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MIKE DOWNEY

COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S FINAL FOUR : Final Four Last Word in Sports

March 31, 1995|Mike Downey

SEATTLE — There are people who insist that Super Bowl Sunday or the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting day in sports. I always argue that there is no day in sports better than tomorrow. Nothing beats the Saturday of college basketball's Final Four.

There is still something pure about this event that makes it better. Maybe what makes the difference is all that undying collegiate loyalty, the knowledge that for the rest of their lives, these kids will be true to their schools. Or maybe I appreciate those unpaid professionals out there on the court, playing their hearts out. Life will never get better for most of them.

Whatever it is, my memories of Final Four weekends are so vivid, so specific, that other sporting events pale in comparison.

First comes the suspense of the Saturday doubleheader, with four teams gathered together like Agatha Christie mystery suspects. This is followed by the individual brilliance and human error of the Monday championship game, when you never know which kid is going to be struck by lightning--someone becoming a hero, someone else making a terrible mistake.

I can remember like yesterday, 10 years ago almost to the day, sitting courtside while Ed Pinckney and other players from Villanova were hopping around, climbing on tables, screaming: "April Fool! April Fool!" Their victory over Patrick Ewing and Georgetown, 66-64, was one of the greatest spectacles I have ever seen.

I can remember, long before that, sitting by a radio listening in disbelief as Les Hunter from Loyola of Chicago aimed a shot in the final seconds of overtime, then hearing nothing but static and noise, then the announcer finally telling me that Vic Rouse had tapped it in, defeating Cincinnati, 60-58. To me, it was as unreal as Orson Welles describing the landing of Martians.

I can even remember being on the streets of Philadelphia, in a taxi on the way to the Spectrum, when the radio dispatcher told the driver, "The President's been shot." Many of us recall where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot. Me, I'll never forget a yellow cab on the day Ronald Reagan was shot.

Indiana had a game to play against North Carolina, though many questioned whether it was proper to continue. Nothing distracted Isiah Thomas of the Hoosiers, a little man from Chicago's meanest streets.

After scoring 23 points, playing every minute and being voted MVP, Thomas said of President Reagan's condition, as matter-of-factly as though discussing a broken ankle, "It wasn't like he got shot in the head or anything." This was a kid who had seen worse.

Nothing so earth-shaking happened at other Final Fours. But the images never leave me--of Jim Valvano running, of Al McGuire weeping, of Bill Walton banking in shot after shot, of David Thompson leaping as though on a trampoline, of John Wooden seeming so nonchalant about another championship that he took a moment in the postgame interview to plug his new book.

You have to understand that at a certain point in my life, UCLA was the enemy. It was a supervillain, like the New York Yankees, that dominated a sport I loved so much, I longed for anyone or everyone to defeat it.

There was this moment in 1969 when the most important university in America to me was one called Drake, and I didn't even know where Drake was. What I did know was that Drake was behind UCLA by only one point, with seven seconds remaining in a national semifinal game.

After that Lew Alcindor cat had swatted away every shot Willie Wise and Willie McCarter took, and some character named John Vallely kept making baskets for UCLA, it looked like those damn guys from the West Coast were going to do it again. How desperately Drake tried to get at that ball in those final seconds, but Alcindor held it above him, like Atlas holding a globe. UCLA won, 85-82.

By the time 1974 rolled around, I was certain that UCLA was invincible. But suddenly there I was, by a radio, and there were the Bruins, in a hostile environment in Greensboro, N.C., and there was Tim Stoddard, taking an open jumper that would have given North Carolina State the game. And I'm sitting there screaming, "Hit it, Tim!" even though I didn't know Tim from Adam.

He didn't, but two overtimes later, Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes pushed off on a rebound, put Thompson on the line and watched the Wolfpack wrap up an 80-77 upset. It sent shock waves through college basketball.

And now here we are, more than 20 years later, and for professional and personal reasons, UCLA will be my favorite team in this particular Final Four--even a sentimental choice, you might say. I never thought this day would come. That's what makes it such a great day.

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