Monday, June 28, 2010

Slam Dance

One image towers above all others from the 1983 NCAA tournament: North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano sprinting around the court looking to embrace all comers after the Wolfpack’s last-second victory over Houston in the championship game.

For sure, it’s an iconic moment in the tournament’s history. It’s also unfortunate that lost in its shadow is a key game in the development of college basketball: Houston’s 94-81 victory over Louisville in the semifinals.

It was supposed to be the de facto title game, with the two top-ranked teams in the country (the Cougars were No. 1). It also promised to be a wild affair, with both squads favoring a breakneck pace.

The hype was a crucial aspect to this game, and the marketing of the matchup would help build the booming brand of today’s “March Madness.” First, you had to sell the characters and slap a catchy nickname on them. This was Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” vs. Louisville’s “The Doctors of Dunk.” The Cougars wholeheartedly bought into their image, even wearing “Phi Slamma Jamma” shooting shirts on the bench. These teams were the direct antecedent to the “Flying Illini” of Illinois in the late 1980s or the “Fab Five” of Michigan in the early ’90s. The NBA benefited directly from this, with stars like Houston’s Clyde Drexler and the then-Akeem Olajuwon and Louisville’s Rodney McCray already known quantities by the time they arrived in the league.

The strategy worked to perfection, the crowd at “The Pit” in Albuquerque was raucous from the tip. The players fed off the energy and, remarkably, the game lived up to the hype. It helped set the aesthetic that became popular in college basketball in the coming years: not much strategy, just putting great athletes into a simple system based on speed and letting them go. Houston and Louisville pushed the pace to the extreme in the high altitude of New Mexico, and players were sucking down oxygen on the bench.

Then there were the dunks, the biggest selling point of the game. Few plays in sports offer fans the visceral mixture of style and power as the dunk. In the game-changing 21-1 run by the Cougars in the second half, Houston had three straight dunks. Two of the slams were legendary, the first being Benny Anders’ one-handed cram over Charles Jones. Then Drexler brought the house down with his soaring, one-hand-into-two-hands glide from a seemingly impossible takeoff spot. It was nothing short of one of the best in-game dunks ever.

The game also was going global. The legend of Olajuwon has been cemented: former soccer player grew to seven feet, ended up in Houston as a project, then became one of the greatest centers of all time. This was the season that Olajuwon put everything together, and the results were stunning. He could block a shot, run the floor with the guards and then finish on the other end. That skill set helped send coaches scurrying to all corners of the globe to find their own pet projects.

It’s hard to believe that a team with the young Drexler and Olajuwon would lose to N.C. State in the championship game. Maybe they bought into the hype and thought they could cruise past the Wolfpack. Maybe they were just bone-tired after all the end-to-end action against Louisville. Regardless, when N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles beat the buzzer with his dunk for the 54-52 upset of Houston, it sent Valvano on his celebratory jaunt and relegated Louisville-Houston to being an underappreciated footnote.

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