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SPECIAL REPORT / SPORTS MONTHLY: Taking the reader
deeper into the world of sports

Big Shots

Memories of a Lifetime Are Made in Mere Seconds by Those Who Come Through in the Clutch in the NCAAs

March 15, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | Times Staff Writer

"Welcome back, and how about this game? With 3.2 seconds left, top-seeded Duke is on the ropes, leading by only one.

"The Blue Devils are going to want to put a big man on the passer on this inbounds play. . . .

"But I've got to think the ball is going to YOUR NAME HERE for the shot. He might be only four for 11 today, but he has been the man for this team all season. . . .

"Here we go, the ball is in. YOUR NAME HERE catches it, fumbles. . . . The shot is up, it's off-balance, Chris Carrawell may have gotten a piece of it. . . and it's good! It's good! "YOUR NAME HERE has done it!!!

This is the universal hoop dream.

What kid ever bounced a basketball and didn't imagine it?

"I had a basketball hoop made out of wood and clothes hangers in my room, and every night I'd count down, 'Five, four, three, two, one!' and put the shot up," said Keith Smart, whose jump shot with five seconds left in the 1987 championship game gave Indiana the NCAA title.

He wasn't the only one.

"I would say, 'Laettner's got the ball on the wing. Three, two, one!' " Christian Laettner said.

Twice in three years, he made last-second shots in overtime to send Duke to the Final Four.

Lorenzo Charles? He slammed home Dereck Whittenburg's airball for North Carolina State in 1983 against Houston.

"When I was growing up, you'd shoot and shout out somebody's name," Charles said. "Julius Erving scores! Kareem scores! Moses Malone!"

Michael Jordan made 26 game-winning shots in his NBA career before he retired, going out with a jump shot over Utah's Bryon Russell in the 1998 finals for his sixth NBA title.

But Jordan's legend was born in 1982 when he was a skinny freshman for North Carolina who still wore Converse All-Stars, rising up with 17 seconds left to make a jump shot and give the Tar Heels a national championship--even if it took an assist from Georgetown's Fred Brown moments later.

That is the essence of the NCAA tournament.

It takes 63 games to whittle 64 teams to one champion, and everyone waits for that captivating moment--a split-second reversal of fortune when agony turns to ecstasy, disaster is averted, or time is stopped dead in its tracks.

"At basketball camps, I always ask, 'How many of you have ever thought about making the last shot to win a championship?' " Smart said.

"Every hand goes up."

* BOB HEATON, 1979 Midwest regional final; Indiana State 73, Arkansas 71--If not for a 43-year-old insurance agent who lives in Terre Haute, Ind., the Magic-Bird game might never have happened.

If Bob Heaton hadn't bounced in a left-handed prayer from 10 feet in the final seconds against Arkansas in the regional final--well, think about it.

He did, and Indiana State made it to the Final Four, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met for the 1979 title, and the seamless rivalry that transformed both the NCAA tournament and the moribund NBA was underway.

Johnson's Michigan State team beat Bird's team for the title, and NBC earned a 24.1 rating--still a record for the title game.

Three years later, CBS replaced NBC and the rights fees tripled to $48 million for three years.

The numbers have grown exponentially since: CBS soon will pay $6 billion for 11 years.

Heaton, a reserve, made an even more spectacular shot earlier in the season at New Mexico State, a 55-footer that forced overtime and helped Indiana State stay unbeaten.

It was halfcourt shots all around at the next practice.

"I threw up an airball," Heaton said. "The last one to shoot was Larry. He hit it and turned around to me and said, 'There's nothing to hitting a long shot.'

"I said, 'Yeah, but you've got to do it when the pressure's on.' "

* HERB WILKINSON, 1944 NCAA championship game; Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (OT)--This wasn't always a CBS production.

In 1944, Utah freshman Herb Wilkinson made a shot from beyond the top of the key with a few seconds left in overtime to win the championship.

"There was no television," said Arnie Ferrin, 74, a freshman on that team who went on to become athletic director at Utah and was chairman of the NCAA selection committee in 1988.

"If we wanted to see the game, we had to wait a week or so and go to the movie theater when the newsreel came out."

Ferrin figures the Centre Theatre in Salt Lake City was where he finally saw Wilkinson's shot again.

"I remember vividly how exciting it was," Ferrin said. "I might have gone two or three times to watch it, and I don't even remember what the movie was.

"Today, you might see a shot like that 100 times in one weekend."

* U.S. REED, 1981 second round; Arkansas 74, Louisville 73--There's something about half-court heaves.

Grown-ups line up to try them. People win cash and cars for making them.

In 1981, U.S. Reed made a half-court shot for Arkansas to fell defending national champion Louisville.

"The funny thing was, before the game, I was trying long shots, 35 feet maybe, and guys were saying, 'What are you doing?' " said Reed, 40, an assistant women's coach at Arkansas Little Rock.

"I told them, 'You never know when you might have to make one.' . . .

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