With the commencement of the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament, arguably the most watched American sporting event outside of the Super Bowl, it is time to mark the 30-year anniversary of one of the most impossible runs in sports history. The 1983 North Carolina Wolfpack created March Madness, coming from nowhere to win nine consecutive elimination games over a month period against a field of mostly heavily favored opponents with rosters bulging with future NBA superstars. In seven of those victories, State came from behind in the final minutes on the way to defining in almost every way possible the very essence of the term underdog.
Seems like five minutes ago, but it was another era. Before the three-point line, before the shot-clock and long before the best players in the game skipped to the pros after one season (and for a time, ala Lebron James, skipped college all-together), here was this team that won game after game, overcoming ridiculous odds in one bizarre event after another.
It was also before every office had a pool and everyone you knew was filling out brackets and every sponsor clamored for a chance to be associated with the timeless joy of amateur athletes from across the nation sprinting to beat the buzzer. Hell, some of the early round games in 1983 were on tape delay.
Sure, a few years before it was Bird vs. Magic, but that attained its legendary status when both men and their teams revived the NBA during its most enduring mano-a-mano rivalry. And, of course, it wasn't as if there had never been upsets in college basketball, but the '83 Wolfpack was one for the ages. There has quite simply never been nor has there ever been since a college team so completely over-matched, so irrevocably poised, so damned exciting as N.C. State winning game after game in such a concentrated period of time.
Instead of one enduring upset in a 40 or 60 minute contest; Villanova's incredible upending of the mighty Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Finals or say the New York Giants improbable defeat of the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, consider one solid month of upsets -- nine in a row.
To put into perspective, only three other upsets in American sports trump what the Wolfpack achieved in 1983; the 1980 USA Hockey team, The 1968 N.Y. Jets and Buster Douglas taking down Mike Tyson. You know, the type of Hollywood-esque fluff that transforms a century's worth of sports clichés (destiny, momentum and clutch) into pure magic.
The grand wizard of this run, State's coach, an Italian motor-mouth from New York City named Jim Valvano, showed up on Tobacco Road three years earlier and began having his kids practice cutting the gym nets down in mock victory ceremonies every week. The players thought him mad. It was silly. Who does this? However, slowly but surely, Valvano was teaching his team more than basketball. He was teaching them to dream; to visualize hope and expect the impossible. He was corny. He was goofy. He was the perfect lunatic for a collection of kids who bought into the Disney tripe that takes a pedestrian 17-10 record (the second most losses to win an NCAA title) and sweeps it through an ACC Tournament loaded with talent, wins and trophies.
Due to its poor record, a symptom of injuries and inner turmoil, all N.C. State had to do was win the damn thing just to qualify for the Big Dance. Along the way, this meant besting defending champion North Carolina with three starters destined for the pros, including arguably the greatest player in the game's history, Michael Jordan, and a Virginia team with the best player in the conference, the 7'4" monster, Ralph Samson. Both teams, along with Wake Forest, whom State beat to earn a shot at these titans, had dismantled them during the regular season. And in each game the opponent had a lead late or in overtime, and yet could not halt the hoping and dreaming.
During the North Carolina game, Valvano was faced with a six-point deficit (no three-point line or shot-clock) against Dean Smith's heralded and roundly mocked four-corner offense, in which the team passed the ball around half court for up to five minutes to kill the clock and end the game. So he decided to begin fouling. And as State fouled, North Carolina kept missing subsequent foul shots. State won. This tactic would readily assist the dreamers during their spectacular NCAA Tournament run to come.
Leading up the championship game against the heavily favored Houston Cougars, the nation's baddest squad, nicknamed Phi Slama Jama due to the parade of high-flying dunks the 31-2 team rained down on its shell-shocked opponents, Valvano continued the "foul" strategy. To put pressure on opponents, State even fouled a player during a tied game late in one of the semi-final rounds.
The other strategy Valvano instituted was using his media-savvy, wise-guy persona to genuflect to Houston's greatness in press conferences and television appearances, telling anyone who would listen that he would slow the game down so much it would bore the nation, but in a rousing pre-game locker room speech witnesses claim was worthy of Knute Rockne, Valvano told his team to take it right at the likes of future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. State did, building a seven-point halftime lead, which evaporated in the opening five minutes of the second half as Houston powered to its own eight-point bulge.
Then Valvano started putting Houston on the foul line and Houston began missing. N.C. State, having won the craziest, most gut-wrenching contests just to get this point, would drag the Mighty Phi Slama Jama into its web of dreams.
Miraculously, the team's poise and Valvano's scheming took the entire run, the entire season, down to the final seconds tied at 52-52. Once again State held back and let Houston pass the ball around the perimeter until it came to Alvin Franklin, a freshman guard with the least experience of the invincible Cougars. Then Valvano, running like a banshee up the sideline, screamed for someone to foul him.
Years later, when my family had moved to North Carolina in the mid-eighties and my brother went to N.C. State (like Valvano, by way of Iona) and my dad became a season ticket holder, whenever I would visit we could not help but remember watching this moment unfold back in New Jersey. How we coached right along with the crazy Italian, who asked a fair basketball team to be great again and again, and for good measure, one more time.
And, of course, the freshman missed the front end of a one-on-one, and now it was State's turn to hold for the final shot; for all the marbles, this one-game-and-done waltz for over a month coming down to 44 seconds; tie game, destiny, dreaming, hope and visualization all right there.
And everyone who knows basketball history, that knows about this March Madness business, and how it got started, with a riveted nation and the kids against the men and the impossible becoming reality, knows what happened: Shooting guard, Dereck Whittenburg heaved a prayer with five seconds left from nearly half quart and center Lorenzo Charles sidestepped the mighty Olajuwon, whose nickname was poetically, The Dream, caught the thing in mid-air and dunked it home at the buzzer.
Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug.
March Madness forever more.