2008 Tornado in Atlanta: The Georgia Dome, hosting the SEC basketball Tournament at the time (foreground), and the Westin Peachtree Plaza both suffered damage. The dark spots on the circular hotel are missing windows. 
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

Recalling the tornado of 2008 SEC tournament

A video board swaying above the court, a hole blown open in the Georgia Dome roof, a stiflingly hot meeting room in the wee hours of the night and two clutch 3-pointers, one that helped save a job and another that probably saved lives.

In terms of lasting images, SEC and dome officials won't be bothered if the 2011 SEC basketball tournament, which begins Thursday, plays out a little less memorably than the 2008 edition, the last time the tournament came to Atlanta.

"Oh, yeah," dome general manager Carl Adkins said Thursday, chuckling. "That was an interesting time to live through."

The 2008 tournament will forever be tied to three things. One, the tornado that ripped through downtown Atlanta on Friday, March 14 and sent tournament officials into a bewildering matrix of logistical challenges to be solved in a matter of hours. Two, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent a game to overtime, keeping thousands of fans in the dome and likely out of the tornado's path. Three, Georgia's improbable run from No. 6 seed to the championship, a path that sent the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament with a 17-16 record and preserved then-coach Dennis Felton's employment.

RELATED: Georgia Dome throughout the years

Said Mykal Riley, the Alabama forward whose 3-pointer sent his quarterfinal game to overtime as the tornado neared, "I'm just happy people still remember the moment."

For those who experienced it, it will be hard to forget. The tornado hit at about 9:40 p.m., causing about $1.8 million worth of damage in the dome and hundreds of millions in metro Atlanta, yet miraculously resulting in only one fatality.

"When stuff started falling from the ceiling, it got my attention," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, whose Friday night quarterfinal against Alabama was interrupted in overtime by the twister.

It turned the tournament sideways. Gathered in a cramped, poorly ventilated meeting room, officials from the SEC, dome and participating schools had to determine in five or six hours if the tournament should continue (yes), where (Georgia Tech) and under what format (completing the tournament by Sunday by requiring the winner of the Georgia-Kentucky quarterfinal, whose game was postponed after the tornado, to play Saturday at noon and then in the semifinal Saturday night).

"It was amazing how people came together," SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said. "I cannot remember a cross word in the meeting."

Officials quickly decided on Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum, though it already had been shut down for the offseason. After getting the call for help, Tech staffers worked overnight with league and dome staff, setting up phone lines for radio and television, prepping parking, locker rooms and media work areas, putting up signage and setting up concessions.

A process that can take a day or two, Bloom said, was done in a matter of hours.

"They did a marvelous job in a stressful situation," Tech senior associate athletic director Paul Griffin said.

A city official told decision makers that no Atlanta Police officers would be available to provide security, as they were needed to attend to the disaster. That, as well as consideration for Tech, made the decision to limit tickets to less than 4,000, leaving thousands of fans on the outside.

With those matters decided, the stage was set for Georgia, the East's bottom seed. With many expecting Felton to be fired after the tournament, star guard Sundiata Gaines could feel the tension within the team.

Gaines told Felton before Bulldogs' first game against Ole Miss that "I was going to try my best to win the conference championship and win the tournament because I knew that was at least going to get him another year."

Georgia beat Ole Miss in overtime to move on to the Friday night quarterfinal against Kentucky, which the tornado postponed. The team learned at about 4 a.m. Saturday that it would play Kentucky at noon, and then, if it won, the semifinal at about 8:30 p.m.

"We didn't even care at that point," Georgia guard Zac Swansey said. "We had nothing to lose."

Against Kentucky, down 56-54 in overtime, Swansey buried a turnaround 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining to lift Georgia into the semifinals, living out a scenario Swansey had acted out hundreds of times as a boy in the driveway of his Gainesville home.

"It was a surreal feeling," said Swansey, who a year later transferred to Tennessee Tech and last week helped the Golden Eagles to the Ohio Valley Conference finals with a similarly clutch 3-pointer.

In the semifinal, the IV-fueled Bulldogs defeated Mississippi State. That left Arkansas, one of four SEC teams Georgia had beaten in the regular season, in the final.

"This is the easiest thing we've done all weekend," Swansey, back in the moment, said of the final. "We've had a full night's rest."

Georgia won 66-57 on its rival's court for Felton, who was ultimately dismissed the following season and now is the San Antonio Spurs' pro personnel director. The Bulldogs had won as many SEC games in four days as they had in two months. Gaines had fulfilled his vow to his coach, who wrapped up Gaines in a hug after the championship.

"He wasn't a real sentimental, emotional guy with the players, as far as affection-wise," Gaines said. "For him to do that, I know it meant a lot."

Gaines has since bounced around the NBA and will learn Thursday if the New Jersey Nets will give him a second 10-day contract. He planned to make time to watch his Bulldogs and, perhaps, hearken back.

There is plenty to remember.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Related Stories