From the cold and rain outside of McDonough Gymnasium to a cold gym floor at Seattle University, where about 200 Georgetown students slept during the weekend of the Final Four, the last week of the journey to the 1984 NCAA basketball national championship provided a story to warm any Hoya soul.
All season long, the Hoyas had been among the favorites to win the title. But Coach John Thompson Jr. turned much of the national media against the team through a combination of the team’s on-court ferocity, his own proclivities toward secrecy and a personal brusqueness toward the media that infuriated the pampered paparazzi. Brent Musburger of CBS harshly criticized what he called “Hoya Paranoia” – and as the tournament progressed, the Hoyas were made to wear the black hats.
It didn’t help that the Hoyas nearly lost their opening-round game, requiring a put-back basket by Patrick Ewing in the closing seconds to squeak past mildly regarded Southern ethodist University by a score of 37-36. Now not only were the Hoyas seen as paranoid, but overrated as well.
Easy wins over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Dayton, though, were reassuring. Still, neither the Athletic Department nor many students planned ahead for the Final Four. No ticket information was available at a tightly closed cDonough, and few students were willing to brave cold, rainy conditions to wait overnight for the office to open the next morning. A few of us set up an ad hoc, rotating system of waiting in line, and were rewarded eventually, it turned out, with front-row seats in the Seattle Kingdome. Those seats happened to be immediately behind the CBS platform, where Musburger was forced to endure our taunts for the entire Final Four weekend.
And oh, what a trip it was. A pre-dawn charter bus to Washington National Airport. A bleary-eyed flight, stopping in Minneapolis, then on to Seattle – there to be dumped into an unheated gymnasium made available via arrangement with the Jesuits of Seattle U. The hallways of that recreation center were a virtual shrine to NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, a Washington, D.C. native who played collegiate ball at Seattle before the school shut down its hoops program. The floors were so cold that several students moved their sleeping bags just outside the men’s room showers, which they left running all night at full heat so they could be warmed by the escaping steam.
The Kingdome was several miles away, straight downhill. If Georgetown had lost, it would have been a brutal walk back up. Seventeen minutes into the semifinal game against Kentucky, things looked brutal, indeed. Patrick Ewing (COL ’85) sat on the bench with three fouls. Kentucky’s vaunted “Twin Towers,” 7-footers Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin (each later to be drafted among the NBA’s first five picks), seemed to have free rein (and free reign, for that matter). Kentucky led 27-15 with 3:06 left in the half.
But for the rest of the half, and for the first 9:55 of the second half, Kentucky was held without a single field goal. The key to snuffing out the Twin Towers was that they couldn’t get the ball. The man who kept it from them was perhaps the greatest defensive basketball player, at any level, who has ever graced a court. Guard Gene Smith was quick, powerful, aggressive and full of heart. He was matched against Kentucky senior point guard Dickie Beal, a future late-round NBA draft pick who had been named Most Outstanding Player that year in the NCAA tourney Mideast Region.
Smith ate Beal’s lunch.
No matter what Beal tried, Smith was there – forcing a turnover, making a steal, causing a 10-second backcourt violation, doing whatever it took to make Beal look utterly helpless. Smith’s performance was breathtaking. And although Smith sprained his ankle partway through the second half (badly enough that he was unable to play for the rest of the tournament), he had already done his damage: Kentucky’s offense had been utterly disrupted, and the Wildcats’ collective psyches destroyed. Even after Kentucky finally scored a basket at the 10:05 mark, it missed another 11 consecutive shots thereafter, and the Hoyas won 53-40. Offensively, the heady and steady and underappreciated Georgetown point guard Michael Jackson had led the way with 12 points (and 10 rebounds!)
Back on Georgetown’s campus that weekend, a bolt of lightning split a massive oak on Healy Lawn in two, and somebody spray-painted the names “Bowie” and “Turpin” on the two felled halves of it – huge limbs that soon would be dubbed the “Twin Stiffs.”
By Monday night, a Georgetown title seemed inevitable. Houston’s vaunted Phi Slamma Jamma road show had developed a reputation as poor closers, losing in the Final Four each of the two previous years and then barely beating lightly regarded Virginia, 49-47, in overtime, in the semi-finals.
It seemed certain that Ewing and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon would neutralize each other – which they did. It seemed likely that bald, sharp-elbowed freshman Michael Graham would pound the glass – and he did. It seemed foreordained that swingmen David Wingate and Bill Martin would join Jackson in playing well. And wisp-thin freshman Reggie Williams had been hinting that a breakout game was in the offing. Indeed it was – to the tune of 19 points.
Fred Brown, meanwhile – he of the infamous pass that ended the Hoyas run in 1982, he who was permanently slowed by a hobbled knee – played 15 solid minutes before reprising the famous “Hug” that made him and Coach Thompson famous.
On the court, the cheerleaders imitated outrigger war canoers while the band played Hawaii Five-O, the year’s unlikely theme song, while portly student John Kurkjian did the one-man dance known as the “Human Wave.”
Oh, yes, Georgetown won, 84-75. At the post-game party at a Seattle hotel, Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy, S.J. announced that all the beer for all the student fans there would be free. Joy of joys. Back on campus, somebody set fire to the fallen Twin Stiffs.
We were the champions. And we will be so again.
Quin Hillyer is a 1986 graduate of the College.