|25 years later, the game hugs Jimmy V: 'It humbles you to be part of something like that'|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 03 April 2008 14:23|
``People still come up to me every day - I mean every day - to tell me where they were or how much we cost them,'' Dereck Whittenburg said Thursday. ``The other day, I thought I was going to get through one without it. Then the guy at the rental counter here in town hands me the key and says, 'Hey, aren't you the guy?'
``It really humbles you,'' he added, ``to be a part of something like that.''
Friday marks the 25th anniversary of North Carolina State's 54-52 win over Houston in the national championship game, what many consider the greatest upset in college basketball history. In truth, Villanova's 66-64 win over Georgetown just two years later may have been more improbable still, since only one player off that Wildcats team went on to play in the pros and the 1983 Wolfpack team produced five. But nobody counts with their hearts.
It isn't hard to recall why NC State was such an overwhelming underdog. Houston's ``Phi Slamma Jamma'' squad featured Clyde Drexler, who's already in the Hall of Fame, Hakeem (then ``Akeem'') Olajuwon, who will be voted in next week, and Michael Young, who joined those two as first-round picks in that summer's NBA draft.
``I'm sure lots of people figured we didn't even belong on the same floor,'' said Lorenzo Charles, one of the stars of the 1983 team who played in the NBA. ``But a lot of them forgot how tough it was just surviving the ACC week in and week out. North Carolina had Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. Maryland had Lenny Bias. Virginia had Ralph Sampson.
``So we were ready to play in any kind of atmosphere,'' he said, ``or step on any stage.''
Two moments from the finish of the 1983 championship game provided its tableau. The first came when Lorenzo Charles leaped out from underneath the basket to grab Whittenburg's desperation heave and dunked it in a single motion.
``I was out of position,'' Charles said, ``because when you're going for a rebound and putback, you're supposed to be a step or two away to build up some steam. But it turned out to be the perfect place.
``I could see the ball was going to fall short, and my only concern was Hakeem. I was waiting for that big arm to swoop by and block my shot, and it never happened.''
Then the buzzer went off, and coach Jim Valvano ran onto the floor looking for someone to hug.
``Everybody remembers that now, but we had this thing that started in the ACC tournament where after every game, I'd run over to the bench and hug coach, then pick him up,'' recalled Whittenburg, who coaches Fordham and was in San Antonio for the National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention.
``So I'm pretty sure he was looking for me. But I was running around like a crazy man myself, and everybody was hugging everybody else, so he just tried to kind of jump on the pile. It turned out to be one of the funniest things I'd ever seen,'' he added, then paused.
``Let me tell you this. I miss that man every day.''
Most of college basketball does, too, though it wasn't always that way. A half-dozen years after Valvano won the title, he came under fire for a poor graduation rate and for running what one book labeled ``one of the dirtiest programs in America.''
An NCAA investigation eventually cleared Valvano of wrongdoing but concluded players illegally sold sneakers and game tickets they received for free. NC State placed the program on probation for two years. After a separate investigation by a state-appointed commission found Valvano and his coaching staff circumvented rules to keep players eligible, he was forced to resign as the school's athletic director in October 1989.
Less than three years later, Valvano was diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer. Shortly before his death in March 1993, he spoke at an awards show and announced the creation of the ``V Foundation,'' dedicated to finding a cure for the disease that was ravaging his body.
``Don't give up,'' he said. ``Don't ever give up.''
In the strange way that memory works, that motto has been retroactively attached to the 1983 team.
``I always thought of Jim's speech as something that rises above sports,'' said Terry Holland, who coached Virginia that season. ``But I can see why people might think of it that way. That team overcame so much.
``Whittenburg got hurt against us early in the season. They lost a lot of tough games, and they had to win the ACC tournament just to get into the NCAAs. Then they had to come back in just about every game in that tournament, and everybody kept thinking it couldn't last.''
``We all fell into that trap,'' recalled TV analyst Billy Packer, who worked the 1983 game. ``NC State kept winning, and Jim was this wonderful showman who knew how to orchestrate things. He had one of the best backcourts in the country, great instincts for the flow of a game, yet he played the role of underdog to perfection.''
There are plenty of times since that Whittenburg employs motivational tricks he learned from the master on his own players.
``The smart thing Jim did that year was getting us to focus on the journey instead of the last game,'' he recalled. ``He'd say things in his pregame speeches like, 'You got to be a dreamer,' and a second later he'd say, 'And if all five of you don't get back down the floor and play defense every time, they're going to break that dream into little, bitty pieces.'
``Then,'' Whittenburg said, ``he'd have to stop himself from cracking up. He never failed to make you laugh or feel good about yourself and there aren't a lot of people you meet in life who can do that.
``To this day, I haven't met another one like him.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org