Wednesday, March 28, 2012

As Good As It Gets

Ask any college basketball fan to list the greatest games of all time, and there are certain games that any such list is bound to include:
  • The 1966 NCAA Tournament title game, in which all–black Texas Western upset favored powerhouse Kentucky.

  • The 1979 title game, in which Larry Bird of Indiana State and Magic Johnson of Michigan State gave NBA fans a preview of coming attractions.

  • The 1983 title game, in which Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team upset the heavily favored Houston Cougars of Phi Slamma Jamma fame.

  • The 1985 title game, in which lightly regarded Villanova shocked Georgetown.
Clearly, many of the memorable games have been the ones in which championships were on the line, although there have been some truly great games played when a title was not at stake ...

... Such as the night in January 1968 when second–ranked Houston defeated top–ranked and defending national champion UCLA in the first college game ever televised nationally in prime time. Prior to that game, UCLA had won 47 consecutive games.

It was called the Game of the Century, and it is widely remembered as the precursor to the March Madness that millions celebrate every year.

And every college basketball fan will tell you that he has certain memories that are special to him — but not necessarily to others.

One of my most cherished memories from my college days was the afternoon when my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, turned back defending champion Louisville with a half–court buzzer shot.

There were so many incredible finishes on that day, wrote Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated recently, that March 14, 1981, was the day that transformed the NCAA Tournament to March Madness.

Or, at least, it was the day when that transformation began.

That may be so.

But, if there was a game that really cemented the tournament's popular image of March Madness, I think it had to be the East Regional final that was played between Duke and Kentucky on this day 20 years ago.

Kentucky, of course, is one of college basketball's elite programs, along with UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan State, Louisville ...

... and Duke, which may or may not have qualified as an elite program in 1992. Mike Krzyzewski had led the Blue Devils to the national title the year before, but that was Duke's first.

Duke was, however, making its fifth straight appearance in the Elite Eight when it faced Kentucky 20 years ago today so Coach K clearly had established a pattern of success — but he had not yet won the four national titles that currently have him tied with the legendary Adolph Rupp for second place in that category.

Coach K won't get to add to that tally this year, but on this day 20 years ago, he was about to return to the Final Four for the fifth straight year.

Both Duke and Kentucky cruised to their rendezvous in Philadelphia. Only once — in Kentucky's second–round clash with Iowa State — was victory achieved by fewer than 10 points.

In other words, nothing that had happened in the earlier rounds could have prepared the partisans from either side for what they were about to witness.

Duke and Kentucky had to play an overtime period to decide their duel — and, even then, it came down to a last–second shot by Christian Laettner.

There were five lead changes in the final 30 seconds. The teams combined to make nearly two–thirds of their shots in the second half and the overtime period. And Laettner's shot still makes every important college basketball highlight reel, just as Kirk Gibson's World Series homer and Dwight Clark's end zone catch always make the highlight reels in their sports.

Duke went on to successfully defend its national title against Michigan after a nail–biter of a semifinal against Indiana.

Kentucky would scale the championship heights again, but, as Alex Wolff writes in Sports Illustrated, the wound is still raw.
"Even today, 20 years after what's widely considered the greatest college game ever played, Kentucky loyalists regard the Blue Devils' 104–103 overtime victory ... as having touched off a collective psychotic break."

Alex Wolff

I almost missed it.

It was a Saturday. The game, as I recall, was scheduled to begin in mid–afternoon, and it so happened that a family friend was getting married that day, too.

The wedding was to take place here in Dallas. I lived in Denton, which is roughly 40 miles north of here. Through the ceremony and the reception, I kept an eye on the clock — and I finally managed to leave just before tipoff.

I listened to the first half on the radio and was home in time to see most of the second half.

Most, if not all, of the Kentucky fans who watched probably wish they hadn't seen it. But, if you are a fan of a team, you are going to feel compelled to watch its games, especially the ones in the postseason.

Fans of most teams know there is always the possibility that the game they watch will end in defeat, but fans of certain teams have been conditioned by past success to expect to win, even if the oddsmakers disagree.

For such fans, any defeat — but especially one like the one that was handed to Kentucky 20 years ago today — is awfully difficult to choke down.

And, in spite of subsequent successes, Wildcat fans still struggle with it, wincing at the bitter aftertaste.

Wolff observes that the author of a new book about the game has been told by Kentucky fans that they won't buy the book because Laettner's image is on the cover.

And even the passage of two decades has not been enough time to permit them to see that picture on their coffee tables without remembering in vivid detail the pain his fallaway jumper brought them.

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steve said...
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