When the semifinals of the NCAA men’s college basketball national championship kick off Saturday evening in Houston, the event will have a decidedly nontraditional feel.
Of the participants in this year’s Final Four, only one, the University of Connecticut, has previously won the national championship. The other three teams — Florida Atlantic University, San Diego State University, and the University of Miami — are all making their first Final Four appearance.
The unexpected quartet of teams comes on the anniversary of an unexpected moment in college basketball. Forty years ago this month, North Carolina State University won its second national championship in dramatic fashion.
The 1982-83 N.C. State Wolfpack taught fans important lessons about life — and revolutionized college basketball in the process.
Even casual fans know the basic outline of N.C. State’s Cinderella victory. The Wolfpack played the University of Houston — home of two future Hall of Famers, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon — and faced uphill odds. While most observers thought Houston’s high-flying offense would overpower N.C. State, a series of Cougar missteps left the teams tied in the game’s final minute.
As the clock ticked toward zero, N.C. State guard Dereck Whittenburg tried a long shot but came up short. His teammate, Lorenzo Charles, converted the shot into a pass he caught and threw back up into the goal as time expired.
Sports Illustrated ranked the winning shot and ensuing on-court frenzy, which featured N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano desperately trying to find Whittenburg to hug him, as the 20th century’s top college basketball event. The clip plays frequently during March Madness:
‘Don’t Give Up — Don’t Ever Give Up’
As strange as it sounds, the dramatic end to the national championship game understates the impressive nature of N.C. State’s run. After struggling to maintain a winning record early in the season, the “Cardiac Pack” broke records to get to the championship game in the first place.
N.C. State won three straight games in its conference tournament — including an overtime win against the University of North Carolina, which featured future NBA legend Michael Jordan — to win a trip to March Madness.
Then the Wolfpack won a series of nail-biter games to make it to the final against Houston. All told, the team faced nine straight games where a loss would have ended its season. And in many of those games, the Wolfpack trailed by large margins late in the contest.
It took a series of unorthodox coaching strategies by Valvano and incredible determination by his players to “survive and advance” — the title of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary chronicling the incredible run.
N.C. State employed an unusual defense to limit University of Virginia star and future Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson. Valvano encouraged players to foul their opponents and put them on the free throw line, giving up points in the hopes of regaining possession of the ball. (If you wonder why the last few minutes of a basketball game can take forever, and feature myriad free throws, you can thank Valvano for bequeathing basketball this strategy.)
The series of miracle finishes led fans to believe in Valvano’s mantra of not giving up hope. He would keep that as his motto 10 years later, as he battled the cancer that would take his life.
Valvano’s speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, an instant classic, demonstrated the courage and strength of character that had impelled the Wolfpack to victory a decade before.
The Road Not Taken
The other side of the N.C. State story holds just as much drama. ESPN did another “30 for 30” documentary examining the 1983 national championship game — this one from the perspective of the vanquished Houston Cougars — that proved equally compelling, though more poignant.
Just before Whittenburg heaved his desperation shot, he needed to gather control of the ball. A Houston defender had tipped the pass Whittenburg received and almost stolen it outright. Had the defender done so, he could have dribbled down court — no N.C. State players stood in his way — and won the game for Houston with a dunk, a fitting fate for a Cougar team nicknamed “Phi Slama Jama.”
The ESPN film profiling the Houston Cougars told the story of that player, guard Benny Anders. Seemingly destined for stardom, Anders’ career took a turn following the loss in the national championship game. He fought with his coach the following year, and the Houston Cougars dismissed him. He played professional basketball briefly overseas and then disappeared from sight for more than a decade. His former teammates tracked him down as part of the “30 for 30” special. One remarked that the national championship game marked a turning point.
If Anders had stolen the ball to seal the win for Houston, he would have become a hero. The steal could have changed his life’s trajectory, and he would have made N.C. State’s run-up to that point little more than a historical afterthought.
The intertwined fates of Whittenburg and Anders — the one who held on to the ball and became the hero and the one who almost stole it — demonstrate the importance of not giving up. But they also show how fate can push glory away in agonizing fashion, leaving us nothing more than to ponder the lost possibilities.
The Birth of March Madness
In addition to imparting life lessons, N.C. State’s national championship shaped college basketball. Along with the championship game four years earlier that featured Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the 1983 Final Four helped propel the NCAA tournament into the cultural event it has become.
Since then, fans across the country have filled out their tournament brackets every March. Even small schools dream of becoming the Cinderella who can crash the proverbial dance. And broadcasters work the story of Charles, Whittenburg, and Valvano into their “One Shining Moment” montages.
While he had an immense effect on the sport he loved, Valvano died far too soon. But his legend, and that of his team, lives on. On Saturday night, three upstart squads — along with a college basketball blueblood — will look to follow in N.C. State’s footsteps and grasp a “One Shining Moment” of their own.