- Doug Williams
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The image is indelible and the words simple.
Six-foot-four David Thompson is in full flight, his hand more than a foot above the rim as he tips the basketball over the long reach and leap of 6-foot-11 Bill Walton.
The cover of the April 1, 1974 Sports Illustrated is a freeze-framed moment in time when North Carolina State leaped over the giants of college basketball.
The headline: “End of an era. N.C. State stops UCLA.”
The Bruins had won seven straight NCAA championships, nine of the previous 10 and would rebound in 1975 to win again.
But on March 25, 1974, in a Final Four semifinal in Greensboro, N.C., North Carolina State rallied to come from seven points down late in the second overtime to beat the seemingly unbeatable Bruins, 80-77. Two days later the Wolfpack topped Marquette in an almost anticlimactic final, 76-64.
It was a far different time in college basketball, before the 3-point line and one-and-done teenagers opting for the NBA. Dunking in games was outlawed and only conference champions advanced to the tournament field of 25 teams.
But nearly four decades later, coach Norm Sloan’s team ranks among the best in NCAA tournament history. In all-time ratings, the 1973-74 NC State team is usually in the top 10 and sometimes in the top five.
Not only did it have Thompson, aka “Skywalker” -- a player longtime NBA and college coach Larry Brown once described as “Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan” -- but the Wolfpack was a deep and talented group that featured 7-foot-2 center Tommy Burleson and 5-foot-7 point guard Monte Towe.
Plus, the Wolfpack was motivated. After going 27-0 the season before, but ruled ineligible for the tournament because of an NCAA rules violation, North Carolina State was on a mission.
“I think we felt we deserved to be in the tournament the year before,” says Towe, now an assistant coach at Middle Tennessee State. “We felt like the sanctions did not justify whatever we were found guilty of. It wasn’t much. ... I think we had a chip on our shoulder about that to some degree.
“But we also felt like we were as good a team as there was in the country, and we wanted to win the national championship.”
The team: Thompson was the star, a future Basketball Hall of Famer and ABA and NBA All-Star who wowed fans, teammates and opponents with his 44-inch vertical leap and long-range jumpers.
But as Burleson remembers, the Wolfpack was a perfect blend of starters, role players and Sloan’s guiding hand.
“I always referred to us, even back in the ’70s, as the 'Big Three,'” says Burleson, now the director of planning and inspections for Avery County, N.C. “Monte was a good quarterback running the team, David was the special piece, what you call a go-to guy, and of course myself at center.”
Thompson averaged 26 points and 7.9 rebounds a game (while shooting 55 percent from the floor), Burleson averaged 18.1 points and 12.2 rebounds and Towe scored 12.8 per game with 3.8 assists. Tim Stoddard, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound power forward who would go on to a long major league career as a pitcher, and Phil Spence “were monsters” as forwards, says Burleson. The team’s other guard, Moe Rivers, was a transfer who’d been one of the nation’s best junior college scorers the previous year but found himself as the fourth option on offense and the team’s defensive stopper.
Subs such as Steve Nuce, Mark Moeller and Craig Kuszmaul “would have started for any team but us and UCLA,” says Burleson.
Sloan, meanwhile, proved to be the perfect coach.
“He developed his offense to his player personnel,” says Burleson. Years later, Sloan told Burleson he wanted to put a system in place and provide direction but let the players play.
“He knew he had a tremendous team and he didn’t want to overcoach us,” says Burleson. “He wanted to give us freedom within the offense.”
It was a triangle system, with Thompson, Burleson and Towe at its heart and with isolation plays for Thompson.
At the end of games or in key situations, the Wolfpack could always get the ball to Thompson, get out of his way and let him break down the defense. If the defense collapsed, Thompson dished to his teammates for easy baskets.
For Stoddard, who had to guard Thompson hundreds of times in practice, he says, “It was always a challenge, there’s no doubt about that.”
“You were watching a guy that pretty much was able to do anything on a basketball court,” says Stoddard, now the pitching coach at Northwestern. “You would constantly see things that were amazing. To see how high he jumped or how he was able to get around somebody to beat them on a drive. Or you’d see everybody’s hands, and then here would come David’s hand to grab the rebound. It was kind of phenomenal. He was such a tremendous athlete.”
To Towe, one of the keys to success was that every player accepted his role, and the team in general was tough-minded, taking its cues from Sloan, whom he calls “the most tough-minded of all.”
“He was a guy that took on North Carolina, took on Maryland,” he says. “He thought we belonged on the same court to compete with all those people. ... His leadership and toughness took us over the top.”
Seeking redemption: Perfect at 27-0 in 1972-73, the Wolfpack certainly would have been in the national championship picture.
But some recruiting violations involving Thompson -- he was allowed to stay in a dorm during a basketball camp, played a pickup game with one NC State assistant and some other recruits and had received some rides from the coaching staff -- led to the team being banned from postseason play.
Today, Burleson and Towe say the punishment was overly harsh.
“It should have been a slap on our hand,” says Burleson.
But it provided extra motivation for the team to show it could beat the best teams in the nation, including UCLA and Maryland, NC State’s biggest hurdle in the ACC that season. The Terps were ranked as high as third in the nation in 1973-74.
Burleson isn’t saying his team would have beaten UCLA in 1972-73, but that it should have had an opportunity to play the Bruins.
“UCLA was very strong. I’ve seen documentaries with Mr. Wooden, right after that 1973 season, and they had Walton and (Keith) Wilkes and (David) Meyers,” he says, also ticking off Larry Farmer, Tommy Curtis and Greg Lee. “He said that’s possibly the strongest team (he coached). Maybe we could have beat them twice, but they did have an awful strong team.”
The Wolfpack opened the season 2-0, then got their long-awaited matchup with UCLA in December on a neutral court in St. Louis. The No. 1 Bruins beat the No. 2 Wolfpack, 84-66, a humbling and painful loss.
The game was close early in the second half, but the Bruins pulled away and Wilkes was superb, scoring 27 points and limiting Thompson to 17.
“We had some foul situations and we didn’t play very well,” says Towe. “They beat up on us pretty good in December. But I think that helped us prepare for our game that we would have with them later on in March.”
Burleson says the turning point came early in the second half when backup center Ralph Drollinger, in for Walton (who was in foul trouble), hit him in the face with his elbow, knocking out a tooth, breaking his nose and giving him a small skull fracture.
“I pretty much got destroyed,” he says.
From that point on, he played in a daze, he couldn’t provide help on defense and the Bruins took over.
It would prove to be North Carolina State’s only loss over two seasons.
The team swept through the rest of its schedule, with just a few close games, until reaching the ACC Tournament final against Maryland.
It was a winner-take-all game. Only the ACC tournament champ would advance to the NCAA tournament, and Maryland was a beast with six future NBA players, including John Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore.
“I don’t know if you can describe, duplicate that pressure now, as far as getting into the NCAA tournament,” says Towe. “We had to win that game against a Maryland team that was hitting on all cylinders.”
Stoddard says the pressure to win that game might have been even greater than the rematch with UCLA later.
“Back then, you won that or you didn’t go anywhere,” he says.
Maryland jumped to a 25-12 lead and took NC State to overtime with two late baskets. After three lead changes in OT, the Wolfpack won, 103-100, in a game described by many as perhaps the best in ACC history. Burleson played the biggest game of his career, with 38 points and 13 rebounds.
North Carolina State then easily beat Providence and Pittsburgh to advance to the Final Four and a rematch with UCLA in a national semifinal in Greensboro.
Before the game, UCLA was confident. The Bruins had won by 18 in December, and guard Andre McCarter, when asked about the prospect of losing, told reporters: “I won’t believe it. It just doesn’t fit into history.”
Wolfpack players, on the other hand, were just as confident. They’d studied film of the first loss and believed they could win.
The rematch lived up to expectations, going to overtime tied 65-all, then to a second OT tied at 67-all. UCLA then pulled out to a seven-point lead before a steal and four quick points got the Wolfpack into the game. Over the final two minutes, N.C. State clawed back, took advantage of numerous mistakes and used four straight points from Thompson to take an 80-77 win.
Thompson scored 28 points and held Wilkes to five baskets; Burleson scored 20 points and had 14 rebounds.
It was UCLA’s first tournament loss in 39 games, dating to 1963. The king had lost his crown, and North Carolina State was soon wearing it after its win over Marquette two nights later.
The legacy: If a team can be judged by the quality of its conquests, then perhaps NC State ranks among the best. Getting past Maryland, going through the ACC undefeated for two seasons and then beating UCLA is a notable achievement.
The Wolfpack won 57 of 58 games and “didn’t sneak up on anybody,” says Towe. With Thompson and Burleson, teams always were pumped to play them.
“They were the Yankees, they were bigger than life,” says Towe of UCLA. “And justifiably so. They won the title for seven years (straight) and we were able to step in and steal the thunder there for at least one year.”
Stoddard looks back and is grateful to have been part of a special team. When asked if it ranks among the best ever, he says yes.
“But I’m kind of prejudiced, too,” he says. “The fact we were able to stop UCLA’s streak, and then you’ve got a player like David Thompson, and Tom Burleson, and you feel like you were part of an elite group.”
Today when Burleson, a man of deep Christian faith, looks back on the season he can’t help but think the Wolfpack was a team of destiny, one that was tested over and over until it prevailed.
The players came together at the right time for the right coach in the right place.
“We were on a mission to prove we were a team to be reckoned with,” he says, adding: “We were blessed.”