SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
March 31, 1986
Our basketball-minded author once believed that the NCAA Final Four belonged to him alone. Well, now he has to share
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March 31, 1986


Our basketball-minded author once believed that the NCAA Final Four belonged to him alone. Well, now he has to share

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Any teams starring Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton would have earned their keep anywhere, but it is also true that under the tournament's old and rigid regional format—West versus Midwest in one bracket, East versus Mideast in the other—UCLA had only to win the Pacific Eight (easily the toughest league west of the Mississippi), then get by an occasional Long Beach State to reach the championship game.

But in '73 the NCAA began rotating the regional matchups in the Final Four, and sure enough, in '74 UCLA had to face its Grim Reaper, North Carolina State, in the semis. Then in '75 the tournament fathers went a huge step further, expanding the field from 25 to 32 teams and inviting more than the standard one team per conference. By '80 the NCAA field had been enlarged to 48 and, more important, the tournament draw was balanced by a seeding system whereby any team from anywhere could be placed in any one of the four regions.

In the 1975 tournament, for the first time, UCLA had to play five games to win it all. With a last gasp—and it was a gasp—the Bruins barely escaped Montana in the second round and, Dame Fortune abounding, both Louisville and Kentucky in the Final Four at San Diego. Then Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, finally retired. In the next four years, 16 different teams advanced to the Final Four. The NCAA's expansion balancing had done the trick. From that came other improvements. Through 1981—43 tournaments—there were but three one-point games in the final. And then: three of the next four championship games decided by a single bucket. The shocking victories by N.C. State in '83 and Villanova in '85 are vivid reminders of the inherent possibilities in sport—of the underdog factor, of surprise, bewilderment, drama. Of life itself.

What the expansionists created was not so much a newfangled Final Four as a magical Final Month. And even if there is little mystery left, there is a good side to that, too. "When we played Wilt in '57," says Tommy Kearns of North Carolina's undefeated NCAA championship squad, "he was a god, one of the most famous guys in the country. Wilt the Stilt, jeez. But we had never really seen him." A god like Kansas's Wilt Chamberlain could never develop in darkness today. Because of summer camps, all-star games and the dusk-to-dawn explosion of cable TV, college basketball players from coast to coast know each other as brothers, angling for a chance to show each other up in late March.

The very first national collegiate championship was won by Oregon in 1939 when Howard Hobson's Tall Firs—who towered an outrageous 6'4", 6'9", 6'4" across the tree line—cut down Ohio State 46-33 at Patten Gym in Evanston, Ill. Buckeye captain James Hull later said his team had simply been "not interested in playing in this tournament. It was just so new...unheard of." The Buckeyes themselves had not even heard of it until after they had won the Big Ten because their coach, Harold (Oley) Olsen, whose idea the national tournament was, did not bother to tell them. Oley, Oley in free. The Firs, meanwhile, had earlier in the season barnstormed across the country, all the way to New York City, where The New York Times took one look at center Urgel (Slim) Winter-mute and labeled the team the "Giants from the Far West." Wintermute is believed to be the charter member of the charter all-name team.

For the first seven years of the tournament there was no such thing as a Final Four, or even a final four; only two teams advanced to the final game from a pair of four-team regions. Oregon won that first final but nearly lost the championship trophy when 5'8" Bobby Anet, a fern among the firs, dived for a loose ball over the top of a courtside table and clipped the basketball player figurine off the top of the trophy. "When they presented the trophy to us...they had to hold the figure on top. It was a two-handed presentation," said John Dick, who had led the winners with 15 points. Wintermute was mostly mute, finishing with four.

Last April, Hull, now an orthodontist in Columbus, received a call at his office from a bar in New Jersey. "Thersh not much differensh between then and now in thish NCAA basketball shtuff, ish there?" the caller slurred. "Thish guy Ewing got 14 points in the finalsh and losht and you got 14 in the finalsh and losht. No differensh."

Hull was kind enough not to tell the drunk that there was a difference. Hull scored 12 points in the 1939 championship game.

Contradictions. In the 1974 semifinals at Greensboro, UCLA had blown an 11-point lead over N.C. State not once but twice in regulation and a seven-point lead in the second overtime. The Wolfpack had an insurmountable 80-75 lead when Bill Walton scored his final college basket of championship play. As he loped down the floor with four seconds left—the string of seven straight championships broken, the Bruin dynasty crumbling—Walton nodded to teammate Greg Lee, as if to say, "It's over...yeah...but it's O.K."

Nearly 12 years later, Walton said of such moments, "Those are the ones that really kill you.... At UCLA you didn't play to win a conference or to come in second. Your goal was the championship. [The defeat] really stays with you. I was really down that day. When I think about it—like now—I get down."

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