March Madness, indeed.
The timing could not have been better: gearing up for another annual marathon to see which team emerges from the fray (and that’s just my personal bracket), ESPN debuted the newest installment of their excellent 30 for 30 series, Requiem for the Big East.
Now, I can’t be anything but excited about this for at least three reasons. When it comes to sports, I’m very American in my tastes, which is to say, I’m sentimental to a fault. Two, I grew up—and remain—an east coaster: Big East territory. Third, I watched so many of these classic games in real time, and by “real time” I mean the great old days when VCRs were still new-fangled, so if you wanted to watch a program, your choice was to arrange your schedule accordingly. As such, these games became events, which afforded them an extra air of importance.
Needless to say, as a historical document, Requiem for the Big East could not be more highly recommended. So much of this footage is not readily available, or else recorded and lost forever to the ill-fated Betamax tapes they were recorded on during the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yes, my family was one of the half-dozen who bought the hype that Beta was better than VHS. Let’s move on.
As a sociological document, this feature is exceedingly bittersweet. Obviously it recalls a, well, simpler time, and also illustrates with occasionally painful clarity how much less of a business all aspects of sports were only a few decades ago. The fact that The Big East, a conference that went from upstart to powerhouse in short order, became a shell of itself, is a statement that needs little elaboration or explication. As such, the footage is equal parts requiem and celebration. For those of us who lived through it, we can lament it, but we should also count ourselves lucky we were around to see history made before our unblinking eyes.
As it happens, a few years ago I caught (and recorded, it being the 21st Century and even VCRs are antiquated concepts compared to the miracles of TiVo) a complete repeat of the epic Georgetown/Villanova final from 1985. I had not seen, or even seen many highlights, of this game since it was played (on April Fool’s Day, naturally). Prompted equal parts by nostalgia and genuine fascination, I could not help but compile some thoughts. Here is one of the greatest college basketball finals (and certainly the biggest upset) seen through the eyes of a fan who may not be wiser, but is most definitely older.
1. I had sort of misremembered it being a fairly slow, sloppy game; not the case. It was quick(er) paced but controlled, all due to Villanova and their brilliant game plan. Rollie Massimino gets full props for outcoaching John Thompson. Thompson had his guys playing full-court from the get-go but Villanova was too savvy (their senior leadership was crucial) and beat it throughout. I kept thinking: a lesser team, any other team would just collapse under this relentless pressure.
2. Not only did Ed Pinckney (future Celtic) have a great game, he outplayed Ewing. (Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider their careers, before and after this final, and appreciate the full import of what this statement of fact signifies, on multiple levels. During the 30 for 30 footage, Ewing maintains that the best team did not win that night. He’s right, but he’s also one of the primary reasons this was the case.)
3. Ewing, as he sort of did vs. UNC and definitely did a few times in the NBA, came up smaller than expected (or hoped) in the biggest games (it hurts but it’s true). He should have dominated because of his size advantage but Pinckney somehow outhustled and outsmarted him throughout the game. There is a notable moment when Thompson briefly benches Ewing and can be seen exhorting him to get under the basket and get busy; it works, and Ewing comes out with some rafter-shaking dunks. But then he picks up 3 quick fouls, which changed the momentum (which I totally remember that from when I was a freshman in high school watching it…). Things worked out OK for Ewing, but if you had told me in 1984 that this would be his only championship on the college or pro level, I would not have believed it.
4. The players all look like they are wearing speedos.
5. It is astonishing how thin and, opposed to college athletes today, comparatively tiny they all are (with the notable exception of man-child Ewing). Obviously not a lot of weight lifting back then. Reggie Williams is a stick.
6. Reggie Williams had sick game. Smooth as silk but hard as nails (just as I remember), and he arguably had the most maturity/poise –and heart—on the team, as a sophomore; Wingate and Martin each had so-so games but Williams was tight on both ends–just as I remember.
7. Sad but true: Michael Jackson (fellow alum of South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, which should give you an idea who I was rooting for) did not have a very good game. He certainly ran the floor well, but a few bricks and bad passes did not help the cause; a better performance and he could have gone out a two-time champ (Sidenote: I recall still being in grade school when Jackson was the man at South Lakes: we went to those Friday night games and cheered for the team, and him. It was big news, huge news when he decided to go to Georgetown because back in those days we would not have been able to follow his college career nearly as closely had he gone out of state. Less than a decade later, Grant Hill would become a star at South Lakes before becoming one of the more successful and beloved college basketball players of his era.)
8. I hadn’t thought in quite a while about Thompson and his big white towel that he kept slung over his shoulder. Genius. (The 30 for 30 show replays the almost indescribable moment when Thompson came out, before a huge game against rival St. John’s, wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca’s infamous sweater. This was gamesmanship and game-within-the-game material for all time, and it is celebrated accordingly.)
9. If Michael Graham hadn’t sabotaged his career (and the team’s dynasty, when, after blowing off his studies, Thompson proved why he was the man and kicked him off the team), Georgetown would have not only won in ’85, but ’86 as well. Remember him? That was a scary dude, and he rocked the shaved head way before it was remotely fashionable.
10. Villanova’s poise is astonishing. Yes, the ball kept dropping but as I watch, they were just taking high percentage shots and using their senior smarts to its full advantage.
11. If there had a been a shot clock in ’85, 100% Georgetown wins.
12. If there had been a shot clock in ’82, for that matter, 100% Georgetown wins.
13. No tattoos.
14. It’s an alarming commentary on how annoying announcers are these days that Brent Musburger –whom I loathed in the ’80s– sounds remarkably restrained and reasonable to my ears today.
15. As much hype as the Big East gets these days, it was the realest of deals from early to late ’80s –as local fans will recall. St. Johns was also in the final 4 this year (’85). Think about that.
16. The ’80s was, for sports, a decade that improves with time. As a (then) fanatic Celtics fan, enough said (and I’m not sure we’ll ever see the likes of those Celtics/Lakers series). As a college basketball fan, we had playoff-like games seemingly every week with these Big East rivalries (I still remember it was like Ali-Foreman redux, each time these teams clashed, not capable of being contained on campus; these games were played in The Carrier Dome, Madison Square Garden, Capital Centre. The glory days of the NFC East, and the real glory days of a great Redskins team (The hogs, the rings, etc.), and we still had the Patrick Division in the NHL (sigh). Oh, and the Yankees sucked.
17. Not saying this is a good thing, but ESPN (and modernity in general) changed everything: even in this final game, there were few in-game replays and much fewer TV time-outs/commercials/nonsense. Again, not saying the hi-def, 15 multiple angle replays is a bad thing, but there is something quaint and –yes authentic– about this.
18. Georgetown did not choke, Villanova deserved to win. They were undeniably fortunate (22 of 28 from the floor for a 78.6% shooting percentage; are you kidding me?) but they were not lucky.
19. Gary Mclean had the weirdest, most unorthodox shot ever.
20. Remember the days when players stayed all four years?
21. Michael Jackson and Billy Martin on the same team? And both of those (more) famous associations were still very popular circa 1985.
22. Exactly two weeks after this game the most exciting round of boxing ever took place in the most surreal title bout ever: Hagler/Hearns. I vaguely recall the Miracle on Ice; I remember every detail of that epic brawl, of which more another time.
23. Is it possible that Georgetown did not take Villanova seriously enough?
24. Having appreciated the 30 for 30 feature on Michigan’s Fab 5, I can attest and confirm that the Hoyas were the real deal: these were all dark-skin brothers and you know huge chunks of our country hated them and rooted against them on principle (I knew it, and saw it, then). The Fab 5 were more notorious for their sheer talent and trash talking (and, of course, lack of discipline which certainly cost them at least one title game), but if we are going to talk about influence and legendary us vs. them sociology, it was embodied by this era’s team. Everything John Thompson did worked, except when it didn’t.
25. Seriously: Ed Pinckney outplayed Ewing. That was the difference right there.
26. The number one album in the country the day this game was played: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins.
27. St. Elmo’s Fire was not released for another 6 months. (Rob Lowe just turned 50.)
28. You can never, ever underestimate how crucial it is to hit your free throws. (Villanova had two one-and-ones in the final two minutes to stay in the lead and hit all four shots. Huge.)
29. John Thompson looked utterly defeated with at least three minutes left. Who would have imagined that? Who could have guessed he would never get to another title game?
30. Billy Packer (the young/er Billy Packer who had not succumbed to the prissy arrogance and negativity that almost overwhelmed his final years) was all but openly rooting for Villanova in the final moments.
31. One of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen, at least in an athletic competition: During Georgetown’s last time-out, they show the bench and the school’s academic advisor (Mary Fenlon) is sitting at the end of the bench…she is a middle-aged white woman wearing a garish 19th Century-style dress…a middle-aged white woman ON THE BENCH with all these tall African Americans. Surreal.
32. Michael Jackson scored the final two baskets for Georgetown. Just saying.
33. This list has 33 items. Respect for #33.
*Bonus: The only NCAA final I’ve ever missed was the 1987 final. Why? I had tickets to see The Pretenders (at Capital Centre, of course). It was worth it. Iggy Pop was the opening act. Plus, I would have hated to see a Big East team lose at the buzzer. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.