There was a time, long ago, when the world was young and uncomplicated and comparatively drug-free, and when nobody cared about the Final Four. The thing was lowercased then rather than a registered trademark, like Xerox or Ping-Pong. It was merely an event, not a spectacular, certainly not Serious Business.
Early this basketball season, when a newspaper reporter writing about the format of the NIT-Big Apple tournament referred to its conclusion in New York City as the "final four," he received an admonitory letter from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, pointing out that the Final Four belonged to the NCAA. Well, sure it does, but it belongs to more than just the NCAA. The momentous occasion has become so popular, so national, a sort of people's park of sport, that while Ronald Reagan might not dial up the winners' locker room, he does invite the victors to the White House, same as the World Series and national spelling-bee champs.
Back when nobody cared, however, a man (then a boy) remembers the Final Four belonging only to himself. This boy appreciated baseball and football and Howdy Doody and Annette and peanut-butter sandwiches and all the other spectacular thrills of youth, but the national collegiate basketball championship was something extra special, probably because it was his alone, his secret thing. At least, that's what he thought. This was before the Weather Channel, remember, before something called "mass communications," before the global village. Though the NCAA tournament began in 1939, the very year commercial television was invented, the two didn't merge on a national basis for 15 years, and even then very few stations picked up the 1954 championship game between La Salle and Bradley. Why, a boy had to listen to the radio back then and could only imagine what Tom Gola looked like. ( Tom Gola, by the way, was Bill Bradley before Larry Bird was a twinkle in his mama's eye.) And, too, a boy could only imagine what La Salle's uniforms with sleeves looked like.
So the boy grew up, he went to as many local college games as he could. He kept score, all the points and fouls, on the radio games, too—in anticipation of the big tournament. One March night in 1956, during the broadcast of an NCAA first-round game, he was forced to leave hearth and home and go with his family to an ice-cream parlor for dessert. Normally he would have loved this sojourn, for the parlor had the best homemade ice cream that ever had filled his chubby face. But that rainy night the boy refused to go into the parlor. He sat outside in the car and listened to the end of the game—N.C. State versus Canisius. It went four overtimes, and before it was over ( Canisius, 79-78) the announcer, Bill Mazer, went completely hoarse. Sitting alone in the old family Nash, the boy thought this was all fairly amazing; that this national college basketball tournament must really be something. The best part of all was that nobody knew about it but him.
Soon the boy chose his college partly because he figured it might get him closer to the NCAA tournament. And he may even have chosen a career, a way of life, so that he could take part in it. After all, he still knew the secret of the NCAAs, something nobody else seemed to know.
In the mid-'50s the NCAA was still begging the Associated Press to move the tournament bracket on the wire, and even as late as 1972—four years after the Houston- UCLA game in the Astrodome drew 52,693 and supposedly transfixed the country—only a small portion of the nation's TV households got to see both semifinal games in the Final Four in Los Angeles. "A regional sport," the networks kept calling college basketball. Fine, the man kept thinking, they'll never figure it out, and it's still my event, to have and to hold.
But just the other day the man stumbled upon some bittersweet figures. For a long time, he was forced to admit, the secret had been out. In 1973, the championship game was moved from its traditional Saturday afternoon to Monday night prime time. By 1981, NBC was paying $10 million to televise the tournament, and a year after that, CBS swiped the package, adding far more tournament games than had ever been shown before. This year CBS is paying $32 million to the NCAA; each Final Four school will receive about $825,000.
Amid the swirl of numbers out of the 1985 Final Four, the man found these very instructive: Over the breadth of a year, the NCAA received 140,000 applications in the mail, each requesting four seats at $43 per, which meant the organization could have sold 560,000 tickets worth $2.4 million to the two sessions in Lexington. And there was also this: The 1985 radio broadcast drew an adult (over-18) audience of 20,280,000 listeners, roughly 12% of the entire adult population of the U.S.
Uh, oh. With that the man took himself back, metaphysically at least, to that rainy night outside the ice-cream parlor. But it wasn't the same. Never again could he sit in the car and listen to his tournament on the radio and consider himself alone with his closet passion. There was nothing to do but go in and order a banana split.
In the history of the Final Four there are as many landmark years—turning points that have helped ingrain the event in the American consciousness—as there are favorite teams, players and plays: