Welcome to the 21st Century

[h2]My Random Thoughts on the Beauty of March Madness[/h2]

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is, without question, America’s greatest sporting spectacle. It’s better than the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and college football’s BCS title game combined.

I say this, not just because I’m an unadulterated hoops junkie, but because no other event offers the astounding depth of storylines that March Madness offers. The players, coaches and rabid fans of each institution – given the incredible Final Four runs of mid-majors like George Mason, VCU and Butler in recent years, along with UCONN’s unlikely title last year and N.C. State and Villanova’s improbable Cinderella finishes in ’83 and ’85 respectively – enter the field of 68 with a sense of hope and anticipation that this, indeed, can be their year, whether they’re a blue blood or a new blood.

Each school walks delicately along a harrowing ledge, with all except one destined to fall and eventually experience the harsh aftertaste of defeat. And yet the beauty of the tournament is that the underdogs get to knuckle up and shoot a fair one with the favorites, with the influence of computers, pollsters and rankings rendered worthless at the end of the day.

Each and every year, we’re treated to magical, jaw dropping performances, like Bill Russell and K.C. Jones ushering in the game’s new age at the University of San Francisco in 1955, Oscar Robertson posting the first triple-double in a national semi final in 1959, Princeton’s Bill Bradley culminating his dominating 1965 run with a ridiculous 58-point outburst against Wichita State in the now defunct consolation game, Magic Johnson’s artistry and floor generalship in 1979, Isiah Thomas’ 23 points, four second half steals and overall wizardry against Carolina in 1981, “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison becoming the first freshman ever named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in 1986, Steve Alford’s splendid marksmanship in 1987, Danny Manning putting Kansas on his back with 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals in the 1988 title game, Glen Rice’s majestic Final Four for Michigan in 1989, the hotter-than-fish-grease long-range shooting of North Carolina’s Donald Williams in 1993, Ed O’Bannon’s 30 points and 17 rebounds against Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” Arkansas juggernaut in 1995, one-and-done wonder Carmelo Anthony’s scoring, rebounding and passing brilliance in 2003, and on through the electric double-trouble combo of Connecticut’s Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb last year.

Anthony Davis Slams it Home. (Credit: UK Athletics)

Thus far, I’ve luxuriated in the brilliance of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis who is indisputably the best defensive freshmen big man since all-time college greats Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing, the overall defensive stranglehold and offensive pyrotechnics of Coach Calipari’s Wildcats, the all-around versatility and proficiency of Michigan State’s senior leader Draymond Green, the destructive defensive acumen of Ohio State sophomore Aaron Craft, the radiance of Louisville’s Peyton Siva, the precocious dominance of Florida Diaper Dandy Bradley Beal, the intimidating collection of weapons at the disposal of Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim despite the loss of defensive, rebounding and shot-blocking gem Fab Melo, the mercurial Pierre Jackson and prolific shooting of Brady Heslip in the Baylor backcourt, Kansas’ three-headed monster in Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and the emerging Elijah Johnson and the deft machinery that is the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Unfortunately, the wrist injury to Carolina’s supreme floor general Kendall Marshall put a damper on what could have been the best individual point guard matchup of the year against Ohio’s gifted junior point guard, D.J. Cooper in the Sweet 16, along with what the Tar Heels could have accomplished against Kansas in the Elite 8 and possibly beyond.

Seeing all of this beautiful basketball, from Lehigh’s superfluous C.J. McCullom leading the Mountain Hawks past Duke, to the remarkably intense display of skill and athleticism in the Marquette vs. Murray State game, I’m reminded that each year’s tournament provides a singular moment of awe that will continue to bring smiles in the years ahead, despite the passage of time.

Watching the extent of today’s speed, power, grace and above-the-rim artistry always brings me back to 1983, which most college hoops fans associate with Jim Valvano’s sprint across the court as North Carolina State defeated the heavily favored Houston Cougars with a buzzer beating dunk to capture the National Championship.

But for me, ’83 will always be about two teams, the University of Houston’s Tallest Fraternity and the University of Louisville’s Descendants of Dr. Dunkenstein, who were responsible for furthering the evolution of the aerial game, a game that was so scintillating in its elevation that it prompted a courtside scribe to pass a note down press row that read, “Welcome to the 21st Century!”

The Cardinals coach, Denny Crum, boasted an awesome collection of talent that, when merged on the same hardwood with the Houston Cougars’ astonishing Phi Slamma Jamma in the Final Four, would package the in-flight aesthetic into a forty-minute, nationally televised hoops equivalent of Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali’s titanic 1975 brawl, the “Thrilla in Manila”.
Both teams bridged the expansive divide that connected the talents of the original sky-walker Elgin Baylor and early progenitors like the Baltimore Bullets’ Gus Johnson with the trailblazing American Basketball Association and the singular geniuses of David Thompson, Darrell Griffith and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, on through the flight-time genius of Vince Carter, Shawn Kemp, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, John Wall and numerous others.

“The Ville”, as they were known in my New York City neighborhood, was a pedigreed program of national recruits. Crum, sitting on the sidelines looking as cool as Barack Obama, boasted the brothers from “Money Earnin’” Mount Vernon, Rodney and Scooter McCray, who could score and pass with equal aplomb.

In the backcourt, Mississippi’s Lancaster Gordon formed an intimidating duo with Camden, New Jersey’s Milt Wagner, both of whom could post 20-point offensive outbursts with regularity. The Cardinals also boasted Wagner’s former teammate from powerhouse Camden High School, the ballyhooed 6-foot-8 freshman sensation, Billy Thompson

Houston’s roster, on the other hand, was a spicy stew of local ingredients, with two major exceptions. Hakeem Olajuwon was a gift from both heaven and Lagos, Nigeria, and Benny Anders, an athletic freak of nature, was a native of Louisiana. The hometown Houston flavor was provided by locals like Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Alvin Franklin, Reid Gettys and Larry Micheaux.

When the smoke cleared, Olajuwon’s transcendent 21 point, 22 rebound, 8 block masterpiece foreshadowed his remarkable transformation from raw prospect into “The Dream.”

The funny thing is that, at the time, it was a foregone conclusion that Phi Slamma Jamma, after their 94-81 victory over “The ‘Ville”, would drop N.C. State as if they stole their momma’s rent money in the championship game.

But Jim Valvano pulled a rabbit out of his hat when my Brooklyn neighbor and resident superhero, whom I rebounded for as a kid during playground shoot-arounds, the late Lorenzo Charles, rescued an air ball out of the hot, dry, thin air at the Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the game’s final moments to deliver the winning dunk in an upset for the ages. And this is the very reason why we love the NCAA Tournament, because you just never know what will happen.

The Wolfpack’s shocking 52-50 victory and Charles’ conversion of Derrick Whittenburg’s desperation heave became the signature moment for what is now the multi-billion dollar bonanza that is March Madness. And it is also the reason why the remarkable Final Four matchup between Louisville and Houston that brought college basketball into the 21st century has faded into the obscurity of the national sporting consciousness.

But Phi Slamma Jamma and “The ‘Ville” in ‘83 was one of the most awe-inspiring, paradigm shifting displays of raw athleticism, speed, power and hops ever witnessed. It was a sustained, Rajon Rondo-like, full court sprint that transported us across time and space to the doorstep of today’s game.

Maybe 30 years from this tournament, we’ll look back on something similarly transcendent that will continue to influence our beloved game for generations to come.

And if not, as we head into the Final Four, I’m sure we’ll still be satisfied with whatever Jared Sullinger, Thomas Robinson, Anthony Davis, Peyton Siva and the rest of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Kansas Jayhawks, Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals have in store for us.

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