So the NCAA Tournament has always been part of my sports smorgasbord.
We were en route to a spring vacation in Florida when Duke played UCLA for the 1964 championship. We were staying somewhere in North Carolina and I asked the desk clerk what channel the game would be on. “Every channel,” he joked. UCLA prevailed, 98-83, for the first of John Wooden’s 10 championships, and let the record show his starting center was future sports agent Fred Slaughter, who was 6 feet 5 inches.
The name John Wooden is now forever linked with Mike Krzyzewski, and it is important to make a distinction between the eras in which each coached.
It was harder to enter the tournament in Wooden’s day, but substantially easier to win. Wooden’s tournament fields consisted of conference champions only and a few selected “at-large” choices, ie independents. There was no seeding, as such, and the early rounds were geographically oriented. UCLA would automatically be placed into the Western Regional, which often meant it didn’t have to leave town. Win two games and the Bruins were in the Final Four.
The tournament didn’t expand significantly until 1976, the year following Wooden’s retirement. Countless worthy teams had been denied a chance to compete for the title, which, among other things, meant that the NIT was loaded with quality teams. Among the worthy also-rans was the 1970-71 USC team that went 24-2, losing only to guess who?
There was some kind of poetic justice in the air when, in the first year of a 40-team tournament in which teams that had not won the conference championship were allowed in, there was an all-Big Ten final in which Indiana won the first of Bob Knight’s three titles, trouncing Michigan. I wonder what those USC guys were thinking.
Coach K’s road to Duke’s five titles and 13 Final Four appearances has been very different. It’s now a 68-team tournament, you now must win six games in order to wear the crown, and you often must do it far, far from home. It’s a very different landscape.
My first direct exposure to the tournament came in 1967 when Boston College made its first appearance under coach Bob Cousy, and the second in its history. We drew Yankee Conference champion Connecticut in a first-round game at Keaney Gymnasium at the University of Rhode Island. We had beaten the Huskies easily in December, so UConn mentor Fred Shabel resorted to some classic stall-ball. It was 14-13, BC, at the half and a 48-42 final. The Cooz was not pleased. “We had a chance †o really do something for New England basketball with all this exposure,” he fumed, “and we get involved in a farce like this.”
That win took us to College Park, Md., and Cole Field House (site of the historic Texas Western-Kentucky title game in 1966 and, sadly, no longer in use) and a date with St. John’s. We edged them, 63-62, making — are you ready? — 21 straight free throws down the stretch.
You know what else I remember? That was the first game of the doubleheader. I remember sitting back in comfort and satisfaction to watch the second game between Princeton and North Carolina. I won’t go so far as to say I was thinking, “Which one of these chumps are we going to play?” But it was so nice knowing we had advanced. I think about how many fans have enjoyed that same feeling after watching their team win a first game. And it was a great game. Carolina won, 74-70, in OT.
Anyway, we’ll always have 12-3. That was our lead after Jim Kissane dunked a fast break follow-up. Dean Smith called time out. We were still hanging in there at the half (Carolina, 44-42) but the Tar Heels were too much for us in the second half. The final was 96-80 and Dean was off to his first Final Four.
I had to talk my way into actually covering the tournament, however. I was covering the Celtics in 1970, but I remained a devoted college basketball fan and the Final Four was in College Park, and I convinced Globe sports editor Ernie Roberts to send me by saying that I could drive with my friend Happy Fine and it wouldn’t ‘t cost him for lodging because I could stay at Happy’s house in DC Gotta please those bean counters, you know?
That was the UCLA-Jacksonville final in which Sidney Wicks outplayed Jacksonville’s Artis Gilmore. My lasting memory of the trip was seeing Washington resident Red Auerbach striding into the lobby of the Shoreham Hotel with his two boxers on the leash. It was a vastly different world, in which all the principals — teams, media, and NCAA staff — were staying in the same hotel, something that would be unimaginable today.
That was the first of 29 Final Fours I was privileged to cover.
I can truthfully say that March became my favorite month, especially after I had the bright idea to start driving from the regional to the Final Four site. Now it can be told, this was pre-cellphone and for two or three days I was completely out of touch with the office. What writer can’t relate to that? Ever been to Fulton, Mo., and Westminster College, where Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech? That was one of my stops on an NCAA journey from Point A to Point B.
I still love the NCAA Tournament, but I do have one complaint. It was better when the Final Four was actually played in, well, a gym, or at least an arena. That ended with Kentucky’s 1996 triumph in the Meadowlands. Since then it’s a massive domed edifice of some sort. Yeah, yeah, I get it. Dollars prevail. But the nosebleed seats are a joke and the atmosphere just isn’t right.
OK, I’m down from the soapbox.
And we have a shot clock now. Nobody can hold the ball. I’m sure that pleases The Cooz.