30 years since shocking NCAA title game finish

I was still in my mother’s womb when N.C. State shocked Houston in the 1983 NCAA championship game. But I know all about it. I’ve seen Lorenzo Charles’ put-back dunk so many times I feel like I was there. That image of coach Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug matters to me on an intellectual level. I understand it was important in the same way I understand why Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video was important or why Poison was popular. 

I get it, I just don’t feel it.

Culturally, we have come to accept this as one of the great upsets in sports history, and I accept that even though it doesn’t make much sense to me. I understand on an intellectual level that Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of those Phi Slama Jama guys were considered unbeatable (even though they had been beaten). And I understand, intellectually, that N.C. State was considered hopelessly overmatched (even though it went 26-10 and was ranked 14th in the coaches poll).

In the 30 years since, we’ve just seen so much of this kind of thing. I’ve seen Wichita State and George Mason make the Final Four. I saw Butler come the width of the rim away from winning the national championship. I’ve been witness to Florida Gulf Coast and Norfolk State and Northern Iowa. Princeton over UCLA. They didn’t call it March Madness in 1983, I don’t think, but they do now because chaos is the norm.

I mean, that 1983 N.C. State team beat a North Carolina team that had Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins on it. That N.C. State team had five NBA draft picks on it. Granted, Thurl Bailey and Sidney Lowe were the only ones taken in the first 25 picks, but this wasn’t exactly a team full of castoffs and misfits. I can make a conscious decision to believe Mike Krzyzewski when he says, at the time, he thought N.C. State had “no chance” to beat Houston, but 30 years later a No. 6 seed from a major conference beating a No. 1 seed doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.

Plus, it wasn’t like it took some time for the game to change to make this kind of thing possible. The magnitude of N.C. State’s upset started corroding almost immediately. Just two years later, eighth-seeded Villanova won the national championship over Georgetown in a game that was a bigger upset by point spread (Houston was a 7.5-point favorite while Georgetown was favored by nine), and three years after that sixth-seeded Kansas beat Oklahoma (an eight-point favorite).

I am further capable of understanding that Valvano’s courageous response to getting cancer makes that upset win feel more significant in retrospect. But Valvano wasn’t diagnosed until 1992. It wasn’t like the Wolfpack players were out there fighting for their ailing coach. This was a good team with a charismatic coach that played great on the biggest stage and beat a great team with a great play at the end.

What I’m saying is, I understand with my head why we are celebrating that moment. But I guess you had to be there.