Sweetest NCAA Memories #1: The ’79 Tourney – More Than Magic & Larry

Posted by rtmsf on March 18th, 2009


RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory,  something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today.  Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month.  We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

The Hunter S. Thompson of College Basketball (submitted by Ray Floriani of College Chalktalk)

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The NCAA tournament in 1979 turned out to be truly memorable. And not simply because of Magic vs. Bird. First, a  little background. I was writing and doing some photographic work for Eastern Basketball magazine. EB was produced in the Long Island home of founders Ralph and Rita Pollio and enjoyed a good following.  The three of us plus Rita’s brother Ray took a twelve-hour drive to Raleigh for the first two rounds. On Friday evening Penn stopped Iona (coached by the late Jim Valvano) and St. John’s upset a good Temple team. On Sunday it was the day still known in ACC country as “Black Sunday.” Penn upset top ranked North Carolina and St. John’s, who upset Duke in December’s Holiday Festival consolation, made it two straight over the Devils with another upset victory.

The following weekend it was off to Greensboro for the regionals. I traveled with EB writer Happy Fine. An extremely knowledgeable basketball analyst and excellent writer, Happy knew a good number of people and was well connected. We flew to Greensboro, had regular hotel rooms, credentials and ate at good restaurants and covered some memorable games. Greensboro Coliseum was half (or more empty) with no ACC representatives. Even the local papers billed the regionals as the “frost belt four.”  For the record, Penn upset Syracuse and St.John’s did the same to Rutgers in the semis. Then Penn edged St. John’s in a thrilling regional final. As the sign Penn fans held in post game celebrations read,  “weese going to Utah.”


Now in 1979 there was no Big East. Penn naturally was in the Ivy, but schools like St. John’s were part of ECAC regional affiliations while Rutgers was in the Eastern Eight (now Atlantic Ten). We did not cover the ACC at EB – only the “traditional East.” We had an agreement with the NCAA that if we got a team in we could get a Final Four credential (as in… one credential). As much as Rita tried, we could not secure a second for yours truly.  Happy and I would drive to Philadelphia (about 2 hours) and fly on the Penn fan charter – the bad news was that I did not have a ticket nor did we have hotel rooms in Salt Lake City. Talk about “survive and advance.”

We flew out Thursday morning , two days before the semis. Happy secured us a ‘room’ in the suite of  SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick. A heavy hitter on SI’s team, I met Curry through Happy in Greensboro and felt him humble and passionate about the game. An hour into the flight, Happy had already secured tickets for me to the semis and finals with the whole cost setting me back only about $30. No complaints, at least I was in. The charter was mostly Penn students and we had a great time discussing basketball with them on the flight out.  That night I went to the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) all-star game at the old Salt Palace, where the Jazz played. Pleased to see James Bailey of Rutgers star in the contest which had a number of solid players.

The Final Four was held at the Arena on the University of Utah campus. On Friday at open practice I met with Al McGuire. There was no ESPN back then. NBC televised the tournament and some national games. Eastern teams like Syracuse got maybe a date or two or national TV. McGuire wanted to know more about Penn so Rita arranged for me to meet with him.  She prepared a sizable portfolio on the Quakers. After meeting McGuire, quite a thrill since I idolized him and his coaching style since high school, he put the packet aside. In his unique style he jotted down key points about Penn. Their marquee players Tony Price and Bobby Willis. The multi-talented center Matt White. The coaching philosophy of Bob Weinauer. The streamers thrown after the first basket. Even the watering hole, Smokey Joe’s, which had cheap tap brews and great cheesesteaks. We met for about a half hour then McGuire gave me his card. Safe to say, from my vantage point, the McGuire meeting was a highlight of that Final Four (an example of his peculiar eloquence is below).

Got back to the hotel and Happy asked if I wouldn’t mind going to another hotel. No problem, even though I quietly arose at 7 a.m. that morning to go running. Seems Curry had ‘overbooked’ his guests. We arranged for me to stay with Mike Madden of the Boston Globe. I met Mike covering some BC games. We got along well and had no problems with the situation.

Saturday. Game day. Rode the NABC shuttle to the arena and one coach had a remark that could be etched in stone when he said, “there is no better day in basketball than today.”  He’s right because as special as the finals are, the semifinal Saturday gives you four teams all with national championship hopes and dreams. Penn-Michigan State was the first game.  The Quakers got inside Michigan State’s patented 2-3 matchup zone, but could not hit a thing, picking the most inopportune time to play their worst game. The margin was in the thirties in the first half as MSU cruised. The second game came down to the final minutes as Indiana State edged DePaul. Thought it was a special story that the same Ray Meyer who coached DePaul to prominence with George Mikan three decades prior was back in the limelight.

Through post game receptions with the NABC and media on Saturday night and into Sunday the talk was over Michigan State dismantling Penn and now Magic vs. Bird on Monday night. They told us Salt Lake City was dry. With the commerce dollars coming in that weekend, the city’s ‘good fathers’ probably looked the other way as the beer flowed like an amber cascade. Made some phone reports to Ralph but his phone was disconnected so we called the neighbor who would run across the street to get him.


Met Basketball Times publisher Larry Donald on Sunday. It’s ironic that about a decade later I would be working for him. Snapped some shots around the picturesque Utah campus and chatted with students. Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton stopped by a media reception on Sunday evening. Sutton’s Arkansas team dropped a heart breaker to Indiana State in a regional final but the coach was cordial and an interesting personality to discuss the game with. Happy and Bob Ryan told Sutton about this young high school player doing some work in Boston, Patrick Ewing.

On Monday I went to a few NABC clinics. As a basketball fanatic I’m always looking for information on the game. Ohio State’s Don Devoe gave a great talk. Really impressed with a coach who would fall afoul to recruiting violations a few years later; New Mexico’s Norm Ellenberger also spoke about the fast break.  Back in those days they had a consolation game and Penn was thrilled to go out and prove they belonged. I ‘borrowed’ Happy’s press pass to get some photos on the floor. Penn played well and lost a tough one to DePaul. The Quakers gained back some respect, but unfortunately the game was not televised.

The final saw Magic Johnson’s Michigan State vs. Larry Bird’s Indiana State. A great game. Greg Kelser was an inside factor for the Spartans and, though there was no three point shot, Jud Heathcote had a few good outside shooters that kept the defense honest. Michigan State held about a nine point lead through the second half. That nine felt like eighteen as they were in command throughout.  Got on the floor for the post game awards. Snapped some shots then caught some of the post game press conference in a huge area to accommodate several hundred media. Shortly after, Happy and I went to the airport to catch our charter. It was a redeye and as we boarded, a Penn student brought a PENN sign from a side scoreboard at the arena. Why not ?

We flew cross-country in the middle of the night. Penn students slept. At times I stayed awake thinking about it all, wondering will Indiana State stay a major player or was this their “fifteen minutes of fame?”  Penn will be a major Ivy player, but was this like Princeton’s ’65 final Four run where everything came together?  Magic’s greatest attribute is his ability to raise his teammates’ games, and what a great story the DePaul resurgence was.

As years passed the ’79 final went down as a classic. In truth, for me, the whole weekend was.

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