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Larry Atkins

Larry Atkins

Posted: March 15, 2011 06:25 PM

How One Play Made Jim Valvano a Coaching Legend and Guy Lewis a Forgotten Figure


March Madness is upon us, and it's going to be totally awesome, baybee!

New stars will be born and more than one shining moment will occur. One bounce of the ball, one slip and fall, and one shot can make a legend or create a scapegoat.

No moment is more indicative as to how one play can create an image more than the Houston-North Carolina State NCAA Championship Game 28 years ago in Albuquerque, N.M.

The game's last play is part of college basketball lore. As time ran down, an N.C. State pass was nearly stolen by Houston's Benny Anders near midcourt. N.C. State's Dereck Whittenburg hoisted up a desperation 40-foot shot, which was slammed home in the game's last second by Lorenzo Charles, as Houston's Akeem (now spelled Hakeem) Olajawon watched helplessly. N.C. State coach Jim Valvano ran onto the court, frantically looking for someone to hug; Houston's coach Guy Lewis slinked off the court, literally crying into his trademark red and white polka dot towel, looking for answers.

Valvano became a coaching legend and a national personality. He went on to become a national television commentator before his untimely death from cancer in 1993 at age 47. He is forever remembered for his inspirational "Don't Ever Give Up" speech at the ESPY awards.

But Guy Lewis, whose team was heavily favored against N.C. State, has become a forgotten figure in basketball history. Lewis, now 88, had a career record of 592 wins and 279 losses in what should be considered a storied career. In the 1983 National Semifinal game Lewis' "Phi Slama Jama" team beat Louisville's "Doctors of Dunk" in a memorable dunk-filled game that Houston won 94-81.

Lewis coached the Houston Cougars from 1957 to 1986. He won 31 or more games three times and had 27 consecutive winning seasons. His teams won two Southwest Conference championships, four conference postseason titles, reached 14 NCAA Tournaments, and went to the FInal Four five times. In the Final Four, Houston lost to some of the greatest teams in the history of college basketball. They lost twice to Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and UCLA, once to Michael Jordan and James Worthy's North Carolina, and once to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown. Since Lewis left coaching in 1986, the Cougars have only had four NCAA Tournament appearances and have not won a game.

Twenty nine Lewis players were drafted by the NBA and three -- Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajawon -- were voted among the top 50 NBA players of all time. He was also one of the first college coaches to recruit black players to a southern university. Despite his incredible accomplishments, Lewis is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Hopefully, one day he will get his due.

Expectations weren't astronomical for Houston going into the 1982-1983 season. Although they had reached the NCAA Final Four the year before, they had lost their leading scorer, Rob WIlliams, who was a first round NBA draft pick. As a freshman, Olajawon had shown promise, but there was little indication that he was about to become a dominating center. The preseason favorites for the 1982-1983 season included North Carolina with Michael Jordan, Georgetown with Patrick Ewing, and Virginia with Ralph Sampson. It wasn't until Houston beat Louisville in the Final Four that the Cougars were viewed as a dominant team.

Some of college basketball's greatest coaching legends benefited from a lucky break.

North Carolina's Dean Smith won two national championships with the benefit of two fluke plays -- Michigan's Chris Webber's calling timeout when his team didn't have any left, and Georgetown's Freddie Brown throwing the errant pass to North Carolina's James Worthy. If not for those two plays, the outcome of both games might have been different, and Smith's legendary status would have been tarnished. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski benefited from Christian Laettner's miracle shot at the buzzer against Kentucky in the 1993 NCAA Elite Eight. Guy Lewis never got that break.

It's a shame that Guy Lewis' great career has been judged by that one game against North Carolina State.

But that's the nature of the NCAA Tournament, where the best team doesn't always win, and one bad game means the end of your season and can define your career.