March 14, 1981: When the NCAA tournament became Madness
One afternoon, three buzzer-beaters caught live and a nation was hooked
In a Manhattan control room, NBC experimented by switching from game to game
1979 Bird-Magic title game was seminal moment in NCAA history; this was bigger
March 14, 1981
The last shot fell at a little past three on a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles. Rolando Blackman, a willowy 6-foot-6 Kansas State senior from Panama by way of the Bronx, pounded three dribbles to the right baseline and rose quietly off the floor before stroking a jumper that gave the Wildcats a 50-48 lead over Oregon State with two seconds to play in their NCAA tournament game at Pauley Pavilion. Oregon State was ranked No. 2 in the nation after spending much of the regular season at No. 1, and now was almost certain to exit the tournament without winning a game. NBC play-by-play announcer Jay Randolph shouted his call -- "A 16-footer from the deep right corner has put the Wildcats on top!'' -- but his voice is scarcely audible on the game DVD beneath a thunderous explosion of noise. Oregon State missed a long heave at the horn and then came another roar.
It was the concluding act in a daylong drama that stands as one of the seminal moments in what has come to be known -- and trademarked by the NCAA -- as March Madness. By the time Blackman's floater dropped through the net, two other games had ended in upsets at the buzzer. Early in the afternoon in Dayton, Ohio, a DePaul junior point guard nicknamed "Money,'' because he was so clutch under pressure, had missed a free throw that he would never forget, even as he later spent more than six years in prison before turning 40. Less than a minute before the Blackman basket, in Austin, Texas, an Arkansas guard named Ulysses C. (U.S.) Reed had made what is likely the only half-court, game-winning shot (so close, Gordon Hayward) in NCAA tournament history, bringing down defending national champion Louisville and keeping the Cardinals from what might have been four Final Fours in four seasons.
And in a small, refrigerated control room on the fourth (or maybe the fifth, nobody is quite sure) floor of 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a crew of NBC executives and producers and one very familiar host had pushed the limits of broadcast technology to ensure that the entire country had seen all three finishes. When the day was done, they yelled as loudly as the crowd a continent away in Los Angeles, certain that they had helped change the way a sport would be consumed by its audience.
I remember it this way: We were squeezed into a little apartment in upstate New York, where I was a reporter for the Schenectady Gazette. There were a lot of us: Friends, co-workers, my brother and a bunch of his buddies from Siena. It was the first Saturday of the Big Dance, except, mercifully, nobody called it the Big Dance yet. There are a lot of ways to timeline somebody's life: You could do mine with NCAA basketball tournaments.
When Texas Western beat Kentucky in the '66 Glory Road game, I snuck downstairs just in time to see Bobby Joe Hill's back-to-back steals, before my father ran me back off to bed. In 1977 I was driving back from college spring break with a friend and had to watch Al McGuire cry through the snow on a tiny little, rabbit-eared bedroom TV in my friend's roommate's house outside D.C. In '88 I was sitting in a Lamaze class in advance of the birth of our first child, nervously wondering if Kansas' and Danny Manning's win over Oklahoma was actually getting recorded on my newfangled VCR. That's just three.
And in '81 I was in that little apartment watching games on a black-and-white television with a cable remote on a long, brown wire that could accidentally strangle a small dog.
Even back then, that initial Saturday of the tournament was a must-watch, because it was the first day on which a wide, network audience would see games. (In '81 the field had been winnowed from 48 to 32 teams -- the full 64-team bracket wasn't instituted until '85 -- on Thursday and Friday, but those games were carried only on a nascent ESPN; much more on this topic later). But the experience was very primitive: NBC, which held the rights to the NCAA tournament from 1969 to '81, would broadcast the day's games regionally, but in general would stay with games to their conclusion. You got your two or three games and that was it. For the rest you got highlights at 6 and 11 (again, ESPN was just ramping up) or a story in the next day's newspaper.
There were upsets, but because of the smaller fields and conservative broadcasting (and probably because bracket pools had not taken deep root), there was no upset culture. There were buzzer-beaters, but if you saw one in a day, live, it was astounding. There was no buzzer-beater culture, either. But March 14, 1981 was different from any other day.
As the finishes piled on top of each other, we screamed and jumped and pounded the cheap sheetrock walls, because it was like something we had never seen before, a waterfall of basketball riches when we had become accustomed to the trickle of Today's One Game.