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This was the national championship of dunk—the schoolyard, get-down, in-your-face, gimme-five, fall-back-baby, sky-king, over-you-chump and bad-dude championship, the one that counts anywhere there is a netless basket with a bent rim and broken glass on the asphalt. Louisville was playing ball at Nevada-Las Vegas last Saturday night and on street corners across the country anyone who worshiped at the altar of the between-the-legs dribble was breathlessly waiting for the result.
Both teams were in the nation's Top Ten. Louisville, working on a 15-game winning streak, ranked third according to one poll. Las Vegas with 55 straight home-court victories was rated eighth. But on style alone, these were easily the two best teams in the country, the visitors being the self-anointed Doctors of Dunk, while the Runnin' Rebels of Las Vegas were the Captains of Kangaroo.
Naturally, the 6,257-seat Las Vegas Convention Center had been sold out for months. The governor of Kentucky, Julian Carroll, was exiled into the upper balcony, and many of those lucky enough to get standing-room tickets were queued up in an arena concourse, watching the game on closed-circuit television. Everyone else in Vegas, including most of the 1,000 visiting Louisville fans, was obliged to watch the game on a delayed telecast.
No one was disappointed. The game had the pulse and pace of a horse race as Las Vegas rallied from 17 points down at one point to win, drilling in outside jumpers with a second-half flourish that dropped the red-hot Cardinals 99-96 and left witnesses feeling as if they had been plugged into an electric outlet for 40 minutes. The winning points came at the free-throw line, two by sophomore flash Reggie Theus and another pair by senior Glen Gondrezick, who made his despite two disconcerting timeouts called by Louisville with 10 seconds left.
Gondo's heroics not only shattered a winning streak but also spoiled Cupid's bow. Louisville Coach Denny Crum had momentarily retired his leisure wear Friday night and, attired in a dark three-piece suit, got married in Vegas. The Crums spent their honeymoon at courtside, Niagara Falls being closed for the winter.
"Basketball is his life," shrugged Joyce Crum, who is no stranger to the game. She met her new husband while working as a secretary in the school's basketball office.
The game matched the nation's top two coaches in winning percentage. Jerry Tarkanian's record entering the game was 214-35 (.859), Crum's was 136-32 (.809). Neither coach has ever had a team that did not rate at least a cameo appearance in the Top 20. The two had met only once before, when both were junior college coaches in California. Crum kidded that he had agreed to play the game only on the assurance that Tarkanian's wife Lois would not harass him from the stands.
Besides providing a stern test for a Louisville team that Crum thinks might be better than the one that finished third in the 1975 NCAA, the Vegas game also was geographically ideal for Crum. It allowed his California friends and relatives to attend the wedding, an event he admitted made him more nervous than any basketball game. On Friday afternoon, he cracked, "I just took a hot shower so I wouldn't get cold feet." Meanwhile, Tark the Shark was as timorous as a goldfish at the prospect of meeting such an awesome opponent. Louisville's 6'11" center, Ricky Gallon, was passing his toughest course, class attendance; million-dollar baby Darrell Griffith, although only a freshman, looked like the best sixth man in basketball; star Wesley Cox had discovered new medication for his chronic asthma; and the Cardinals were averaging 92 points over a nine-game stretch.
"We may not get a rebound," said Tarkanian woefully, gnawing on his fingernails and plowing furrows into his forehead deep enough to plant corn. Tark has a penchant for wearing short-sleeved shirts, chewing towels at courtside and voicing undue pessimism, probably because the NCAA has cited the school for so many transgressions that it might change its name to the University of Nevada at Alcatraz. Said Tarkanian, "If we make all of our shots it should be an even game. We may not get a rebound. Louisville's got three guys who can jump up and change the light bulbs. They might play volleyball with us, tip it from side to side, then spike it in."
The Runnin' Rebels were aware that Louisville, in its last three games, had out-dunked opponents 20-0. "I'll kill somebody before I'll let them dunk on me," maintained Theus. "That's the most embarrassing thing in the world."