The Biggest Game - Memphis-UCLA Final Four becomes stuff of legend
Saturday, April 5, 2003
Ronnie Robinson and Larry Finch had long dreamed of the moment at hand, but they couldn't believe it had arrived. u Two sons of Orange Mound would carry the hopes of a city into the NCAA Tournament's first Monday night national championship game.
The opponent at The Arena in St. Louis: Bill Walton and six-time defending national champion UCLA, the most dominant franchise in American sports in 1973.
``I didn't think it would happen like this,'' Robinson told Sports Illustrated. ``We never thought we'd get this far.''
Teammates for eight years - four at Melrose High, four at Memphis State - Finch and Robinson could barely sleep the Sunday night before the finals.
``The night before the final game you realize there are only two teams left and all these people are going to be watching,'' Robinson says. ``That got you so fired up but you don't want to get so fired up you lose your game. Trying to keep your adrenaline down, that is a hard thing to do in a situation like that.
``You are about to jump out of your skin.''
In their hotel room, the two old friends just talked.
``Can you believe we made it this far?'' Finch told Robinson. ``It makes you want to pinch yourself.''
The thousands of fans who came from Memphis - many without tickets - only added to the magnitude of the moment.
``There are about 1,500 of us here,'' said Jim Watson, president of the team's booster club, ``and at least 20,000 we left at home who wanted to come.''
Memphis's state legislators in Nashville canceled meetings so they could watch the game. The Commercial Appeal's Society page ran a story on the many parties and converts spawned by ``Basketball Fever.''
``People who rarely have seen a basketball game were caught in the frenzy,'' the story noted. ``For instance, on Saturday afternoon, when Memphis State was playing Providence, crowds of women shoppers in a Midtown specialty shop were amazed to hear a dulcet voice inform them periodically of the current score.
``The shoppers loved it.''
Even half a world away, one Tiger fan hatched a plan to follow the game.
Don Holcomb, a star on the 1971-72 Tiger team, played pro ball on an Italian island called Sardinia and made arrangements with a friend in the Coast Guard to wait by a teletype machine in the middle of the night.
Rick Spell was a student then, but now, as one of the most influential donors at the school, he sits in on meetings meant to educate new administrators and coaches on the meaning of Tiger basketball to the city.
He says he has seen some of the most successful people in Memphis try to describe the 1972-73 team and the national championship game with UCLA.
It's close to impossible.
``You can see they are describing an emotion that the other person doesn't quite understand,'' Spell says. ``And these are very large people, Allen Morgan and Pitt Hyde and those types people. That was a big moment for them.''
UCLA came into the 1973 NCAA Tournament finals with the most overwhelming resume of any team in the history of college basketball.
The Bruins had won 73 consecutive games, dating to January of 1971.
They had won the past six national titles and eight of the past nine. They had won 35 consecutive games in the NCAA Tournament, a streak that covered seven years.
In those seven years, the Bruins had played 210 games. They had lost five, a winning percentage of .976.
To put this into perspective, Memphis State had not won an NCAA Tournament game before 1973, and Finch and Robinson, the Tigers two senior leaders, were sophomores at Melrose the last time UCLA lost a game in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers had lost five games in 1972-73, alone.
Earlier in 1973, UCLA had beaten Notre Dame for its 61st consecutive victory, breaking the mark held by Bill Russell's San Francisco teams.
Walton, a 6-11 1/2 center with the flaming red hair, had never lost a game in college and, dating back to his days at San Diego's Helix High, carried a personal winning streak of 123 games - covering five years - into the championship game.
Walton would go on to win the Sullivan Award in 1973 as America's best amateur athlete.
But Walton's mystique went beyond basketball.
``Bill is an unusual man,'' UCLA coach John Wooden said when Walton was awarded The Associated Press player of the year award.
``It's no put-on that at this moment he's less interested in material things than anybody in this room.''
Just as Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson were a perfect fit for that moment in Memphis history, Walton was a perfect fit for that moment in California culture.
He was a San Diego kid with counter-culture leanings playing for a man, in Wooden, who espoused the game's traditional values and went so far as to teach his players the proper way to put on their shoes and socks.
It said much about Walton that he could adapt his free spirit to Wooden's famous rules, and it said much about Wooden's rules that Walton could thrive within them.
``It's a game and I really like it,'' Walton said. ``But it's not like the most important thing in the world.''
The previous spring, when Walton demonstrated in a rally opposing the United States bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia, he was arrested and UCLA placed him on suspended probation.
Walton also made clear that, in the off-seasons, he had priorities other than basketball, such as hitchhiking across Canada after his sophomore year instead of playing for the U.S. Olympic team.
At UCLA, Walton studied history - he graduated with honors - and resisted the urge to become the highest paid player in professional basketball before getting his degree.
``One of the things I like about history is that you can learn a lot about different people and a variety of places,'' Walton said. ``I'm into that. I like trying to understand the different cultures.''
The more unconventional his players, the more Wooden seemed to revel in them. It only added to his aura that free spirits like Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Wooden calls him Lewis, his given name) loved playing for him.
Wooden himself cultivated an image of a basketball professor of sorts, using basketball to teach about life as much as winning and losing. They called him the Wizard of Westwood, after the neighborhood in which the school is located.
Curry Kirkpatrick described Wooden this way: ``He was Fred Astaire at a dance seminar; John Ford at a cinema exhbition; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the mount, accepting hosannahs, dispensing advice, suffering fools gently. The Wizard of Westwood, yeah.''
When UCLA got the record-setting 61st-straight victory, Wooden did show the nation his fiery side, walking to the UCLA bench to scold Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps.
Ever-protective of Walton, Wooden warned Phelps about the physical play.
But after the game, Wooden made sure to present the image he preferred for his program - that of one that wins so often it somehow appears above mere winning and losing.
``It was just another ball game, nothing to get excited about,'' Wooden said. ``The Vietnam cease-fire certainly overshadowed this moment for me.''
On the pregame radio interview with Jack Eaton, Tiger coach Gene Bartow laid out the game plan.
Larry Kenon, Missouri Valley Conference player of the year for the Tigers, would guard Walton straight up. There would be no double teams, no gimmick defenses.
``Half of his game is passing off,'' Bartow said. ``We'd like to make a shooter out of him tonight.''
There was some logic in this. Walton was a gifted passer who found open teammates whenever opponents tried to double team. Kenon had the length and athleticism to guard Walton, and, Bartow hoped, the strength to push Walton out past his comfort zone.
It was the same strategy, said Bartow, that many NBA teams used against Wilt Chamberlain - give the big guy his points and shut down everyone else.
``Who knows? Maybe he won't score 70 points,'' Bartow said. ``Actually, I think the highest number of points Walton has scored at UCLA is 30, 32 points. He is usually at 18 or 20.
``We feel the more Walton shoots - unless he is just shooting a fantastic percentage - the better chance we have of winning.''
Eaton, always known for his referee-bashing, brought up another factor.
When UCLA beat Indiana in the other semifinal game on Saturday, a questionable block-charge call midway in the second half went against Indiana's Steve Downing, preventing Walton from fouling out.
``Lot of the Memphis State fans, and I must admit I am in there too, are concerned about the officiating,'' Eaton said. ``They kind of think that in a marginal call, it'll go UCLA's way 90-percent of the time.''
Bartow disagreed, but did say the Tigers would need some breaks.
``We feel many times Walton has been protected a little and we're gonna talk to the officials very nicely from the bench if we feel Walton is getting away with a lot of things,'' Bartow said.
The Indiana comeback on Saturday - coupled with Memphis State's dominating second-half against Providence - had emboldened the Tigers.
``We thought they were in a league of their own until we watched them play Indiana,'' said Doug McKinney, one of MSU's four seniors. ``We know now that if we play great ball, we can beat them.''
Added Bartow: ``Someday, somehow, somebody's going to beat UCLA. We not only think we can do it, we believe it.''
As the Tigers took the court, there were nerves, but also the sense that they could topple mighty UCLA and finish off the Cinderella run that began when Bartow, Finch and Robinson revived the program three years earlier.
``For the first time I can ever remember, I had butterflies,'' Kenon says.
NBC estimated that 42 million people were watching the game, and the local affiliate, WMC, figured an audience of 1 million for its signal.
In complaining about the way the St. Louis newspapers previewed the game - UCLA in a walk, they said - Eaton captured the general feeling of most fans outside WMC's broadcast range.
The Bruins were not only favored to win, they were favored by 15 points.
``One guy in the paper today said, and I quote, `They're going to have to wake up John Wooden when the game is over to give him the championship trophy,' '' Eaton said.
Good start, tough finish
``We're almost ready to go,'' Eaton told the radio audience, as his microphone picked up crowd noise and music from the bands, ``and I thought of a lot of things I could say but I am so nervous I forgot what all of them were.
``If our players are as nervous as I am, we've had it.''
If nerves affected the Tigers, they did not show it.
Kenon swapped early baskets with Walton.
Finch, the Tigers' big-game player, was scintillating in the biggest game of his life, hitting outside shots and drawing fouls and controlling the game out front.
But Walton was stealing the show, and it became apparent that the strategy that called for Kenon to single-team the nation's best player was backfiring.
Walton drew three fouls on Kenon, who also received a technical foul.
Walton did not miss a shot until 7:04 remained in the first half, and he promptly tipped back the miss to give the Bruins a 31-24 lead.
The lead did not last. Sparked by Finch, the Tigers outscored UCLA, 15-8, over the next five minutes to tie the score at 39-39, and Walton picked up his third foul.
Neither team scored in the final two minutes of the half, and Eaton's voice soared as he announced that the Tigers were tied with UCLA at the half.
Buddy McEwen, then the head golf pro at Ridgeway Country Club, had bought season tickets back in 1970, on the same day the news broke that former coach Moe Iba was being fired. A transplant from Nashville who played golf at the school, McEwen sat in the Tiger cheering section at The Arena and remembers the sense that something remarkable was taking place.
It was halftime of the national championship game, the Tigers were tied with UCLA and they had done it without playing their best basketball.
``I walked out into the hall and you know you sit out there and you say, `We are one half of a game away from a national championship,' '' says McEwen, now the head pro at Davy Crockett. ``And I started crying.''
When the second half started, the Tigers heightened the drama with two free throws by Finch.
``The Tigers have the lead on mighty UCLA,'' Eaton said. ``John Wooden's not asleep now.''
No, but Walton had only just begun. He hit every shot he took in the second half, with UCLA continuing to go back to him against a 1-2-2 zone defense run by the Tigers.
UCLA tied the game at 45-45, then Keith Wilkes hit a jumper to regain the lead for the Bruins.
Tiger fans complained afterward that Walton got away with elbows and shoves, that his lob layins should have been ruled goaltends (dunking was illegal in 1973), that Kenon and Memphis's other big men earned fouls doing things Walton got away with.
Whatever the case, the final box score showed Walton hitting 21-of-22 shots from the field and two more from the free-throw line to finish with 44 points, a record for the championship game that still stands.
In Italy, in the Coast Guard station in Sardinia, Don Holcomb gazed intently as the teletype machine sprang to life.
``It starts out, `Bill Walton hit 21-of-22 shots,' and I just walked away,'' says Holcomb, now a high school principal in West Tennessee. "Man, talk about sick.''
Though the Tigers stayed in striking distance, the UCLA lead finally hit double digits with six minutes to go and the final is still misleading: UCLA 87, Memphis State 66.
``People away from Memphis find out I was on that team and they say, `Oh, you were in that game where Bill Walton . . .' '' says Kenny Andrews, a reserve Tigers forward. ``People still remember it.''
In the final minutes, with the outcome no longer in doubt, Walton twisted his ankle and began limping off the floor.
It was at that moment that Larry Finch appeared, wrapped his arm around Walton and let the big redhead lean on him as they hobbled off the floor.
It was a fitting way for Finch to go out, really. He had carried an entire city on his shoulders for three seasons.
Now he would help carry Walton.
As the city bus rolled through Orange Mound, a police escort in tow, people stood on the corners and waved.
``MSU basketball,'' read the banner on the side, as the bus made its way to the Mid-South Coliseum.
It was the day after the 1973 NCAA Tournament championship game, and Memphis embraced the Tiger basketball team one final time. About 5,000 fans showed up for the weekday rally at the Coliseum.
``We all felt the heartbeat and pride of these Memphis State players,'' Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn told the audience.
In the locker room after the game, the players had been devastated. Kenon dressed facing his locker and said only, ``It's all over.''
It was over for Kenon, who a few weeks later announced that he was going pro after his only year at Memphis State.
But the Tigers discovered on that day something that's still true three decades later. The city holds a special place in its heart for that basketball team, and for good reason.
``They were so afraid they had let people down,'' remembers Ted Turnipseed, a team manager for the Tigers. ``When they saw the Coliseum like that, now it was the community giving the team what they needed. The players really, really loved that.''
In The Commercial Appeal the next day, an editorial hailed the team for the impact it made on the city.
``The underdog from a school that must have been fairly obscure to most of the national audience fought, at times brilliantly, right to the top,'' it read. ``And stirred the hearts of a whole city.''
Even more telling was an accompanying editorial cartoon. The cartoon depicted two boys - one white, one black - sitting on a sidewalk, looking slightly dejected. Behind them read a sign, ``Larry we love you!!!''