By the time NCAA Tournament bids arrive this afternoon, the phrase "March Madness" will have been used approximately 11 billion times by Billy Packer alone. Like the terms "Dream Team" and "Boys of Summer," it will be worked to the point of exhaustion.
Still, it's hard not to appreciate if you were there in the thick of it, 25 years ago, as was Thurl Bailey. And if you were in the lunchroom three years earlier, when Jimmy V. told his team that he absolutely, positively knew they were going to win a national championship at North Carolina State.
"The first time he (coach Jim Valvano) met with us, he said, 'I know I'm gonna win a championship here and I'm going to win it soon. I just need to get you guys to see what I've dreamt,"' says Bailey, a member of the 1983 North Carolina State championship team. "He said, 'If you can do that, we'll win the championship together."'
Bailey says Valvano promised "that we won't go through a day when we don't talk about the goal. If we lose, we'll still talk about it; if we have a good practice or a bad practice, or a great game, we'll still talk about it."
It wasn't just one game, continues Bailey, it was a journey. The sixth-seeded Wolfpack had to get past Pepperdine in double overtime, then beat Tark the Shark's gifted UNLV team. They slipped past Utah, in what amounted to a home game for the Utes in Ogden. Next up was big Ralph Sampson and Virginia. Then there was surprising Georgia.
Finally, the Wolfpack had to shock one of the most famous college teams in history, Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity, led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Bailey can still recount the last possession, pass-for-pass, head-fake-for-head-fake. It was Bailey's pass to Derek Whittenburg that sent up the last shot. Or rather what was supposed to be the last shot. Instead, it was a 30-foot air ball.
Columbus came closer when he was aiming for India.
Everyone sort of froze on the play everyone except Lorenzo Charles, who was minding his own business under the basket. The ball came listing down to him like a giant marshmallow, and all he had to do was jam it through.
Rarely are tournament highlights played without showing Valvano, racing crazily around the court afterward, looking for someone to hug.
Back then, the whole March Madness thing was just starting to build. The 1983 title game was between a 10-loss North Carolina State team that finished just third in its conference, and Houston, one of the most talented teams ever."If the underdog loses before the 'Big Dance' is over, it gets a pat on the back; it went as far as it could. But our story was a little different," says Bailey. "The glass slipper fit."
Dave Rose, BYU's current basketball coach, was actually in the same game, playing for Houston. When Drexler got in foul trouble, Rose drew minutes off the bench. He only attempted one shot, which he missed.
Although Bailey had a fine NBA career and is now a popular musician and television analyst on Jazz games, Rose, too, has been successful. His Cougars are heading for a second straight NCAA tourney. Some experts are projecting BYU could end up a sixth seed, just as N.C. State was so long ago.
Bailey attended the silver anniversary of the national championship three weeks ago in Raleigh. In the amber light of memory, he says he and former teammates considered how fortunate they were.
"It was a time when these boys were becoming men, making mistakes, trying to learn. But the game of basketball was just fun, no business involved," says Bailey. "You played because you loved it. You learned things that you would carry you throughout your career any career. So it was a time of innocence and love of the game."
A time of making impractical, unlikely goals.Strange how that happens when you've gone mad.
So who knows, maybe some unsuspecting small-fry will win a championship this year. There are a lot of those available: Portland State, Cornell, Mt. St. Mary's, Davidson, Drake, Austin Peay, Siena, San Diego and Belmont have already qualified.
In honesty, there might be more Cinderellas than Goliaths.
Still, it's the type of mystique that keeps the tournament alive. College basketball is mostly boring during the regular season. But then comes the tournament and everyone becomes a fan.
"It's something you'll always remember, something you can tell your kids and their kids a story that the basketball world will be telling for years and years," concludes Bailey.
Telling them how you never know. Miracles happen.Pointing out that one of them might even be standing there someday, same as Lorenzo Charles, and find himself exclaiming, "Gee, look what I found."
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