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Final Four memories: Friends, fathers and a thousand-yard stare

What We’re Missing: The Final Four

Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt waves the net after her team beat Stanford to advance to the 2004 Final Four. (L.M. Otero/AP)

We won’t have the men’s and women’s Final Fours to enjoy this weekend, so we asked some members of The Washington Post’s Sports staff to share their most vivid memories of the event.

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I covered Keith Smart’s game-winner for Indiana in 1987 — was sitting right there when he hit the last-option baseline floater to beat Syracuse. But my most vivid Final Four experience was watching my friend, the great Pat Summitt, behind the curtain with the Tennessee women. The greatest gift I have had as a sportswriter was to be at the elbow, for a little while, of someone such as that. She taught me that we literally can change our fate with the force of belief. But it can come at a cost.

What I remember most wasn’t even a championship moment but a semifinal. In 2004, Pat had an injured team that started a center, Ashley Robinson, on a surgically repaired knee, and then the Volunteers lost all-American point guard Loree Moore to a torn ACL. Somehow Pat reengineered them to get to the Final Four anyway — by converting forward Tasha Butts to a point guard — but they had to win three straight games on last-second buckets. In the Final Four, they faced a great LSU team and held the score to 50-50 with six seconds left. LSU had the ball at midcourt. Pat called a timeout and then made what was probably the gutsiest call I ever saw her make.

On the inbound play, she brought her bigs all the way up to spring a trap on the ballhandler — I mean, half the frontcourt just sprinted and collapsed on LSU’s guard like wolves. Tennessee got a steal — and made a great fast-break pass for a layup to win as time expired. Boom.

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Afterward, I went back to their locker room, and Pat was standing outside, bent over with her hand to her chest, and she said, “I can’t catch my breath.” And I replied: “I imagine not. That was a damn heart attack.” And she said, “No, I’m serious; I can’t breathe.”

It turned out she had heart arrhythmia and had to go on medication and was seeing doctors while she should have been getting ready for the championship game. It was the first of a cascade of medical problems, from a heart issue to crippling rheumatoid arthritis to the Alzheimer’s that eventually took her so early.

Tennessee lost the 2004 championship game to Connecticut, an opponent that was just too much. But I never forgot how Pat coached that shorthanded, beat-up team, refusing to give up on those players, and I never got over the realization of just how much of herself she put into it.

She loved her work — loved it — and I remember thinking: “That’s what it is to be all-in. That’s commitment. And now you know.”

— Sally Jenkins

First and foremost

For much of my life, the Final Four was my favorite sporting event. I first watched the national title game in 1981, when Isiah Thomas and Indiana beat North Carolina, the last tournament broadcast by NBC — man, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire were good — on the day President Reagan was shot. I haven’t missed one since. As a kid, it became a goal: Could you imagine going to one?

I graduated from high school in 1989, and somehow my father saw fit to grant me, as an early graduation gift, a trip to that year’s Final Four. I’m not sure I have received anything that fit my in-the-moment interests more. That year, it was in Seattle: Danny Ferry and Duke vs. John Morton and Seton Hall, Glen Rice and Michigan vs. Nick Anderson and Illinois.

I remember the games, of course: Australian Andrew Gaze blowing away Duke, hampered by an injury to senior forward Robert Brickey, in the second half; Sean Higgins’s offensive rebound and jumper to beat the Illini by two; and the gutsy foul call by referee John Clougherty on Seton Hall guard Gerald Greene that sent Rumeal Robinson to the line with three seconds left in overtime. Robinson sank both ends of a one-and-one to win the championship for Michigan, 80-79.

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The following fall, I enrolled at Duke, and I ended up going to the next three Final Fours as a student. I have covered six as a sportswriter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and The Washington Post. But I don’t have the distinct memories I do from that first trip: meeting Detroit Free Press NBA writer Corky Meinecke on a plane and thinking, “That’s a real job that people do”; ending up at a urinal next to Dick Vitale; switching seats with my younger brother at halftime of the national title game because we had two high in the Kingdome’s upper deck and two in the lower bowl; finding a gym to play pickup hoops on the off day; all of it.

These days, I have a harder time digesting college athletics, given that everyone makes money except the players. But 31 years ago, I loved college basketball like nothing else, and that first Final Four trip still stands out. Thanks, Dad.

— Barry Svrluga

He could see it coming

It was hard to cover the 2007-08 Memphis men’s basketball team objectively. The Tigers scrubbed eras to combine the coolest elements of basketball. Derrick Rose’s athleticism was a marvel, an absolute marvel — he was the best college basketball player not often enough regarded as an all-timer. Chris Douglas-Roberts’s funk and grit were old school. They were years ahead of their time in offensive style, a system designed on open lanes and alley-oops.

John Calipari was a scoundrel you either loved or hated. I grew up with the great Massachusetts basketball teams of Marcus Camby and Lou Roe. I loved him.

I covered the Tigers’ run to the national championship game that most everyone remembers for Mario’s Miracle, the last-second, top-of-the-arc three-pointer that Kansas’s Mario Chalmers drained, coming off a screen from the right corner, to send the game to overtime. It was a forever shot.

What I remember most is what Calipari looked like during overtime.

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It was an ending everyone should have seen coming. The Tigers were a force of nature, but they could not make their stinking free throws. They got up by nine points with less than two minutes to play. Kansas hit a jumper. Sherron Collins stole the inbounds pass pressing in the corner, got the ball a few seconds later in about the same spot and swished a three-pointer. It was now a four-point game.

Memphis could have held on by merely making free throws. Douglas-Roberts and Rose bricked almost every crucial one. It was brutal. Rose missed the front end of a double bonus with 10 seconds left in regulation that could have iced the game.

In overtime, the Tigers never had a chance.

I remember the open-mouthed hopelessness on Calipari’s face, the mixture of shock and resignation that twitched in every fiber of his body. He was screaming and pointing one second. The next, he was sitting with a thousand-yard stare. He was a madman. He was a ghost. The outcome was still in the balance, and it was overtime of the national championship game. But Calipari knew. Everyone knew. Memphis had its chance and lost it.

The Tigers should be remembered as an all-time team. They are instead remembered as part of the scenery for an all-time shot. It’s hard to forget what that looks like.

— Adam Kilgore

Two sides of the sports coin

My first Final Four memory doubles as my first sports memory. I was 5. My father was yelling at the television, begging for Louisville Coach Denny Crum to call a timeout.

“Why won’t he use a TO?” he said. “Please! Pllllleeeeeeease!”

Houston was on an epic second-half spurt, running the Cardinals out of the Pit in Albuquerque, during a 1983 national semifinal. It was a dream matchup of the country’s top two teams, both of which had fast-paced styles and great nicknames. The Cardinals were the Doctors of Dunk. The Cougars had an even better one: Phi Slama Jama. To get to the Final Four, Louisville had to beat Kentucky, 80-68 in overtime, in the regional final, which is known as the Dream Game and ignited one of college basketball’s greatest rivalries. But I have no memories of that game.

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I just remember Akeem (no “H” back then) Olajuwon dominating against a small, almost positionless Louisville lineup and finishing with 21 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks. And the Cougars, led by Clyde Drexler, had so many ridiculous fast-break dunks that it felt as if they were playing on a trampoline en route to a 94-81 victory.

From the beginning, I learned in one game about two mandatory aspects of the sports experience: fun and disappointment. And I learned that, no matter what I did wrong, it couldn’t frustrate my dad as much as Louisville basketball.

— Jerry Brewer

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