It was a lighthearted group. Oliver also remembered how, before games, the team would follow his lead as he gave pep talks patterned after the style of Reverend Brown, the gospel preacher played by Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America.”
“We focused on the games, but I think the fact that Bobby allowed us to play loose, have fun and – if you’ve ever watched any of those games, how we went up and down, the flow, we had a certain rhythm that we played to,” Oliver said.
Cremins with a wonderful summation of that team, in particular Lethal Weapon 3: “They just played. Once the ball went up, they played. They were fearless. They just played. Dennis Scott would shoot the ball from half-court. One game, he took a couple of shots (from long range). I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My fault, coach.’ And Kenny, he wanted the ball in his hands at all times, and he just wanted to get the ball downcourt and he could score or make an assist as good as anybody who ever played the college game. He was a great player. And Brian just took care of business. He was the leader, he was the junk guy. They just complimented each other so well. And Brian could make the big shot when he had to. He’s a great kid, Brian. I expected Brian Oliver to be the mayor of Atlanta by now.”
After the loss to UNLV at the Final Four, Cremins and the team returned to the hotel. After Cremins went to bed, perhaps around midnight or 1 a.m., he said, there was a knock on his door.
Cremins: “And it was Dennis Scott. I said, ‘Dennis, what’s up?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I’m thinking about leaving.’ I said, ‘I know. We’re all leaving in the morning.’”
As it turned out, Scott had a more significant departure in mind: Leaving for the NBA.
Cremins: “I said, ‘Oh, shoot, come on in.’”
They two talked for about an hour, and Cremins said he would check with his NBA contacts to get a sense for Scott’s draft stock. Cremins said he had no idea at the time that Scott was considering a jump.
“But he did absolutely the right thing,” Cremins said. “He went No. 4 in the draft.”
Ivano Newbill redshirted the 1989-90 season before going on to average 3.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in four seasons with the Jackets. From that grounding, he played three NBA seasons, a total of 134 games, and also in Europe.
“The most important thing about that season is we worked hard together, we played hard together and then also we played jokes on each other a lot,” said Newbill, now married with two children and living in the Los Angeles area. He is the founder of a start-up technology company.
Newbill recalled one prank in particular. When the team was in New Orleans for the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, Newbill brought a gadget that made the sound of a phone ringing to a film session and started playing with it.
One of the coaches — he thinks it was Cremins — kept answering the phone in the room and grew increasingly agitated.
“He kept answering: ‘Hello? Hello?’ ” Newbill said. “’Those S.O.B.’s! Someone keeps calling here!’ ”
Eventually, Cremins took the phone off the hook, and Newbill tried his gadget one more time. Cremins took the bait again, screaming into the receiver.
“And everyone just busted out laughing,” Newbill said. “We did things like that.”
Rod Balanis was a redshirt on that team, at the start of a career in which he played in only 34 games, the result of injuries suffered in a car accident prior to his enrollment. (After Balanis broke his arm and leg and wasn’t sure if he could play again, Cremins reassured him that his scholarship would be honored no matter what.)
Befitting an eventual coach (he is an assistant at Notre Dame, marred with three sons), he had remarkable recall of the 1990 season. For instance, he remembered — accurately — that in the Southeast Region final, that Dennis Scott had 40 points and Minnesota star Willie Burton had 35.
He noted the poetic justice of the finish of Johnny McNeil effectively challenging Minnesota guard Kevin Lynch’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer to secure the Jackets’ win. Earlier in the season, Tech had lost to Virginia in the final seconds when the Cavaliers’ Bryant Stith scored off a lob that the Jackets didn’t defend well, which peeved Cremins.
So it was that he conjured a memory of Tech’s game at Duke that season. Since the previous season, Scott had lost a significant amount of weight, a reduction that helped him become the national player of the year and set the ACC single-season scoring record.
“He was cut up,” Balanis said. “You could see his abs.”
At Cameron Indoor Stadium, when Scott was introduced as part of the starting lineup, Duke students littered the court with Twinkies and other junk food in an apparent nod to his past eating habits. As Balanis recalled, “Mike Krzyzewski actually came over to Bobby and went to apologize. And Bobby was, like — this is true, I’ll never forget this – he was laughing his ass off. He thought it was the funniest thing ever.”
It hardly deterred Scott, who scored 36.
“We lost, like, 88-86, something like that,” Balanis said, accurately.
In Tech’s Final Four run, the second-round win over LSU was seen as pivotal. The Tigers boasted the behemoth pair of Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (then known as Chris Jackson), a first-team All-American and the SEC player of the year. After falling behind 22-7, Tech rallied after Cremins put Karl Brown on Jackson, a maneuver that Cremins said turned the game around.
“Once we beat LSU, we felt like we’d beaten possibly the best team in the tournament,” Cremins said. “We didn’t know how good UNLV was; they were a West Coast team. But we just figured nobody could be as good as LSU.”
One player who wasn’t daunted by LSU? Malcolm Mackey.
The freshman post player was primed to take on O’Neal and Roberts and even scored the game’s first basket on a putback jump hook over Roberts. Mackey finished the game with 14 rebounds and nine points.
“People had already underestimated me all year,” Mackey said. “I was already replacing a great player in Tom Hammonds, so people were already underestimating me and my basketball abilities from day one.”
As a result, Mackey said he felt no pressure that day. Further, as he was from Chattanooga, he said he had about 100 family and friends attending the game in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I was at home, I wanted to win,” said Mackey, who went on set Tech’s career records for rebounds and games played. “I was the only one walking around believing in myself. I had a great game against those guys, but it was never a surprise to me because it’s basketball. That’s all it is. You’re not fighting Mike Tyson. It’s just basketball. If nobody believes in you, you may have a Buster Douglas moment.”
Mackey is a team leader and manager at Mercedes-Benz of Buckhead — he got in the door years ago thanks to a reference from Cremins — with two grown children, Jasmine (a Tech graduate) and Malik (a recently graduated offensive tackle from Hampton University hoping to win an undrafted free-agent contract).
Kenny Anderson said he still gets goosebumps when he thinks about the 1990 team.
“We scored a lot of points,” Anderson said of himself, Oliver and Scott, “but the team concept we had – nobody cared about scoring. All we cared about was winning.”
After suffering a stroke in February 2019, “my health is O.K., God bless,” Anderson said. He said his memory gets “jammed up,” but that is the only lingering impairment.
“I’m doing well,” he said.
Anderson continues to feel a strong connection to Tech. He and Cremins communicate regularly. As head coach at Fisk, an NAIA school in Nashville, Tenn., he has reached out to athletic director Todd Stansbury to inquire if the Jackets would play his Bulldogs in an exhibition game this coming November.
He lives in Nashville with wife Natasha, son Kenny Jr. (who recently finished a post-graduate season at a prep school in Rock Hill, S.C., and is hoping to play collegiately) and daughter Tiana (a freshman at Fisk).