Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fab Four

Al McGuire, as only he could, went out in style. With the Marquette Warriors putting the finishing touches on a 67-59 victory over North Carolina in the 1977 NCAA championship game, the retiring coach sat down on the MU bench and bawled his eyes out.

It’s a powerful image, one that came to represent college basketball that season. But it also overshadows that year’s semifinals, which should rank among the greatest Final Fours.

It was a field bursting with storylines. There were the blue-blooded Tar Heels, the clear favorite but also ravaged by injuries. They were also still looking to get Dean Smith his first title. UNC-Charlotte, from the same state as the Heels but miles apart in talent, made its first Final Four appearance. UNLV was led by its charming rogue of a coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and led the nation in scoring at an absurd 107 points per game. Marquette had been in a late-season tailspin, but the Warriors faithful hoped McGuire’s imminent retirement would galvanize the team.

The two semifinals at the Omni in Atlanta would be decided by a total of three points.

UNC-Charlotte and Marquette squared off in the opening match. The 49ers, in their first NCAA Tournament, were led by stars Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Lew Massey. McGuire’s final team had irrepressible offensive talents Bo Ellis and Butch Lee and key role players like Jim Boylan, Jerome Whitehead and Bill Neary.

Charlotte seemed overwhelmed by the moment in the early going. The 49ers were flummoxed by Marquette’s changing defenses and fell behind by 14 points. Charlotte’s defense dug in, however, switching easily between man-to-man and exotic zones (even the obscure 1-1-3 set). The 49ers went on a 13-2 run and headed into the locker room facing only a 25-22 deficit.

The second half would be tight the whole way. Marquette had shot poorly, but the 49ers’ zone defenses had given Whitehead (16 rebounds) enough space to attack the offensive glass. Charlotte’s swarming defenders had taken Lee (who shot 5 of 18) out of the flow until the final minutes, when the star of the Puerto Rican national team hit two clutch buckets.

Marquette eventually went ahead, 49-47, until Maxwell sank a tough leaner in the lane with five seconds left.

McGuire called time out with three seconds on the clock, then took the time to examine the height of the scoreboard at the Omni and calculate how the parabola of a court-length pass would be affected. Satisfied with the answer, the coach of the Jesuit school’s team drew up a play in which Lee heaved a “Hail Mary” to Ellis or Whitehead at the other end.

The prayer was answered when the ball glanced off the hands of the long-limbed Maxwell and right to the waiting Whitehead, who found himself wide open for a half-dunk/half-layup that almost bounced off the rim. The ball found the net, though, and after some anxious discussion among officials at the scorer’s table, Marquette was awarded the 51-49 victory.

Lee-to-Whitehead has been shunted aside in the annals of full-court final plays, getting lost behind U.S.S.R’s controversial bomb against the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics and the Grant Hill-Christian Laettner connection in the 1992 tournament. Milwaukee is probably the only place that remembers Marquette’s miracle play as well as those others.

How could the second semifinal in 1977 ever top that? The Tar Heels and Runnin’ Rebels tried to burn their own mark in the popular memory by playing at warp speed.

Tarkanian’s first great squad at UNLV boasted six players that would be chosen in the 1977 NBA draft. The draft was eight rounds deep back then, but UNLV’s Glen Gondrezick, Eddie Owens and Larry Moffet were all picked in the second round.

The Tar Heels had battled injuries all season. Team leader Tommy LaGarde was out for the season with a broken leg. Walter Davis (broken finger) and Phil Ford (elbow) were both not quite right in the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels, who also had Reggie Theus, took a 49-43 lead at the break. But the Tar Heels caught fire in the second half, including a 14-0 run that gave UNC control. John Kuester made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minutes, giving the Tar Heels the 84-83 victory.

Fans who watched both games got the defensive chess match and a once-in-a-lifetime finish in the first semifinal. Then they were treated to offensive fireworks in the nightcap, with UNC shooting 59% and UNLV at 51%. That Final Four should be remembered as fondly as McGuire’s last game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Origin Story

A lot of University of North Carolina fans like to proclaim that they are "Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred."

I was indoctrinated in a different manner.

It was a few months into the third grade when I moved from Illinois to North Carolina. I showed up in Ms. Nelson's class desperate for a friend of any kind.

The first kid that talked to me eyed me up and asked: "Do you like Carolina, Duke or State?"

The question took me aback. I recognized all the words in his sentence, but didn’t comprehend the meaning of them placed together.

He was wearing a sweatshirt that had “Carolina” emblazoned across the chest. So, eager to fit in as the new guy, I quickly responded: "Carolina."

It so happened that the real estate agent who sold my parents their house in Greensboro, in our first brush with Southern hospitality, offered up tickets to a Tar Heels game at the pleasant-sounding Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

I was an official convert. The Heels' game against UCLA on Dec. 17, 1988, would be the baptism.

Looking back at the tape and box score of the game, I had no idea what was going on during the action on the court.

There's no way that I knew the Heels were ranked eighth in the nation or that they had gone 8-1 despite the absence of All-American forward J.R. Reid, who was about to return from foot surgery.

Certainly I had no clue about UCLA, which had started 4-0 behind new coach Jim Harrick and the stellar play of guard Pooh Richardson.

I was just happy to be one of the 20,712 fans at Dean Dome, teeming with the evangelical spirit.

The crowd reached a fever pitch when Reid and his imposing flattop checked in at the 15:41 mark. A few minutes later, Reid worked himself free in the post with his ample backside and hammered home a one-handed dunk that gave the junior his first points of the season and UNC a 19-10 lead.

The game turned out to be a 104-78 dismantling by the Tar Heels. At the time, it was the third-worst loss in Bruins history. Dean Smith’s trapping defense flustered Richardson. Reid finished with six points and four rebounds in 10 minutes. Harrick and the UCLA bench were whistled for two technicals.

None of that registered in my 9-year-old mind, however. I was just taken by the rise and fall of the crowd with each three-pointer by Jeff Lebo, offensive put-back by Pete Chilcutt or defensive hounding by King Rice.

I was hooked for life even before Marty Hensley and Jeff Denny closed out garbage time against the Bruins. In subsequent seasons, I paid witness as Reid begat George Lynch, who begat Rasheed Wallace, who begat Antawn Jamison. And so on.

That passion followed me even after I moved away from the Old North State. It led me to the wayside televisions of State Street Brats in Madison, Wis., where I watched every Duke-UNC game alongside a UW graduate student and native of Boone, N.C. He got me in the habit of saying, in a drawling Appalachian accent, “Fuuuuuuck yoooooou, Wooo-joooo” every time ESPN cameras would catch a shot of Blue Devils assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski.

I don’t think I ever knew that guy’s name. We just recognized a shared passion that had long since hooked itself into our souls.