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March Greatness

Off Kilter

By Darren Kilfara

In the beginning, there was Derek Whittenburg.

The ball was about 40 feet for the basket, the score was tied at 52-52 and North Carolina State's Whittenburg was looking for some way to penetrate a pesky Houston defense with six seconds to go in the 1983 NCAA Tournament's final game.

But someone on the Cougars--thinking back, it must have been Michael Young or Benny Anders, but I couldn't tell you which--flashed out to knock the ball out of Whittenburg's hands, and as the clock ticked down, the Wolfpack guard reached back, grabbed the ball and heaved it in desperation towards the basket.

Billy Packer, speaking for all of America on CBS, said, "Boy, that's a long ways...."

Time stops.

I must get back to the present. There are brackets to be filled, friendly pools to pop money into, newspaper predictions to review and--come Thursday--much, much television to be watched.

What is it that makes "March Madness" such a special experience? Surely one cannot deny the special position in the American consciousness that college basketball holds this time of the year--when offices begin to percolate with as much "pool" talk as coffee, you know something larger than sports is in the air.

Certainly, everyone in the country can find a team to root for. There always seem to be impregnable teams coming into tournament play that attract the fans that former Villanova (I refuse to extend diplomatic recognition to UNLV as a school) Coach Rollie Massimino has always called "Neers"--as in, "bandwagoneers." They can certainly find Arkansas or North Carolina to be attractive commodities coming into this year.

But despite the great basketball that such teams can undoubtedly play, that can't be why March Madness inspires the brackets phenomenon. You know, sports sections everywhere being ravaged with predictions in ink and pencil above the thin lines which connect at one end.

No--it's the 2-15 or 3-14 upset in the first round that ensnares our attention (most recently Santa Clara over Arizona). Or the 11th seed which sneaks into the Final Four (like LSU in 1986). Or even the sixth seed that wins it all (like Kansas in 1988).

There is something inherently attractive about the have-nots triumphing over the haves in society--when Austin Peay shocks Illinois, or Cleveland State stuns Indiana and reaches the Sweet 16, Dick Vitale does handstands and the sports world goes generally bonkers.

And when Rollie's eighth-seeded Villanova shoots 90 percent in the second half against Patrick Ewing's Georgetown--The Perfect Game, as it has come to be known--well, that's the stuff folk heroes are made of.

Which gets me back to 1983, and one of the most improbable upset years ever. My first concrete memories of NCAA basketball find me lying in my bed as an eight-year-old, listening to upstart Georgia shock top-seeded St. John's to reach the sweet 16 one muggy spring Southern evening.

And after knocking off North Carolina in the "Elite Eight," the Bulldogs made it to Albuquerque, N.M. and the Final Four against another Cinderella in Wolf(pack)'s clothing, N.C. State. Jim Valvano's sixth seed would have lost in the first round but for the poor foul shooting of Pepperdine, but they were still around to knock off the Bulldogs and set up a matchup in the finals against Akeem (before the "H") Olajuwon's Houston Cougars, generally regarded as the best team in the country at the time.

But as the clock wound down, the game was still tied, and as Whittenburg heaved his "shot" up toward the hoop, Lorenzo Charles moved into position for the putback....

"They won it--on the dunk!" Packer screamed. Jimmy Vee ran around looking for someone to hug.

And March Madness was here to stay.

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