What Darrell Griffith did when it was over, what this skywalker from Louisville did, was just your basic leap six miles over Indianapolis. On his way down, so high was he, Griffith beat first his right fist and then his left against the backboard at rim level. Airborne with joy, Griffith had time to drum out a symphony of celebration before being cleared for landing.
The University of Louisville basketball team, for so long a scorned stepchild in a state whose heart belongs to the University of Kentucky, had won its first NCAA championship. Who cares if Louisville needs four more titles to catch Kentucky? It earned current bragging rights with tonight's 59-54 victory over the proudest of all the NCAA champions, the 10-timers from UCLA.
They will make no coaching films from this one. It wasn't pretty. The Wizard, the former UCLA coach John Wooden, must have averted his eyes at courtside when the kids carrying his old colors kicked and fumbled and turned the basketball into an untouchable object, a misguided missile.
Louisville likewise was a shadow of the efficient unit that had moved through four impressive victories to reach the final of this 48-team tournament that has become one of America's sporting jewels.
When a team is in total trouble, it needs help from its main man. With the wheels coming off, with Louisville behind by five points with only six minutes to play, here came Darrell Griffith to the rescue with a late-game performance that may not have been flamboyant but certainly was heroic in its workmanlike simplicity.
Of his game-high 23 points, Griffith scored seven in the last minutes as Louisville outscored UCLA, 14-4. A 6-foot-4 senior guard who was named college basketball's player of the year in several ballotings, Griffith has built his reputation on his astonishing leaping ability -- a 48-inch vertical jump from a standstill. They call him Dr. Dunkenstein in honor of his repertoire of slam-dunks executed from all angles at all speeds.
It happens that he can flat play ball, too. If the 17,000 fans here tonight first loved him for his legs, they left writing mash notes about his grace under pressure. For without a single dunk, without the smallest touch of French pastry (as Al McGuire calls the flourishes that stuffed shirts call hot-dogging), Griffith beat UCLA when the game was there to be won or lost in the last six minutes.
First he worked in low and took a high pass, converting it into a layup and a free throw to pull Louisville within two points at 50-48.
At 52-48, UCLA made its first major tactical move of the game. Coach Larry Brown ordered his wonderful defenders into a zone. All night long, UCLA's man-to-man had frustrated a Louisville offense designed to go inside and low. All those simple bounce passes inside that led to easy Louisville buckets on the power of a Wiley Brown or the magic of a Griffith -- all those passes, UCLA contested each one, often batting the ball away.
Against the UCLA zone, Griffith immediately went deep to the left corner and threw in an 18-foot jumper.
It was again a four-point lead for UCLA, at 54-50 with 4 1/2 minutes left, when Griffith's running mate at guard, Jerry Eaves, connected from outside over the zone and then weaseled his way through a man-to-man (now UCLA was scrambling) for a layup that tied it at 54.
Two hours before the game, Bill Olsen, the Louisville assistant of 10 years who has helped Danny Crum take the Cardinals to the final four three times, said the difference would be the Louisville full-court zone press.
"We may not force a single turnover for 35 minutes, but it works," Olsen said. "We are the best-conditioned team in the country because we run for 40 minutes every game. Nobody else is used to that. At the end of games, things start to happen good for us."
Now, at 54-all, with the pressure piling up on players weary from pressure all night long, UCLA came unraveled. It would not score again. With an 11th championship there for the taking, UCLA would not score in the last 4 1/2 minutes.
When freshman Rod Foster missed a hasty 15-footer with 2 1/2 minutes to play, here came Griffith again. Her he came on the run, the ball seemingly attached to a yo-yo string, going away from his has he flew quickly downcourt but always coming back, coming to the right hand that would put in a 15-footer to give Louisville a 56-54 lead it never lost.
It looked easy. You could have done it. Just dribble downcourt and pop. With a national championship waiting, just try it. Dribble at full speed around three UCLA defenders. Then stop. Go straight up for the jumper. Stay in balance. Don't rush. All that is at stake is your life's dream.
A year ago, Griffith couldn't have made the play. Always an inside player in high school, ball-handling has not come easy for him in his move to guard. Always a jumper -- he leaped over a three-foot high fence in his backyard at age 9 -- he hasn't always jumped to good advantage, forever fighting a tendency to fall away.
"This summer at our basketball camp, I heard this noise," said Olsen, the assistant coach. "It's 11:30 at night in June and the gym must be 115 degrees. I figure some kids have broken in and turned on the lights. So I'm getting mad. I start over there and I look in the window.
For two hours every day, Griffith worked alone. He set up rows of chairs a foot apart and weaved through them with his dribble, reversing the dribble, going between his legs. For shooting practice, he arranged volleyball standards. Right up against the 10-foot tall lengths of pipe, Griffith went up for his jumper. Try it sometime. Try shooting over a 10-foot pole that sits a foot from your takeoff spot.
"It was a religion for him," Olsen said.
With 2 1/2 minutes to go tonight, the practice of his religion brought Griffith to a spot 15 feet from the rim. Nothing was near him. No UCLA man, no volleyball pipe. This one, after those midnight turns in a steam-box gym, was a piece of cake.
It gave Louisville that 56-54 lead.
Twenty seconds later, for no apparent reason, but for reasons Louisville knows full well, UCLA's James Wilkes threw the ball out of bounds, throwing a lob pass too high and too far.
Louisville called timeout. It went to its ball-control game with 2:05 to go. And when it was over, Griffith fell into a bearhug dance with Wiley Brown, a freshman forward, and then, free to fly, Griffith looked at the backboard and said why not?