- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
Proudly sporting a UCLA polo at his home in San Diego, Bill Walton is a little revved up this early March morning -- or is that redundant?
"The NCAA tournament, what could be better?" he says, with customary gusto. "Balls flying through the air, young men soaring, blocking, running, rebounding, shooting -- yeah, let's go. Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play today."
You can almost visualize it. Hard to believe, but Walton is 60 years old. The curly red hair has gone silver, but he's still a toothy, irrepressible, relentlessly caffeinated 7-foot Venti of a man.
Walton was one of the best college basketball players ever, but talking about the 75 years of the NCAA basketball tournament seems to humble him (although, to be fair, it doesn't prevent him from speaking in the third person).
"I can remember little Billy," he says, launching into another soliloquy, "with his red hair, freckles, his big nose and his goofy, nerdy face and his horrendous speech impediment, watching my very first basketball game, the 1965 NCAA championship game, UCLA-Michigan. Yes, and the Bruins take down the undefeated, mighty Wolverines behind Gail Goodrich's 42 points, a championship-game record.
"Little Billy said to himself that day, 'That's what I want to do with my life.'
"Seventy-five years, history, the foundation. Climbing up on the giant, broad shoulders of the legends from years gone by: Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sidney Wicks. All the incredible teams, Larry [Bird] and Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan], and all these people taking what they see, going out onto the playground saying, 'Yeah, I can do that.'"
Walton was exaggerating a bit -- Michigan wasn't unbeaten in 1965 -- but the rest is still true. The giant, broad shoulders of the legends continue to provide a powerful example for modern athletes.
In this year's Big Dance, No. 14 seed Harvard, from the cerebral Ivy League, beat a No. 3 seed, New Mexico. No. 12 seeds Oregon and Ole Miss prevailed over favored No. 5 seeds. No one saw No. 9 Wichita State knocking No. 1 Gonzaga out of the tournament in the second round and advancing to the Final Four -- or the charming, chaotic Florida Gulf Coast University squad stunning No. 2 Georgetown and becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
And yet, somehow it happened.
Seventy-five years of this kind of hysterical history -- three-quarters of a century -- is very nearly in the books. Here are some of our favorite back-to-the-future moments, scattered snapshots from the attic, listed by decade, updated for your entertainment to savor once more:
1940s: Sail on, sail on Sailors
At 92, Kenny Sailors can still pass for 65. He's popular with the bingo-playing ladies at his senior living center in Laramie, Wyo.
He has the posture of the ex-Marine he is, a crew cut to match, and he drives a muscular Toyota FJ Cruiser.
In 1943, Sailors, a farm boy who had never ridden on a train or flown on a plane, led the University of Wyoming to the NCAA title in New York City. The Cowboys beat Georgetown, 46-34. The field of that fifth NCAA tournament consisted of only eight teams and Sailors was voted the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
"If you had pictures when the game was over, you didn't [see] what you see today -- players and coaches running around, jumping on each other, rolling around on the floor," Sailors remembered. We just went over and coach [Everett Shelton] congratulated us and told us we played a nice game. It didn't affect us. There was a war going on, and all of us already knew where we were going. I knew I was heading to the South Pacific."
Sailors has another, perhaps even greater claim to fame. Seventy-nine years ago, playing against his 6-foot-5 older brother, Bud, at home in Hillsdale, Wyoming, he invented the jump shot.
"I got tired of him always blocking my shots," Sailors said. "Me being 5-6, I needed something to get up over him. As near as I can remember, I just dribbled up to him and I just jumped as high as I could in the air. You can't shoot really effectively two-handed when you do that. You've got to pretty much shoot it with one hand, and that's what I did."
1950s: Taking down Wilt the Stilt
If the name Lennie Rosenbluth doesn't mean anything to you, even if you are more than a casual fan of college basketball, you are not alone. That doesn't mean you shouldn't know his important role in NCAA tournament lore.
"Everybody believed that someone or something will happen for us to win the ball game," Rosenbluth said of his 1957 University of North Carolina team. "And it usually did."
After beating Syracuse 67-58 in the East Regional final, the Tar Heels found themselves 30-0 in the Final Four at Kansas City, Mo. North Carolina was down by two points with six seconds to play in a semifinal game that would go to triple overtime, and all Michigan State's Johnny Green had to do was make a foul shot -- but he didn't. The Tar Heels' Pete Brennan dribbled the length of the court to tie the game and UNC eventually won, 74-70.
The opponent in the final could not have been more intimidating: the University of Kansas and Wilton Norman Chamberlain -- not necessarily in that order. Chamberlain was a 7-foot-1, 275-pound center who dominated on both offense and defense.
Before the game, North Carolina coach Frank McGuire walked past each of his players in the locker room and asked them if they were scared of Chamberlain.
"Each one of us said, 'No, we're not afraid of Wilt,'" Rosenbluth remembered.
For the second consecutive night, the Tar Heels played a breathless triple-overtime game. For the second straight time, they won -- 54-53 -- and finished the season a spectacular 32-0.
Chamberlain, who would go on to score 100 points in a single NBA game, was held to only 23 points and 14 rebounds. He was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, but it was the 6-foot-5 Rosenbluth, with 20 points in the championship game and 140 points overall, who finished as the leading scorer, averaging a smoking 28 points per game.
"We went up to New York to be on the 'Ed Sullivan Show,'" he said. "It was a great win for the program, our first NCAA championship, and it was great for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which only started in 1954."
"It's like a Hollywood story because of the way it played out."
1960s : A leader of men
Bill Bradley has always been drawn to New York City. For 10 seasons, he was a 6-foot-5 star guard/forward for the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. But then there was an 18-year sabbatical when he was a U.S. Senator. In 2000, he ran for president but lost the Democratic nomination to Al Gore.
These days, he's back in the city as a managing director for Allen & Company LLC, an investment firm on Fifth Avenue in the old Coca-Cola building. When Bradley suddenly materializes in an opulent conference room that is guarded by Frederic Remington western bronzes and graced by some charcoal studies for George Bellows' visceral "Stag at Sharkey's" as well as an authentic Norman Rockwell, he is somehow taller than you expect and, well, exceedingly senatorial.
But Bradley's here to talk about something that happened before those terrific years with the Knicks, before the diversion into politics. He's here to explain just how it was that Princeton University happened in the 1965 NCAA tournament.
There was a time, oh, a century ago, when the Ivy League dominated college sports. But by the 60s, it had become the balanced but benign conference we see today. Bradley, who originally signed an athletic scholarship to go to Duke, didn't accept that.
"The question was, could a group of student-athletes perform against the best?" Bradley said. "Don't buy the stereotype."
Princeton advanced to meet Providence in the East Regional. The Friars were heavy favorites.
"That is probably one of the most fulfilling games I ever played in, because the night before, when Providence won in the semis, they cut down the net," Bradley said. "That told us they didn't respect us very much. We went out the next night and played one of the finest team games that I have ever been a part of."
Princeton beat Providence by 40.
The Tigers, predictably, fell to Michigan in the Final Four, but what happened in the third-place consolation game against Wichita State was a revelation.
"In the second half," Bradley recalled, "the coach called a timeout because the players would throw me the ball and if they had a better shot, I'd throw it back to them. Coach said, 'Bill, shoot the ball.' And so I did."
Bradley, connecting on 22 of 29 field goal attempts, scored 58 points. In five tournament games, Bradley produced 177 points and 57 rebounds and was named Most Outstanding Player. On a third-place team.
Don't buy the stereotype.
1960s: Overturning the quota system
Harry Flournoy, sitting in his home outside of Atlanta, explains the despicable way it was with a disarming matter-of-factness.
"Those 60s were real turbulent times," he says. "We had at that time what was called a quota system. Back in those days, you could have one or two. If you were bold, you might have four."
African-American players, that is.
"They were saying that our team couldn't be very successful because we had too many Negroes on our team," he explained. "The theory was that you always had to have one or two white players to make sure that the African-Americans you had on the team were playing under control.
"Because we couldn't do it by ourselves."
Texas Western coach Don Haskins couldn't have cared less.
He wanted to win, so he played his best players, regardless of the color of their skin. In 1965, he started five African-Americans, the first time it happened in Division I basketball. This was rarely met with applause. It was even a hard sell for home games. On the road, well, don't ask.
"We would fill it up," Flournoy said, "because people wanted to see us lose. They called us coons, they called us n-----s, blackies. They called us a lot of things and they mixed it in with cuss words, which I don't use anymore.
"They were all waiting for us to fail. We actually played 29 championship games that  season."
The final contest was more like an allegory. Haskins' precedent-shattering all-black starting five faced Kentucky's all-white starting lineup. Texas Western beat one of the institutions most resistant to integration, 72-65.
"It was a relief finally to get that season over with," Flournoy said. "We showed people what our character was. The most important message that came out of that victory was the fact that you need to look inside of people, look past the outer shell and see what their talent is."
Bill Bradley, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, actually attended the game in College Park, Md.
"It made a real statement that those of us in basketball knew all along and for the country as a whole," Bradley said. "It helped move us forward."
1970s: The Wizard of Westwood
Bill Walton typically downplays his performance in the 1973 championship game.
"I get far too much credit," he said. "I had big numbers, but our guards were perfect, Greg Lee and Larry Hollyfield. In this one game we're playing, Memphis, they come up with the worst defensive strategy in the history of basketball and our guards combine for 23 assists."
Under coach John Wooden, UCLA was already a juggernaut when Walton arrived in 1970. The Bruins were in the process of winning seven straight NCAA titles, but because freshmen weren't eligible to play varsity, Walton didn't join the big boys until 1971-72. UCLA went 30-0, the last victory, 81-76, coming in the championship win over Florida State. Walton had a masterful 24 points and 20 rebounds, but in the 1973 title game he truly went off.
He made 21 of 22 shots from the floor and finished with 44 points -- both championship records -- and UCLA manhandled Memphis, 87-66. It might have been more but Walton, in foul trouble for much of the second half, left the game with an ankle injury with just under three minutes to play.
It was another 30-0 season for the Bruins. Walton was in the process of winning three national college player of the year awards. Still, at least in his mind, he was never quite good enough to please Wooden.
Walton: "Coach Wooden, to the day he died -- and I drove him to an early grave at 99 -- Coach Wooden, every time that game was mentioned, he'd say, 'Walton, I used to think you were a good player -- until you missed that one shot.' "
1970s: The last perfect season
His feisty reputation precedes him (always), but on this March afternoon Bobby Knight is in tearing spirits when he arrives in the basement studio at ESPN.
He's wearing jeans and a black sweater and he smiles when the producer, Jon Fish, tells him the subject of the interview is the 75 years of the NCAA tournament. Knight's Indiana University teams won three of those titles, and he is a peerless student of the game.
"So," he says, sizing up the producer, "do you know who won the first one?"
Fortunately, Fish has been doing his due diligence.
"The Oregon Tall Firs, 1939," he says, not resisting the urge to throw in a little extra knowledge.
Knight is impressed, but not enough to back off.
"Who'd they beat?" he asks.
"Ohio State at Evanston," Fish fires right back.
Knight, satisfied, volunteers that he got to know the coach of that team, Harold Olsen, when he attended Ohio State as an undergraduate.
Later he offers, "My guess is you don't have a single person that can talk about this as much as I can. Because nobody has ever studied the history of the game more than I have."
Hey, it's not bragging if it's true. Which is why you should listen closely to what he says about his 1976 team.
Sure, his 1981 squad, led by Isiah Thomas, took down the Tar Heels and coach Dean Smith in the title game, 63-50. And in 1987 Daryl Thomas kicked the ball out to Keith Smart and, with only four seconds left on the clock, Smart drained a 17-footer for a dramatic championship victory over Syracuse. But that first title team was the last one to go an entire season without losing.
Indiana met fellow Big Ten member Michigan in the final in Philadelphia; no two teams from the same conference had ever reached the ultimate game. Down six at the half, Indiana rallied to outscore Michigan in one of the most scintillating second halves in tournament history. Kent Benson (Most Outstanding Player) and Scott May (113 points) led Indiana.
How good were the Hoosiers?
"May have been the best team that played," Knight said, meaning ever. "There may have been nobody as good as we were."
Hey, it's not bragging if it's true.
1980s: Cinderella is in the building
Time is tight for Rollie Massimino this day in late February.
His latest team, Northwood University, will play in its Sun Conference championship game in a few hours. Massimino, who took the head coaching job at the West Palm Beach, Fla., school seven years ago, is 78 now but he hasn't changed much.
He's still excitable, particularly this time of the year. His time of the year.
"It's total madness," Massimino says, smiling. "That's why they call it March Madness."
His Seahawks play at the NAIA Division II level, and they're good every year. Two years ago they made the Final Four and last season they were in the national final. This year they were knocked out of the tournament in the first round, but finished No. 6 in the coaches' final poll.
Back in 1985, few expected much from his Villanova Wildcats in the NCAA tournament. They lost their last regular-season game by 23 points and were dispatched in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. They were lucky to get a No. 8 seed.
"I don't know whether we had a tremendous chance," Massimino said, "but on the way home from Madison Square Garden one of our players said, 'Coach, we're getting in the NCAA tournament and you're going to remember us for something more than just who we are.'
"I never forgot that," he said.
Sure enough, Villanova raced past No. 9 seed Dayton, upset No. 1 Michigan, No. 5 Maryland and No. 2 North Carolina in dizzying succession to reach the Final Four. Memphis State fell 52-45 and the Wildcats were, inexplicably, in the championship game against another No. 1 seed, Georgetown.
The Hoyas, anchored by center Patrick Ewing, were a terrific defensive team, but in Lexington, Ky., Villanova shot a ludicrous 79 percent in the final game.
"We only took 10 shots in the second half, and we made nine," Massimino said. "That's an unbelievable stat."
The final score was 66-64 and it remains one of the greatest upsets of all time -- in any sport.
Wildcats forward Dwayne McClain (the Final Four MOP) scored 17 points and center Ed Pinckney added 16.
"We all have our different descriptions," Massimino said. "I think the coach of Memphis said, 'If Villanova's a Cinderella team, then they were wearing army boots.' "
1990s: A left-handed compliment
Loyola Marymount's offense, under coach Paul Westhead from 1985-90, was frantic, frenetic -- and sinfully fun to watch. The charismatic Westhead had convinced Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers to transfer from USC, and LMU was off to the races.
The up-tempo Lions led the nation's Division I teams in scoring for three straight years; in 1990, they put up an average of 122.4 points per game, which is still the record. Gathers led the country in scoring in 1989 (32.7) and Kimble followed in 1990 with a searing average of 35.3. Together, they were sure to do some serious damage in the 1990 NCAA tournament.
Today, Kimble teaches the LMU offense at Shoreline Community College in Seattle.
"One thing that I loved about Hank Gathers as a teammate is that [playing] the Philly style of basketball, we never quit," Kimble said in a television interview on the campus of Loyola Marymount. "Hank was just the most amazing person you would ever want to be around, full of life, full of laughter, and he was pretty much always the life of the party."
But they were never destined to dance that dance together.
In December of 1989, Gathers went down during a Loyola Marymount home game. Subsequent tests discovered an abnormal heartbeat and medication was prescribed. But those beta blockers left Gathers feeling sluggish, so on game days he went without. In the first half of the Lions' conference quarterfinal game in early March, Gathers collapsed again, but this time he didn't get up. He was 23.
The tournament was cancelled and Loyola Marymount, based on its regular-season title, was awarded an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
Kimble spoke with ESPN on March 4, to the day, the 23-year anniversary of the death of his best friend.
"When Hank died, obviously our hearts were heavy," Kimble said. "The younger players were writing Hank's number and name on their sneaks, and I just felt I wanted to do something different."
After talking with LMU's Father Dave Hagan, Kimble decided on a subtle and appropriate way to honor Gathers' memory. For 11 years, Kimble had seen Gathers struggle with his free throws. For his senior year, Gathers switched from his dominant right hand to his left, and his foul shooting actually improved. Against New Mexico State in the first round, Kimble launched his first free throw left-handed.
"There was no greater way to say, 'I love you,' " Kimble explained. " 'I miss you, Hank. This shot is for you.' "
The shot went in -- and so did the other two he attempted with his off hand in the next two games. And a nation, watching at home, was touched deeply. The emotional Lions, a lowly No. 11 seed, wrecked defending champion Michigan in the second round and reached the regional final before falling to eventual champion UNLV.
"No disrespect whatsoever to UNLV," Kimble said, "but if Hank Gathers was alive, we would have won the national championship."
2000s: The Flintstones
In 1989, Glen Rice made Flint, Mich., proud, matriculating to the state university in Ann Arbor and winning the national title. Rice scored a record 184 points for Michigan in the tournament. Four young basketball players back at home took note and soon followed his example, but took a slightly different path.
"We had four guys from one city, and we wore our city on our sleeve," remembered Mateen Cleaves. "We all had Flint tattoos and every time we took the floor, we wanted to show America -- we wanted to show the world -- what it was to be from Flint."
Cleaves sits high above Fifth Avenue in a hotel suite, sporting (spoiler alert!) his Michigan State championship ring from 2000. It's gold with a No. 1 in the middle, in a field of diamonds. The accents are green, matching his Spartan green polo. These days, Cleaves still traffics in basketball, working for CBS Sports and hosting a drive-time college basketball show.
In 1999, Cleaves and his fellow Flintstones got to the Final Four before losing to Duke.
"The first time we got there," Cleaves said, "it was 'Hey, everybody, we made it! We made it!' A million people at the practice facility. We did interviews with ESPN, with everybody. Everybody loved us.
"So we kind of got caught up in the hype that first year. The second year, it was all business."
Coach Tom Izzo insisted on it.
In his final home game on Senior Night in East Lansing, Cleaves dished an astounding 20 assists, setting a new Big Ten record for a game and a career (816).
In the championship game in Indianapolis, against Billy Donovan's Florida Gators, there was drama when Cleaves left the court with an ankle injury. He came back -- getting chill bumps as he took the floor -- and Michigan State eventually won, 89-76.
Cleaves was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
"I always wanted to be that guy standing there when 'One Shining Moment' goes up, I wanted to be that team standing there," Cleaves said. "At that point, the world stops. Nothing else in the world means nothing."
2010s: VCU Shaks the world
Two years ago, more than a few people were convinced Virginia Commonwealth University was not a competent dance partner.
Some of those folks actually played for the Rams.
"When I found out we were in the tournament, we were all shocked," said Darius Theus, a senior point guard on this year's team. "We were excited, especially for our seniors, for them to get a chance to put on their uniform for another game."
Actually, it would be a few more than just one.
VCU, under coach Shaka Smart, was part of the NCAA's First Four experiment in 2011. They were placed in a first-round game with USC and, somehow, the Rams won.
"We were underdogs that whole tournament," Theus said, "and we kind of used that as motivation. It just played into our favor."
No. 11-seeded VCU was one of three double-digit seeds to get to the semifinals of the Southwest region. The list of unlikely victims: No. 6-seeded Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, Florida State (in overtime) in the Sweet 16 and, in the regional final, No. 1 Kansas, 71-61.
"For us to be that far into the tournament," Theus said, "I don't think it was part of anybody's plan to beat Kansas."
VCU has claims on the title of least-likely Cinderella of all time. The Rams tied LSU (1986) and George Mason (2006) as the lowest seeded teams to ever reach the Final Four.
And so four teams arrived in Houston and, for the first time ever, not one of them was seeded No. 1 or No. 2.
As it turned out, Butler ended the Rams' ridiculous run, winning 70-62.
"Just to see VCU and Butler in that Final Four game, that just shows you that in the tournament anybody can beat anybody," Theus said. "Anything can happen."
And that's why we'll watch for the next 75 years -- and beyond.