The 1983 Final Four lives in memory for many reasons, but we’ll begin with the local angle. It marks Georgia’s only appearance in the national semis.
The Bulldogs — this in Year 1 after Dominique Wilkins — finished the regular season 15-9, but a victory over Tennessee and Dale Ellis on the final Saturday lit a fuse. They stormed through the SEC tournament in Birmingham to earn their first NCAA bid. They overcame Virginia Commonwealth on a James Banks shot the Rams insisted had been touched by UGA’s Lamar Heard while on the rim. (Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated labeled the victory “a tainted Dawg biscuit.”)
Undaunted, Georgia went to Syracuse and, in the course of three days, upset St. John’s with Chris Mullin and North Carolina with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty. Sitting courtside in the Carrier Dome, the unflappable publicist Claude Felton turned to his assistant in the final minute and said: “Are we really beating North Carolina to go to the Final Four?”
Yes. Georgia flew home to be greeted by a crowd at the Athens airport. Then it was on to Albuquerque, though the Bulldogs’ presence — even Uga IV made the trek — at the Pit was brief. They lost a drab semi to North Carolina State, which had made a late-season charge of its own. The Wolfpack had lost shooter Dereck Whittenburg to a broken foot in midseason and were 17-10 entering the ACC tournament at the Omni. They upset No. 5 North Carolina in the semis and No. 2 Virginia, with Ralph Sampson, in the final.
This improbable NCAA appearance was nearly done in one. The Wolfpack trailed Pepperdine — coached by Jim Harrick — by six with 24 seconds remaining in Round 1. That was the night Jim Valvano unveiled his foul-like-crazy-and-hope-they-miss stratagem, which soon would be a fixture of every endgame. The ’Pack won in double overtime. Then, after trailing UNLV by 13, they won on Thurl Bailey’s follow.
“Survive and advance,” Valvano called it, another of his additions to the lexicon. His team routed Utah in the Sweet 16. For the second time in 13 days, N.C. State faced the mighty Sampson. Different game, same finish. The Cavaliers led late, but missed free throws. Lorenzo Charles — we’ll hear from him again — made a pair to put the ’Pack ahead at 0:26. Sampson didn’t touch the ball on the final sequence until after the buzzer. One of the greatest collegians ever ended his career with one Final Four trip, that in 1981, and nothing close to a national championship.
Thus did Valvano alight in Albuquerque, where he readied himself by finishing second in a disco contest at a local establishment called the Hungry Bear. He was, as ever, splendid entertainment. But his spirited team paled when viewed alongside Houston after the Cougars’ performance in the most spectacular semi on record.
Louisville was the Doctors of Dunk. Houston had an even niftier nickname — Phi Slama Jama. (It’s sometimes written as “Phi Slamma Jamma,” but Tommy Bonk’s original christening in the Houston Post used single m’s.) Louisville could run and jump with anybody. Turned out they couldn’t run and jump above and beyond the Cougars.
You’ve seen the chase scene in “The French Connection” — the car driven by Gene Hackman in pursuit of an elevated train through Brooklyn? Houston versus Louisville was like that. Louisville led by seven at the half and by eight with 13 minutes to go, at which point coach Guy Lewis — who’d earlier earned a technical for throwing his red-and-white checkered towel at Scooter McCray to stop a fast break – had allowed forward Larry Micheaux to foul out. Lewis is in the Naismith Hall of Fame, but man, oh man, was he an awful bench coach.
On this stunning Saturday, his players bailed him out. Houston’s next four baskets were dunks. Clyde Drexler’s lob to Michael Young started it. Then Drexler on a runout. Then Benny Anders over Charles Jones off a steal. Then the classic: Anders stole the ball again and fed Drexler, who changed from a one-handed dunk to a two-hander in mid-flight. The players on Houston’s bench were so delirious they ran to the CBS platform to watch the replay on a monitor.
Houston had 12 second-half dunks, out-slamming the Cardinals 14-7 all told. Hakeem Olajuwon had 21 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks. The final score —94-81 — was padded by a closing Houston run that featured five dunks and Alvin Franklin’s layup at the buzzer. Nobody had ever seen a game like it. As it unfolded, the New York writer Mike Lupica turned to Notre Dame publicist Roger Valdiserri and showed him a sheet of paper. “Welcome to the 21st Century,” it read.
N.C. State was given no chance against this raging colossus — even though the same State had wrong-footed Sampson twice. The belief was that the ’Pack’s only chance was to stall. Valvano fooled everyone again. Behind Bailey’s 15 points, State led 33-25 at the half. Houston opened the second half by scoring 17 of the first 19 points to assume a 42-35 lead, whereupon Lewis took to, er, coaching.
He ordered the sport’s most dynamic team to hold the ball. The Cougars were lousy foul shooters, having made only 60.9 percent on the season. All of this played into Valvano’s grateful hands. Houston missed enough free throws to allow the ’Pack a way back. Two long jumpers by Sidney Lowe brought State close. Two more by Whittenburg brought them even.
On Valvano’s order, Whittenburg fouled Franklin with 1:05 left. He missed the front end. The ’Pack held for the last shot. Drexler just missed a steal. Then Anders flicked Bailey’s pass away from Whittenburg. For an instant, you thought this would become the last whirling Houston slam of the season. Instead Whitenburg gathered the ball and flung it goalward, where a different slice of history awaited.
Charles caught Whittenburg’s air ball and stuffed it home, Olajuwon having been frozen in place. For a millisecond nobody moved. Charles appeared not to grasp what he’d just done. Gary Bender, the CBS play-by-play man, went quiet. It was left to analyst Billy Packer to yell: “They won it! On the dunk!”
Then everyone was in motion, Valvano most of all. He would later claim his pinballing dash around the court was designed to give “Wide World of Sports” a thrill-of-victory moment to pair with the long-suffering ski jumper’s agony-of-defeat, but nobody bought it. He also said, “My wife is pregnant — she doesn’t know it yet — but I’m calling the kid Al B. Querque.”
I was there. It was my first Final Four. It wasn’t until I found myself on the court — I have no memory of walking down there — that my enduring memory of that long weekend in Albuquerque arrived. Cozell McQueen, State’s center, was standing on the rim through which Charles had stuffed the ball. The rim is 10 feet high. McQueen was 6-foot-11. It took the sight of man waving his arms 17 feet above the court for it to register: They really did win it. On the dunk.
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