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One Burning Question Remains

He watched every step of Titans' run, and 25 years later, something still gnaws at him.

March 20, 2003|Bob Rohwer | Times Staff Writer

I canceled class that morning.

On one of the double doors that led to the newspaper writing classroom on the second floor of the Humanities building at Cal State Fullerton, I taped the note:

Mr. Rohwer regretfully announces that tonight's Com 101 class has been canceled. See you next Wednesday.

I didn't tell anyone why I wasn't going to be there that evening, but nobody should have been surprised.

Later that morning, in March of 1978, I was among 271 Titan basketball fans who boarded school-sponsored rooter buses bound to Albuquerque, hoping to witness at least one more miracle.

I had earned my teaching credential from Fullerton that January and decided to take the school's communication department up on its offer of spring-semester employment instead of trying to find a full-time high school job in the middle of the school year.

Yes, I admit it. I am a Titan through and through, orange and blue.

I graduated from Fullerton in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in communications and not a whole lot of pride in the athletic accomplishments of my alma mater.

My best friend, Paul, and I joked about enrolling in graduate school at North Carolina or Duke, someplace where we could root for a good men's basketball team the rest of our lives.

Back then, most of my friends worked on the student newspaper and Titan Gym became our second home, before and after graduation. We pretty much had the run of the place, nicknaming it "The Crypt."

All that changed in the spring of '78.

Nothing that happened earlier that season -- including a 25-point road loss that seemed more like 100 to San Diego State, resulting in a very long, miserable drive home -- could have prepared us for how it would end.

The Titans, in only their fifth season of Division I play, began winning games thanks to the buzzer-beating baskets by Keith Anderson, the rebounding of skinny Greg Bunch, who had pogo sticks for legs, and the sharp-shooting of be-goggled Kevin Heenan.

These guys began to draw a crowd to tiny 3,600-seat Titan Gym, which actually had to turn away people from two games.

Did they create a "buzz" on campus? Probably, but since Fullerton was, and still basically is, a commuter school, it was mostly confined to the fraternities and sororities along Yorba Linda Boulevard, whose bandwagon-jumping members dubbed themselves "Titan Hellraisers."

The face of Fullerton basketball frenzy became Bill Harvey, who was then a teacher in Santa Ana. As the self-proclaimed biggest fan of the Titans, his courtside antics would cause him to be ejected from a game more than once over the next decade.

When you're winning, however, you'll put up with almost anything.

The die for postseason success had been cast two weeks earlier, when Coach Bobby Dye's team surprised San Diego State in the semifinals of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.'s tournament with a delay game -- called the "high and wide," Dye signaled for it by raising both fists and spreading his arms -- then whipped archrival Long Beach State ("Sit on the Beach! Sit on the Beach!") in the finals.

The following weekend, 500 of us rode rooter buses to Tempe, Ariz., where the Titans, with a record of 21-8 and facing odds of 100-1 to win it all, were making their first and, as it has turned out, only appearance in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

We played No. 4 New Mexico in the first round of the then-32 team tournament, and Lobo boosters filled 22 of the arena's sections to our not-quite two. While I don't remember much about the game -- finding out only years later that the Lobos' top player was former Laker Michael Cooper -- I'll never forget halftime.

New Mexico's cheerleaders were forming a human pyramid by standing on one another's shoulders. While trying to catapult the final person to the top, her cohorts instead launched her like a bowling ball directly into the center, sending everyone tumbling to the hardwood.

An omen? I like to think so.

The Titans were behind by 10 points at intermission but rallied to outscore the team that had led the nation in scoring that season for a 90-85 victory.

Undoubtedly, the Lobos were looking ahead to the next round and home-court advantage, but instead Fullerton was heading to The Pit, where we weren't expecting a warm welcome from the New Mexico faithful.

Five days later, more than 17,000 fans greeted the Titans with boos, which later turned to cheers as Fullerton rallied from another big halftime deficit to beat 7-foot, 270-pound center Bill Cartwright and the University of San Francisco.

After our on-court celebration ("We Believe! We Believe!") we took the party back to the team's hotel, where the lobby directory read: "Cal State Fullerton Who?"

We then had to figure out a way to kill a couple days in Albuquerque before the next game, a West Regional title showdown against fifth-ranked Arkansas, which had defeated the team we wanted to play, UCLA.

We must have been feeling pretty heady.

The Razorbacks were led by the Three Basketeers -- Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer -- and a whole bunch of folks wearing red, sporting plastic hats in the shapes of pigs' heads and yelling "Soowee!"

But by now, Fullerton had won over most of the New Mexico crowd.

The Razorbacks, to nobody's surprise, were up by 15 at halftime, but every Titan fan in The Pit that day truly believed we had 'em right where we wanted 'em.

Heck, I was already making plans to attend the Final Four in St. Louis, even if it meant I'd have to cancel another class.

But it wasn't meant to be -- barely.

A few weeks later, I passed Anderson on campus. We acknowledged each other, but I didn't have the heart to ask him what so many had asked him before and since:

Why didn't you pull up for the jumper?

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