Thursday, April 04, 2013

30 Years Ago Today: April 4, 1983....

I know I'm behind, missing a key date of March 26th, which I will come back soon and blog about, but I gotta, gotta do this one on time.

April 4, 1983, a nice, warm spring Monday and the first weekday of Spring Break from my sophomore year of high school.  That meant a break from studies, musical rehearsal, and an unexpected chance to watch my boys from Raleigh go for the most unlikely of national championships.

The whole story of the N.C. State run through the ACC Tournament to win it, the only way for them to qualify back then for the NCAA Tournament, then their whole tournament run, is a story unto itself, part of which I've already documented.  But you also need to remember the following:

1) This was Ralph Sampson's senior season at the University of Virginia.  He came in as heralded as any high school player ever when he moved from Harrisonburg High to Charlottesville in the fall of 1979, promptly leading a young UVA squad to an NIT title when it was much more relevant.

Sampson and the Cavs made the Final Four in '81 only to lose to an ACC nemesis, North Carolina, when Al Wood (one of the more forgotten super players in Tar Heel history) poured 39 on them in the national semis.  TRIVIA NOTE: UVA would beat LSU the following Monday afternoon in the last-ever "Third Place Game", which took place at the same time President Reagan was being wheeled into surgery after his assassination attempt.

UVA's surprisingly quick exit to, of all teams, UAB, in the '82 Tournament helped pave the way for UNC to finally get Dean Smith his first title, albeit with some timely help from Freddy Brown and his errant pass of renown...

So, when N.C. State, losers of seven straight to Virginia, not only beat them in the ACC Tournament final, but again in the West Region Final to get to the Final Four ended what became an era of promise turned disappointment in C'Ville.  No skin off my back; I couldn't stand Virginia back then.  I even rooted for Maryland to beat them (and that's saying something, as I can't stand Maryland, either...)

2) North Carolina was the defending national champions!  They lost James Worthy, but returned Perkins and some guy named Jordan, and several others and easily could have gone back-to-back.  Georgia's win over UNC in the East Region Final allowed the Wolfpack to avoid the task of having to do to UNC what they managed to do in March, 1983 to UVA.

3) Duke was a mess in 1983, its third under "Coach K", who back then was just another young coach, and one who heard the calls for his dismissal grow.  The Blue Devils lost in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals that year by 46 points, but, as history would soon show, the freshmen who learned from that beating, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins, et al, would learn quickly, and soon, Duke was back.

4) The first win in the run to the title was against a Wake Forest team with good talent and the same regular season record as the Wolfpack.  Getting by them was no picnic, though we'd beat them 130-89 the week before the ACC Tourney.  Back then it was different come tournament time.  Truly, if you lost, you were done.


All that to say, the story of the 1983 N.C. State team is made all the more surreal when looking around them in the ACC at everything they overcame, and the teams, all of which once, and some twice, stood in their way.

After an afternoon trip into Beaverdam via a nice walk along Route 715 to shoot hoops with Lyn Buchanan and Brian Luck, I returned home and nervously got ready to watch the game.  A 9pm tip meant a longer wait.

We played an awesome first half, and had we been able to shoot the ball better the first ten minutes, our halftime lead could, could have been more significant than 33-25.

Then what I feared happened; Houston came out strong in the second half, went on a 17-2 run, and had a seven-point lead of their own.  I was just waiting for them to start breaking out the Phi Slamma Jamma track shoes that walked all over Louisville two nights earlier, but, when Houston head coach Guy Lewis (and his trademark towel) saw his big man, Akeem Olajuwon (1983 spelling), grasping for air, coming to the bench for oxygen, he had to start milking the clock.

Fatal mistake.

When he put on the brakes, in spite of Olajuwon needing rest and Drexler having four fouls due to incompetence, they had enough horses to push another three or four minutes, go PSJ on a Wolfpack team with little depth, build the lead, THEN hold on.  Nine minutes, against an N.C. State team that lived by second half comebacks the entire month of March, was TOO long.

You see, N.C. State never got a big lead and milked it to its conclusion during this magical time.  They would hang around, hang around, then seize the moment.  Houston would score just 10 points in the final 9 minutes.  The great Phi Slamma Jamma, held to 10 points in the most important 9 minutes of their basketball lives.

And meanwhile, N.C. State got steals, seniors made shots, and calculated risks of putting Cougars on the free throw line to choke paid off handsomely, setting up the stage for "The Play".

What if Houston had full-court pressed N.C. State with 45 seconds left?  What if Lewis decided to go tit-for-tat and foul N.C. State to assure they'd at least get the ball back to, at worst, try for a tie before the buzzer, or, had a Pack player missed at the charity stripe, escape with the win that 92 percent of America expected them to take.

The Houston Cougars played like overwhelming favorites who didn't know how to act like overwhelming favorites.  That was exactly what the N.C. State doctor ordered.

Not that the Pack didn't almost squander the whole thing.  Go back and watch the final 40 seconds and see bad pass after bad pass after bad pass.  I remember standing up in my room now, no longer on my pull out chair bed on the floor, listening to the game loudly in stereo headphones (back in the days when our CBS TV affiliate's audio could be heard at 87.7 FM) because my folks were long asleep.

I remember these moments, these images, these reactions.....

---The pass into the corner to Thurl Bailey, who had no intention of shooting...
---His baseball pass out to Whittenburg, which almost went horribly awry...
---His desperation shot from 35 feet and me thinking, "overtime".....
---Out of nowhere, there's Lorenzo Charles on my 19 inch black and white television set, grabbing the ball out of the air and slamming it home on Phi Slamma Jamma...
---I froze for about three seconds, watching the clock go from 02, to 01, to 00, wondering:
       ---Did it count?
       ---Did the clock really run out before Houston called a timeout?
---And suddenly, one of the voices of my childhood, longtime ACC analyst Billy Packer, said in my speakers, "THEY WON IT!!!!  ON THE DUNK!!!"

I threw my arms up in the air, watched Jimmy V look for a hug partner, stunned and amazed by what I saw.

The first words out of my mouth (in the most whispered yell I could muster) were, "LORENZO!!! LORENZO!!!"

And then the phone starting ringing.  UT OH.

I ended up fielding two congratulatory calls from great friends, friends who knew how much this meant to me.  I also had to hope and pray their good will gestures wouldn't ruin the night's sleep of my Dad and Stepmom....

In the end, all was well.  I watched the interviews, the nets being cut down, then it was over.

I was in Beaverdam, so no early cable for me, no "flip it to SportsCenter".  You watched the 11pm news that came on late due to the length of the game and waited for the sports segment to see the highlights one more time, all the while jamming loudly to my favorite tunes of the day on my stereo in surreal celebration.

So, while the team that EARNED this most improbable of titles celebrated in Albuquerque, one of their more die-hard fans partied alone in a small bedroom just west of Beaverdam, Virginia deep into the night, knowing these type of things usually only come along once in a lifetime.

I was blessed enough that mine came sorta early, on a high school spring break, and I had the boundless energy of a 15 year old to jump, dance, shout, and celebrate.

And, rolling all this back to present day, I think that's why I'm so apopletic about the latest version of N.C. State basketball, a team without a lot of depth, but with lots of talent and lots of promise.  But they didn't have bedrock senior leadership, they certainly didn't have a mental/emotional genius like Jim Valvano as coach, so, their quiet first game exit in the tournament this year is simply emblematic of the Wolfpack program since Valvano had to leave (and understandably so) as the 80s gave way to the 90s.

Ever since, there's been no magic.  I don't expect a title run as a six-seed every ten years, but I do expect a cohesive program that seems to have short and long-term vision.  They've had neither in Raleigh since Fire and Ice graduated in 1991.....

No regular season titles, no ACC Tournament titles, multitudes of appearances in the "Thursday night play-in game" in March, and just enough Sweet Sixteen appearances (two) to briefly get one's hopes up, only to find them dashed with 12 months.

So, from the perspective of 45-year old Rob Witham looking back on one of the greatest nights in the life of then 15-year old Robbie Witham, I appreciate four weekends in March/April, 1983 even more now than ever, mindful that many people never get to see their beloved team have their "One Shining Moment".

Just ask any Cubs fan under the age of 112.......

P.S.---So it was poetic that, five years to the day later, on another Monday April 4th, I began my first full-time job ever in radio, my career dream, and in Christian radio in my hometown no less, Operations Manager for WDYL-FM/WGGM here in
Richmond.  I love finding the symmetry of life.  You just need to be looking for it.

And for my son to finally begin his first full-time job post high school exactly 25 years later, on this
April 4, 2013.....all I can do is smile.  :)

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