For more than 30 years this has been my favorite time of the year as a sports columnist.
Nothing beats the drama along the way to crowning a college basketball national champion.
College basketball is a team game. Those players who get to play in the Final Four have a lifetime memory that money cannot buy. The game has evolved to the point that the Final Four games are now televised on three networks. One carries the game with network announcers, supposedly neutral. The other two have the announcing crews of the teams they follow. They let you know which team they want to win. They are, let’s admit it, homers.
But the Final Four is much more than televised games. The host city is filled with college hoops fans.
They know the game. They follow recruiting as a second religion. You can find them in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, on the streets, in the bars. They love to talk the game. There are no strangers.
When covering the Final Four, a lot of writers would hang out at the hotel lobby where most of the top coaches stayed.
Basketball coaches love to gossip. Writers love to listen, scribbling notes. Coaches know which schools are going to change coaches. They know who is going to get this job, that job. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong. But you couldn’t resist listening.
It’s a close-knit society. Writers got to know a lot of coaches back before the NCAA got all prim and proper and started calling players student-athletes.
Funny, I never thought of Austin Peay’s James “Fly" Williams as a student-athlete. Fly was a Brooklyn street kid who had more offensive tricks than the Globetrotters.
At the Final Four, you used to actually interview the players, with locker rooms open to the media.
I was there when UNLV murdered Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski quietly entered the UNLV locker room to congratulate the Runnin’ Rebels. The music was deafening. UNLV star Larry Johnson was the first to spot Coach K. He yelled at his teammates to shut off the music. “Hey, knuckleheads!! It’s Coach K.!!"
Now the “student-athletes" sit up on a high riser above the media after NCAA Tournament games. They each have a microphone in front of them, with blinding lights in their eyes that often prevents them from seeing anyone.
You have to love the upsets. I covered the 1985 Final Four when 8-seed Villanova took down Patrick Ewing and mighty Georgetown, 66-64. I referred to the underdogs as “Vanilla-nova" in a pre-game column. I pleaded with them to mail in the score in a life-saving measure. Good thing they didn’t have Twitter, Facebook and e-mail then. I caught enough grief as it was.
My all-time favorite was covering the late Jim Valvano’s last Final Four in The Pit at Albuquerque. His 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack won in improbable fashion over heavily favored Phi Slamma Jamma’s Houston team, with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
State won when guard Dereck Whittenburg lofted a desperation shot just inside mid-court. It was short, but landed in the hands of Lorenzo Charles. He laid it in at the buzzer for a 54-52 win. It sent Jimmy V. racing around the court looking for people to hug.
They didn’t call it that then, but THAT was One Shining Moment. Most experts believe it was the biggest upset ever in a championship game.
Sports memories don’t get any better than that.
Contact Wilson Post Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.