If you were to push the words unbelievable and impossible together you just might get “unpossible.” It’s the only way I can describe the 1983 NCAA basketball upset of N.C. State over the University of Houston.
Jim Valvano, known as Coach “V,” was a young, loud, brash, New York Italian basketball coach who owned enough nose to mind everybody’s business; if he ever fell face first, it would two days to dig him out. Likeable and excitable, Valvano initially became known more for splitting his pants while jumping up and down during a game than winning. My mother, Edith Purvis, worked at N.C. State for over 25 years. She introduced me to Coach Valvano. He had so much energy; it was like meeting three people at once.
Television and radio loved the guy; he was two-thirds con man and one-third coach. Let’s just say he was different. Jim loved people, food, and basketball and ate life in large gulps. Basketball allowed him to enjoy and share his passions, and generating the greatest upset in college basketball history would insure that he be remembered. His coaching style allowed his team to practice cutting down the nets one day a week, instead of working on stopping the back-door cut. They talked about dreaming instead of baseline defense, about playing with confidence instead of implementing the half-court trap. They worked hard, played hard, and had fun; but more importantly, they learned to trust one another while listening to their vagabond coach, who could take any defeat and turn it into dessert. He was contagious, believable and could sell M&M’s to a diabetic.
Head Coach Jim Valvano and Assistant coaches Ed McLean, Ray Martin, and Tom Abatemarco, would lead the Wolfpack to a 26-10 season record which included an 8-6 ACC record. N.C. State would end their season ranked #14 in the Coaches’ poll and #16 in the Associated Press poll. Just being invited to the dance would require them to win the ACC Tournament. The Wolfpack would defeat Wake Forest 71-70, the Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and Brad Daugherty UNC team 91-84 in overtime, and then Ralph Sampson and The University of Virginia 81-78, in succession. State would receive the ACC Trophy and a #6 seed from the committee and was promptly sent out West to be discarded.
The NCAA Tournament started on March 2nd and ended at “The Pit” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on April 4, 1983. Only fifty-two schools participated in the tourney at that time, and the lowest seeds became the #13’s. There was no shot clock or three-point line. The field would be expanded the following year. No one had any idea at that time that the real Cinderella would come to the party dressed like a wolf. The Pepperdine Waves led by 6 points with one minute to play, in regulation. It would take two overtimes for the Wolfpack to shake Pepperdine by the final score of 69-67. Waves’ Head Coach, Jim Harrick, still does not believe they lost. Dead ahead lay Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV bunch that had only lost two ballgames that year. Sidney Green and UNLV led by 13 points with ten minutes to play. State would prevail 71-70 in another nail biter. N.C. State would now prepare for their Sweet Sixteen match-up with the Running Utes of Utah, coached by Jerry Pimm. N.C. State was being held in high esteem by the press as a “team of destiny.” In Raleigh, they referred to the team as “The Cardic Pack.” The Wolfpack would win in a laugher 75-56. It had been their first easy win.
They say what goes around comes around. Up next awaited Goliath, the college player of the year, Ralph Sampson, and his 29-5 Wahoos of Virginia. Coach Terry Holland and his team were looking to avenge their ACC Tournament Championship loss to the Wolfpack. But it was not to be. Virginia was up by 7 points with six minutes to play. State won 63-62 by fouling Virginia with seconds to go, in a tie game, on purpose. Who fouls late in a tie game on purpose? “I couldn’t believe my ears when V started yelling ‘foul’ with the game tied” said Wolfpack forward, Thurl Bailey.
After N.C. State returned from their victory in the regional, 5,000 people showed up to watch the Wolfpack practice in the Reynolds Neal Coliseum. Valvano was on top of the world, and everyone lay at his feet. “Survive and Advance” became his motto. The Final Four would pit Georgia against N.C. State and #1 Louisville against #2 Houston (The Doctors of Dunk vs. Phi Slama Jama). Hugh Durham’s Georgia Bulldogs had upset UNC, the 1982 National Champs, and thought they were prepared to take on the Wolfpack. N.C. State won 67-60 and then waited to see who they would play. The game they watched with the rest of the nation was incredible.
Houston outlasted Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals, led by brothers Rodney and Scooter McCray, in what most thought was the championship game. This up-and-down-the-floor playground basketball, with exclamation points provided by rim-rocking dunks, held the basketball world in awe. The winner of this game would surely be crowned National Champ on Monday night. The final score: Houston 94, Louisville 81.
The next day during their press conference, Valvano claimed they would hold the ball against Houston. “If we get the opening tip on Monday night, we may not take a shot until Tuesday,” exclaimed Valvano. “Even my mother took the eight points and Houston.”
Head Coach Guy V. Lewis, with great players like Clyde Drexler, Larry Micheaux, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reid Gettys, Benny Anders, Michael Young, and freshman Alvin Franklin, waited to claim their rightful title. I found it interesting that both Guy and Jim both used the “V” in name recognition and both teams’ colors included red and white.
Before the game, Valvano did what he does best, “Talk.” He also made it clear to his team that they were not going to hold the ball in front of 50 million people who would be watching on TV. N.C. State missed ten shots in a row at the start of the game, but still led 33-25 at halftime. Houston stormed back to lead by 7, with ten minutes to go. Wolfpack strategy included not letting the Cougars dunk and fouling to get the ball back. In short, it worked. Freshman Benny Anders was fouled in a tie game with seconds left, as Guy Lewis hid his eyes in his red-and-white checkered towel. Anders missed. N.C. State now with the ball, moved up court. The ball went into the corner to Bailey who returned it to Derek Whittenburg as time was running out. Whittenburg launched a 30-footer that appeared to be on target, but short. Time stood still for everyone but Wolfpack forward, Lorenzo Charles, who jumped up, caught the ball and dunked, all in the same motion. It was over; N.C. State 54-Houston 52. “If we win, pigs will fly, and pink elephants will drive Cadillacs,” said Valvano before the game. Can anyone say “Unpossible?”
I should have known that my pal Dotson Lewis was seated courtside with Blackie Sherrod, the senior sportswriter for the Dallas Morning News. When I asked Dotson for his thoughts, he said, “What a shocker. I thought Guy Lewis had fainted when the game ended,” said Dotson. “He was one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball.”
At the end of the 1983 season, several Wolfpack starters were drafted. They are as follows: Thurl Bailey was drafted by Utah Jazz, Sidney Lowe by the Chicago Bulls, and Derek Whittenburg by the Phoenix Suns. Lorenzo Charles and Cozell McQueen would later be drafted in 1984, by the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively.
N.C. State won their last nine games of that 1983 season; and in seven of those games, they were behind on the scoreboard with one minute to play. It was as if this team had been touched in some special way. Was it divine intervention or luck? Who cares? Sometimes things happen in sports that bring attention to real life experiences. I believe that Jim Valvano’s ESPY speech would not have had the same impact without his upset victory and later his bout with cancer. The Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research still continues twenty years after his death to lead the nation in money raised. In short, Valvano’s seven simple, yet powerful, words will live on, “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up.” True heroes never surrender.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or email@example.com.