John Thompson: "I was relieved and happy because we won. They were happy because they almost won. They deserved a lot of credit for playing well against us. We deserved a lot more for beating them."
Georgetown would win two more games before losing to Duke in the final of the East Regional. Tillmon believes the Princeton game robbed the Hoyas of their edge and cost them a trip to the Final Four. "Basketball is a rhythm game," he says, "and you want to stay in that rhythm as much as you can. They broke that rhythm."
The controversy over the final shot—foul or no foul?—helps keep the legend of the game alive. "We'll have to take that one up with God," Carril said that night of the no-call, "when we get there."
Twenty-five years later Carril revisits that long-ago meeting of flicking wrists, Mueller's and Mourning's, and brings up Thomas Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain." He says, "Ninety percent of games are determined by circumstance. Suppose he had called a foul? I equate that to the iceberg and the Titanic. They both grew in stature and in hue, the poem says. And the ship ran right into it. The ship that could never be sunk. Circumstance. Fate. Whatever you want to call it."
Saunders: "Princeton-Arkansas got an even higher rating [the next year] because of Princeton-Georgetown. It changed the way people watched the NCAA tournament. They weren't just watching their team. They were looking for the upset."
The game enshrined for the little guys their place in the bracket—a chance to prove their worth on the floor, rather than being declared unworthy in some smoke-filled room.
Jeff Orleans: "What's different now is the money flowing into college football. It's changed the relationship between schools with huge resources and everybody else in Division I. A measure of the importance of that game is that there seems to be a real allegiance to having one inclusive basketball approach, even if most at-large bids go to the big conferences."
Tom Odjakjian, now associate commissioner of the American Athletic Conference: "If the five power conferences decide to go off [on their own] or the Division I-A football guys form their own association, what would their basketball tournament lose by not having the Cinderellas from the basketball-only conferences?"
Craig Esherick: "I'm very afraid that those five are going to start their own tournament. If they do, [a game like Georgetown-Princeton] goes the way of the buffalo. And that would be a shame. The Ivy League damn sure isn't going to be part of that group. And you know, Georgetown could be on the outside looking in too."
But Princeton and Georgetown won something permanent that St. Patrick's Day in Providence. That game made Cinderella stories possible for schools such as Coppin State, Southern, Lehigh and Florida Gulf Coast.
Metro-Atlantic commissioner Rich Ensor: "Today automatic bids aren't even in the discussion. There's acceptance that it's good for everyone. And while [the small conferences] may not be the driving force behind a lot of success, we're part of the excitement of the earlier rounds."
It would be easy to regard the Georgetown-Princeton game as a means to some political end or as a way for ignorant people to indulge noxious preconceptions about race and basketball. But the game also stood for something more elemental, which hints at the abiding appeal of March Madness.
Jerry Doyle: "That whole experience distills to why we love basketball, why I still love it, why I loved it as a kid shoveling the driveway. It was a bunch of friends who loved the game, who managed to play a good game against a much better team. People enjoyed watching because we weren't playing selfishly, but as members of a team unified by a common goal.
"To me it's not ultracomplex. We don't need to get into a lot of highfalutin language. At the end of the day it comes down to the fun of a bunch of young guys enjoying the game and enjoying each other."
Sports Illustrated | TIME
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