Sports have always been a major factor in my life, and although I appreciate and like just about every sport known to man and woman – from tournament bass fishing to the luge – it’s basketball that holds a special place in my being.
For my money, basketball players rank among the finest all-around athletes in the world. Despite their impressive size and stature (yes, I know there are smaller cagers, too), hoopsters like LeBron James, Dr. J. Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and countless others too numerous to mention, display an eye-popping level of coordination and quickness that is hard to imagine on a 6-8, 250-pound frame.
The moves the great ones are able to make are breathtaking at times, and I don’t think athletes in any other sport can match their agility, strength, endurance and overall skills. It’s not much of a stretch to compare them to ballet artists in the way they can control their bodies in order to achieve the desired goal. I’ve witnessed it up close and personal and it’s truly amazing to behold.
My love affair with round ball began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were living in Decatur, Ill. at the time and my mother worked as a secretary/office manager in one of the city’s junior high schools. The woman was determined to introduce me to the world of sports so we attended just about every home game of the Stephen Decatur High “Runnin’ Reds” who were known for their toughness and winning tradition.
I was hooked almost instantly, and rapidly became a huge fan. Names like Al and Jim Risby and Kenney Barnes still send chills down my spine when my mind drifts back to those days of glory on the hard-court. One of the fondest sports memories in my life occurred in 1962 when the Runnin’ Reds made it all the way to the state championship game at the University of Illinois in Champaign. There were no classes at that time, so the true Illinois hoops champion held the undisputed title … no doubt.
As the Reds took us on that magical journey to immortality, I was beside myself with excitement. The final game for the crown featured Decatur High vs. Chicago Carver, which had a player by the name of Cazzie Russell. Anyone who knows anything about basketball knows about the legendary Jazzie Cazzie. The man was pretty much unstoppable with his velvet shooting touch and quickness extraordinaire.
But somehow, some way, the kids from Decatur got it done. Barnes made a free throw in the closing seconds to seal the deal and we celebrated with milk shakes and a relatively new phenomenon called pizza. The resilient Reds were the best high school team in Illinois, and, arguably, the nation.
Oddly enough, that game was not the only time Cazzie came up short with the title on the line. In 1965, while starring for the University of Michigan, Cazzie and Co. lost to the UCLA Bruins and a fine left-handed guard by the name of Gail Goodrich. Athletics can be cruel that way sometimes.
As the years passed, my love for the game got stronger and stronger. A devotee of the incomparable David Thompson and the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the mid 1970s, I actually wept with happiness when David T. and his teammates upset mighty UCLA in 1974 in double overtime to end the Bruins’ streak of national championships at seven in a row. UCLA was led by a big redhead named Bill Walton, and to this day he admits he hasn’t gotten over that loss to N.C. State.
Naturally, it’s at this time of year that my interest in college basketball is piqued. The annual NCAA men’s tournament remains one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports. Sure, the World Series and Super Bowl rank right up there with any of the great sporting events, but they lack a certain something when compared to the basketball Madness of March. With 68 teams involved, it’s impossible to predict exactly what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it so much fun. Basketball is and always has been a team game (perhaps the ultimate team game), and if a group of young men actually play as a team – as one – they can achieve the dream of dreams and slay Goliath. It’s been done, and it will surely happen again.
While many would refer to N.C. State’s dramatic last-second victory over the University of Houston – known as Phi Slamma Jamma for all the times they’d dunk the ball during a game – as the upset of all upsets, I would beg to differ. The Wolfpack’s stunning victory over UCLA in 1974 ranks right up there, but it happened during the semifinals, not the finals.
For my money, the most memorable upset occurred in 1985 when lightly regarded Villanova was supposed to be the final victim of a powerful Georgetown team that was led by behemoth Patrick Ewing and was seeking its second title in a row. Most experts agreed, Villanova stood little if any chance of dethroning the mighty Hoyas. However, the “experts” don’t play the game, the kids do, and the Wildcats and Coach Rollie Massimino believed they could pull off the miracle.
That’s exactly what happened. Villanova played a game for the ages and beat Coach John Thompson and big, bad Georgetown 66-64. The Cats hit a mind-boggling 22 of 29 shots and went 9-for-10 in the second half (it was before the shot clock). As a non-Georgetown fan, I was elated and was reminded that basketball is a unique sport where the strong and powerful do not always prevail. Saaaweeeeet!!!
So who will win this year’s tournament? The smart money is probably on North Carolina, but don’t count out South Carolina, Oregon or Gonzaga. It’s the NCAA’s shining moment, and we should all remember that anything could happen. Just ask Cazzie Russell, or Bill Walton or Patrick Ewing – they’ll agree.