Monday, March 14, 2011

Putting the Kibosh on Louisville

You know, when you consider what happened on this day in 1981, it is kind of ironic that the University of Arkansas fired its basketball coach yesterday.

I suppose the odds are pretty good that you don't remember where you were and what you were doing 30 years ago today.

But I do.

I was still living in my home state of Arkansas. I was a journalism student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the home of the Razorbacks. Regardless of religious faith, that's really Mecca for most Arkansans (and I guess you have to have lived there — or someplace similar — to understand).

On this day in 1981, I was in my hometown of Conway, Ark., which is about 120 miles to the southeast. It was spring break, and I was visiting old friends in Conway that week.

The NCAA basketball tournament got under way that Thursday, on March 12, 1981. Before it ended, John Hinckley would attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Later that year, someone would shoot Pope John Paul II. Somebody else had already murdered ex–Beatle John Lennon a few months before.

In mid–March, Razorback fans rejoiced in the basketball team's opening round victory over Mercer, but then a sense of foreboding set in. The next opponent would be Louisville, the team that won the national title the year before.

Arkansas and Louisville were to face each other on Saturday afternoon, March 14, 1981, in Austin, Texas. Austin, as any long–term Razorback fan could tell you, had been the scene of many Arkansas disappointments over the years, most of them in football.

But that had been in contests with the University of Texas.

Razorback basketball had really taken off in terms of popularity in recent years. Eddie Sutton took the Hogs to the Final Four in 1978, then they were within a whisper of returning to the Final Four in 1979 before Larry Bird and Indiana State knocked them off in the regional finals.

Spring break was nearing its conclusion. I was planning to drive back to Fayetteville the next day, but on that Saturday, I went over to visit my Aunt Bess and watch the game with her.

Aunt Bess wasn't really my aunt. That's just what everybody called her, and she was probably old enough to be my grandmother. She treated me as if I were her grandson. Matter of fact, she had a grandson who was close to my age, but he lived two time zones away so I guess I was kind of her surrogate grandson.

I used to stop at her house after school on Wednesdays, and we would drink iced tea and talk for an hour or so about all sorts of topics. She was old school about a lot of things, and she did her best to pass along lessons for living.

And, like just about everyone else in Arkansas, she was a Razorback fan.

On that Saturday afternoon, we watched in dismay as the Razorbacks fell behind and trailed by a single point with about five seconds remaining. U.S. Reed dribbled the ball a couple of times, then heaved a desperation shot from midcourt as the buzzer sounded ...

... And the ball amazingly went in the basket.

The three–point shot was still several years from becoming a reality so Reed's shot was only worth two points. But that was enough to turn a one–point deficit into a one–point triumph.

I have never had a feeling like it — before or since.

Aunt Bess and I leaped up from where we had been sitting. We yelled in unison, and then we embraced.

As I have written before, Aunt Bess was devoutly religious. She saw the hand of God in everything. In hindsight, I was always envious of that sense of assurance. Aunt Bess never seemed to doubt that there was a purpose in everything, but I often did. I still do.

But Aunt Bess was certain of what she had seen.

"The Lord took it away from us," she said with a big smile, "and then he gave it back to us."

There was "a reason" for that, she told me, but, 30 years later, I'll be darned if I can figure out what it was.

Arkansas got routed by future SEC rival LSU in the next round.

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