Friday, December 8, 2023

The Miracle Before The Miracle: NC State’s shocking 1983 ACC Tournament run

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Airplanes only occasionally were necessary to traverse the Atlantic Coast Conference as it was in its prime. There are only 105 miles separating the campuses of Wake Forest and North Carolina State, less than a two-hour drive, but the length of a college basketball team’s bus ride isn’t always accurately measured by space and time.

On the night of Jan. 22, 1983, NC State Wolfpack owned an 8-4 record when they commenced traveling home from a humbling 18-point loss to Wake Forest. “The bus ride back was somber,” Terry Gannon told The Sporting News. None of this was as it was supposed to be, nor even how it had been just 10 days earlier.

On that night, senior guard Dereck Whittenburg was lighting up Reynolds Coliseum and the Virginia defense with 27 first-half points. That’s right: 27 points in ONE HALF against Ralph Sampson and the No. 2-ranked Cavaliers. And then, early in the second half, the guy everyone knew as “Whitt” attempted a jumpshot, landed on an opponent’s foot, and took the designs of a Wolfpack dream season with him into the trainer’s room.

A game NC State once had led by 16 points became a crushing defeat, and then there was an 18-point embarrassment at Carolina, and now a second consecutive beatdown, this one courtesy of the Demon Deacons. The season whose path was supposed to end in Albuquerque, site of the 1983 Final Four, instead was traveling rapidly toward irrelevance.

“We had a meeting in the locker room, and we kind of reassessed,” said Gannon, a sweet-shooting sophomore guard on that team and now a successful sportscaster. “And it went from talking about reassessing your goals, because Jim Valvano often had talked about winning a national championship, to: Hey, Let’s go to the NIT. Let’s go to Madison Square Garden and win it all.

“But as we talked – and I mean, it was we, it was not just Jim Valvano and the coaching staff talking at us – it eventually worked back into: No, we’re not giving up on this. We’re going to make a run.”

Whittenburg was the team’s No. 2 scorer and its No. 1 badass. Backcourt partner Sidney Lowe was the quarterback, but Whitt was the voice, the guy whose audacity made it plausible NC State could entertain the possibility of contending for an ACC title when the reigning NCAA champions were up the road at North Carolina, with Michael Jordan about to ascend to the stratosphere, and reigning Sporting News Player of the Year Sampson back as a senior still searching for the sport’s most important trophy.

There were 14 games remaining in the regular season. There were only 57 days for Whittenburg’s broken foot to heal, and that’s if he opened the ACC Tournament with no practice or playing time in advance. Initial reports indicated his college career likely was over as a result of the injury because the time required to heal figured to consume what remained of the season.

All this put the 1983 Pack into the position of needing a touch of magic – really, two — just to get the opportunity to compete in March Madness.

You know about Whitt’s heave and Lorenzo Charles’ dunk and Jimmy V dashing around the court at the Pit looking for someone to hug. You’ve seen it replayed hundreds of times on TV in the 40 years since that wondrous night. You’ve been instructed how preposterous it was for the overmatched Wolfpack to defeat invincible Houston, which featured two future Hall of Famers. A decade ago, Bleacher Report ranked it No. 10 on a list of the greatest upsets in sports history, not so far behind the Miracle on Ice.

What you might not know is although the Pack players have been smart enough to embrace that miracle as a brand, they always believed they were championship material. They believed because Valvano taught them to believe, convinced them to believe, and because they had a veteran backcourt with McDonald’s All-American pedigree, a first-round talent in power forward Thurl Bailey and plenty of capable depth.

All of that was tested, though, by Whittenburg’s absence. And it’s almost certain it would not have been enough had he been unable to return. He made it back a bit before the Pack entered the ACC Tournament.

And that is where the real miracle occurred.

ACC Tournament Quarterfinal

Wake Forest vs. NC State

March 11, 1983

As the Wolfpack navigated the six weeks from Whittenburg’s injury until his return to practice, they won just nine of 14 games and saw their once-pristine record soiled. Valvano, though, stressed two concepts: Gannon and freshman Ernie Myers had to do their best to fill that huge vacancy, and “When Whitt comes back, we’re going to be OK.”

He recognized, though, it was not a simple transaction.

“I’ll never forget the first practice I came back. I was real competitive, and I was in the scrimmage, and Valvano pulled me to the side. He said, ‘Now, we have adjusted to you being out. And now you have to adjust to us,’ ” Whittenberg told The Sporting News. “That was a key phrase, meaning that mentally I had to adjust back to the team. They had recovered a little bit. They were a little bit on a roll. That was a key for Valvano, to realize I’m back, but how do you insert me back in?”

Whittenburg was returned to the starting lineup, and Myers – who had done a terrific job of filling that spot – returned to a reserve role. That simple, right? Play the senior? Play the star? Sure, except everything was different now, and it didn’t work. NC State lost two in a row, to Virginia and Maryland.

Then Wake came to Reynolds Coliseum on the final day of the regular season, and the Wolfpack put one of the worst beatings on the Deacons in their basketball history: NC State 130, Wake Forest 89.

The Pack was back together.

That result, though, led to State earning the No. 4 seed in the ACC Tournament and being matched against the No. 5 seed in the quarterfinals. Which was Wake Forest.

“No matter how much you tell yourself not to overlook Wake, you just beat them by 41,” Gannon said.

This game was nothing like that.

“It’s not easy playing a team you’d just blown out,” Whittenburg said. “They’re a good team, and all of a sudden you’ve got to play them again. By design, it was not an easy game. People have a saying: You’ve got to be good and lucky, and we were both.”

The luck began when the ACC adopted a 3-point line that was only 17 feet, 9 inches from the center of the goal. The 3-point arc cut inside the foul circle at the top of the lane; that’s how close it was. It was like a layup for Whittenburg, who made 48 percent of his attempts, and Gannon, who made 59 percent.

There was an experimental 30-second shot-clock during the regular season, but it was not in force during the ACC Tournament. And that might have helped NC State, as well. Because when the Deacs and Pack were locked in a tie game with 4 minutes left in their quarterfinal at The Omni in Atlanta, Wake coach Carl Tacy ordered his players to hold the ball until 30 seconds remained, then called timeout.

In the huddle, Valvano ordered his players to trap whomever held the ball. Near the 20-second mark, that approach forced it out of star guard Delaney Rudd’s hands and into the corner, where it quickly was turned over to the Pack. Lowe dashed upcourt in a 2-on-1 break with Whittenburg but chose not to deliver the pass. He waited, which meant Wake would have less time to pursue a tying or winning score. Eventually, Lowe found Charles, who was fouled and made one of two free throws to clinch a victory.

“Jimmy was great at focusing on the game you were playing: Survive and advance. We never talked about winning the whole thing,” veteran assistant coach Tom Abatemarco, an assistant coach for Hall of Famers Lefty Driessell, Lou Carnesecca and Rick Pitino, told The Sporting News.

“Jimmy was great at controlling the game. He’d run at you, then slow it down. He’d change defenses a little bit to slow the pace up. I worked for Lefty, Looie, Pitino – I worked for a lot of great coaches. Jimmy, by far, was the best game coach I worked for.”

Final score: NC State 71, Wake Forest 70

TSN ARCHIVES: All Hail the Wolfpack Savior (March 21, 1983)


ACC Tournament Semifinal

NC State vs. North Carolina

March 12, 1983

There was no “bracketology” in 1983. It would be more than a decade before it was invented by Joe Lunardi, who eventually took his knowledge of NCAA Tournament selection process to ESPN, about the same time as Jim Sukup of Collegiate Basketball News began making public the Ratings Percentage Index rankings.

So no one really knew for certain what NC State had to achieve in the ACC Tournament, after a 16-10 regular season, to be invited to the 52-team NCAA field, which had room for only 24 at-large entrants. This did not prevent the expression of opinions on the subject, and some opinions carry more weight than others.

“The second game, we played Carolina. And Jimmy came walking over after he went over to see Dean beforehand. He said, ‘Damn that Dean. He said we’ve got to win the tournament to go to the NCAA,” Abatemarco told TSN. “I said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it! He’s just trying to get in your head.’ Dean was great that way.”

The Tar Heels still had three starters from their championship team, and, really, it was more than that. Because Jordan had begun to unleash his talent – and, perhaps more important, Smith allowed it. The old joke was only Dean could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points, but that season Jordan attempted nearly 15 shots a game, averaged 20 points and superseded Sampson as TSN’s Player of the Year. The Heels also still featured first-team All-America forward Sam Perkins and 7-foot freshman center Brad Daugherty.

The Heels were ACC regular-season champs, 25-6 and winners of five in a row.

The game that preceded that streak, though, was a loss to the Wolfpack, who entered without Whittenburg but fought to a 70-63 victory behind Bailey’s 20 points and center Cozell McQueen’s clutch free throws. It was the first victory for Valvano over Smith and the Tar Heels. It was so momentous, the players cut down the nets afterward.

“The biggest moment of that season, in my opinion,” Gannon said. “To this day, maybe even more than the championship game, it was my favorite basketball game that I’ve ever been a part of. It was the loudest you’ve ever heard an arena. It was an afternoon game, and every horn honked in Raleigh until after midnight. Our entire campus was T-P’d – every tree, at every dorm. It was a madhouse. That was when we realized, even without Whitt, we could be good.”

Kenny Smith would not come along for the Tar Heels until a year later, and championship playmaker Jimmy Black was a senior in 1982, which left the Heels less than exceptional at the point guard position. Lowe took great advantage of his matchup and, mostly by attacking the rim, scored 19 of his 26 points in the first half.

The Pack nearly won the game in regulation, and along the way helped foul Jordan out of the game. “Helped” is the correct terminology, because the fifth personal was so soft it wouldn’t have crushed a grape. Gannon said in the “Survive and Advance” film that he still was feeling the pain in his ribs all these years later – then laughed and confessed he probably wasn’t touched.

In overtime, Whittenburg scored 11 of the Pack’s final 13 points to help them escape a 6-point deficit with a little more than 2 minutes remaining.

It might have been the Wake quarterfinal that led Valvano to conjure the phrase, “Survive and Advance”, which became the slogan for the 1983 team and, ultimately, the title of the exquisite ESPN documentary on the championship run.

“Team of destiny was another one that he would just throw out there,” Gannon said. “Well, it was after that Wake Forest game that we somehow survived, in the locker room guys kind of looked around at each other and went, ‘Team of Destiny! This is meant to be! This is it!’ And it was a half-joke.’ So the next game you’re playing against Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins and Dean Smith and go to overtime and eventually win. And, again, survive. We get into the locker room, somebody throws out that ‘Team of Destiny.’ Now you’ve got a little different look in the eyes of people. You start to believe it.”

Final score: NC State 91, North Carolina 84 (OT)


ACC Tournament Championship Game

NC State vs. Virginia

March 13, 1983

Whittenburg and Lowe were a part – and a significant part — of what might have been the greatest class of basketball players this nation ever produced, which included Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Byron Scott, John Paxson, Steve Stipanovich, Sam Bowie, Clark Kellogg, Antoine Carr, Dominique Wilkins. And Sampson.

The two guards had been teammates for years on dominant teams at DeMatha Catholic, coached by Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten, and when they enrolled at NC State expected to continue winning basketball games.

They made the NCAAs as freshmen under coach Norm Sloan and won a game, but Sloan left for Florida. After two seasons with Valvano, there had been one NCAA Tournament appearance and no survival, no advancement.

There was no way to know if the Pack needed to defeat Virginia to reach the NCAAs, but they definitely needed to beat the Cavs to win the ACC Tournament and win State’s first title in nearly a decade. That meant conquering Sampson, something Valvano’s teams had been unable to do in six prior attempts.

“I can’t put it in words how great, and how big a force he was in college basketball at the time,” Gannon said. “We played a three-guard lineup and we shot threes. And ironically, it took a defensive play against Ralph the last couple of possessions to actually win that game.”

For all the credit granted to Valvano for the work he would do in the NCAAs in the subsequent weeks, this might have been his strategic masterpiece under the most significant possible pressure. Win, you’re in. Lose, who knows? Virginia was going to get a No. 1 seed, and it wanted to claim its first ACC Tournament with Ralph in his final college season. There is a difference between want and need, though.

“I think every year with Ralph, the goal was to win a national championship, and if you won the ACC, or you were at the top, you always felt like you had a chance,” Ricky Stokes, who was a top reserve guard for the Cavaliers, told The Sporting News. “So I’m going to say it was important to us, but that came with a lot of pressure, too.”

After Virginia built and early 8-point lead with Sampson dominating the baseline, Valvano called time and ordered the Pack into a triangle-and-2 gimmick zone. But instead of placing the two roaming defenders on perimeter players, as is customary, Valvano had Bailey and McQueen double-team Sampson. The other three NC State players had to form a three-man zone and defend against four Virginia players. Sampson scored 18 points in the first half. He scored six in the second.

State went ahead to stay with 7:02 left, built that advantage to as much as nine points and led by three with 40 seconds left when Virginia’s Jim Miller executed a high/low feed to Sampson. McQueen was in front but failed to deflect the ball when he jumped and reached with his right arm extended. There was no one behind Sampson as he caught it. The lead was going to be down to a single p–

But Gannon happened to be beside Sampson, and he reached and swiped the ball away before it could be jammed through the goal. He passed to Whittenburg, who threw long to Bailey. He made one free throw, and Whittenburg later clinched it with two more.

“Everybody was really excited. We had an enthusiastic group. We weren’t a quiet group. So we celebrated. And, of course, it was Ralph and Virginia,” Abatemarco said. “In those days, the talent level in the ACC was unbelievable. I mean, everybody had pros.”

Final score: NC State 81, Virginia 78


NC State arranged a 40th reunion for the surviving members of the 1983 Wolfpack on Feb. 22, during a home game against Wake Forest, which is the kind of thing schools do for Final Four teams and national champions, so you know this team’s journey didn’t end with that brilliant Sunday afternoon against Sampson and Virginia. But you knew that, anyway. Because publications don’t write 40th anniversary stories and sports networks don’t make 102-minute movies about conference tournament winners.

There might have been no “Survive and Advance” had not the Wolfpack first survived and advanced all the way through the 1983 ACC Tournament. In many ways, that was a tougher journey than taking down Pepperdine, UNLV, Utah, Virginia (again!), Georgia and Houston.

Along the way to the NCAA title, they had to beat Sampson and Virginia and later Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Cougars. So that’s three Hall of Famers on two teams. But that was spread over 10 days. Defeating Jordan and Sampson in the ACC meant doing it back-to-back. What a way to spend a weekend.

The reunion was more about presenting NC State fans the opportunity to revel in the glory of that season four decades ago, even fans who were not yet born but have been raised in – or converted to – the mythology and magic of the Cardiac Pack. The players got the chance to shake hands or exchange hugs with one another and tell stories over a beverage or two, but it’s not like they haven’t been in touch all these years.

The closeness among the players seems to come through the format of “Survive and Advance”, which is based around a gathering of the team members at a bar near campus as they recalled the experience of March 1983. Turns out, that was real.

“Dude, I’ll show you a text chain from this morning,” Gannon told TSN. “It’s every day, to this day. As a team, we text back and forth. Every single day, there is some text that comes up. It sounds cliche, but it was what allowed us to win that championship.”

Valvano survived only a bit more than 10 years after his great coaching triumph, but somehow has advanced in his absence. His ESPYs speech, delivered less than two months before his death as he accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, has become as iconic (“If you laugh, you think, you cry, that’s a full day; that’s a heck of a day”) as Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech at Yankee Stadium (“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth). The V Foundation, essentially launched that evening, has presented more than $300 million in research grants to attack various forms of cancer. Its operation is designed so that 100 percent of all donations go directly to research; administrative expenses are covered by an endowment.

The Pack lost Charles, as well, in a heartbreaking accident as the bus he was driving crashed on Interstate 40. He was the player who dunked home Whittenburg’s airball in the closing seconds of the NCAA championship game against Houston. It was one of the most famous baskets in the history of college basketball.

That moment endures for so many who witnessed it. Whittenburg will give motivational speeches and take along the Emmy Award he earned as executive producer. (He also served as producer on the ACC Network’s terrific documentary on the history of the ACC Tournament.) He is proud of the film, and also of a distinction the 1983 NC State squad holds that almost never is mentioned.

“It was the first championship game in the history of the NCAA that all of the starters were Black on both teams. And we are the first ACC Team to win the championship with an all-black starting five,” Whittenburg said. “You wouldn’t have imagined that – we were the first? Since Texas Western in 1966?

“I’ve been talking about it for 39 years, and they still haven’t heard … One thing we’ve learned about history is we don’t share it enough. And if we don’t keep up with it, it gets behind us.”

Gannon said he gets stopped in airports regularly, and often they want to mention not his work covering Olympic figure skating or the PGA Tour but that night 40 years ago.

Not long ago at the Tour event at the TPC Boston, he was driving a golf cart from the network’s on-site headquarters to the booth where he would call the action.

“This cop’s out there, and he’s waving his arms frantically for me to stop. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, geez, he’s not going to let me go this way; he’s going to send me around the back,” Gannon said. “And he comes up and said, ‘Terry, I’ve been a cop in Boston for 30 years. I don’t cry much, but I cried when I watched that 30-for-30. You guys just made me feel part of that team.”

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