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Original Issue

Down Memory Lane

After a decade on the beat, the author bids college basketball a fond farewell

A journalist calls the subject he covers his beat, and I was a patrolman on the college basketball block for a remarkable decade. I won't be making the rounds this season on account of another assignment, as editor of SI's SCORECARD section, and I'm not altogether happy about that. Just as a musician will tell you that rhythm has a beat, I maintain that my beat had a rhythm, and over the years I became oddly accustomed to it: Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks cut short by some beckoning Holiday Classic; running to an airport in a weekly race against a blizzard during the conference grind of January and February; tournament play keeping me in hibernation through March until, unburrowed, I'd surface to a strange condition called spring.

My task was to get and tell a story—to deliver, in a word, prose. But there were moments that stand out in my memory. Herewith, and by way of farewell, a little beat poetry:

1983, Albuquerque. North Carolina State center Cozell McQueen, the 6'11" pride of Bennettsville, S.C., patiently explaining, in the aftermath of the Wolfpack's seismic NCAA title game upset of Houston, that he made his choice of college "because I always wanted to go to school in the North."

1984, College Park, Md. Michael Jordan, a junior at North Carolina, alerting those who care to notice that he's an unsurpassed talent, taking and making any shot he cares to, including a breakaway dunk as the final seconds tick down in a regular-season ACC game. Someone asking him afterward if he intended to send some sort of message with that last one. And Jordan replying, like an efficient secretary, "No messages."

1984, Auburn, Ala. Charles Barkley meeting presidential candidate John Glenn after a game. Everyone witnessing their encounter knowing that Glenn's prospects for getting out of the primaries are bleak, because this Auburn junior has a broader smile, a firmer handshake and a more winning way with people than that poor, in-spite-of-himself senator from Ohio.

1986, Tucson. During the height of Reagan-era, U.S.-Soviet tensions, at an exhibition game between Arizona and the national team of the Evil Empire, the Tucson Boys Chorus singing the Soviet anthem, a cappella, in Russian, and nailing every note. The eyes of Vladimir Tkachenko, the 7'2" Lurch of a center, puddling up at hearing so sublime a version of this song at so improbable a time in so unlikely a place.

1986, Atlanta. Heading down a corridor at halftime of the NCAA Southeast Regional final at the Omni, only to stumble by the LSU locker room and hear coach Dale Brown, in full rant, through the door: "Are you going to let those [the plural of something very profane] beat us?" The undersized Tigers wouldn't, beating Kentucky to reach the Final Four.

1988, Philadelphia. Inhaling that intoxicating smell of the Palestra, the scents of popcorn, sweat, pizza, tobacco, wood and various brands of disinfectant used there over the years. And happening upon Penn grad students in the historical archaeology department working in their lab beneath the north stands, cleaning and cataloging shards of pottery even as a game goes on above them.

1989, Providence. First round of the NCAA East Regional at the Civic Center. Watching Princeton run one backdoor play after another against Georgetown, including one that features a bounce pass from beyond the top of the key late in the second half, when it still looks as if, for the first time ever, a 16th seed might beat a No. 1.

1990, Durham, N.C. Jamie Krzyzewski, daughter of the Duke coach, causing Dookie jaws to drop when, as the team trudges from the arena to the bus, she sees a kitchen knife on the ground and says, "Is that a dagger which I see before me?" A couple of players wanting to know what in Sam Hill this nine-year-old has just uttered. Daughter K replying, "It's Shakespeare, stupid. Don't you know anything?"

1990, Philly again. The eve of a regular-season romp between La Salle and Loyola Marymount at the Civic Center. The Lions' Hank Gathers sitting on a bench following a shootaround, his body taut but his brow furrowed, as he tries to describe how, notwithstanding a clean bill of health from his doctors concerning his heart, there is still...something...wrong....

1993, Tobacco Road. Meeting the families of Eric Montross and Grant Hill, both so rare in this sport, in that each has a dad still paired with a mom. And what moms: Janice Montross, waiting for a flight home to Indiana after one of her son's games, reading the memoirs of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Janet Hill squeezing in an interview during a business trip to Manhattan. At the St. Regis. For tea.

1994, Charlotte, N.C. During the final seconds of the NCAA title game—and of my 11-year hitch—the ball coming off the hand of Arkansas's Scotty Thurman with a release so perfect a lawyer might have drawn it up. The ball tracing a huge and proud arc, and the basket being there to meet it.

Not a bad parting shot.