The moment was magic. Hugs all around. Kisses for the women. They raised each player to cut a strand of the nets. Patrick Ewing stood on tippy-toes with the scissors. They called out the injured freshman, Ralph Dalton, hobbling the length of the court on crutches, to snip his memento of a moment Georgetown University should be proud of always.
For two hours today, Georgetown's basketball team was so near perfection that it transformed a three-time Pac-10 champion into a team life-and-death to get out of its own way. Nobody ever, not UCLA, not David Thompson's N.C. State, not Kentucky in the '40s--nooooobody ever shot 74.4 percent in an NCAA tournament game until Georgetown did it today. The Hoya defense was, yes it was, even better.
What a moment it was. Georgetown won, 69-45. Oregon State's coach and players said there was nothing they could do about it. They were helpless in the face of greatness. They had more chance to carry the Wasatch Mountains home in a duffel bag than shut down Eric Floyd today or sneak past Patrick Ewing for a basket.
As Eric Smith first, then Floyd, then Ed Spriggs--all seniors--came out of the game in the last minute, their coach, John Thompson, wrapped them in rib-threatening bear hugs. It was a moment of instant joy, for Georgetown had earned a spot in the NCAA tournament's final four, the prize sought by almost 300 big-time schools.
For John Thompson, smiling as much as anyone, loving the immediacy of the thrill, the trip to New Orleans yet means more, much more, than a piece of basketball net cut down in a magic moment of a March to remember.
"Ten everlovin' years!" Thompson said.
Minnesota, UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina State, New Mexico--all on NCAA probation for breaking rules. Look a second more at New Mexico. There the basketball coach was fired, not for the NCAA stuff, but because he was arrested and later convicted by a jury of finagling money from his state. All he did, the coach said, was try to build a winning basketball program. The people wanted it, after all.
At Georgetown, Thompson has won the right way.
Ten years working.
He did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it.
Ten years to make a moment.
Bill Stein was there the 10 years. He came to Georgetown with Thompson, the two of them coaching a team that won three of 26 games the year before. They went looking for players. They had an idea. They could win a national championship at Georgetown. They didn't tell anybody. Everyone already thought they were crazy. You took a job where?
Around Georgetown, folks thought the NIT was a big deal. When you're 3-23 with losses to Randolph-Macon and Assumption, with a 33-point loss to Maryland, you don't think about the NCAA. You've hired a high school coach from St. Anthony's, a little city school. The NCAA is John Wooden. It is UCLA. It certainly isn't this unknown guy, this John Thompson, with his woebegone Georgetown.
"Getting the players was tough early," Stein said today. "Everybody said, 'Who's Georgetown?' "
The school itself sometimes asked what was going on over there at McDonough Gym. Just do it right, the bosses said.
Sometimes Thompson wanted a big thing, maybe an increase in the recruiting budget.
He'd ask for something smaller, maybe another tutor.
"John always says he knew it wouldn't do any good to ask his mother for a bicycle, so he would ask for ice cream," Stein said.
The national championship was the goal. Always. The third season, 1975, Thompson moved Georgetown into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1943. The graph was been going up ever since: another NCAA appearance in '76; the semifinals of the NIT in '78; two victories in the '80 NCAA, including one over Maryland that demonstrated irrefutably the shift in the balance of power in our town.
In that '80 tournament, ahead by 14 points with 18 minutes to go, Georgetown lost to Iowa for a spot in the Final Four.
Now, two years later, one more step is taken.
"If you get there," Stein said, "you want to win it."
Georgetown can win it. Thompson said this team may not have some of the abilities of the '80 team. It doesn't have the outside shooting. But it has a whole lot more. It has Patrick Ewing, the suffocating defensive force. It has Eric Floyd, an all-America shooting guard. It has such significant depth that Thompson uses nine players effectively.
"The great satisfaction," Thompson said, "is that you think you're there so many times, only to be disappointed, and now you've made it because these players have worked so hard. We may not have the talent the '80 team had. We're not great outside shooters, and we're terrible free-throw shooters. But when we have to do it, we shoot."
In the two West Regional games here, Georgetown's modestly talented shooters made 50 of 72 shots. That's 69.4 per cent.
Outside the locker room, Patrick Ewing told reporters he was happy with the way his freshman season has gone. He's more patient offensively, more disciplined defensively. He said, "I can get better."
"You're right," came this booming voice from behind his left shoulder, and John Thompson put his arm around Ewing.
Now in the locker room, undoing his tie, Thompson saw his senior co-captain, Ed Spriggs. Spriggs never played high school basketball. He worked at the post office, playing sandlot ball. Five years ago, Thompson spotted Spriggs on the playground. He didn't see a 6-foot-9 novice. He saw a fellow who would work. He told Spriggs what he hoped to do at Georgetown.
Today Spriggs made four of five shots. He had five rebounds.
Thompson pulled the big guy to him, there in the locker room, and said softly, "See?"