March Madness is upon us, and if you or anyone in your house has ever played basketball or perhaps even seen a basketball, chances are that you spent a long weekend feasting on the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. As you know, as a resident of North Carolina, you are required by law to watch any game with an ACC school in it. North Carolina is to basketball what Italy is to spaghetti. Other states may brag about their Nobel Prize winners or what have you — we have Michael Jordan. I said we have Michael Jordan. That’s Air Jordan, or Mr. Jordan, if you don’t come from North Carolina. So, Mr. Nobel Prize winner and the state you came from, you still want some? Didn’t think so.
College basketball is a religion here, of course, and March Madness is our 18 days of Christmas. There are those who have complete faith that God favors the Tar Heels — why is the sky blue, as the bumper sticker saith. Others insist that the Duke Blue Devils are the Chosen People, pointing to the arrival of Coach Mike Krzyzewski as proof of divine intervention or Manifest Destiny or whatever.
At one time, in 1983 to be exact, it seemed all but certain that a higher power was manipulating free throw shots specifically in order to help the North Carolina State Wolfpack complete the most improbable run in college basketball history. The “Cardiac Pack” won the championship by coming from behind again and again throughout the tournament, before finally slaying Goliath — the University of Houston Cougars, and their two future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — in the championship game. It was like Opie Taylor knocking out Mike Tyson.
Ironically, the point guard for the Cardiac Pack in 1983 was Sidney Lowe, who is the current head coach of N.C. State, a team that seems to have lost its way from the basketball promised land. This season, not only did the Wolfpack not make the NCAA tournament, it did not even get an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament, or the NIT. Now, the NIT once was a prestigious tournament back in the day when only the conference champion got a bid to the NCAA tournament. But with the field for the big tournament now expanded to 65 teams, failing to get into the big dance and having to settle for the NIT is roughly as exciting as taking your cousin to the prom.
And, failing even to get into the NIT, well, maybe this is the Biblical equivalent of the Wolfpack spending 40 years in the desert, “a great and terrible wilderness.” Can Sidney lead the Pack back to the Promised Land? Who knows? It doesn’t look promising.
I went to N.C. State myself. In fact, I went to school with Lowe, Derrick Whittenberg, Thurl Bailey, and the rest of that magical 1983 team. And though I had dropped out of college the semester before they won the national championship, I was in Raleigh with my friends the night the Pack beat Houston. To this day, it is my one transcendent moment in sports, greater than my hole in one at Lake Junaluska, greater than winning the first (and only) annual Alleghany Open putt putt tournament in 1981, greater than all my bowling trophies combined.
Lorenzo Charles grabbed and dunked the ball after a desperate last second shot by Derrick Whittenberg, and I spent the next several hours in ecstasy that felt like I imagine heaven feeling. Pure joy, shared by thousands all at once.
As I filled out my brackets last week, I remembered 1983, of course. Twenty-six years ago, I was witness to a miracle. Now, I just hope to win 20 bucks in the office pool. I completed my selections without much enthusiasm, fished out a dollar, and turned it in to the bracketmaster. Well, that was that.
Then, Thursday arrived, the first games tipped off, and I felt it all come back. Not just 1983, but 1973 (or 1976 or 1979 or...) when kids used to get out of school early to go home and watch the opening round of the ACC tournament. This being North Carolina, the first round of the tournament was an unofficial holiday. Everyone went home, including the teachers, to watch the games.
Before I knew it, I was home in front of the set, just like the old days. I’ll leave it to others to fight the holy war between Duke and Carolina. I’ll just enjoy the games and savor the memories. I plan on winning that 20 dollars, too. Manifest Destiny or whatever.