As this year’s NCAA tournaments crown new men’s and women’s national champions, this reporter took a stroll down my own memory lanes.
I didn’t begin watching college hoops until the mid-to-late 1960s – I sneaked downstairs and watched the UCLA-Houston game played in the Astrodome on television – it was past my bedtime. As a result, I watched Lew Alcindor (UCLA 1967-69) but not Bobby Joe Hill of Texas Western (1966), the first national champion with five Black starters.
The UCLA great — now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, guards Earvin Johnson (Michigan State 1978-79) and Mateen Cleaves (Michigan State 1998-2000); and forwards Keith Wilkes (UCLA 1972-74) and David Thompson (North Carolina State 1974) are my personal five-player, all-time great tournament team.
Georgetown (1983-84) always will be my all-time championship team simply because the Hoyas were the first men’s national champs coached by a Black man. The UCLA squads (1966-69; 1971-73), N.C. State (1973-74), Indiana (1975-76), Michigan State (1978-79) and UNLV (1989-91) ranks just right behind them.
If I had to choose the most memorable historic moment, although I didn’t witness it, it would naturally be Texas Western’s 1966 title win. I did, however, watch the 1979 MSU-Indiana State contest that featured Johnson and Larry Bird, it’s still the most watched title game in television history, and also was the last championship game to be played on a college campus.
As a reporter, my memorable moments begin with covering my first Final Four in 1992, then five years later, the Minnesota Gopher’s vacated run in 1997. I drove through a whiteout to Kansas City, Missouri to watch the Gophers thoroughly dominate their first two opponents, including John Chaney’s Temple squad. The highlight was speaking at length with Chaney afterwards.
I later traveled to Indianapolis where the Gophers played Kentucky in the national semifinals. They were unable to handle the Wildcats’ pressure, but Bobby Jackson put on a show that proved why he was named the Big Ten player of the year. To this day, if Eric Harris hadn’t hurt his shoulder earlier in the tournament, I believe U-M would have won that game.
My next memorable moment came several years later when the Gopher women made the 2004 Final Four. I was on every leg of that trip – the first two rounds at Williams Arena, and then Norfolk, Virginia where they weren’t given a chance to beat higher seeded Duke in the regional finals.
The day before the contest, the Duke players were somewhat cocky, acting like the Gophs were just a temporary bump in their way to New Orleans. I always will remember, when asked her opinion on what the Duke players were saying, Shannon Bolden simply said, “We’ll see.”
During the game’s waning moments, as it clearly looked like Minnesota’s historic year would continue, I looked over at the Duke bench and it looked like a suicide watch brigade. Afterward, as the victorious Gophers cut down the nets, I was asked to come on the court by senior Lindsay Whalen, who I had covered since her freshman year – she and her teammates fully appreciated that I wasn’t a bandwagon reporter and had seen them both at the very worst and now at their best.
It was my first ever trip to New Orleans, a cab driver gave me a quick history on the city’s sports teams as he drove me to the game. Unfortunately, the Gophers fell short but there was a stretch midway through the second half, that if they had scored just a basket, it would’ve changed the game because they were wearing down eventual winner Connecticut.
UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards, that Minnesota wore his club down like no other opponent had that season.
I haven’t covered a Women’s Final Four since, but I have covered two more men’s Final Fours, including Detroit in 2009 as the only Minnesota reporter. The highlight was a short exclusive interview with C. Vivian Stringer, a Hall of Fame inductee who was overlooked and overshadowed by reporters who rather fawned over fellow inductees Michael Jordan and David Robinson. Also, I interview exclusively Nolan Richardson, another Hall of Famer who had coached in the college all-star game – again I was fortunate that while other scribes and media types talked to others, I recognized greatness and took full advantage of it.
What also made the Detroit Final Four so memorable was that Blacks held key roles in running the tournament, including former director Jacquie Carpenter, who’s now CIAA commissioner. I haven’t seen anything like that since.
Charles Hallman’s Another View can be read each week in the MSR print edition and at www.spokesman-recorder.com