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Mike Lopresti | | November 3, 2022

The unthinkable upset, 40 years later: Chaminade shocks No. 1 Virginia in 1982

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the line from Hawaii is Merv Lopes, live wire. The coach who directed the most shocking upset in the history of college basketball just turned 90 the other day.

No, he mentions, he doesn’t walk along the Pacific anymore, in his eternal quest for the next catch. “I did Hawaii fishing. I didn’t do no rod or reel and all that. I used a net. I’d put the net around my body and I’d walk along the shoreline and if I would see any fish swimming around, I’d pick my net up and throw it on them. But now...time goes so quickly.”

Yes, he says, he was moved by the flood of people who had wished him happy birthday. So many of them had brought up the most famous night of his life, of course. "Every time something like that happens, I feel younger."

And yes, he says, the thrill of that moment has not vanished through the rolling decades. “It still gives me chicken skin.” In Hawaii, that means goose bumps.

In a very real way, Lopes' voice is strong enough to carry 4,500 miles here to Ohio State. The Buckeyes are playing one of those pre-season games when a small school is brought in to help with the dress rehearsal. The name of this opponent doesn’t register with the Ohio State players, but it might for some of the older fans. The Chaminade Silverswords. Hey, wasn’t that the team that once upon a time...

Yes, they were.

Let us leave these Silverswords here for a moment, going through their shoot-around at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center, to remember why the word Chaminade rings a bell in college basketball, and always should. Especially this year, on the 40th anniversary of one of the most unfathomable games ever played.

In the first hours of Christmas Eve 1982 — Eastern time — the ground shook in college basketball. The hoop earthquake registered about a 9.0 on the Richter scale. This just in from Hawaii: Chaminade 77, Virginia 72. More than one editor manning the overnight desks back on the mainland asked for confirmation. No, this couldn't be right.

Chaminade Athletics 1982: Chaminade defeats No. 1 Virginia 1982: Chaminade defeats No. 1 Virginia

No wonder. That was unbeaten and No. 1 Virginia. That was 7-4 Ralph Sampson, a two-time national player of the year and well on his way to third. That was a Cavaliers powerhouse that had already beaten Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in a showdown branded Game of the Decade, and also blown through a couple of opponents in Tokyo, where the locals wanted to just get a look at Sampson as if the Empire State Building was on display. Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon was one of the Virginia victims over there, meaning the Cavaliers had already defeated half of the previous spring’s Final Four before December was out.

Virginia was flying home from Japan and had scheduled a stop in Hawaii. Let the guys see the islands over the holiday and get in a cool-down game against a nice, comfortable opponent.

The Chaminade Silverswords. The NAIA team from of school of under 900 students was 9-2 but two days before had been defeated by a Wayland Baptist team with a losing record. No blue chippers on Chaminade. Not much height — the guy assigned to guard Sampson would be giving up nearly 10 inches — and no bright-light pedigree. They had been mashed by Virginia in two earlier meetings. There was, however, a great view of Waikiki and the beach down below. Merv Lopes was the coach, paid as a part-timer, with junior high school counselor as his day job. The team shared its gym with a high school and didn’t always get first dibs on practice time. Lopes did the team's laundry. Virginia had been paid $50,000 for its Japan appearance. That was more than double Chaminade’s total basketball budget.

A half-empty arena was there for tipoff, and before the game, the Virginia players were given leis by the Chaminade cheerleaders. Aloha. Sampson had actually been sick in Japan and was recovering, but what would it matter? Absolutely nobody was paying attention back on the mainland. No live TV. There was no sophisticated filming system, but somebody was sitting in the stands taping the proceedings and his work would end up being something like college basketball’s Zapruder film.

Chaminade 77, Virginia 72. Richard Haenisch sits on the rim.

The nation would soon see a photo of one of the Chaminade players — Richard Haenisch — sitting atop a rim with the net around his neck. It would read Lopes’ answer to one of the few reporters on the premises: “You ask me if it’s the greatest upset in college basketball history. And I tell you, hell yes.” Also Sampson's terse postgame words in the locker room: "Was I weak? No, I felt all right. I played didn't I? Chaminade is a very good team and they won. And that's that."

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The story didn't hit most U.S. newspapers until Christmas, and the headline of choice was too clear for most of them to resist: Yes Virginia, there is a Chaminade.

“It wasn’t even real. You’re playing Big Ralph and all those guys. I’m a high school coach and I’m not even a coach. I’m a part-time coach,” Lopes says. “We kept it as simple as possible. Anytime the ball went to Ralph we were going to put everybody all over him and make him throw the ball back out.”

Four decades have not dulled the moment for Lopes. He remembers this, for instance: “When we got the information about the game, my athletic director told me they’ve got their own official. I said what, are you crazy? Nobody brings their own referee. But Virginia had their own referee. That was interesting.”

And the pre-game locker room:  “We always meditated prior to our practices or games. We would turn out the lights and go through the idea of being quiet and paying attention to your breathing. That’s what we did. It helped us to pay attention to the moment. So when we played, the guys were not afraid.”

He remembers how he went to each starter with a question about the Cavalier that particular player would be guarding. Could he jump higher? Run faster? What physical difference was there, really? They answered no, none. Then he finally got to Tony Randolph, who would be guarding Sampson, just as he had done several times in high school. Forty years later, Lopes still remembers how all anyone could do was chuckle.

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It was tied at halftime 43-43. Virginia went up seven points in the second half, trying to get control and quell the uprising.  The lead was cut to two. Mark Rodrigues was a Chaminade guard who had attended Saint Louis High School next door and was — this saga never ran out of cute side angles — Lopes’ cousin. He can still see in his mind what happened next.

“Absolutely,” Rodrigues says from his home in California. “Forty years ago, but clearly.”

Rodrigues had the ball, spotted guard Tim Dunham floating free on the baseline and lofted an alley-oop pass. Dunham went way, way up and slammed it home with Sampson unable to stop him. The game was tied, the crowd was rocking, Sampson was shaking his head and the Silverswords had become true believers.

“Back then an alley-oop was a big play, especially when it’s a 6-foot guard going up and dunking it,” Rodrigues says. “When that happened, it just gave us even more confidence. Sometimes that’s how competition works. A lesser team, sometimes you gain this confidence and you’re pumped and you’re playing well and there’s nothing the other team can do. They can’t impose their will.”

USA TODAY Sports Ralph Sampson Ralph Sampson

Not long after, Chaminade got the lead and never looked back. it was over. Stunningly, incredibly over. Lopes’ strategy had worked with Sampson getting only nine shots — 12 points, 17 rebounds — and Virginia overall shooting 39 percent, with 25 turnovers.

The Chaminade team went into the locker room to celebrate but the crowd wouldn’t leave, and the players returned to the court to share the joy. Then they went out to dinner to relive the moment. Rodrigues remembers getting home at 4 a.m. and his roommate just looking him in the wee morning hours and saying in wonder, We beat Virginia.

“It didn’t really hit us until the next day,” Rodrigues says. “The news stations were all calling the athletic department and we all had to go down and do some pictures. I know we did something pretty special, but you’re young and you have a lot of confidence, you think you can play with anybody, you think you can beat anybody.

“What makes it special is that Ralph Sampson was on the team. Without that it wouldn’t be as big. That’s what makes it so massive. There will never be a bigger upset than that game because of how kids leave college early. You’re never going to have the three-time player of the year playing on a college team anymore.”

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Lopes didn't become an internet sensation, since that didn’t even exist. No cell phones to text adulation. No social media explosion. “I’m just a local guy in Hawaii,” he says. “I had to go back to the junior high school and do what I did every day.”

Chaminade immediately left for California and won four games in five days. They were a box office hit — come see Cinderella! — and later made it to the semifinals of the NAIA national tournament before losing by a point to College of Charleston. The final record was 33-5. Never mind the underdog story, these guys could play. And Chaminade wasn’t done as an upstart. The Silverswords beat a ranked Louisville team the next season and knocked off Louisville again and No. 4 SMU both on buzzer-beaters within four days to win a holiday tournament in 1984. Rodrigues hit the first winning shot and passed for the second. He still has the all-tournament team trophy.

“That’s what validates the Virginia game,” he says. “It wasn’t just one lucky game.”

Back here in Columbus, the 2022-23 Silverswords are going through their morning shoot-around. What kind of trajectory could there be from 1982 to now?

“It still means the world to us,” coach Eric Bovaird says. “I always say without that team, without that win, I wouldn’t be here right now. That has meant so much to our university.

“It’s something we cherish, we talk about all the time, it’s part of our history.”

Chaminade Athletics Chaminade coach Eric Bovaird Chaminade coach Eric Bovaird

Bovaird was 10 years old back in Pennsylvania in 1982, but thinks his father told him about the upset. “I don’t know if it’s my imagination thinking it into existence or I actually remember it that way,” he says. “I’ve seen it (on tape). I have a copy of the game. I don’t think I’m allowed to give it to anybody.”

This is his 12th season at Chaminade and he warmed to its beauty in a hurry. So far from his Pennsylvania roots and the snowy winters, so close to Diamond Head and Waikiki. “You can look down and see it from our campus. It’s beautiful every single day, the weather is almost identical every single day. Honestly. it’s hard to stay focused all the time.”

In such a place — “You’re living in paradise,” senior guard Isaac Amaral-Artharee says — can the players possibly get it, what their distant predecessors did?

“I don’t think so, not totally,” Bovaird says. “They don’t know who Ralph Sampson is. I know that they know Virginia was No. 1 at the time. These guys expect to beat anybody. They’re under the impression when they hear about (1982), `that’s good, we’re going to do the same thing.’”

But they do seem attuned to the past. “We know it can be our night any given night. That just gives up hope. We think about that team all the time,” Amaral-Artharee says. “I tell people I go to Chaminade, they’ll say `I was at that game when I was this young.’”

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There was talk in 1982 of the school changing its name for better recognition. Maybe University of Honolulu, or Saint Louis-Honolulu, something like that. But when the world learned there was a Chaminade, the school wasn’t about to change its brand. “I think that game kind of set our name in stone,” Rodrigues says.

It also kickstarted the journey from NAIA to the current NCAA Division II. And it was the boost to create the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, which has become a blueblood among early-season tournaments. For years, Chaminade was guaranteed one of the eight spots in Maui and would still occasionally sideswipe a bigger fish — Texas in 2012, California in 2017. But the demand was so great for marquee names, an adjustment was made. The Silverswords are now in the field on odd-numbered years.

For even years such as 2022, they have a pre-season tour of some of the Maui entrants. Thus their current journey:  From Ohio State to Louisville to Cincinnati. A great experience at that, and one Bovaird hopes translates into a strong start to the regular season. He’s had considerable success, but is 14-25 the past two years.

Along for the trip is athletic director Dr. Tom Buning. He watches the shoot-around and gives his perspective on what 1982 means 40 years later.

“Back then it was kind of a wow moment. That was my experience along with the nation’s,” he says. “Today it’s a history lesson. It’s something we need to constantly share with the new generation because for some of them, their parents weren’t even born yet. It’s a story that resonates, that there’s always the opportunity for an underdog.  I think it’s a story that can afford to be told a bunch, and to a lot of people. You almost feel like you’ve inherited something special with an obligation to be a part of making that story available to coaches and teams of all sports and at all levels.”

Being a part of the Maui event has certainly helped, too. The typical Division II program needs 90 percent of its funding from the university, Buning says, but Chaminade is at 70 percent because of Maui money. “It keeps our name relevant in the larger community of the NCAA. So there’s a sense, if one of our student-athletes were to say `I’m at Chaminade,’ there would be more recognition of where that’s at. Financially it makes us unique as a Division II program."

So Chaminade won’t be on the floor later this month in Maui, but some of the 1982 team will be as part of a ceremony to honor the 40th anniversary. Maybe it was just one ugly loss to Virginia, which has become a program incredibly adept at being on the wrong side of memorable upsets. The 2018 Cavaliers made the infamous history of being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament when they were ambushed by UMBC. The same team that lost to Chaminade had two chances to put an early end to North Carolina State’s immortal underdog fairy tale march to the 1983 national championship, but dropped close games to the Wolfpack in both the ACC tournament and the Elite Eight.

But for Chaminade, Dec. 23, 1982 is forever a landmark.

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“From that moment on,” Rodrigues says, “it changed everything.”

The team members have maintained close contact and Rodrigues believes the Virginia game is what binds them as much as anything. What they still have in common after all these years are handprints on a miracle. He still has the jersey from the game in a frame on his office wall.

“We’re more nostalgic about it now because we’re 60 years old. It hasn’t made me more money or anything, it hasn’t gotten me to a certain position. But personally it impacted my life,” he says. “You don’t want people to think it was a lucky thing, because it wasn’t. In the grand scheme of life it’s not a big deal. In sports, it kind of is. I don’t think there’s a bigger upset in any sport.

“I’m still proud that I was a local boy that grew up there and we did something special for the state of Hawaii.”

Said Lopes, “In boxing they call it a palooka. A guy who goes in there and gets beat up and gets paid. It’s crazy we did all that. I don’t know how we did that. The guys were not afraid.”

Here, a continent away, the current Chaminade Silverswords take the floor in blue against Ohio State. They stay with the Buckeyes a while but eventually get run over 101-57.  No upset this night. On to Louisville. Forty years after 1982, the past is still part of wherever Chaminade goes. Wasn’t this the team that once...

Yes, they were. Buning is working with a firm to put together a memorabilia collection that will forever pay homage to that night.  “There’s a sense of such humility around there that they’ve almost been afraid to tell the story or to spend any money on telling the story. Now we need to make that a part of who we are.”

There’s a 90-year-old back in Hawaii who understands that very well. Merv Lopes only wishes he could still go fishing, but then he landed the biggest one of his life 40 years ago.

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