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Original Issue


In basketball's bleakest year, the NCAAs arrive just in time

It's called smiling through the pain.

Sitting in his Charlotte, N.C., hotel room at the ACC tournament, talking long distance, Jim Valvano was put on hold. "My lawyer says he's got Syd Thrift [the former general manager of the Pirates and Yankees] on the other line," Valvano said, cupping the phone between sips of Chablis. "What now? You think I'm being traded?"

"How can we laugh through all this?" said his wife, Pam.

"How can we not," said Valvano.

Sometimes—as in this college basketball season—laughter does not come that easily. I wish Valvano had been more scrupulous in recruiting athletes who knew right from wrong, and had done a better job of teaching them the difference. And I wish that he would take a greater degree of responsibility for the basketball chaos on his campus. I wish there was no drugs-and-payola scandal at Florida, no probation at Kentucky, no probation at Maryland, no investigations at Illinois and Missouri and UNLV, no street agents saying they represent Syracuse, no allegations of point shaving at Valvano's North Carolina State.

Beyond grief now, I wish to god Hank Gathers had not died; that he could be remembered instead for the way he lived—an elegant warrior of a player, a warm, caring, vibrant kid. About Gathers, a paraphrase of an Elton John song comes to mind: His candle burned out long before his legend ever will.

Ultimately I wished something would happen to remind us of the pleasures inherent in this terrific sport. And relief came just in time: the announcement of the NCAA tournament pairings.

Certain things about the season came flashing back. The surprise of Connecticut and Michigan State and Kansas. The academic accomplishments of Georgia's 3.91 microbiology (whatever that may be) student and All-SEC center, Alec Kessler. The feigned gunslinger theatrics of Oklahoma's Skeeter ("Shooting the guns—it just comes from my heart") Henry. The swan song of Virginia's Terry Holland, a beacon of integrity in coaching for 16 years.

Clarence (Bighouse) Gaines, the coach at Winston-Salem State, won his 800th game, more than any man alive and second only to Adolph Rupp in history. Miriam Walker Samuels, a 5'6" junior at Claflin (S.C.) College, scored her 3,700th point, more than LSU's Pete Maravich and second only to Kentucky State's Travis Grant. And for wondrous turnabouts, how about Louisville's Felton Spencer (from a career 6.5 scorer to a possible lottery pick), St. John's Boo Harvey (three last-second game-winners after missing last season for academic reasons) and UNLV's Travis Bice, a skinny walk-on who recovered from a 1988 auto accident that left him with 100 stitches to become the best three-point shooter in the Big West Conference?

Or this:

On Jan. 6, Butte Junior College in Oroville, Calif., overcame an 89-71 deficit in the final 1:30 of regulation to defeat Shasta J.C. of Redding 116-115 in double overtime. After Butte finally won the game, coach John Abell said, "I thought I was hallucinating."

But unless you're Southern Illinois or DePaul or Long Beach State or Stanford, four teams that didn't make the tournament field but should have, you're not hallucinating. Even if you're Alabama and won the SEC tournament and still are seeded seventh in the West and have to travel all the way to Long Beach, Calif. Even if you're Georgia Tech and won the ACC tournament and are "rewarded" with a fourth seed and have to play tough East Tennessee State in Knoxville. Finally, even if you're Connecticut and are overcome by the embarrassment of staying in Hartford, where you played no fewer than nine home games this season. Of course, if you're the NCAA Selections Committee, you should bow your heads in shame at that one.

Playing mostly the chalk, I like UNLV, Oklahoma, Kansas and Michigan State to reach the Final Four, with the Spartans—and the best player nobody has ever heard of, guard Steve Smith—to win the championship. My dark horse is Minnesota, but my heart's with Loyola Marymount. As the Lions from the little campus near the big airport, LAX, plunge to the end of this saddest season, not only theirs but ours, they cannot be expected to put the tragedy of Hank Gathers out of mind. Nor should they.

There is another Elton John lyric that comes to mind when I think about Gathers.

Don't let the sun go down on me.
Although I search myself, it's
always someone else I see.
I'd just allow a fragment of your
life to wander free.

Hurry up, NCAA tournament. The sun has been going down much too fast.