Thursday, April 4, 2013

Shocking Phi Slama Jama

"Sure, 15–footers are fine, but I like to dunk."

Clyde Drexler

I've seen a few really noteworthy upsets in championship settings in my life.

Most of the time they seem to come in baseball — the Amazin' New York Mets of 1969 and the Kirk Gibson—led Los Angeles Dodgers of 1988 come to mind — and, occasionally, they come in football — when the Miami Hurricanes knocked off top–ranked Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, for example, or when Joe Namath took the New York Jets to a triumph in the third Super Bowl.

Sometime the outcome hinges on an obvious mistake. Perhaps it is a bad call, like the one that turned things around for the Kansas City Royals against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. Other times, it may be a poor strategic decision by a coach or a player.

And sometimes the upset occurs in an individual sport, not a team one — like when Mike Tyson lost his heavyweight title to Buster Douglas.

But of all the team sport championships in my memory that were not decided by a blown call or a blatantly poor decision by a coach or a player, there was one really epic upset, the NCAA Tournament finale between the University of Houston and North Carolina State played 30 years ago tonight.

Houston's Cougars were widely regarded as just too good to lose. The roster had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the best and probably best–known members of "Texas' Tallest Fraternity" — Phi Slama Jama — but they had plenty of talented support from guys like Benny Anders, Larry Micheaux and Michael Young.

Phi Slama Jama specialized in dunking the ball. The players were big and physical, and they played in the last years when neither the shot clock nor the three–point shot existed in college basketball. If the game's pace had been faster or if making a long shot had been rewarded with an additional point, Phi Slama Jama might not have been as successful as it was.

But in its time, Houston went to back–to–back NCAA finals and lost both. In their second appearance, the Cougars went up against a pretty strong Georgetown team led by Patrick Ewing. My memory is that Houston's loss in that game really didn't surprise me. The Hoyas and the Cougars were considered to be evenly matched.

But the same could not be said of Houston's foe 30 years ago tonight, the North Carolina State Wolfpack. N.C. State barely managed to get in to the NCAA Tournament that year; the Wolfpack were seeded sixth in the West but won three cliffhangers en route to the Final Four.

Cliffhangers weren't anything new for the Wolfpack. They had to endure seven of them in their last nine games just to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. In so doing, they had earned the nickname "Cardiac Pack."

Top–ranked Houston, by comparison, had cruised through the tournament. In their national semifinal with #2 Louisville 48 hours earlier, the Cougars won by 13 points.

It was probably the greatest Cinderella story in my lifetime — so far, anyway.

N.C. State was a huge underdog that night. I remember that, at the time, I was working for a small–town newspaper in central Arkansas, and I was covering a county government meeting that night. I covered these meetings on a regular basis, and I knew that, even though they tended to draw very small crowds, the officials tended to get into long–winded arguments about damn near everything.

In my experience, if one of those meetings was over in less than two hours, it was a miracle.

I was disheartened by this knowledge because I really wanted to see the game, and I was convinced that I would miss most, if not all, of it.

But fate seemed to be on my side. The meeting ended early. I asked a few of the officials some questions, and I left, certain that I could be home before tipoff.

As I walked out, a county police officer who always attended the meetings called out to me. We chatted for a few minutes, then I excused myself, explaining that I wanted to see the game.

"Who do you think will win?" he asked me as I started walking down the hall.

"Houston," I said, without hesitation. I simply couldn't imagine North Carolina State winning the game.

But I was wrong.

N.C. State led by eight points at halftime, then squandered the lead in the second half but rallied by exploiting Houston's Achilles' heel — free–throw shooting.

The Wolfpack frustrated the Cougars, fouling them every time they had their hands on the ball. Olajuwon fared pretty well, hitting six of seven attempts, but, as a team, Houston barely managed to sink half its free throws.

Phi Slama Jama's reputation was built on power ball. As Drexler said, he liked to dunk — as did the rest of the Cougars. Free throws weren't something on which they spent a lot of time.

Still, it took a slam dunk by Lorenzo Charles just before the buzzer to lift the Wolfpack to that improbable triumph.

Charles died nearly two years ago when the bus he was driving crashed.

Real Clear Sports recently named Charles as the top player who found fame in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolfpack didn't find fame in the 1983 championship game. N.C. State had won a national crown before.

But the title they won 30 years ago tonight was their most memorable.

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