Arkansas's Scotty Thurman has always kept his mouth in gear, whether playing the tuba, which he did back at Ruston (La.) High, or serving as president of that school's student council or playing basketball. Before games he'll go up to the referees and tell them straight up: "I just want you to know that I'm gonna talk. I'm gonna talk to you, I'm gonna talk to myself and I'm gonna talk to other people. I'm not going to say anything vulgar. But I'm gonna talk. That's just the way I am."
NCAA championship games are ordinarily occasions for walking it, not talking it. Yet just before halftime of Monday night's final, as the Razorbacks found themselves trailing Duke, Thurman, a 6'6" swingman, complained to referee Jim Burr about the defense being applied to him by the Blue Devils' Antonio Lang.
"Just play, O.K.?" Burr barked back. "Don't be coming to me all night."
Thurman didn't utter a word in reply. He simply tossed the ball through the basket from beyond the three-point arc the next time he touched it, to give the Hogs a one-point halftime lead. When the second half reached an even more critical juncture—score knotted 70-70, a mere 52.5 seconds remaining—Thurman beat a dying shot clock and sent another wordless trey whispering through the net to give the Razorbacks a 76-72 victory and their first NCAA basketball title.
Having walked it, now Thurman could talk it. "You're surprised, huh?" he yelled after he bottomed out the game-winner, turning toward press row and the multitudes above, echoing the Dangerfieldian keynote his coach, Nolan Richardson, had sounded all season long.
It's a stretch to suggest that a team picked no worse than No. 3 in the preseason, a team that was voted No. 1 over nine weeks of the regular season (more than any other team), a team that appeared on national television eight times (not including an edition of Nightline last week), a team that was favored in every one of its tournament games, a team whose coach was voted Coach of the Year and a team that the leader of the free world rearranged his schedule to watch is being slighted somehow. But the fury Richardson stokes in the Razorbacks serves a purpose, and he is far too intelligent not to have kept the embers smoldering until he smoked out every last doubter by reaching his ultimate goal. When tournament officials changed the time of Arkansas's 45-minute shootaround last Saturday before its 91-82 semifinal win over Arizona, word never reached Richardson, and the late-arriving Razorbacks got only eight minutes of work in before being kicked off the Charlotte Coliseum floor; Richardson thought to make mention of this more than once. Before the title game, Richardson laid a T-shirt on the locker-room floor; on the shirt was printed a tournament bracket that showed Michigan having beaten Arkansas. Just a couple more slights to help get the Razorbacks through.
This season alone Richardson has invoked images of sledgehammers, broken-down doors, rabid dogs, prairie fires and street fights to describe the M.O. of his team. A few seasons ago he tried to get people to call the Hogs' old home, Barnhill Arena, the Slaughterhouse—presumably making his team the Slaughterhouse Five—and one gets the distinct impression he regrets that the name never caught on. Surely if any team was being dissed, however, it was any one with the temerity to think it could take on the Razorbacks, for Arkansas regarded opponents with a businesslike contempt. I'M SORRY, read a hat Thurman wore last Week. I THOUGHT YOU COULD PLAY.
In Charlotte the Razorbacks executed almost everything that can be done on a basketball court. They scored inside and they scored outside, on standard dial-1 three-pointers and on Alex Dillard's ridiculous dial-011 treys. They scored on sublime high-low passes from Corliss (Big Nasty) Williamson, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, to cutting teammates for layups; they scored on long inbounds passes that must have warmed the heart of that old Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. On defense they pressed full-court and trapped half-court and fell back into a thick zone. They showed themselves to be tough, skilled, tenacious and, undeniably, smart.
Richardson managed his diverse talent superbly. With the development of 6'11" freshman Darnell Robinson, Richardson became more sparing in the use of hellacious defensive pressure, preferring a half-court game in which he could exploit Robinson, Williamson and another 6'11" freshman, Lee Wilson. And on offense, even 6'8", 260-pound Dwight Stewart, who picked up two nicknames (Fat Flight and Big Dog) and multifarious skills in the rec centers of Memphis (where he was a summer league teammate of Anfernee Hardaway's), declined to poach into the lane, lest he interfere with the 6'7", 245-pound Williamson's light-footed moves around the basket. "Keep it wide," said Stewart of the Razorbacks' spacing and deference to Big Nasty, "and let him go."
Williamson dominated the win over Arizona, a game rich with omens. As the First Family looked on—the Clintons were in two skyboxes—a guy named Ted Hillary refereed the game, and Wilbur the Wildcat tore up his knee in a collision with the Razorbacks' mascot. "En garde!" was the Wildcats' publicity slogan this season, a reference to their backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves. But Arizona got only a half out of each of its sterling guards. Stoudamire missed 10 of 11 shots in the first; Reeves bricked eight of nine in the second. Touché.