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Thirty years ago I fell in love.
Not with a girl, although I did have quite a crush on a pretty brunette in my third-grade class. No, that year I fell in love with the NCAA Tournament.
Although I don’t ever remember watching the tourney before then, I do recall hearing about it the year before (1982), when there was a possibility that my favorite team – the University of Kentucky – could play its archrival, Louisville. But shortly after that I heard that the Wildcats had lost to some team from the middle of Tennessee, so they wouldn’t be playing the Cardinals after all.
Things changed in 1983, though. That’s the year I got cable TV and first found the four-letter, 24-hour-a-day sports network, and when I wasn’t watching music videos (remember those?) on MTV, I was watching college basketball on ESPN.
By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, I was in full-on infatuation mode, especially after I learned there was a chance that UK could play UofL – something that hadn’t happened in 24 years. The Cards were seeded No. 1 and the Wildcats No. 3 in the Mideast Region, which also included second-seeded Indiana and fourth-seeded Arkansas, with future UK coach Eddie Sutton. The “Dream Game” was set after UofL edged the Razorbacks, 65-63, and UK ousted the Hoosiers, 64-59. That dream turned into a nightmare for me, though, when the Cards outlasted the Wildcats, 80-68, in overtime.
I was distraught after that loss, but a little team from North Carolina (N.C. State) and its fast-talking coach (Jim Valvano) pulled me out of my doldrums. I quickly adopted the Wolfpack (a.k.a. the “Cardiac Pack”), who made the Final Four that year as a 6 seed, as my team. N.C. State barely made it out of the first two rounds, slipping past Pepperdine, 69-67, in double overtime and edging UNLV, 71-70, before overwhelming Utah, 75-56, in the regional semifinal. Then, it upset top-seeded Virginia, 63-62, in the West Region final.
In the Final Four the Wolfpack beat Georgia before meeting heavily-favored Houston, which had beaten UofL in a dunk-fest semi, in the final. N.C. State was a massive underdog, some might say the first “Cinderella” in tourney history, but as the clock ticked down in regulation, the score was tied at 52-all. With 7 seconds left Thurl Bailey threw a dangerous pass from the corner to Dereck Whittenburg, who corralled the ball then launched a 30-footer.
“Whittenburg, oh it’s a long ways…,” CBS announcer Gary Bender said.
Lorenzo Charles answered Whittenburg’s prayer, grabbing the air ball and dunking it in just before the buzzer to give N.C. State the victory.
“They won it! On the dunk!” Billy Packer, Bender’s colleague, exclaimed.
As Valvano famously ran around the court looking for someone to hug, I was doing the same thing in my house.
This was March Madness before there was March Madness. This was One Shining Moment before there was “One Shining Moment.” This was when I fell in love with the NCAA Tournament.
So in honor of that anniversary, my picks for this year’s Final Four will mirror those of 1983, when two No. 1s, a No. 4 and a No. 6 advanced to Albuquerque, N.M. Heading for Atlanta I’ve got top-seeded Louisville and Gonzaga to come out of the Midwest and West, respectively, fourth-seeded Michigan to emerge from the South and sixth-seeded Butler from the East. And, you guessed it, in the championship game I’ve got….the Bulldogs beating the Cards on a last-second shot.