By Will Martin
As the biggest weekend in college basketball approaches, I’m hopeful that the Wisconsin Badgers are preparing for the Florida Gators as they look forward to the chance to win their first National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s championship since 1941. And while basketball is a team game where one player can carry the load during a rough stretch, the question that has to be asked is who are the best four players in NCAA Finals history?
1) Lew Alcindor (The Artist Soon To Become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, UCLA)Voted by many as the greatest ballplayer of all time his pedigree is such that you have to respect the 71-game win streak his New York City high school happened to possess. Yes he was a 19-time National Basketball Association all-star, six-time NBA champ, and six-time NBA most valuable player. But did I tell you how Abdul-Jabbar also was your back-to-back-to-back MVP when the Bruins were rolling in the NCAAs from 1967-69? Indeed that was a no-brainer. To say nothing about that ‘Sky Hook’ creation. No argument on this one.
2) Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (Michigan State)
Dear Youngins: This is the 35-year anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest rivalries ever created from an NCAA game between two programs – one still thriving today under Tom Izzo – and two players who took their passion and talent to the next level. We didn’t know it then but the NCAA was about to cure the NBA of its biggest ills of a poorly-divested decade with rampant drug use and Finals placed on tape delay.
Magic Johnson’s rivalry with Indiana State’s Larry Bird with this one game in 1979 prepared the world for three rematches with these two warriors over time. Everything about this kid from the city of truth said, ‘Superstar’ and his style of play was so unselfish it was depressing to not see him perform live. Also a Top 50 hall of famer, we saw this coming.
3) Bill Walton (UCLA)
Hopefully soon you will be able to read my interview with Bill Walton from last October and how he overcame lifelong severe back pain due to injuries sustained as a kid. His college time at UCLA was indeed truly amazing. Back-to-back titles in 1972 and 1973 over Florida State and Memphis State. In that 87-66 victory over Memphis State, Walton would go 21 for 22 shooting and account for more than half of the Bruins’ point total during a span that UCLA went 30-0 in back-to-back seasons.
An unheard of win streak reached 88 games before a stunning 71-70 loss to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in 1974. It also was in 1974 that seven straight titles ended when the Wolfpack of North Carolina State upended UCLA in double overtime 80-77. Long before all the congenital defects of birth would come to affect his many injuries and setbacks the ultimate Deadhead truly knew how to perform and get the job done when the lights shined brightest within the Madness.
4) Jerry Lucas (THE Ohio State)
This has to be some kind of a first. Lucas won consecutive Ohio high school state championships in 1957 and 1958 and helped the Buckeyes to a collegiate national title in 1960. Later that year he was the youngest player to earn an Olympic gold medal. That in itself is impressive. He added an NBA title with the New York Knicks in 1973 alongside such luminaries like Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere. Later, he was voted onto the Sports Illustrated All-Century team. And he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame TWICE – as an NBA all-star and Olympian 30 years apart.
This is all arbitrary of course. While the rest of the nation now sets its eyes on the beginning of the NBA and National Hockey League playoffs and baseball’s new season it seemed worthwhile to just pick a group of Final Four of athletes who shined their brightest during what we now refer to as ‘March Madness.’