Witness to History
Superdome has seen its share of iconic Final Four moments
|DID YOU KNOW|
|The Superdome is located on 52 acres, including the former Girod Street Cemetery. The dome has an interior space of 125,000,000 cubic feet, a height of 253 feet, a dome diameter of 680 feet, and a total floor area of 269,000 square feet.|
Because it has seen so much, because it has housed so many layers of Final Four history, because it has inspired so many college basketball fans to shake their heads at the remarkable memories forged there, the building has become its own Forrest Gump.
Where did the legend of Michael Jordan begin? The Superdome. Where did Keith Smart bury that famous corner jumper? The Superdome. Where did Chris Webber signal timeout when his team had none? The Superdome. Where did Hakim Warrick fly to thus deny one victory and preserve another? The Superdome.
On four occasions — in 1982, 1987, 1993 and 2003 — the Final Four has descended upon New Orleans’ colossal saucer along Poydras Street, drawing a combined 490,400 pilgrims as it did. And on four occasions, it has amounted to a reach into a magnificent box of basketball chocolates for those who played and for those who watched.
“When you talk about that old ABC-TV sports thing — the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — you’re talking about those games in the Superdome,” said Matt Doherty, Jordan’s North Carolina teammate back in 1982. “A lot of weird things have happened in that place.”
With this 2012 NCAA tournament having wended its way to New Orleans, the madness has returned to the Superdome for a fifth time. But before wondering about what splendors may await this time around, perhaps we should first look back at those previously unveiled …
Michael’s Moment | 1982: North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62
This was the title affair that featured all that iron. There was James Worthy and Sam Perkins and Dean Smith on the one side, and there was Patrick Ewing and Sleepy Floyd and John Thompson on the other.
And, of course, there was Michael Jordan, a skinny freshman guard who’d end up hovering over the whole bunch — then, later and likely forever — by splashing a 16-foot jumper with some 15 seconds remaining on the clock that won for North Carolina a championship and launched for American sports fans a golden era.
“That wasn’t the start of something wonderful for me because that shot beat us,” said Thompson, who directed Georgetown on the night of Jordan’s ascension and now dabbles in radio and TV in his coaching retirement. “Michael showed that he had the guts to take that kind of shot and the ability to make it. There were a lot of guys on both teams who were capable of making the big play — Worthy, Perkins, Patrick, Sleepy. But the fact remains that it was Michael who made it.”
By doing so, Jordan, who’d finish with 16 points, turned a 62-61 North Carolina deficit into, ultimately, a 63-62 victory for the Tar Heels and decided a stunning contest during which every dribble seemed to be challenged, every rebound became a rush for gold and every basket was nothing less than treasure.
“When you reflect on that game, you see there really was an impressive group of people in it,” said Thompson, whose star, Ewing, was called for five goal-tending violations. “There was high quality on that court and things were extraordinarily competitive. Sometimes, comparisons are odious, but you’d have to say in its era that game was as good as any that had been played.”
More than just that — and despite the fact that Worthy was the evening’s leading scorer with 28 points — that game pretty much introduced the fellow who’d become, in the opinion of so many, the greatest player basketball has yet seen.
“I was at the foul line on that play,” Doherty said. “If it was hockey, I would have gotten an assist because I threw the ball to Jimmy Black, who then threw it to Michael. To this day, still, that shot blows my mind.
“He was a freshman, remember, in a time when freshmen were freshmen. It’s not like now where it’s understood that freshmen come in, stick around for a year and then leave for the NBA. Michael was a real freshman and he caught that pass, with 60,000 in the seats, so relaxed that it seemed like he was shooting in the gym all by himself. And that thing went right through the heart of the net.
“The poise. The confidence. Michael Jordan went on to do that how many more times?”
A whole lot. But he first did it in the Superdome.
Smart’s Shot | 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73
Bob Knight, the Indiana coach, had never much cared for junior-college transfers and thus avoided them as if they’d sprouted thorns. But as he gazed ahead to the 1986-87 season, he saw that his Hoosiers boded to be a bit shy of talent, so he swallowed hard and enlisted a couple … and resultantly won his third NCAA title.
That championship was claimed, of course, shortly after one of those imports, Keith Smart, elevated just before the final horn over there along the left baseline while the other, Dean Garrett, positioned himself underneath the basket for the rebound that would never come.
“The only thing I thought of was contesting,” said Howard Triche, the Syracuse forward who did get a hand in Smart’s face. “He wasn’t supposed to be a good shooter. Steve Alford was their guy. But we all know what happened next. Keith Smart came up big.”
He buried the 16-footer with four seconds to go. That’s what Smart, a kid from just up the road in Baton Rouge, did. He buried the shot that completed the comeback from a 52-44 deficit with 12½ minutes to play. And just like that, after having scored 12 of Indiana’s final 15 points, he’d become a Hoosier immortal by sealing Indiana’s 74-73 triumph.
“We were a team, but on that night … wow,” said Garrett, a forward who was one of only four Hoosiers to score against the Orangemen. “We had never seen Keith take over like he did in that second half. I don’t know how or why he did that because it wasn’t in his makeup. But for some reason, in that particular game, he did.”
Smart, a guard, finished with 21 points on an evening during which Alford would drain seven of his 10 3-point heaves and Derrick Coleman, Syracuse’s lanky freshman, would grab 19 rebounds. And as he did, Smart dazzled the athletes on the other side.
“In that second half, Keith was possessed,” said Triche, now a businessman in Syracuse. “He was faster, quicker, stronger. I remember that he once jumped over Rony Seikaly (the Orange’s 6-foot-11 center). I mean, he was soaring. Keith Smart was at every spot on the floor.”
Especially so at the end when he turned a Syracuse win into an Indiana victory with the flick of a wrist.
“It happened so fast,” Garrett said. “I just remember seeing the ball on that side of the floor. All I was thinking was, ‘Get inside’ and ‘offensive rebound, offensive rebound,’ and, ‘maybe I can get a tip.’ Those were my only thoughts.”
As it turned out, none of them amounted to much. Not after Keith Smart took aim inside the Superdome and made his coach happy that he’d earlier swallowed hard.
Webber’s Woe | 1993: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71
It’s not like he’d picked up a fumble and run 69 directionally challenged yards in the Rose Bowl. So, no, Chris Webber wasn’t a basketball version of Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels. But history has a way of slapping labels on people. And so, Webber, the splendid Michigan forward, got slapped and has stayed slapped.
His celebrated gaffe with 11 seconds remaining in the title game against North Carolina? With his Wolverines trailing by two and trapped in a corner in front of his own bench by a pair of Tar Heels named George Lynch and Derrick Phelps, Webber called a timeout that his club didn’t have.
Oops. Technical foul. Loss of possession. Championship decided.
“All this time later, I hate it for Chris,” declared Eric Montross, North Carolina’s All-American center that year and now a radio analyst for the Tar Heels. “I hate that he has that moment hanging around his neck because I don’t believe that won the game for us or lost it for them.
“The thing is, that could have happened to anyone who’s ever played the game. If it was me in that situation, I could’ve just as easily have called that timeout. I really felt bad for Chris, and I believe most of the guys on my team would say the same thing.”
Inarguably, it’d been a terrific affair at a regal Final Four that had included Kentucky and Kansas along with North Carolina and Michigan. The Wolverines had their “Fab 5,” all of whom were sophomores, playing in their second consecutive national title game. And the Tar Heels — with their marksman, Donald Williams (who’d score 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the floor in that finale), leading the way — were eager to fit Dean Smith with his second crown.
This one, then, had all the elements. And in the end, it had its Superdome signature engraved on North Carolina’s ultimate 77-71 triumph.
And, well, it could have been entirely different.
“If you look at the tape of that game,” said Steve Fisher, now San Diego State’s head coach but back then the Wolverines’ boss, “you can see that when Chris was in the corner, Rob Pelinka was wide open for a skip pass on the other side of the floor. And Rob was a big-time catch-and-shoot player. He always tells me, ‘Coach, I was ready to get that ball and shoot the ‘3’ for us.’
“We laugh about how history could have been changed with one little look. But let me be clear about this: We were only there at the end because Chris had been so sensational. He’d put us on his back. To suggest that he cost us that championship couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The lesson? Sometimes history gets it wrong.
Warrick’s Will | 2003: Syracuse 81, Kansas 78
Let the secret be told: Michael Lee, the Kansas guard who was as tough as the fender on a bus, was in a state of disbelief after receiving the ball with seconds left on the clock and the national title on the line.
“Absolutely, I was wide open,” he recalled. “I had the time. I was relaxed. All I had to do was shoot the ball. The thing is, I didn’t even know it had gotten blocked until I saw the ball being thrown back in from the third row. I didn’t think anybody could get to me. That’s what took me so long to get it off.”
Lee’s hesitation, minimal though it may have been, inspired the basketball gods to allow Syracuse to exact a bit of Final Four revenge. And so, Hakim Warrick, the lanky Orange forward, floated into the corner, blocked Lee’s 3-point attempt and preserved Syracuse’s 81-78 victory.
“I know,” said Warrick, who now plays for the Phoenix Suns, “that Lee had to have been thinking, ‘Man, I’m wide open.’ I was pretty much the guy closest to him, and I was directly under the basket. So I just wanted to get out there and contest. I didn’t actually think I’d block it. After I did, I looked up into the crowd and I just started shaking.”
It had been, of course, another Superdome classic. One Syracuse freshman, Carmelo Anthony, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while another, Gerry McNamara, buried six 3-pointers in the first half. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks, who would miss a ghastly 18 free throws during the night, got double-doubles from two players — Nick Collison (21 rebounds, 19 points) and Jeff Graves (16 points, 16 rebounds).
In the end, though, all that mattered were those last few seconds when Lee rose, just as Keith Smart had 16 years earlier … but with a decidedly different result.
“Anytime I think about that game, I think about that last shot,” said Lee, currently in his second season as an assistant coach with San Francisco. “I can talk about it now, but back then I was really out of it. That was devastating, man. Everybody was saying, ‘It’s not your fault. We missed free throws.’ Blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day, I had the chance to be the hero and I didn’t do it.”
Warrick’s memory? Predictably, it’s a smidge rosier.
“I wasn’t thinking about Keith Smart,” he recalled. “And I’m kind of glad because that probably would have made me more nervous. People came up to me all the time after that and said, ‘Thanks. You erased all those Keith Smart memories.’ And they still do.
“At first, I really didn’t get it all that much. But then I began to look at it, and it hit me. Same corner. Same spot. Same city. It was kind of weird.”
Which is where we came in.
Story appears in the official 2012 NCAA Men’s Final Four program, which can be ordered at IMG Products.