The baskets had been stripped; Cozell McQueen even had come down from standing atop the one nearest Raleigh; Akeem Abdul Olajuwon had peeled himself off the floor after nearly being trampled by North Carolina State fans wearing candy-striped jackets and waving trombones and trumpets. The bizarre dream played on.
Basketball's most accurate long-range shooter in recent weeks, Dereck Whittenburg, had ended his college career with an air ball, and was loving it. Of the 10 men on the court, the only one who could see the horrible, and heavenly, flight path of that 32-foot prayer was the hero of other State near-miracles.
If in the first game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Lorenzo Charles had not been unerring from the foul line in the final seconds against Wake Forest, State very likely would not have been in the NCAA tournament at all, let alone celebrating the championship.
The Wolfpack had been behind by six points with 54 seconds left in a West regional playoff against Pepperdine, and won; had trailed Nevada-Las Vegas late in the game, and won. And the sophomore who also scored the winning points against Virginia in the West regional final once more was in exactly the right position to grab Whittenburg's whiff and Phi Slama the door on Houston with a last-second Jama.
"For a second," said Thurl Bailey, "I wasn't sure about anything. I thought: 'That didn't really happen, did it?' "
"Olajuwon had been blocking shots all night," said Sidney Lowe. "He didn't even jump on that one. What can you say?"
"Dereck's eyes met mine," said Valvano. "Neither of us could believe it. Incredible. We got it. Let's go for the nets."
The ending was as breathtaking as last season's title game, only this blunder soon became bliss for almost all of sporting Washington. The embraces of Lowe, Whittenburg, Bailey and Coach Valvano were as honest and touching as John Thompson's and Fred Brown's had been.
"I want a picture of this," said Valvano of a heavy hug during the awards ceremony. It surely will be his greatest athletic treasure, himself and three players he did not recruit forging a remarkable relationship. The balloon salesman can coach; the squirt guards and the skinny forward surely can play.
An ACC team won the NCAA title after all; it just wasn't the one, or even the one from North Carolina, everybody predicted several weeks ago.
"The Miracle Mets, the Jets against the Colts, all the comeback stories you ever heard of," Valvano gushed. "We lost 10 games (during the season; most of them when Whittenburg was recovering from a broken foot bone); we won 10 in a row, and we're hangin' up the big banner."
State 54, Houston 52 was the biggest upset in an NCAA final since Texas Western beat Kentucky in Cole Field House 17 years ago, simply because there have been almost no surprises in NCAA title games of late. The Wolfpack did exactly what was necessary to win: control the pace, make Olajuwon shoot from as far as possible, keep the dunkers from dunking. Houston did exactly what was necessary to lose: miss critical foul shots, get Coach Guy Lewis thinking.
"They played right into our hands," Lowe said of the Cougars stalling with a seven-point lead with more than nine minutes left and some of the best offensive rebounders anywhere in hoops. State had the tiniest hurdle-strewn path to victory at the time; Lewis made it an uncluttered boulevard.
Both teams were teases. Because the Cougars had been so dazzling and stylish against Louisville, many assumed they also had substance. Only the Nigerian Olajuwon failed to melt when called on to execute the basics of basketball under pressure. Because State is so slow and shoots from so far, the notion that Houston would fly blowout high became rampant.
Brilliant point guards often hack giants to their level. Lewis gladly would have traded five guys who can part clouds for Lowe; if there had been a shot clock and three-point play, the Pack would have won driving.
That three ACC officials worked a final involving an ACC team was close to disgraceful. The integrity of Hank Nichols, Joe Forte and Paul Housman must be impeccable or they would not have been given such a delicate assignment. But were they that much better than a reasonably neutral crew?
Still, Lowe controlled the game.
Bailey stirred State the first half; instead of an anchor the second half, Lewis threw State a lifeline.
Heckuva guy, Guy.
The Pack pranced. Lowe and Whittenburg had rolled about midcourt in each other's arms after the regional victory over Virginia. They cut the nets, and doubters, this time.
"How you stop Phi Slama Jama?" they cooed, over and over, "One Slama Jama."
"All those people back home now gettin' out their little red wagons with the Wolfpack on the side," sang Whittenburg, skipping about the dressing room pulling an imaginary toy. "They're puttin' those Houston wagons away, dressin' up in State caps and shoes."
Carefully, Whittenburg removed what he called "my Cinderella boots" (size-12 sneakers), adding: "we all were supposed to have turned into pumpkins by now." It was 20 minutes past midnight back home.
"What were those little guards doing up there (in the victor's press conference?)" Lowe had said in his best Ali voice. "Where was Akeem?"
"Lotta people stunned," Bailey yelled. "Computers busted."
When the enormity of what had happened became evident, each player in his own way eventually turned serious.
"I started basketball when I was 7 years old," said Lowe. "Back then, the only dream was to play in junior high. When I made that, the dream was to play in high school. When I made that, the dream was college, and the national championship. Now the dream is the NBA."
"In a city championship game," he said of Houston-like drama for him and Whittenburg at De Matha, "Dunbar had the final shot. A guy went up, tried to tip the ball for the winning points with both hands, and knocked it all the way over the basket."
Whittenburg bared his basketball soul.
"I shoot high and from way out," he explained, "because I grew up playing against taller players, such as Adrian Dantley. I have no conscience from 23 or 24 feet. I'm gonna shoot it; most of 'em go in."
The cousin of David Thompson went on: "Now we got two NCAA titles in the family."
Bailey recalled the first time he ever dunked.
"I was 6-7 at the time, and scared to try it," he said. "I had no muscles, just bones covered with skin. When people were around, I was afraid of being embarrassed. So I tried it all by myself and about the fifth try I did it. I was so excited I did it over and over."
He glanced at his buddies.
"They might weigh 400 pounds between them," he said, "but they go after it."
Ninety minutes earlier, on the victory platform, as watches and trophies were being distributed, as each State player had one more moment in the spotlight, Valvano and Whittenburg were alone. Arm in arm. The net hung, tiara-like, around Valvano's neck; Whittenburg was sporting a hat upon which was lettered: TEAM OF DESTINY.
"We're the national champions," Valvano whispered, "and you weren't supposed to play again (after the January injury)." Still stunned, he said it again: "You weren't supposed to play."
The three players later each placed a hand on the team trophy and posed for photographers. Trying for one last assist, playmaker Lowe motioned Valvano to join them.
"No," the coach said, "it's yours."