I remember Ralph Sampson graduated in 1983, towering above his classmates in cap-and-gown on the Lawn in the poetic rain, yet the world had not ended, and Virginia had agreed to continue having a men’s basketball team the next year. We U-Va. students wondered if our ragtag bunch at 17-11 and 6-8 in the conference would get a bid to the 48-team NCAA tournament, but then it got a No. 7 seed in the East Region on Selection Sunday, and we had beer.
I remember walking through the streets on a Spring Break Friday night in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Van Halen’s “Jump” would reverberate up and down the boulevard until your innards shook and your goose bumps welled, and because life was worse then and all games weren’t televised everywhere and phones were pretty much string and foam cups, we learned from a passerby that Virginia had beaten Iona, 58-57, in the first round, whereupon we had beer.
I remember driving back toward Charlottesville on a Sunday night, and hearing over the radio that Rick Carlisle — yes, that Rick Carlisle — had hit a 12-footer to beat Arkansas, 53-51 in overtime in the second round, because life was worse back then and college basketball had no shot clock and thus had 53-51 overtime games, but we were happy even if we got back too late to have beer.
I remember being in Newcomb Hall on the University of Virginia Grounds on a Thursday night during the East Region semifinals, on the same night Bob Knight’s No. 4 seed Indiana upset No. 1 seed North Carolina and ended Michael Jordan’s college career, but I remember only the Virginia score as I do all those Virginia scores, without looking, even though it’s the hardest one because “we” beat Syracuse, 63-55, a relative breather after which, with a bar in the basement of Newcomb, we had beer.
I remember being on the Lawn with two friends on the ensuing Saturday early afternoon, and I remember so much about that even though we had beer, and I remember Kenton Edelin, one of those admirable role players in which college basketball specializes, plucking a giant steal from Dan Dakich and rumbling upcourt and scoring, and I remember Carlisle hitting two free throws and Billy Packer on CBS saying, “The piano player hits it.”
I remember Othell Wilson fouling out, and I remember Packer saying, “Boy, there is some tension,” but then I remember Indiana missing at the end, and Ricky Stokes running down the court dribbling out the clock before hopping up and down, and Virginia winning by 50-48 and tumbling into a victory pile, and Knight walking off looking glum in his plaid jacket, while we had beer.
I remember we all ran up to University Hall, that clam-looking building where Virginia played then, and we waited for the team to come back from Atlanta, and we brought along beer, and as the team returned with Jim Miller and Olden Polynice et al, we wore sweatshirts beneath the clouds, and we took photos, which seemed embarrassing after we took them to the store and had them printed, and we just could not believe the whole thing — the Final Four? — even as Coach Terry Holland still looked as unexcitable as ever, while we had beer.
I remember being in the Rugby Road fraternity-sorority area, where we often had beer, and watching in some house or other as Virginia played Houston in the first Final Four semifinal in Seattle, Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon, Virginia without Sampson, and I remember the thrilling regulation that ended at 43-43, because life was worse back then. I remember how Virginia’s closing possession in regulation ended in a turnover, and then how the scintillating overtime went 6-4 to Houston, which forced another turnover at the horn, and how everybody in the room watching seemed to collapse as it all ended, after which we had beer.
I remember all this like it was 35 years ago, and then I remember last Saturday night, along a big Southern California boulevard in Anaheim, hours after the Gonzaga-Texas Tech game, in a sports bar with a mighty screen, with a phone to text whomever came to mind.
After decades of sports writing, you don’t really care anymore, not in the same way, because you understand there are nice people on every team, and not just wretched and disgusting villains on the other side. You cheer only for the story, and you know Purdue in the Final Four would make a good one, and you know people would get to see more Carsen Edwards.
But then I remember Kihei Clark flinging an astonishing pass of maybe 40 feet to Mamadi Diakite, and I remember the gasps and shouts throughout the bar, and I remember thinking about the wonder of a kid from the San Fernando Valley named for a town on Maui throwing such a singular pass to a kid from Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa, so that both could live eternally in, of all places, Charlottesville.
And then Virginia won, and I surprised myself for just a second because I cried briefly, probably just thinking about the past that seemed like another life, all while having a plastic cup of a halfway-decent sports-bar Malbec.