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MERV LOPES, 75 now, still wades into the Pacific off the Big Island of Hawaii to throw a cast net. He loves fishing for the sheer lottery of it, for never knowing exactly what he'll take in—yet he's as sure as the tides that he'll eventually catch the big one. "And after you catch the big one," he says, "you never stop talking about it." ¶ A quarter century has passed since Chaminade, the NAIA school on a Honolulu hillside whose basketball team Lopes coached, found in its net the nation's No. 1 team, the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers of Ralph Sampson, the 7'4" center who would be a three-time NCAA player of the year.
Islanders and mainlanders alike still talk about what happened on the night of Dec. 23, 1982, in the Neal Blaisdell Center, even if—or perhaps because—fewer than 4,000 people witnessed it. "It still gives you the chicken skin," says Lopes, using an Islandism for goose bumps. And it has given college basketball much more. The game helped usher in an era of upsets and parity, heralding the astonishing NCAA title won that spring by North Carolina State. It led to the creation of what has become the Maui Invitational, the sport's most prestigious in-season tournament. And it assured that ESPN and its cable spawn would henceforth permit virtually no game to go untelevised.
Chaminade, with an enrollment of just 900 and run by the Marianists, paid Lopes only $10,000 a year to serve as coach, so he also held down a day job as a junior high guidance counselor. He begged towels from Waikiki Beach hotels. He drove the team's old Navy surplus van. He washed the players' uniforms himself in the Shack, the athletic department offices, which had been a boiler room when the campus served as a military hospital during World War II. And he yielded first dibs on time at McCabe Gym to St. Louis High, whose campus Chaminade still shares. "Never complained once," he says, "because who the hell was gonna listen?"
Although Lopes's roster was every bit as jerry-built as his program ("a little bit of this and a little bit of that," in his phrase), in the fall of 1982 the Silverswords retained their top six players from the previous season, when they had gone 28--3, the program's best record in its seven-year existence. "The guys came from all different backgrounds and weren't too stable," Lopes says. "But they played hard and played together."
Forward Richard Haenisch, who had arrived in Hawaii from Frankfurt, Germany as a 10th grader, enrolled at Chaminade because Lopes was the only coach to offer him a scholarship. Six-foot Tim Dunham, a preacher's son from Stockton, Calif., with a 42-inch vertical leap, "didn't drink and didn't smoke," Lopes recalls, "and didn't go to class too often."
Lopes found Dunham's backcourtmate, Mark Wells, playing pickup ball on L.A.'s Venice Beach, next to the bodybuilders. "He'd say things like, 'What you put in the washer, you take out of the dryer,'" Lopes says. "I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded pretty good to me."
A former Silversword turned Lopes on to the lunch-bucket forward Ernest Pettway, then haunting a rec center in Pasadena. "He didn't shoot very well, but at least I didn't have to tell him not to," his coach recalls. Lopes landed another starter literally at home. Guard Mark Rodrigues, Lopes's distant relative, starred at St. Louis High and, finding himself recruited by cousin Merv, concluded that "you can't say no to blood."
THEN, ON the eve of the 1982--83 season, Lopes fielded a call from an Air Force enlisted man on Oahu. The airman told him he had a 6'8" brother who was out visiting. Tony Randolph stood closer to 6'6", but fatefully hailed from Staunton, Va., the town just down the Shenandoah Valley from Harrisonburg, where Ralph Sampson grew up. Randolph had guarded Sampson in high school and played rec ball against him dozens of times. He had even gone out with Ralph's sister Valerie.
Lopes asked Randolph to jump into a workout. After he threw down a dunk from the wing during a 3-on-2 drill, Lopes says, "We enrolled him, and that was it."
"Most of the players on our team felt they were Division I caliber," says Haenisch, now a stockbroker living in Beverly Hills, Calif. "So every time we played a D-I opponent, it was a kind of vendetta. Every time, Tony Randolph would show."