March 14, 1981: When the NCAA tournament became Madness (cont.)
Through the winter of 1980 into 1981, Aagaard practiced with making in-game switches. "Now, they have it down to a science,'' Aagaard says. "Back then we didn't know what the hell we were doing.'' Instead of a comingled headset, Aagaard had a bank of landline telephones, each connected to a game site. If Ohlmeyer called out a switch, Aagaard would pick up the phone and execute the change by talking to producers in a coordination room in New York and the production crew on site.
Gumbel was the traffic cop charged with receiving from one site and tossing to the next.
Three games tipped off at the noon hour. (Unlike CBS's current, more refined schedule, the game times were not staggered, which further increased the likelihood that finishes would pile on top of each other). Brigham Young quickly took control against UCLA and LSU did likewise against Lamar. Meanwhile in Dayton, on a light brown, rubberized floor, DePaul was in a mighty struggle with Saint Joseph's.
This was a vaguely familiar scene. DePaul, under grandfatherly coach Ray Meyer (68 years old in 1981) and with a roster stuffed with homegrown Chicago talent, had experienced a rebirth. Behind freshman Mark Aguirre, the Demons had reached the Final Four in 1979, before losing to Bird and Indiana State. A year later Meyer added another future elite NBA player, Terry Cummings, and went 26-1. But the Demons, who drew a first-round NCAA bye, were bounced from the tournament in their first game by eventual national runner-up UCLA, which had played an opening-round game.
That legacy trailed them into Dayton. Saint Joseph's, like UCLA, had earned the right to play DePaul by winning a first-round game (a sloppy victory over Creighton). The Hawks were 21-7 and emblematic of many pre-shot clock, pre-three-point-shot-era teams. They spread the floor and exhausted opponents with back cuts and shortened games, putting a high premium on every possession. "Our whole team was very, very tight that day,'' says Joey Meyer, who was one of his father's assistant coaches. "Our guys remembered what happened the year before. Every shot weighed on them.''
DePaul never shook Saint Joseph's and led by a point with 12 seconds to play, when junior point guard Skip (Money) Dillard, Aguirre's high school teammate, was fouled and faced a one-and-one to ice the game (again, there was no three-point shot). By then, NBC had brought all markets on board. On the front end, Dillard, an 85 percent free throw shooter, hit the left side of the rim and the ball caromed toward the corner.
Don Criqui, then 40, was on the microphone. Criqui had become a play-by-play announcer for CBS on the NFL at age 27, working alongside crusty former quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. At age 30, Criqui had called Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal for the Saints and eight years later, the Miracle of the Meadowlands, when the New York Giants fumbled away a sure victory against the Eagles. "In those situations,'' says Criqui, '' you really try to expect that something crazy is going to happen.''
Saint Joseph's senior point guard Brian Warrick, who would play four years in the NBA, ran the ball down in the corner and turned up the floor, attacking DePaul's defense. Eight months earlier Saint Joseph's coach Jim Lynam, then 38, had been at a clinic in Louisville, standing in a corner talking with Hubie Brown, when he noticed a women's coach running a drill where two defenders ran at a dribbler as the dribbler tried to advance up the floor in a late-game situation. Lynam made a note to incorporate the drill into practice. Now two DePaul defenders ran at Warrick and he got by them first with a between-the-legs move and then a blinding crossover. "He put them both down with dribble moves,'' says Lynam. "Incredible.''
Criqui followed the flow: "Oh my, look at this. Saint Joseph's has the ball back. Seven seconds ...''
Once clear past halfcourt, Warrick threw ahead to freshman forward Lonnie McFarland in the deep right corner. McFarland rose as if to shoot, but then passed inside to senior forward John Smith, who was standing alone under the basket and laid in the game-winning shot. "I think that was the only assist of Lonnie's career,'' says Smith, chiding a shoot-first teammate three decades later.
Criqui: "Look at this! Look at this! They win! Saint Joseph's wins! Unbelievable!''
NBC cameras caught Lynam running down the sideline to nearly in front of the DePaul bench, where his teenage daughter, Denise, jumped into his arms. As they embraced, Ray Meyer walked past and reached out his right hand, which Lynam grabbed. DePaul players stood in shock and then walked slowly off the floor. "I've spent 43 years of my life in locker rooms as a coach,'' says Joey Meyer, whose father died in 2006. "That locker room was the worst I have ever seen. Guys were totally devastated.''
Five nights later Saint Joseph's knocked off Boston College to reach the regional finals, where the Hawks were crushed by eventual national champion Indiana. DePaul's Aguirre declared himself eligible for the NBA draft, and a year later, a team led by Cummings and Dillard again went 26-1 and again lost its first NCAA game, this one to Boston College. Those losses haunted Ray Meyer. "To say it affected him would be an understatement,'' says Joey Meyer. "It affected him deeply.''
Skip Dillard's name surfaced again in 1988, when at the age of 28, he was arrested and charged with 15 armed robberies in the Chicago area. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In a jailhouse interview with Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune in 1989, Dillard said "My being here is 100 percent because of drugs. Drugs drive you insane.'' Dillard said he was clean. He served a month less than four years and was paroled in September 1992. Less than three years later, in June 1995, he was back in prison, again for armed robbery. This time Dillard served 31 months and was paroled in January 1998.
During the reporting of this story, Joey Meyer said he hadn't talked to Dillard in many years but hoped he had overcome his troubles. Teammate Clyde Bradshaw said he had seen Dillard a few years earlier at Cummings' charity golf tournament in Milwaukee and that he was in good spirits and seemed healthy. A phone message was left with Dillard's mother in Chicago and nearly two weeks later that call was returned.
The man his teammates once called Money says he is doing well and has been clean and sober for "years.'' He was working construction after his second prison term ended, but lost that job in the economic downturn. Now he says he's ''retired.''
He has never forgotten that free throw, even with all that has passed. "I let my teammates down, I let my coach down,'' says Dillard. "And I loved Coach Ray. I let the city of Chicago down, because they all loved DePaul basketball. They embraced us because they wanted a winner. I remember we got to the airport after that game, and coach Ray walked alongside me and held my hand. Coach Ray was a man's man. He was like my father.
"But you know what?'' says Dillard. "I wasn't even nervous before that free throw. I just missed it. I remember a few years later, I was watching the NBA and Larry Bird missed a big free throw. I said 'Look at that, even Larry Bird misses free throws.' " Dillard says he lost a grown son to kidney failure last fall, but he takes joy in watching his nephew, Lorenzo Dillard, a good high school basketball player in the Chicago suburbs. And he says, for all the NCAA losses and that one free throw that he'll never forget, he would never choose a different path from the one that originally brought him to DePaul. "To this day, people recognize me,'' he says. "I'm proud of that. I'm proud of my team.''
The second set of games began late in the afternoon, Eastern time, on March 14. Immediately, the Oregon State-Kansas State and Louisville-Arkansas games showed promise, although they would tick down almost in unison. Louisville had a roster of recognizable names: Rodney and Scooter McCray, Derek Smith, Poncho Wright and Jerry Eaves. Darrell Griffith had led most of them to the title in Indianapolis a year earlier.
Arkansas and coach Eddie Sutton were well-known from reaching the Final Four two years earlier with Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer, the so-called "Triplets.'' Louisville was seeded No. 4, with a 21-8 record, but a 14-game winning streak. Arkansas had come into the tournament seeded No. 5 at 20-7, but like Saint Joseph's, had played a preliminary round game and beaten Mercer on Thursday night.
Arkansas led by four points at the half and with 23 seconds remaining Louisville's Poncho Wright scored to bring the Cardinals within three. Arkansas' Scott Hastings immediately threw away a full-court, home run attempt and Derek Smith (who died in 1996, and whose son, Nolan, was a member of Duke's 2010 national championship team), chased down a loose ball and drilled a fallaway 15-footer to give Louisville the lead with six seconds remaining.
Marv Albert was handling the play-by-play in Austin: "Yes! Five seconds to go. Louisville by one. Timeout called by Arkansas.'' In Los Angeles, Kansas State was running clock, tied with Oregon State. Ohlmeyer called for a switch, and Aagaard made it.
Albert: "Right here, let's go back to New York. Here's Bryant Gumbel.''
Gumbel was sitting at a desk, wearing a blue blazer with a giant NBC logo on the breast pocket and a yellow power tie. Over his right shoulder was a thick, square television set displaying the NCAA symbol. Gumbel: "OK Marv Albert, we'll be checking back with you in just one minute. We've got another barnburner going on at Pauley Pavilion. Kansas State, Oregon State all tied up at 48 and Oregon State has lost Steve Johnson to fouls. Let's go to Jay Randolph and Steve Grote.''
The screen went full to that game in Los Angeles, where Kansas State was dribbling down the clock, from 1:35 to 1:05. Suddenly, Gumbel popped back up, brandishing a pen in his right hand, punching the air with his left. Gumbel: "OK, we are going back to that game at Pauley Pavilion, but we've got a one-point game going on in Austin, Texas ... '' Here, at this point, behind Gumbel on the big TV, viewers could actually see Arkansas' Darrell Walker inbounding the ball to U.S. Reed. "Bryant was pretty quick on that pivot, I remember that,'' says Terry Ewert, who was producing the game on-site in Los Angeles. He had to be. " ... so let's go back to Marv Albert and Bucky Waters.''
On the screen, Reed advances toward half court, dribbling to his left, and then back to his right, toward the sideline, Louisville's Eaves and Wright are chasing, keeping their distance. Albert: "Thank you Bryant. Time running down. Arkansas having trouble getting ... ''
Reed plants his right foot just short of the midcourt stripe and lets it fly, even following through with a fishhook. He would later tell journalists that before the game he practiced some long shots. "But not that long,'' he says now. Albert: "U.S. Reed with a fling. It's good! It's good! Let's see, do they say it counts? It's all over." (In the background, Waters says "Oh my.'')
There is chaos on the floor, Arkansas players in a giant pile with fans and cheerleaders. Albert lets it play for a few seconds. Albert: "Arkansas has defeated Louisville, U.S. Reed hitting from halfcourt and it's a one-point incredible victory for Arkansas. It's a mad scene here in Austin, Texas. Arkansas over Louisville. Let's go back to Bryant Gumbel in New York.''
Again, the switch is very tight. "You need a little bit of luck,'' says Aagaard. "That's still true today.''
Gumbel: "Thank you, Marv Albert. I'm not sure we can top it, we've got 10 seconds left in Pauley, let's go there live. Jay Randolph.''
When the scene flips from Gumbel to the game, there are only seven seconds left and almost immediately -- as if he was afraid of Ohlmeyer, too -- Blackman starts his drive. Randolph: "Blackman ... for the win ..." The shots falls 49 seconds after Reed's, in real time. NBC has shifted its audience three times in 97 seconds and caught two spectacular finishes -- three for the day -- by the slimmest of margins.
Not long after getting felled by Reed's shot, Louisville players met with coach Denny Crum. Scooter McCray recalls, "We were talking about the Arkansas game and coach Crum said, 'You should have made [Reed] dribble left.' I thought, Oh my god. I mean, that shot might go in, what, once in a half million? We were heartbroken.''
Blackman was the ninth player selected in the '81 NBA draft and scored more than 17,000 points in a 13-year pro career. He lives now in Dallas, working as Director of Basketball Development for the Mavericks, and the events of that wild Saturday are still with him. "We got back in the locker room and people were talking about U.S. Reed's crazy shot,'' says Blackman. "But we were happy. We had a good team, a great coach in Jack Hartman.'' The Wildcats defeated Illinois in their next game before losing in the regional final to North Carolina.
By 1998, Ewert, who had been the site producer for Blackman's buzzer-beater, was an executive producer for CBS, recruiting site producers for that year's tournament. He asked Mike Weisman, who had produced multiple Super Bowls and World Series and was running his own production company, to help him out by site-producing the sub-regional games in Oklahoma City. The play-by-play announcer was Ted Robinson and the analyst was none other than Rolando Blackman.
The first game of their weekend was No. 4 seed Mississippi as a heavy favorite over Valparaiso. "We're going to, like, two percent of the country,'' says Weisman. "And there's only one story line that matters: Valparaiso has this kid, Bryce Drew, and his father is the coach. So we're up to speed on that story and we get a camera on the family in the stands and then we do the game. Nobody is watching.''
But the game, which would become one of the most famous early-round upsets in the history of the tournament, stays close. With 2.5 seconds to play, Valparaiso has possession, down by two points. Ewert engineers a switch, bringing most of the nation to Oklahoma City. Weisman gets on his headset to Robinson and Blackman. "They're coming to us and we've got 30 seconds to set up the whole story,'' says Weisman. "I tell Ted to handle it. Bryce, the father, the family, the whole thing. And Rolando, who is very new, says, 'What do you want me to say?' I say, 'Nothing. There's not enough time.' So the network comes to us, and Ted gets the whole story out, the kid makes the shot, place goes crazy and I'm shouting into my headset.
"After that game,'' says Weisman. "I go down to courtside and Rolando has his head down. He says, 'Mike, you didn't let me say anything.' I tell him, 'Rolando, this next game is your time.' And he was great. But how about that? Terry Ewert and Rolando Blackman. Switches. Full circle.''
At NBC headquarters in New York on March 14, 1981, there was an almost universal sense of accomplishment. "I remember feeling almost amazed afterward,'' says Ohlmeyer. "It was a pretty cool day.'' Aagaard is more emphatic, and more personal. "It was a game-changer in my career and my life,'' he says. "Because of what we did that day, the people in that room looked at me differently. I was switched from engineering to full-time sports and two years after that I was a vice president.''
Albert has called thousands of games in his long career. "That's the only one of any importance that ended like that,'' he says. "And the switches. We got very lucky.''
Gumbel was gone in a year to the Today Show. "What I remember about that day was that everybody felt we had done a good day's work," he said. "Was it special? I can't say I remember it that way. But I will say that whole period in my life was special. That's the way it is when you're younger and more innocent and you believe in all the magic of sports.''
Sixteen days after that Saturday, the magic was intruded upon by an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. For several hours during the late afternoon, it was uncertain if the national championship game would be played. In the end, it was, and Indiana won the second of its three national titles under Bobby Knight with a 63-50 victory over North Carolina. It was NBC's last NCAA game; CBS subsequently outbid NBC for the rights to the tournament and has broadcast every renewal since 1982.
Of all the players in the events of March 14, 1981, none has lived longer on its coattails than Ulysses Reed. (Many people thought his initials were U.S.; in fact his full name is Ulysses Cleon Reed, named for Dr. Cleon Flowers, who shared a medical practice with Reed's father in Pine Bluff, Ark.). Reed took a brief run at professional basketball (he never made an NBA roster), but has lived most of the last three decades back in Pine Bluff, where he has sold real estate, preached as an ordained minister and been recognized almost constantly for his halfcourt heave.
Reed tells his story with ease and joy, as if he tossed in the shot yesterday. If that Saturday was a slide from which Skip Dillard is still recovering, it was a catapult to a life of celebrity for Reed. People call every year at this time to talk; they called after Hayward's bomb bounced off the rim for Butler in 2010. "Not a day goes by,'' he says. "And that's OK. I like to talk about it. It's good to be remembered for something.''
He interrupts an interview to take a phone call, and then returns. "Some guy just calling me about a business deal,'' says Reed. "I told him that I'm getting interviewed by Sports Illustrated. He didn't believe me, so I told him: 'Just call up the YouTube and put my name in. Then call me back'.'' There is the slightest pause and then U.S. Reed cuts loose with a long, deep laugh, a man forever frozen in the right place when everybody was finally watching.