Friday, April 01, 2005

From St. Louis to Philly to Salt Lake [And Even to Veterans Auditorium!]

Some of the things I’ve been thinking about as the NCAA Final Four gets closer:

1. If Illinois ends up playing Michigan State in an all-Big Ten championship game Monday night, I think commissioner Jim Delany should toss up the basketball on the opening center jump—right after telling the fans in the arena and the TV audience on a microphone, “Not bad for a league that’s having a ‘down’ year, right?” And Iowa coach Steve Alford, who has been talking all week about what it was like to play Illinois, Michigan State, Louisville and North Carolina this season, should be the ballboy during the title game. Coach K, who has nothing to do this weekend, can do the commercials. He's been getting some good practice on the tube. At doing commercials, I mean.

2. This was a few years ago. Bruce Weber and I were both at a place we didn’t especially want to be. Weber was then coaching at Southern Illinois, and the Salukis had a game that Saturday afternoon against Northern Iowa in the old West Gym on the campus at Cedar Falls. The West Gym wasn’t much bigger than a telephone booth. Crawling up to the press box was about as much fun as changing a tire on I-80 at 2 o’clock in the morning. Weber was as nice a guy then as he seems to be now. In fact, he was so nice I thought he’d be the gym teacher by now in a place like Grundy Center, Ia., instead of being in charge of an Illinois basketball team with a 36-1 record.

3. I’ve got to admit it. I never thought Tom Izzo, who was Jud Heathcote’s assistant at Michigan State for so long, would ever amount to much as the Spartans’ head coach. But here he is, in his fourth Final Four in seven seasons.

4. St. Louis is an excellent place to host a Final Four. The first Final Four I was on hand for in person was in 1973 at the St. Louis Arena. I’d never seen anything like it. In UCLA’s 87-66 victory over Memphis State in the championship game before a crowd approaching 20,000, Bill Walton made 21 field goals in 22 shots and scored 44 points for the Bruins. It was the seventh straight NCAA title for John Wooden’s team, and he did a masterful job of coaching and handling the emotions of Walton, who was just as interested in talking about the “Peace Movement” as he was playing center in Division I basketball.

5. The best Final Four game I wasn’t on hand for personally was between Drake and UCLA on March 20, 1969 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. That was the game won by Wooden’s Bruins over Maury John’s Bulldogs, 85-82, in the semifinal round. I had covered the last dozen or so regular-season games played by Drake that year, but then Maury White somehow discovered that the Bulldogs had a basketball team. So he was assigned to the NCAA games, or assigned himself, and I got to cover the state high school girls’ tournament at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. I guess my boss, Leighton Housh—one of the three best sports editors I worked with at the local paper—was impressed with my work at the girls’ tournament the year before. So he thought I should cover the ’69 title game, too. The 1968 six-girl championship game was the masterpiece in which Union-Whitten outscored Everly, 113-107, in overtime. That titanic struggle was the one that saw Jeanette Olson score 76 points and Denise Long score 64. In the 1969 title game, Montezuma beat Allison-Bristow, 66-60. I don’t remember anything about that game. I think it’s because I was trying to keep track on the radio of how many points Willie McCarter was scoring against UCLA. Shame on you, Leighton.

6. The best Final Four championship game I’ve seen in person was when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team, 75-64, in Salt Lake City in 1979. Johnson [24 points, seven rebounds and five assists] and Greg Kelser [19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists] were too much for Bird, who fell victim to a double-team defense that kept the ball away from him. Bird went 7-for-21 from the field and scored 19 points. He also had 13 rebounds, two assists and six turnovers. I wanted Indiana State to win because Bird and his team had played in Des Moines during the Missouri Valley Conference season, and people from the Big Ten were in the habit of looking down their noses at Bird, who had a hillbilly reputation, and his teammates from sleepy little Terre Haute, Ind.

7. Speaking of all-Big Ten title games, how about Johnny Orr’s Michigan team against Bobby Knight’s Indiana team in the 1976 title game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia? I was there for that one, too. That was so long ago that Knight was still wearing those goofy red plaid sportcoats and neckties when he sat on the bench. Now, of course, he wears those goofy black sweaters that have an O’Reilly Auto Parts logo on the front. Orr’s Wolverines held a 35-29 halftime lead, but Indiana—led by Scott May, the father of present North Carolina standout Sean May—was too much for ol’ Johnny. Indiana won, 86-68, to finish a 32-0 season in the shadow of the Liberty Bell.

8. The most emotional title game I was on hand for was in 1977, when Marquette stopped North Carolina, 67-59, at Atlanta. The game was McGuire’s swan song as a collegiate coach, but fortunately he became a TV commentator and continued to share his wisdom with all of us. Where is Al when we need him now? I’ve had more of Billy Packer already this season than I can stand.

9. I wonder if Drake will ever get back? To a .500 record, I mean.

10. Well, here’s how it will go this weekend, boys and girls: On Saturday, Illinois 85, Louisville 81, and Michigan State 73, North Carolina 65. In Monday night’s championship game: Illinois 88, Michigan State 77. Remember, you saw it here first.

Vol. 4, No. 329
April 1, 2005