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Vol. 49, No. 2 • January 2012 • .pdf version
Time tells us that history will keep taking twists and turns
By LENOX RAWLINGS / Winston-Salem Journal
RALEIGH, N.C. – In college basketball and sportswriting, you never know how things will turn out.
I certainly had no idea back in March 1966, before I had a serious inkling about going into journalism or even a driver's license. I caught a ride with an equally obsessed friend and traveled to Reynolds Coliseum for the NCAA East Regional, a Friday-Saturday whirlwind that propelled Duke toward the Final Four.
The regional unfolded on N.C. State's gleaming wood floor under an I-beam skeleton obscured by the fog of cigarette smoke. The smoke grew thicker by the hour, competing for sensory attention with popcorn smells from machines about 40 feet off the court.
Lefty Driesell, the flamboyant young Davidson coach, stomped his big feet and flapped his jaws. The Saint Joseph's Hawk flapped its wings incessantly – such a tough gig in tight quarters that the mascot took occasional refuge behind the seats in a corridor lined with the Western Union operators who filed reporters' copy.
On the same floor the previous Friday night, Duke barely survived Dean Smith's Four Corners delay, 21-20 in the ACC semifinals. Coach Jack Ramsay's Hawks, led by Matt Guokas and Cliff Anderson, pushed Duke to the brink before falling 76-74.
All-American Dave Bing and methodical backcourt mate Jim Boeheim triggered Syracuse's 94-78 romp over Davidson in the other semifinal. St. Joe's delivered a similar knockout in the consolation game the next night. Terry Holland remembers fellow Davidson assistant Warren Mitchell telling Driesell that he needed another timeout. Lefty responded, more or less: "Timeout, heck. I'm so embarrassed I would like to crawl under the floor. Let that clock run and let's get our butts out of here."
In the final, Duke coach Vic Bubas rode strong performances from Bob Verga (the outstanding player with 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting), Jack Marin, Mike Lewis and point guard Steve Vacendak. The Blue Devils won 91-81 largely because Vacendak and his buddies applied steely defense against Bing, the magnetic star who hit just 4 of 14 shots and scored 10 points.
A week later, Verga got sick and barely scratched against Kentucky in the national semifinals at College Park, Md. The Wildcats won the game, which was considered tantamount to winning the title, given the low visibility of highly ranked Texas Western in an era with few national telecasts.
Everyone knows the rest. Texas Western, with five black starters, beat the all-white outfit nicknamed "Rupp's Runts." Black players had decided several earlier championships, with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones leading San Francisco's back-to-back sweep in the mid-1950s and Loyola of Chicago relying on four black starters in its 1963 upset of Cincinnati, but Texas Western's achievement eventually gained wider recognition as the racial demarcation line.
Over time, there were other lines and changes, including the rise of commercialism as a driving college force.
"Obviously that was a different time and set of circumstances," Vacendak said. "It is significantly different today, if only for the size of the media attention. That alone requires people, particularly in the media, to look at and expand on things that didn't get expanded on back then, particularly on the negative side. ...
"The size of the trophy is overwhelming recognition for the way the game is played. You can interpret size of the trophy as money or attention, and that has just totally overwhelmed the admiration for the guy who gave it his best and played well and played by the rules, on and off the court. Dave Bing is that type of player. It's just different now. The emphasis really is on the size of the trophy, on which matchup gets the most viewership. I'm not sure that's the right formula. Times have changed dramatically, and we tend to spend more time trying to create the interest than appreciating the competition, the essence of the game."
Twenty years after the 1966 tournament, on the College Park campus, Len Bias died celebrating the NBA draft. The cause: cocaine overdose. The tragedy led to Driesell's dismissal on broader grounds and a career detour that perhaps cost him a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
In November, Detroit Mayor Bing wrestled with a projected shortfall of $45 million by next summer and accumulating debt of $150 million. "Simply put," he announced, "our city is in a financial crisis and city government is broken." Just as the 2011-12 season began, two former Syracuse ballboys and another man accused associate head coach Bernie Fine of molesting them as teens.
Fine, a Syracuse team manager in 1966 and Boeheim's assistant since 1976, denied the accusations. Boeheim defended Fine at the outset, saying the first accuser lied about seeing Boeheim in Fine's room on a road trip. After Syracuse fired Fine, Boeheim apologized for his harsh rhetoric and expressed sympathy for victims of sexual abuse.
These are all stories that go far beyond basketball, stories that would have been jarring 46 seasons or 46 seconds ago – and every story now has the Penn State scandal as a permanent sidebar.
"I don't think anybody – even today – prior to those things happening could imagine those things going on," Duke's Vacendak said. "This is all just so devastating."
The headlines disturb Holland, now East Carolina's athletics director.
"I am not sure that things were different in 1966 or if we just know more about stuff in today's world," he said. "Has knowing about it made us any better as individuals or collectively, or has it made our world a better or safer place for anyone of any age? Complicated issues – but about all I am sure of at this time is that I feel badly for all the innocent people of all ages who have become involved."
The N.C. State men rarely play in Reynolds Coliseum these days, and the Western Union operators disappeared into sportswriter history, along with college basketball as we knew it long ago.
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