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A special time, and space

Cal State Fullerton's great '78 run to the West Regional final brought the commuter campus together, sort of, but some had bigger concerns, like finding a place to park

March 19, 2008|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, when Cal State Fullerton last shot its way into the NCAA tournament, and NBC announcers Dick Enberg and Al McGuire spoke so glowingly on television about our 57 Freeway exit-ramp of a school, I was doing what most sophomores were doing on campus:

Trying to find a parking spot.

The Titans basketball team that season enjoyed more success between the lines than my banana-yellow Mazda did.

March madness?

Parking, that was madness.

I'd like to say I camped in a tent three days in advance to get tickets to basketball games, and hawked T-shirts drenched in Orange (Bobby) Dye, and organized a "Disco Night" to fund my road trip to the NCAA tournament to see the Titans shock New Mexico and then the University of San Francisco before coming up three stinking points short against Arkansas in the West Regional final.

Not true.

There were hard-core zealots, some legitimate Titan Gym court kooks, Bill Harvey to name one, and one colleague who made the 1978 pilgrimage to the West finals by driving a Pinto hatchback from Costa Mesa to Albuquerque.

But that wasn't the Fullerton experience for everyone.

Some of us lived at home, took a full load of classes and worked four days a week in Los Angeles. We didn't attend Fullerton because of its basketball -- we went there because it was cheap!

Tuition at Titan Tech worked out roughly to the cost of a Northwestern sweat shirt.

Fullerton was a fine institution, one you were proud to have attended, but the only thing it lacked as a commuter school was a drive-through window.

Would you like fries with that degree?

I don't recall an oak tree in the quad to gather around, or Friday night pep rallies, or singing the alma mater by a bonfire, or wanting to pledge a fraternity.

It wasn't Cal State Kumbaya.

Yet, the success of the 1977-78 basketball team was psychologically important and it remains personally inspiring.

That rag-tag Titans squad reflected its mid-major class status. The players overachieved despite being underfunded -- just like the rest of us.

The center, Steve Shaw, was a 6-foot-8 junior college transfer who had no business trying to guard USF's 7-footer, Bill Cartwright.

Shooting ace Kevin Heenan unfolded out to 6-4 and 150 pounds and wore welder's goggles to protect his eyes. He looked like Buddy Hol- ly.

"Typical nerd," Heenan once said of himself, "and putting on the goggles only made it worse."

Guard Keith Anderson played high school ball at L.A. Verbum Dei with Roy Hamilton and David Greenwood.

UCLA offered Hamilton and Greenwood full rides and Anderson a lift to the corner of State College and Nutwood.

That Titans team was all over the map. The coach, Bob Dye, had a little Don Quixote in him. Mike Linden was an erratic point guard from Yonkers who sometimes drove home to New York.

Greg Bunch was the team's lunch-pail star, out of San Bernardino, a working-class hero.

Mike Niles, the power forward, ended up in jail on a murder-for-hire rap.

Yep, it was real life.

The miracle of '78, though, did wonders for a school's collective psyche.

One summer day before my inaugural semester, July 12, 1976, a custodian named Edward Charles Alloway, using a rifle he bought from Kmart, made headlines when he shot and killed seven employees in the school library.

That was my freshman orientation.

Fullerton athletics wasn't much of a rallying point, unless your favorite sports involved a pommel horse or the fencing declaration "en garde!"

Fullerton would become a world-class baseball school, but the program did not win its first of four NCAA titles until 1979.

And before it was mercifully dissolved, tackle football was mostly a downer too. What some knew about Fullerton pigskin was the plane crash, on Nov. 13, 1971, that killed three assistant coaches.

That NCAA basketball run in 1978 did mean something to those of us orbiting Parking Lot P (Pluto).

It was uplifting to hear something about your school that didn't involve its looking like a prison.

It seemed almost out-of-body that Enberg and McGuire -- college basketball's two most important voices -- would wade so giggle-giddy deep in Titans euphoria.

And wasn't it a shame UCLA didn't have much of a program, bowing out in the NCAA tournament before it had a chance to meet our Titans in the regional final?

"Fullerton in, UCLA Out!" The Times' headline screamed.

Arkansas ultimately ended Fullerton's Final Four dream, but it was chaos while it lasted. Our Titans trailed the Hogs by one and had the ball with 14 seconds left when Anderson, Fullerton's best clutch shooter, declined to pull up for his patented jumper and instead drove the lane and had the ball knocked away.

Anderson thought he got fouled -- we all did -- but the refs didn't seem to care about our low self-esteem, or how hard it was to park on campus.

Thirty years later, another band of Titans misfits sets off for NCAA adventure.

Onward to Omaha!

Some things have changed. Enrollment has swelled from 22,500 then to festival-seating capacity of 37,000.

Monday night, waxing nostalgic during a 75-mph freeway stroll past my college, I marveled not at any new science or math wings, but rather at the multitiered parking structures that have been erected since my graduation.

Some things don't change.

All 11 players on this year's Fullerton team are transfers from other schools.

Fullerton remains, for many, Plan B.

Maybe, though, as New Mexico did 30 years ago this March, Wisconsin will overlook our boys.

After 1978, anyway, it was never again "Cal State Who?"

It was Cal State Us -- a little piece of asphalt on Earth.

Or, as we called it back in the day:

Park City.


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