Thursday, April 4, 2013

Wolfpack's amazing championship still inspires 30 years later

Thirty years ago tonight, nearly to the minute, I — and thousands of others — experienced a moment as  sports fans that we will never forget.
Whether you were a fan of the N.C. State men's basketball team, you will always remember the way the Wolfpack defeated top-ranked and heavily-favored Houston 54-52 to win the NCAA championship. When Dereck Whittenburg's shot went up from 30-plus feet with 5 seconds to go, who really thought that Lorenzo Charles was waiting under the rainbow to dunk the ball and with it, Phi Slamma Jamma's dream of a national title.
Through ESPN's 30 for 30 presentation on the '83 Wolfpack, "Survive and Advance," I've been able to relive so many moments of State's magical run that culminated April 4, 1983, in Albuquerque, N.M.
I was a junior in high school, an unabashed State fan and can clearly remember so many of those games, how unbelievable the outcomes were but also, how I slowly began to think that winning the NCAA championship was the Wolfpack's destiny.
After all, State had a pretty good team at the beginning of the year but lost Whittenburg to a broken foot against Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Virginia and the mighty Ralph Sampson in January. When Whittenburg returned near the end of the regular season, the rest of the Wolfpack had learned to play without him.
The first instance State was going to be a factor was when it scored 130 points on senior day against Wake Forest in Reynolds Coliseum in the final regular-season game. Then the 'Pack needed Charles to hit 1 of 2 free throws in the final seconds to escape the Demon Deacons 71-70 in the first round of the ACC tournament.
After State toppled defending NCAA champion North Carolina, led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, in the ACC semifinals, the 'Pack still had to beat Sampson and UVA in the championship game — and they did.
Perhaps the only time in State's run that I didn't think it was going to win came in its NCAA opener against Pepperdine in Corvallis, Ore. I stayed up late, on a Friday night I think, to watch. Somehow the Wolfpack turned around a late six-point deficit, went to overtime, then another overtime before winning.
In the final against Houston, which had just defeated Louisville in the most breathtaking college basketball game ever played in the national semifinals, I remember thinking that State was going to win. I didn't know how, because Houston had Akeem Abdul Olajuwon (as he was then called) and Clyde Drexler, but I knew they were going to win.
Several of us gathered at the home of one of our Hunt baseball teammates to watch the championship game. We were on spring break but those of us who played baseball had to stay in town for the Breakfast Optimist Easter Tournament in Fleming Stadium before we could head to Atlantic Beach for the rest of break.
Most of us were State fans but a couple were Carolina fans —who were rooting for the 'Pack just as hard as anyone — as we watched the tense game unfold.
As Whittenburg's shot was calmly collected and dunked by Charles, who seemed to be the only guy on the court who realized the buzzer hadn't sounded, there was a split second as everyone in the room processed what had happened. Then we converged in a joyous group hug that miraculously didn't break anything in my friend's living room (although his father was right in the middle of the jubilant scrum).
I didn't even see State coach Jim Valvano's famous dash around the court looking for somebody to hug because we were all hugging each other.
In my 40 or so years of watching sports, as a fan and a writer, I've yet to experience anything to top State's amazing run. Of course, Barton's march to the NCAA Division II title in 2007, along with the finish of the Bulldogs' championship game win over Winona State, was just as enthralling but I can't say it was better than State's run.
So much importance is placed on sports in our society. It's hard to consider a game more viable than real life and I've long tried to maintain that perspective. But sometimes things happen in the sporting world that provides a glimpse of something greater than the game or even day-to-day life.
As I look back on that unforgettable, incredible run, it seems even more unbelievable now. But it happened. It really did happen.
As Valvano said during a speech in Reynolds Coliseum celebrating the 10th anniversary of that title run shortly before his death in 1993, the most important thing he learned from that team was how much those guys loved each other.
Maybe that's the reason behind their miraculous run, I don't know. But I do know that miracles like the '83 Wolfpack and the '07 Bulldogs can happen and they will probably happen again.
And when they do, they'll enrich everyone who pays attention, just like the Wolfpack did 30 years ago tonight.