Where were you when the shot went in?
Warren Miller was in Durham, N.C., in the Duke athletic office, watching the NCAA East Regional final on a big-screen TV. As the school's assistant sports information director. Miller would have had to hold back his partisanship if he had been sitting courtside in Philadelphia when Christian Laettner sank the shot. But here Miller could let out a scream. He ran out the office door and through the mild spring night to Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the darkness he knelt down at midcourt and kissed the center circle.
Some 300 people were at Bravo Pitino in Lexington, Ky., watching on a dozen TV sets arrayed around the restaurant owned by Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach. Moments earlier a shot by the Wildcats' Sean Woods had given Kentucky a 103-102 lead with 2.2 seconds left in overtime and touched off such joyful screaming and clambering up on tables that many patrons didn't see Laettner's shot, much less the 75-foot pass from Grant Hill that preceded it. When they realized what had happened, when replays dashed hopes that the basket had come too late, silence swallowed up the crowd. Then came low moans, then tears. People wandered out to the street, dazed. One woman felt so dizzy that she had to be helped from the premises.
Mike Gminski and Mark Alarie were in Landover, Md., where fans with portable TVs had been relaying details from the game to the two former Duke stars as they sat the benches of their respective NBA teams—Gminski, rarely used but in uniform, with the Charlotte Hornets; Alarie, injured and in mufti, with the Washington Bullets. Not long after the Duke-Kentucky overtime began in Philadelphia. Gminski was sent into the game at the Capital Centre, and soon after that the crowd there issued a shout that bore no correspondence to the action at hand, "I think it's over," Alarie called out to Gminski during the lineup for afoul shot in front of the Bullets' bench. "One of their guards just hit a shot." Moments later came another shout. As Charlotte moved upcourt on offense, the Cap Centre's message board flashed the news of Duke's 104-103 victory. Without breaking stride, Gminski thrust two lists in the air.
Jamie Lynch was at Shore Casino in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., where he and a half dozen other childhood friends of Duke point guard Bobby Hurley were putting in a Saturday night's work, waiting on 350 guests at Paddy Noonan's Irish Cabaret Night. Whenever their boss wasn't looking, they stole into the bar to catch snatches of the game on TV. Lynch left the room crestfallen when Woods scored. Back in the dining room, again attending to the guests at the tables, Lynch heard a cheer, then turned to see a friend, Eddie Nestor, running at him, screaming the news: "Christian made the shot! You won't believe it, but Christian made the shot!"
Robert Vallandingham was in New Albany, Ind., watching on TV in the firehouse where he works. No fan had more closely monitored the course of Kentucky's fortunes this season than had Vallandingham, 55, a Wildcat fan among Hoosiers. He had camped out for 36 hours to be first through the doors of Memorial Coliseum in Lexington for the Wildcats' traditional season-opening midnight practice on Oct. 15. A year earlier he had endured quadruple-bypass surgery. Now, as he fell from his chair, his heart survived the ultimate test.
You could get even the most fractious barroom to agree on at least three criteria for a great college basketball game. First, it must be a significant game. Let it decide an NCAA championship, as did the 1979 Magic-versus-Bird NCAA final between Michigan State and Indiana State, or Texas Western's 1966 title-game victory over Kentucky, the sport's Brown v. Board of Education. Or let it end a lengthy winning streak, like the 1968 regular-season victory by Houston over UCLA in the Astrodome or Notre Dame's 71-70 win that ended UCLA's 88-game streak in 1974.
Second, a great game must be superbly played. Few who witnessed Kentucky's 92-90 Mideast Regional final victory over Indiana in 1975 will forget the ferocity with which each pick was set and each pass was contested; anyone who saw Villanova shoot 79% in beating Georgetown 66-64 for the 1985 NCAA title still marvels that if the Wildcats had shot a mere 71%, they would have lost. Likewise, a superb individual performance—Walton's 21-for-22 shooting against Memphis State in the 1973 NCAA final, or the 16-point valedictory delivered by Princeton's Bill Bradley in the last five minutes of the consolation game against Wichita State at the 1965 Final Four—can edge a game in gold.
Finally, the contest must have drama. Some players, like Louisville's Terry Howard and Georgetown's Fred Brown, must die little deaths, and others, such as Loyola's Vic Rouse or North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles or Villanova's Harold Jensen, must live larger than ever before. Ideally, the story line should take a detour down the rutted byroad of a clock malfunction or a colorful colloquy between a coach and an official. By the end, winners and losers alike should leave their cheerleaders in tears.
Kentucky and Duke, two schools encrusted with basketball tradition, fulfilled each of these requirements when they hooked up on March 28 in the Spectrum. One program was just off the coronation of an NCAA championship. The other was just off the chastening of NCAA probation. In determining whether Duke would earn its fifth straight trip to the Final Four or if Kentucky would make its first trip after spending time in purgatory, the two teams shot a combined 61%, and Laettner, Duke's senior star, launched 20 shots on the evening, 10 from the field and 10 from the line, bottoming out each one. Dramaturges couldn't have scripted anything more compelling than the final 31.5 seconds: Five times the ball changed hands, and each possession resulted not only in a score but also in a lead change. Inasmuch as the man of the moment turned out to be Laettner, who undermined his statistically perfect night with a grotesquely imperfect lapse in decorum, the plot honored the cardinal rule of good storytelling—don't make the hero a one-dimensional character.