"It's hard to describe how unique this game really was, whether to those who weren't there or to those who never saw it live on TV. It was an era when Georgetown was the underdog, the school people cheered for, not against. Its sky-blue uniforms and sky-high enthusiasm permeated the nation that weekend, with as many as one-third of its student body on an unofficial spring break to the French Quarter. Some alumni even came to the game in formal wear, as if to recognize a gala performance. With five future NBA all-stars on the floor and two coaching legends on the sidelines, the game did not disappoint."--HoyaSaxa.com, 1999
In nearly 75 years of NCAA tournament basketball, there have been three truly transformative games. Three.
On March 23, 1957, North Carolina won its first NCAA championship in a 54-53, triple overtime win at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium. The game itself was a classic, not only for its duration, but for its reach. Only 10,500 attended the Saturday night event, but thanks to a Washington television producer named C.D. Chesley, it changed basketball forever.
Chesley saw the final two games of the tournament, years away from its Final Four moniker, as a great opportunity to reach the emerging TV audiences back in North Carolina. He lined up three TV stations, sold advertising time, and rented production equipment at no small expense to show the games back to North Carolina, which ended after midnight on the East Coast. The response was epic. When the Tar Heels returned home, 15,000 fans greeted them at the Raleigh-Durham airport, all because of TV. For two generations, the Chesley Network offered regular broadcasts of ACC games from Washington to Columbia, dutifully sponsored by Pilot Life Insurance, and television discovered the power of regional college basketball.
By 1979, however, college basketball was still a novelty at the national level. The ACC region had fallen in love with the game, but basketball was as still a hit or miss thing in many markets. NBC had bought annual rights to the NCAA tournament in the early 1970's but committed only to show the semifinals and finals nationally. Despite the bright lights of UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and many great teams of the era, NCAA basketball was an afterthought.
On March 28, 1979, that changed. The 1979 Final Four had all sorts of interesting stories, from the first Final Four for Ray Meyer's DePaul Blue Demons in 36 years, to the unlikely of entrants in Ivy champ Pennsylvania. But the national press zeroed in on the NCAA final between Michigan State, a Big 10 power with a charismatic sophomore named Earvin (Magic) Johnson, and Indiana State, still an unknown of sorts in college circles but undefeated all season, led by a rural wonder cut from Hollywood central casting: Larry Bird. While the game itself was somewhat less than memorable, the star power of these two collegians aligned the nation's attention to this weekend on the NCAA calendar, and the ratings have never been topped since: it remains the most watched basketball game (college or pro) ever in American television history.
Another phenomenon was born. In 1973, NBC was paying $1 million a year to broadcast the tournament. Now, just a year after the Michigan State-Indiana State game, emerging popularity pushed that number to $9.8 million a year to the NCAA, a huge sum for a college event. The following year, CBS shocked the sports world by outbidding NBC by 60 percent to broadcast the NCAA tournament in a multi-year deal which would pay as much as $26 million in the last year of the contract. "Before yesterday," wrote the New York Times, "CBS had not had a major television contract with the NCAA for almost two decades, since it televised a football game of the week in 1963." The latest iteration of that CBS contract begun in the 1981-82 season was renewed in 2010 for 14 years and $10.8 billion.
The tournament's stage would change as well. No longer were places like Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium or even Cole Field House able to host the championship. The NCAA moved the 1982 Final Four to a place basketball had never imagined: the Louisiana Superdome, the then-largest domed structure on earth. The 1982 Final Four would sell out this amazing building: 61,612. Excepting a 1951 Harlem Globetrotters exhibition in West Berlin, it would become the largest crowd ever to witness a basketball game. The uppermost seats in the building stood 19 stories tall and were 375 feet from the court. It didn't matter. Every seat was taken.
CBS had the venue. They would soon have the masterpiece that would define the championship game for the next 30 years, and it took place March 29, 1982.
If the 1979 Final Four seemed right out of a movie script, the 1982 final was even more intricate. The top seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (31-2) were no stranger to NCAA tournament play, having made the Final Four six times since 1965 under coach Dean Smith. But in Smith's 20 years at the helm, the Tar Heels had never won a title. Smith was labeled a "choker" by some in the regional press as a result.
Smith's opponent was an unlikely entrant, a 30-6 team at a school better known for academics than athletics. When Saturday Night Live's Joe Piscopo sought to characterize the two schools, his staccato sportscaster character whipped through a series of attributes on the strength of North Carolina. When he got to Georgetown, Piscopo stopped and said: "Georgetown! Hmmm?.....Good law school!"
The pre-game intrigue was more than that, of course. The sheer size of the event and the talent seen in the semifinals had elevated the national interest in the final to heights not seen since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, now the emerging superstars in the NBA, faced off three years earlier. Suddenly, the Final Four took on the national interest normally reserved for a Super Bowl, and in a stadium which had hosted two Super Bowls in the past five years, the media confluence seemed all but inevitable.
There was Dean Smith's Final Four near-misses, Smith's friendship with Georgetown's John Thompson, the novelty factor of Georgetown, a newcomer on the national stage, with the growing national awareness of a future star in Patrick Ewing. Through it all,
the game delivered. The 1982 championship game changed the way these games are seen. It was no longer a game, but a spectacle.
An audience estimated at 31 million tuned in for the show, and Act I opened with wonder. Thompson had told Ewing to set the tone inside by blocking the first six shots of the game, no matter what, in part to avoid the chance for Carolina to pick up early points on the run. Two blocks and four goaltends later, the crowd marveled at the reach of the freshman center. Georgetown had arrived on the big stage, and the audience settled in for a battle across the floor of the Superdome.
Georgetown's 12-6 lead seven minutes into the game was the largest lead of the game, and no team led by more than four for the rest of the game. The lead changed six times over the course of the first half, as the Tar Heels were led by a junior forward from Gastonia, NC in James Worthy and a freshman from Wilmington, NC gaining praise in ACC circles, but still unknown to much of the nation: a 6-5 guard named "Mike" Jordan. Georgetown answered with its own Gastonian, Eric Floyd, and with "Pat" Ewing in the middle, the teams volleyed back and forth. Worthy scored 12 of his 28 points in a first half run, but Georgetown held a 31-30 lead at the half--both teams were shooting over 50 percent between them.
The lead continued to change hands in the second--nine more times, in fact. A Ewing tip-in was met with a Worthy dunk; a Floyd jumper was matched with an outside shot from Jordan. Eric Smith would drive inside, and Sam Perkins would follow suit. Only in later years would fans realize the level of talent on the floor that night, and the epic battle to follow.
The second act was a heavyweight battle. Georgetown had maintained its halftime lead through much of the opening minutes of the vesper half, playing to its strengths on defense and using Ewing as an option inside. UNC made its run with 11:52 to play, when Worthy dunked over Floyd and picked up the basket and foul, 53-52. The teams held each other without a point for over three minutes in this era without the shot clock, until Worthy went inside for a second dunk and gave UNC a 54-53 lead with under eight minutes remaining. On the next series, Ewing went inside and dunked it over Perkins, 55-54.
Georgetown held Carolina on its next possession and Ed Spriggs added two free throws, 57-54. Carolina muscled inside, picking up free throws on its next three possessions to go up 59-56, with Ewing picking up a key fourth foul in the process. Thompson opted to keep Ewing in for the remainder of the game.
On the next series, Brown drove, was fouled, and connected on free throws. Now 59-58, Smith began to slow the pace of the game to the Tar Heels' liking. With 3:25 left, Jordan entered the lane and took a high arching jumper over Ewing, 61-58. A minute later, Ewing went inside with a jumper of his own, 61-60. It would now come down to one or two possessions per each team, and the tension was undeniable.
Act III of the drama began in the final two minutes. With UNC in its famous "Four Corners" spread/stall offense, still up one, forward Matt Doherty was fouled by Georgetown's Eric Smith with 1:19 remaining, still up one at 61-60. Doherty missed the front end of the one and one, and the Hoyas were back in business. Thirty two seconds later, Floyd hit a jumper in the lane, and Georgetown had taken the lead, 62-61. "Very suddenly," wrote Phil Musick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "there was no time to employ the Four Corners."
UNC's Dean Smith, not known for calling time outs late in games, did so at the 0:32 mark. Smith drew up two plays, one for a man to man defense if employed by the Hoyas, one for a zone defense. He recalled later that "I had a hunch we could wind up with Jordan as the shooter if the Hoyas were in a zone."
Georgetown returned to the zone.
Guard Jimmy Black set up the play and spotted Jordan on the left wing, who shook off Georgetown's Eric Smith and got open for a second. Black fired the pass to Jordan, who let loose a 15 footer with 17 seconds remaining. Jordan remarked after the game he had thought about a shot to win the game all weekend, and was determined to do so if given the opportunity.
"The play was designed for Mike to shoot the jumper," said Black. "They were in a 1-3-1 some and he should have had about a 15-foot shot after we passed it a couple of times."
With the birth of the Michael Jordan legend, the Tar Heels had retained the lead, 63-62, but the Hoyas would have one last chance.
Two concurrent events were in play in those fateful seconds. First, Georgetown did not call a time out, hoping to keep UNC away from setting up a defense for the final play and have enough time for Brown to bring the ball up the court, look to Ewing down low or Floyd gain position as he had done all season. As a result, UNC was not in a matched-up defense and its players were not in the correct position on the court--James Worthy, for instance, had not returned to the pivot where Ewing was setting up or to block Floyd from making a cut to the wing.
"We could have called timeout and set up a play, but I wouldn't have known what kind of defense Dean was going to use," said Thompson. "So I would have wasting my time setting up a play."
Second, Brown brought the ball to half court with under 10 seconds remaining, and something happened. No, not that.
"I picked up my dribble, and that killed it," said Brown. "At that point, I should have called time out. But I saw Eric [Floyd] open on the left baseline. But they over played, so I looked for Pat."
Ewing was covered inside by Perkins, who had moved over in Worthy's absence.
"But I decided to pass it to Eric Smith, who was on the right side of the lane. I thought I saw Smitty out of the right corner of my eye.
"It wasn't him."
This epic performance was soon halted amidst one of the most jarring pieces of drama ever seen in sports.
Brown's lateral pass landed in the arms of Worthy, who stood stunned for a moment, then proceeded to drive down the court as the crowd took note of what had apparently happened. Many fans were so far away in the Superdome that they only noticed that the lower level of the crowd had suddenly stood and pointed in the direction of the play; there were no video screens anywhere in the building. Unsure whether to drive for the basket or run out the clock, Worthy veered away from the basket and was fouled by a trailing Eric Smith with two seconds left.
So began what seemed like an eternity as the Superdome crowd and TV audience gathered its breath, looked upon the exhilaration and relief at the realization of Dean Smith's first title in seven tries, yet quickly drifted its attention back across the court, where the weight of the sports world had descended upon Brown's 20 year old shoulders. Wandering in the direction of the bench, Thompson took sight of Brown and hugged him.
Worthy, who had committed a similar turnover in the first half that is all but forgotten today, commented on why he was where he was.
"I saw the ball coming up court, I would have followed [Ed] Spriggs, but I had a feeling, it was an instinct. So I saw [Brown] faked, so I came right back out...I really thought he saw me and would try to bounce pass it by me or throw it over my head."
A crestfallen Eric Floyd recalled that "[Brown] was passing the ball to me, but I had cut away from him and to the corner."
"The first person we look for is Floyd," Eric Smith said. "But there was no set play. I was there at first, and I called for the ball. I guess [Brown] heard my voice and thought I was still there."
There is also a body of opinion that the uniform color affected the play, perhaps subconsciously.
Entering the final, Georgetown had wore its white home jerseys in 10 straight games dating back almost six weeks, and 13 of 14 dating back to February 2, before being the road team in the final. If Brown had grown used to seeing his teammates in white, the split second decision with someone in the forecourt wearing white and the blue number 2 (not Eric Smith's 32 or Gene Smith's 22, but Worthy's 52) might have played a role. But Brown never made an excuse.
"My peripheral vision is pretty good, " Brown told the Washington Post. "This time, it failed me. It was only a split second. But, you know, that's all it takes to lose a game. I knew it was bad as soon as I let it go. He didn't steal it, I gave it away."
Worthy's run down the court was crucial in another respect--the game was not over, even though many thought it was. Sent to the line, Worthy, who was only 2-5 at the line in the game, missed the first, then missed the second. Georgetown got the rebound, but just two seconds remained. Eric Floyd threw a 50 footer, which fell short. Had there been another second, maybe another five or ten feet closer, the ending very well could have been different.
The epilogue was a wild swing between the exhilaration of the Carolina fans and the stunned response from Georgetown's faithful. This was not the foul without time on the clock seven years earlier in Tuscaloosa, it was not even the three point play two years earlier in the Spectrum that erased a 16 point halftime lead. This was diferent. One possession from a chance to win the national title, it was suddenly all gone.
Thompson hugged Smith at halfcourt and made it a point to visit in the UNC locker room after the game. Lifelong friends, it was not easy for either, but Thompson paid Smith the respect of a hard fought game.
"Fred Brown sat at his locker and answered every question. It couldn't have been easy," wrote Michael Wilbon, then a 23 year old reporter from Northwestern University who had joined the Washington Post staff two years earlier. "About 30 of the more than 100 reporters surrounding Brown thanked him for answering the questions. Many shook his hand. "How can you be so composed?" someone asked. "This is part of growing up," Brown said.
College basketball was never quite the same after this game. Neither was Georgetown basketball.