Saturday, 23 March 2013

Echoes of 1987: My first Final Four

For the first time since the 1987 NCAA men's basketball national championship game, the Indiana Hoosiers are playing the Syracuse Orange. March Madness is well under way, and the tournament is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The broadcasters have been talking about the great moments in the past, and asking viewers to pick their all-time, all-tournament team. It got me thinking about the very first Final Four game I ever saw.

Things were never easy on the farm. No channel on peasant vision ever carried college basketball, not any game whatsoever. If I wanted to watch a game, I'd have to find a way into town to watch someone's cable TV. That usually meant finding a ride, which was not always easy either. Luckily, by March of 1987 I had finally earned my licence. I had been following the tournament as best as I could, given I had no access to cable TV or a daily newspaper. My best friend Chris Vining was following the tournament and filled me in too.

The Final Four was set: Indiana would play UNLV, and Providence would play Syracuse. I missed Indiana beat UNLV, and got to Vining's place in Coaldale just in time for the game that Saturday night.

Remembering my first time
Providence coach Rick Pitino, at left, shouts out
instructions as Billy Donavan focuses (AP photo).
Oddly, I had seen Syracuse earlier that season when we visited my brother in Calgary, so I was familiar with some of their players: Howard Triche, Sherman Douglas, and especially Greek centre Rony Seikaly. I remembered Douglas used to throw the ball up in kind of an alley oop and Seikaly would dunk it. However, it kind of looked like a shot and Seikaly actually looked like he was reaching into the cylinder, which is illegal. The announcers even pointed that out.

Providence was all new to me. I had heard over the previous week how they had pulled some upsets, including a shocker against Big East rival Georgetown, to make the Final Four. They were led by this sharp-shooting guard named Billy "The Kid" Donovan who killed teams with his three-point shooting. They were the under dogs, and I have always cheered for the under dog.

What I will always remember is being so excited to watch my first Final Four game. My excitement built as they announced the starting lineups. To my surprise, Providence had a player from Canada named David Kipfer in their starting line-up. That cinched it. I was cheering for the Fryars. (I was just as surprised to find on YouTube a clip of them announcing the line-ups. Sadly, it starts just as they are halfway through announcing David Kipfer).

Yet, it was not meant to be. Seikaly and his Orange teammates were too much for Cinderella, and the clock struck midnight for the Providence Fryars. Syracuse would go on to play Indiana on Monday night for the national championship.

That game would have one of the best finishes ever, a last second winning shot by Keith Smart over the outstretched hand of Rony Seikaly, but I only got to hear the result on the radio, and see the highlights the next day on the news. Damn that peasant vision.

Jim Boeheim is still coaching Syracuse.
From 1987 to 2013
That clip has a lot of people having a big impact on this year's tournament.

Rick Pitino, who was in his second year coaching Providence, is now coaching the number-one seeded Louisville Cardinals. He has had quite a circuitous coaching career with some time in the pros, and a national championship with the Kentucky Wildcats in 1996 sandwiched in between there. His Cardinals play Oregon in this year's Sweet 16.

Billy "The Kid" Donavan finished his playing days and was eventually recruited by his old coach Pitino to be an assistant at Kentucky. Donovan eventually got a head coaching job with the Florida Gators where he has taken them to three national championship games, and won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Donovan is no longer the under dog. Instead his Gators are facing perhaps the greatest under dog ever in the Sweet 16 in the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. The Eagles are the first ever 15-seed to make it this far.

Jim Boeheim is the most direct link from 1987 to this year's tournament. He is still coaching the Syracuse Orange. He took them to a final in 1996 where they lost to Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats, and finally won a championship in 2003. He coached Howard Triche in that 1987 tournament, and is now coaching Howard's nephew Brandon Triche this year.
In a haunting similarity to 1987, Syracuse is playing Indiana, the first time they have met in the tournament since 1987.

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