25 Years Ago: Jordan, Worthy, Ewing, Oh My!
Sunday, March 25, 2007
SAN JOSE, March 24 -- It was difficult to take everything in at the time, all the subplots and historical twists. And it was particularly overwhelming because it was my first Final Four, the first NCAA championship game including a Washington, D.C., school. Even now, 25 years later, it's dizzying to try to make sense of the events that night in New Orleans.
I'm fixated all these years later on Fred Brown's errant pass to James Worthy -- in part because of the big squeeze John Thompson put on Brown afterward; in part because of the way Brown calmly and maturely explained how the mistake happened and how much he wanted to snatch the ball back the instant the pass had left his hands; in part because I had covered the team the previous season and had gotten to know Brown as a bright and confident freshman from the Bronx; and in part because for whatever reason as a sportswriter I've always felt more empathy for the men and women who suffer the agony of defeat in championship situations than I feel for those who experience the thrill of victory.
Brown has his reasons, I suppose, for lashing out at Thompson for sleights real or perceived. And nothing will change the significance of that errant pass to Worthy, Thompson's hug afterward, the subsequent bumper stickers that proclaimed "Have You Hugged a Hoya Today?", the letters and expressions of support that Brown told me changed his life, and the championship hug two years later between the same coach and the same point guard. How often do people get to replace that level of agony with a commensurate level of joy?
And yet, most people don't think of Brown's turnover first and foremost because it was probably the least historically significant element of the night, ranking behind in some order, Michael Jordan's first championship shot, Dean Smith's first championship victory and the first appearance of a black head coach in the title game.
The talent on the floor was pretty historic, too. Nothing measures up to the impact the 1979 NCAA championship game had on the culture of basketball. After the 1966 game between all-white Kentucky and mostly-black Texas Western, the '79 game between Bird and Magic is probably the most significant game in the modern history of college basketball.
Yet, the talent on the floor in that game didn't equal that of the 1982 game between Georgetown and North Carolina.
The Tar Heels, remember, featured Worthy, who would be the No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 draft, Jordan (No. 3 in 1984), Sam Perkins (No. 4 in 1984) and point guard Jimmy Black. Georgetown featured Patrick Ewing (No. 1 overall pick in 1985), Eric "Sleepy" Floyd (No. 13 in 1982) and Bill Martin. Both head coaches, Smith and Thompson, have coached the U.S. Olympic team and are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Worthy, Jordan and Ewing were voted among the 50 greatest NBA players ever.
Jordan and Ewing were on the one and only Barcelona Dream Team, the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball squad.
Nobody has players that good anymore because they don't stay long enough to become that polished. The super talents, which Jordan and Worthy and Ewing were, don't stay long enough anymore to finish their apprenticeships. What strikes me 25 years later, thinking back to the way Worthy controlled that game during long stretches, is that few players in this tournament know how to play the way those Hoyas and Tar Heels knew how to play. There's not a Georgetown player today who knows the game as well as Eric Smith or Gene Smith knew it then, and not a Tar Heel player today who knows the game as well as Black or Matt Doherty.
I remember Ewing swatting away North Carolina's first four or five shots, and I can still hear Thompson saying that was just fine because players don't remember goaltending being called as much as they remember their shots were blocked.
I remember Floyd and Worthy, kids from the same town, Gastonia, N.C., engaging in something of a duel.
I remember Ewing, whose primary strength at the time was defense, hitting turnaround jumpers and providing a glimpse of what he would become in the NBA. I remember thinking that everything the freshman Jordan did seemed effortless, how he seemed to go higher for his team-high nine rebounds and turn corners without resistance.
I remember thinking, late that night, that my first NCAA championship game as a sportswriter might be the best championship game I would ever get to cover, both in terms of compelling basketball and historical significance.
And after 25 years, and 23 championship games, it turns out I was probably right.