The last intimate Final Four took place in an underground site, as if the NCAA were trying to hide it.
But a son of Rocco and Angelina from Queens, N.Y., made sure the college basketball game would never forget what happened in the Pit in early April 1983.
The Valvanos named their second child James Thomas Anthony, and he grew up to have as much fun as anyone. He got a degree in English from Rutgers and played a little basketball. Eventually he landed a job coaching at North Carolina State.
It was basketball that brought Jim Valvano to Albuquerque.
The city was deemed by some as unworthy of a Final Four. Not enough hotel rooms. Transportation is a problem (and they didn’t even know about the orange barrels). Is it even in the U.S.?
But Valvano and his Wolfpack had coveted a visit to Albuquerque since the first day of practice in the fall of 1982.
“All season long, we’ve been thinking about Albuquerque,” N.C. State guard Dereck Whittenburg said as he sat in a hotel lobby in Ogden, Utah.
It was there, on a snowy weekend, that the Wolfpack beat Utah and Virginia (with Ralph Sampson) in the NCAA West Regional to book a New Mexico vacation.
They arrived here on Wednesday, March 30, on United Flight 179. They were assigned to play the Georgia Bulldogs, led by Vern Fleming (who a year later was a member of the U.S. Olympic team).
On the other side of the bracket was second-ranked Louisville. The Cardinals, whose 40-minute full-court press dismantled opponents, were led by Rodney McCray, a starter on Louisville’s 1980 Final Four team.
And then there was No. 1 Houston. Phi Slama Jama. They had won 26 in a row. They averaged eight or nine dunks and 10 blocks a game. They had guys like Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, Clyde “the Glide” Drexler, Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux and Benny “the Jet” Anders. And none of them led the team in scoring. Michael Young did, but apparently his 17.7 points a game average was not nickname worthy.
But Valvano sweated none of it, enjoyed all of it. He watched his team dispatch Georgia, then he proceeded to take third place in a dance contest at the Hungry Bear.
Everyone had questions and he was happy to oblige.
About the altitude, Valvano said:
“It’s like Abe Lemons once said. If you tell a person not to think about black cows, that’s all they’ll think about for the next two hours.”
On facing life without seniors Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey:
“I’m thinking of taking a sabbatical and letting my sister take over.”
On his strategy to beat Houston:
“Hell, I don’t know.”
Then he turned to Lowe, Whittenburg and Bailey.
“Hey, what do you guys want to do? You got to play these guys, not me.”
And play they did. With the game tied 52-52 and time dwindling, Whittenburg threw up a prayer from 27 feet. His teammate, Lorenzo Charles, stood under the basket and saw the shot was falling short. He snatched the basketball, then stuffed it. The season struck zero.
For the first time in 20 years an NCAA title had been decided on a buzzer shot.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Charles said.
So was Valvano.
The night before his team was to face Virginia, the coach worked the small hotel bar in Ogden.
I took a stab at explaining the Pit to him. The words I chose failed, but it did not matter. A little more than a week later, he explained it to me – not in anything he said, but in what he did.
In the seconds after Charles’ dunk rocked the building, Valvano sprung onto the Pit floor, arms flailing, his face expressing a joy I have rarely seen in all my years.
The scribes wrote how Valvano could not find anyone to hug, but it was not entirely true.
The Pit embraced him. He embraced the Pit.