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Dane Suttle could have stopped Jim Valvano's shining moment early

CROWE'S NEST

Dane Suttle missed key free throws for Pepperdine during its overtime loss to North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1983. But he says the game doesn't haunt him.

March 23, 2009|JERRY CROWE

Whenever that ubiquitous clip of Jim Valvano wildly celebrating an improbable NCAA championship is shown this month, as it surely will be, Dane Suttle might wince.

He might grit his teeth.

Nothing against the late North Carolina State basketball coach, but Suttle knows better than anyone that Valvano's greatest moment in sports was made possible by Suttle's worst.

Suttle was a Pepperdine senior in March 1983, the Waves' leading scorer and co-player of the year in the West Coast Conference. A 6-foot-3 guard, he had helped coach Jim Harrick's team to its third consecutive conference title.

The former Fremont High star, still Pepperdine's all-time scoring leader, was "a marvelous player for us," Harrick says.

And with less than a minute to play in the first overtime of a first-round NCAA tournament game at Corvallis, Ore., Suttle helped Pepperdine to a six-point lead over Valvano's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions.

The Waves still led, 59-55, when Suttle was fouled with 29 seconds to play. An 83.5% free-throw shooter that season and among the best in Pepperdine history, he stepped to the line and promptly missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Nine seconds later, after North Carolina State had pulled to within a basket, Suttle was fouled again.

Again, he missed.

Then, at the other end, he fouled the Wolfpack's Dereck Whittenburg, who also missed the front end of a one-and-one but got a lucky break when the rebound was taken by teammate Cozell McQueen. McQueen's putback gave him his only two points of the game and forced a second overtime.

North Carolina State hung on for a 69-67 victory, the first of several close shaves for the Wolfpack en route to a title that sent an ecstatic Valvano on a memorably unbridled run across the court at the Pit in Albuquerque in search of someone to hug.

Meanwhile, Suttle was left to explain himself.

"As I've moved on in life," Suttle says in an interview, munching on a plate of shredded-beef tacos, "friends and family sometimes say, 'How did you miss them free throws?' . . .

"Believe me, I still get questioned about, how did I miss? How can I explain, how did I miss? It wasn't meant to be."

Suttle, 47, lives in the same house where he grew up in South Los Angeles, caring for his sickly, elderly mother. Divorced, he is a father to two daughters, one of whom gave him a granddaughter 14 months ago, and a basketball-playing son, Dane Jr., who wrapped up his freshman season at Pepperdine two weeks ago.

A former NBA player -- he averaged six points in 46 games with the Kansas City Kings -- Suttle makes his living as a private hoops tutor. He has worked with hundreds of players, he says, among them Baron Davis, Nick Van Exel and Tyus Edney.

"I've got a passion to help other players," he says. "I help high school players get to college and college players get to the pros."

He calls the North Carolina State game the worst of his college career -- he scored 16 points, making five of 17 shots and six of nine free throws before fouling out -- and says he has never watched a replay from start to finish.

"It's not so much painful to watch," he says. "I just don't want to watch it."

For much of the game, Suttle says, he was deployed as a decoy, running from corner to corner along the baseline.

By game's end, he notes, he was exhausted.

"I felt like I'd played two games in one," he says, "and when I went to the line late in the game, I almost felt like I saw two hoops. I mean, I was just very fatigued and dizzy. I was burned out. No excuse, though. I should have made the throws. . . .

"Probably nine times out of 10, I would have."

Notes Harrick, calling it uncharacteristic of Suttle to miss in that situation, "If I was a betting man, I'd have put a lot on him."

Not delivering in the clutch, Suttle says, strengthened his resolve to prove that he could play in the NBA. A seventh-round pick in the 1983 draft, he defied long odds to stick with the Kings through one full season and part of a second.

"I tell Junior and the players I work with, 'It's not whether you can throw the punch, but can you get up off the ground?' " Suttle says. "That's the mark of a good man and a strong man that can persevere. I got knocked down, but I got back up. That's one thing I try to instill in young people: You're not always going to score 30 points. When you score zero, can you bounce back?"

Suttle refused to let his lowest moment define him.

"I didn't let it haunt me," he says, "because if I would have let it haunt me, my life would be in a state of confusion. I couldn't help my family, I couldn't help Junior, so I had to get past that."

Still, Suttle can't help but wonder what might have been.

"I've always thought about, what if we had won that game," he says. "You look back and say, 'Man, what could have possibly happened?' But you're dealt the cards you're dealt, and you have to live with it. I had to regroup. It was tough, but I did it."

That clip of Valvano is a constant reminder.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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