When a transcendent collegiate player fails professionally, his amateur career can sometimes feel like a sham. The annals of the NBA draft are littered with can’t-miss prospects who, for a myriad of reasons, couldn’t stay in the league.
Randolph Childress is one of those cautionary tales. After a stellar four years at Wake Forest, Childress was drafted with the 19th pick of the 1995 draft. He played sparingly in 51 games for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Detroit Pistons over the next two seasons, averaging just under three points per game. He battled knee and shoulder injuries, as well as martinet coaches like P.J. Carlesimo, before asking for a release from the Pistons so he could ply his trade in Europe. He is still playing overseas, another NCAA All-American who wasn’t quite good enough for the NBA.
But for three consecutive days in March 1995, Childress might have been the hottest basketball player in the free world. Wake Forest headed into the ACC tournament at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum as the top-seeded team. Childress, who played with a phenomenal swagger, averaged 18.4 points and 5 assists per game.
The Demon Deacons’ first opponent in Greensboro would be an embattled Duke team that had faltered to a 4-13 record since Pete Gaudet took over after Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery. The Blue Devils had beaten N.C. State in the ACC tournament play-in game (the so-called Les Robinson Invitational in "honor" of the N.C. State coach.)
Duke’s only shot at an NCAA berth was to win the conference tournament, and the Blue Devils came out blazing against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons trailed, 31-13, before an irate Dave Odom called time out. Childress, who had scored seven points at that point, decided to make a run at greatness.
He nailed a three-pointer against Duke’s 2-3 zone out of the timeout, the start of 10 consecutive made shots for Childress. He varied his attack, scoring on acrobatic drives, NBA-length three-pointers and mid-range leaners. The curmudgeonly Billy Packer, a Wake Forest graduate it should be noted, called it the best first-half performance he had ever seen in the ACC tournament. All told, Childress had 27 points as the Demon Deacons headed into halftime with a 46-45 lead.
In the second half, Childress hit his first bucket with 10 minutes remaining, a three-pointer that gave Wake Forest a 62-55 lead. Duke wouldn’t go away, however, and briefly held the lead before Childress coolly sank another three-pointer for a 65-63 lead. The Blue Devils lost their fight after that, and Wake rolled to an 87-70 victory. Childress, who played over 38 minutes, finished with 40 points and seven assists.
That set up a date the next day against Virginia in the semifinals. The Cavaliers were riding their own hot hand. Junior Burrough had scored 36 points in a 77-67 victory over Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals.
The Demon Deacons fell into another early hole before disaster struck. Childress dislocated the pinkie finger on his shooting hand while catching a pass. He refused to come out of the game and got it taped up while a teammate was shooting free throws. Worst of all for Wake Forest, Childress stopped shooting and had only nine points as the Demon Deacons trailed at the half, 36-28.
Odom often told this story about Childress: During his freshman season, the guard airballed two straight shots, and the coach was about to take him out. Childress responded by saying, “Not now, coach, I’m heating up.” The takeaway lesson is that shooters just keep shooting.
Childress didn’t hold back in the second half against Virginia. He nailed a multitude of big shots. Back-to-back three-pointers that narrowed the Cavaliers’ lead to one. Another three-pointer that gave Wake Forest its first lead of the game at 43-40. Yet another trey for a 50-49 lead with 12 minutes left. Two free throws to snap 59-59 tie. The backbreaking three came with 3:40 left and lifted Wake’s lead to 66-61. The only anxious moments after that came when Childress hurt his finger again in the final minute as the Demon Deacons salted away a 77-68 victory.
Childress had scored 70 points for a two-day ACC tournament record, but that pinkie was the focus of attention in the championship game against North Carolina. Wake Forest fans clung to hope as Childress’ first three-pointer hit hard off the back iron. Tensions were eased after he hit his next five shots from beyond the arc. Most impressive was Childress’ third three-pointer, when he spun away from the Tar Heels’ Jeff McInnis, who was so fooled that he got his feet tangled and fell to the hardwood. Much to the consternation of the UNC coaching staff, Childress stopped at the three-point line, motioned with his hand for McInnis to get up, then drilled the shot.
In the second half, the Heels seemed poised to win after an 11-0 run gave them a 61-55 lead. But Rasheed Wallace, battling down low against fellow sophomore Tim Duncan, badly sprained his ankle to stop the momentum. Wallace could only watch from the bench as Childress continued to make high-drama shots: a three-pointer that gave Wake a 66-65 lead and another three that made it 71-65. Jerry Stackhouse’s three-pointer tied the game for UNC at 73-73 with 4.5 seconds left.
Nobody doubted that Childress would get the ball in the final seconds. What was surprising was that, after three days of big shots, Childress would lose control of the ball and Wake would have to settle for overtime. Childress atoned for his mistake in the extra five minutes, banging a three-pointer, a leaner and a running one-hander to give Wake an 80-77 advantage. UNC’s Donald Williams, the 1993 Final Four Most Outstanding Player and no stranger to big shots, tied the game with 23 seconds left on a three-pointer.
That was too much time for Childress, who got by McInnis again and hit a 13-foot floater for an 82-80 lead. Stackhouse missed a three from the wing at the buzzer, giving Wake Forest its first ACC title in 33 years.
Childress final clutch shot gave him 107 points in three days, beating the old ACC tournament record of 106 set by UNC’s Lennie Rosenbluth in 1957. Childress took 44 three-pointers in three games and made 23 – both ACC tournament records. He made nine threes against UNC for another tournament mark.
The Demon Deacons made it to the Sweet Sixteen that season, falling to Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and Oklahoma State. After that, Childress faded into basketball purgatory. But for three days, Childress was on top of the hoops world. That lofty accomplishment shouldn’t be clouded by his professional failures.