I literally jumped.
Not many sports moments have prompted this keister off the couch with such adrenaline. But Lorenzo Charles did 40 years ago.
It was a moment that changed the way we saw college basketball — and the way we watched the Final Four and NCAA tournament.
The best part: Nobody saw it coming.
My first memories of the Final Four were in the early 1970s. There was a doubleheader on NBC on Saturday around noon. The championship game was Monday night.
But the ratings weren’t good, unless you were a UCLA fan. There wasn’t a lot of drama in the Final Four. It was always the UCLA Show.
That was basketball then.
It was the little brother to major league baseball, the NFL, boxing and college football. There was no shot clock. No 3-point line. Games could be tedious, watching guards pass it back and forth.
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It took personalities to change all that. And they came in a hurry.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979. Then Dave Gavitt formed the Big East. Then ESPN was born and needed programming.
By 1983, college hoops on cable TV had momentum. And coming off a kid named Michael Jordan beating Georgetown and Patrick Ewing at the buzzer in 1982.
But Final Four in Albuquerque changed everything. It had all the makings of a historic moment. It had a hook.
It had Houston and Phi Slama Jama, the high-flying dunk act led by Hakeem Olajuwon. This was power and athleticism and skill — entertainment — the college game had not yet seen.
It had Jim Valvano, the fast-talking comedian from New York, cracking jokes and winning buzzer-beaters as his North Carolina State team rode fate’s jet stream to the final. A classic underdog.
And I had a ticket. That is, to the Saturday games.
As a college writer at the Kansas City Star, I just covered Houston as it won the Midwest Regional in Kansas City. It was Olajuwon’s national coming out party. The next big thing was here.
My main beat was Big Eight football and Nebraska-Oklahoma, so I wasn’t sent to cover the Final Four. But I had the next best thing.
My roommate, Mike Swanson, worked as the stats man and spotter for CBS and Brent Musburger and Billy Packer. Mike secured me the ticket.
The Final Four wasn’t like it is today. It was better.
It was held in a smaller arena, where fans were close to the court — not the sterile, corporate NFL structures of today.
We watched the Saturday games, including the unforgettable Houston-Louisville game which was an endless reel of highlight dunks that blew everyone’s mind.
I had to get back to work Monday, but that was OK. I was convinced I had just seen the national championship game.
I tuned in to see how Valvano would handle Phi Slama Jama. Then it happened.
The Wolfpack, with its veteran guards, had a 33-25 halftime lead. Houston star Clyde Drexler had four fouls. The Cougars looked spent after that breathless pace Saturday in the high elevation.
Which meant the sports world outside of south Texas was happy. Everyone was rooting for the funny man and his band of underdogs.
America loves an underdog. And it was something unfamiliar to college basketball’s main event.
Then the second half started. Houston went on a 17-2 run. Order restored.
But Houston coach Guy Lewis did something curious: He ordered his team to pull back. The lack of a shot clock was a way for underdogs to even the game. But here was the favorite doing it.
It backfired. The Wolfpack clawed back until it was 52-52 with the last shot.
Dereck Whittenburg took it, after nearly losing the ball at midcourt. He recovered but with time running out, he had to hoist a desperation shot that fell short.
Somehow, someway, Charles, the sophomore power forward, appeared like he came through a trapdoor.
He caught the shot short of the rim and dunked it at the buzzer.
That’s when I jumped. I might have screamed. I wasn't alone. We didn’t know it then, but as Valvano zig-zagged around the court, looking for someone to celebrate with, college basketball grew up.
Soon, the tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams. The NCAA installed a shot clock and a 3-point line.
ESPN would show all the games of the tournament, sometimes four at once on one screen.
And the sport would scratch our itch for gambling and entertainment with the NCAA bracket office pool.
When Lo Charles dunked that ball, it opened the door to possibilities. If this No. 6 seed could get hot and cut down the nets, maybe your team could, too.
Two years later, No. 8 seed Villanova expanded our imaginations by taking down another Goliath in Georgetown with a methodical game plan.
It was the last game without a shot clock.
Then Keith Smart hit the buzzer-beater in 1987 and Danny Manning and the “Miracles” wrote their chapter in this magical book called March Madness.
The small arenas went away and the crowds grew bigger. More money and more TV networks got involved.
But mid-majors began taking down the big boys with regularity, and even showed up at the Final Four.
And we’re to the point now where we don’t blink when Furman takes down Virginia. And while the blue bloods still seem to run the Final Four, it’s accessible to almost anyone now.
With the NIL and transfer portal, that scope of contenders will only widen. Which leads us to Ball Arena in Denver on Friday.
Omaha has been blessed to have a stake in March Madness. Dana Altman created this Creighton machine and Greg McDermott has upgraded the roster and possibilities.
Before this season, the Bluejays talked openly about winning the national championship. And nobody argued.
It's a roster put together in part by the portal and fueled by NIL.
That speaks to where the college game is today. Once you make the NCAA tournament, you have a chance. If you hit shots.
Creighton has a plethora of sharpshooters who can step up if one or others cannot. The Jays have excellent guards. They play stout defense in front of a shot-blocking center.
All the ingredients are there. But so, too, is a penchant for turnovers and inconsistent shooting.
That led to CU finishing third in the Big East and ending up as a six seed.
But the thing about the NCAA tournament is, it’s less about seeds and more about matchups, momentum and hitting shots.
That hasn’t changed in 40 years.
Speaking of which, look who’s up first for Creighton: an opponent with those familiar red “NC State” jerseys.
And 40 years later, it’s the Jays with the No. 6 seed.
Do you believe in karma?
Hey, it’s March Madness. You never know.
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