Jordan’s shot just the climax of the greatest Final Four ever
By Mark Miller
It was the dawn of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Final Four as we know and love it today.
The scene was the Louisiana Superdome in downtown New Orleans. Four storied teams coached by four true legends were there. The rosters included nearly two dozen players who later became employed by the National Basketball Association, a handful of whom would become hall of famers.
This was before bracketology became a household name and Jim Nantz would be the voice of the event. Gary Bender and Billy Packer were the broadcasters for the first tournament aired on CBS. The studio host was Brent Musburger.
It was March 27 and 29, 1982 and I was there. Not by myself, mind you. There were 61,611 of my closest basketball-crazy friends with me. And we all had a blast.
Growing up in Milwaukee, my friends and I always had followed the NCAA Tournament. Even before March Madness became a well-known phrase, we would gather at someone’s house to draw teams from a hat. Each of us received one team from each regional. If any of your teams made the Final Four, or if you were first one out, you made money. It was a right of March.
Being the sports fans we were, we always dreamed of attending the Final Four. We just had to wait until we had jobs to have the money to cross it off our Bucket List.
My traveling group included best friends Dave Markson and John Catalano from Milwaukee. It also featured a guy named Bo Ryan, then an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin and since 2001 the head coach of the Badgers. Also with us were Ryan’s father Butch, plus Stu Heifetz and Todd Kukkhahn, who like Markson had been basketball team managers at Wisconsin.
Working as a sportswriter in Bloomington, Ill., I met the rest after flying down from Peoria. We knew the trip could be something special just because it was being held in New Orleans. Add in teams like North Carolina, Houston, Louisville, and Georgetown, and we knew no matter who won, it would be great.
Little did we know the ultimate hero would be a then 19-year-old freshman named Michael Jordan. It was his basket that lifted his North Carolina Tar Heels over the Georgetown Hoyas 63-62. While Jordan’s shot may be the most remembered moment of a memorable weekend, it was just one reason why this should be classified as the greatest Final Four ever even 32 years later.
“It was quite an experience,” said Catalano, who works at his family’s warehouse food store in Milwaukee. “It was special without a doubt. There may not have been a better one that I can remember.”
Here are more reasons why:
Sorry DFW but there may be no finer place to host a party like the Final Four than New Orleans.
With the French Quarter just blocks away from the venue and the city’s all-night “Let the Good Times Roll” attitude, places like Pat O’Brien’s, Café du Monde and Preservation Hall, how can anyone argue?
Plus any town where people are buried above ground, music and drinks come pouring out from the open door establishments and Chinese fast-food restaurants are called “Takee Outee,” what more could a bunch of single, 20-something males (back then) want.
“It’s a very interesting town,” Catalano said. “There’s a lot of charm. There’s a lot of risque things. It was quite an experience.
“It was a cool trip. I really enjoyed it. The weather was nice and of course Bourbon Street was fun.”
The Louisiana Superdome (now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome) was less than seven years old when the Final Four came to town. Though it was not the first Final Four in a dome (Houston’s Astrodome hosted in 1971), the attendance nearly doubled the previous record.
It was the first stadium to open up the majority of its seats and the venue that truly started the trend toward domed stadiums. It was one of the defining moments that elevated the Final Four to status just behind the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
“I remember the electricity in the building which was amazing given the size of the Superdome,” said Heifetz, now a senior director in New York for Irving-based Learfield Sports.
Both academically and athletically, the collective prestige of the four competing schools was apparent.
There was the University of North Carolina from Chapel Hill. There was the University of Houston from Texas. There was Georgetown University from Washington, D.C. And there was the University of Louisville from Kentucky.
Need we say more?
They combined for 2,742 wins, 25 Final Fours, 5 championships and 4 spots in the James Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. No other quartet before or since has matched this collective array of coaching talent.
For North Carolina’s Dean Smith (879 wins, 11 Final Fours, 2 titles), Louisville’s Denny Crum (675, 6, 2), Georgetown’s John Thompson (596, 3, 1 title), and Houston’s Guy Lewis (592, 5, 0), this was the ultimate meeting of college basketball’s braintrust.
“I remember thinking how I wanted UNC to win because I thought it was so unfair that people slammed Dean Smith for never having won a national championship,” said Markson, a guidance counselor at Homestead High School in Mequon, Wis., and interim girls basketball coach at his alma mater, Whitefish Bay High School. “It’s so hard to get there, much less win it.
“I was a college coach at the time (an assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside) and had so much admiration and respect for him. I just wanted that all to end.”
While the big names were North Carolina’s Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, Houston’s Akeem Abdul Olajuwon (later Hakeem Olajuwon) and Clyde Drexler, and Louisville’s McCray brothers (Rodney and Scooter), they were far from only talent on the court. Consider these sidekicks:
Georgetown also had Eric (Sleepy) Floyd and Bill Martin. Houston featured Michael Young, Larry Micheaux, and Robert Williams. Louisville could brag about Lancaster Gordon, Jerry Eaves, Milt Wagner, Charles Jones and Derek Smith. North Carolina had Matt Doherty and Jimmy Black.
“I remember enjoying UNC’s talent,” Markson said. “Perkins’ long arms, Doherty’s blue collar game, Worthy was just good and tough, and Jordan was so smooth, he glided around the court like no other player I had ever seen.”
With collective talent like that, we knew the games would be good.
Nothing about the action disappointed us as all three games were close until the end. In the first semifinal, North Carolina beat Houston 68-63. In the second, Georgetown topped Louisville 50-46. That set up the dramatic championship game capped by Jordan’s 16-foot corner jumper.
“If I remember correctly, Patrick Ewing purposefully goaltended the first couple of UNC shots, probably in an attempt to intimidate North Carolina,” Heifetz said.
“I was amazed by his athletic ability for a guy that size, but I was also alarmed by how often he just went up and clearly goal tended,” Markson recalled.
Also memorable was the sound the crowd made when Georgetown’s Freddie Brown made the pass that Worthy found to seal the outcome. There was almost like a 60,000 person gasp…. then cheers or moans depending on the rooting interest, Heifetz recalled.
“I felt sorry for Fred Brown,” Markson said. “Basketball players make a lot of mistakes, but in that setting it was magnified so much.”
Led by the light-blue clad Tar Heel faithful, fans spilled out from the Superdome and quickly spread to the French Quarter. While nothing like Mardi Gras, to the outsider it was just as hard making your way around the crowded streets.
“I remember seeing Matt Doherty in the French Quarter and congratulating him,” Markson said. “He had two girls with him.”
Both Heifetz and Markson recalled encountering Worthy on an escalator in the Hyatt Regency next door to the stadium and where both the teams and we stayed.
“I asked him if he was going pro,” Markson said. He said ‘what you think?’ I remember saying ‘take the money and run.’”
“He just smiled,” Heifetz recalled after someone else asked him if he’d be returning for his senior year. “But he was gone.”
The next day, March 30, 1982, nearly everyone who witnessed the greatest Final Four of them all would too be gone. Fortunately, the memories remain with us all more than three decades later.