Folks who market sports books and DVDs believe you won't read or watch unless you are assured that the subject is unequivocally "the greatest"—be it the greatest game, the greatest match, the greatest fight or the greatest season. So in time for the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament, our nation's greatest sports-and-gambling holiday, the NCAA is offering its own salute to March Madness, subtitled, naturally, "The Greatest Moments of the NCAA Tournament."
That it doesn't quite measure up to that superlative is only a quibble. Given that we are talking about 70 years of tournament basketball in a 75-minute DVD, it probably never could. Not surprisingly, it tends to opt for celebrity and familiarity over great and historic. So, for example, we get to see Dwyane Wade lead Marquette to the Final Four in 2003, but nary a moment of Marquette's sole championship team 30 years earlier (because you kids don't remember Bo Ellis and Butch Lee). And while we watch Isiah Thomas lead Indiana to the title in 1981, we don't get a glimpse of Indiana's 1976 champions, Bobby Knight's masterpiece and the last undefeated men's team in major college hoops.
The tournament's early days—when there was a tourney absent madness, when there were no office pools, when the footage was a grainy black-and-white—get short shrift. Of Bill Russell, the architect of back-to-back championships at the University of San Francisco, not a word, though he would go on to rate as basketball's greatest champion. And there is only passing mention of the extraordinary 1957 title game—North Carolina by one point in triple overtime over Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain. The unrivaled John Wooden UCLA dynasty—10 titles in 12 years beginning in 1964—rates only a tribute to Bill Walton's tour de force (21 for 22 from the floor) in a rout of Memphis in the 1973 final.
Since the DVD focuses on comebacks, buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories, there must be legal reasons to explain the absence of University of Kansas's stunning 2008 championship. It featured both a historic comeback, KU was nine down to Memphis with just over two minutes remaining, and a buzzer-beater, a three-pointer with two seconds left to send the game into overtime. Also inexplicably missing is Villanova's 1985 upset, 66–64, of Big East rival Georgetown, in which Villanova came as close as any team in championship history to executing the perfect game.
This DVD bestows the "best-ever" label on Duke's 1992 104–103 overtime triumph over Kentucky, which also features the most replayed basketball shot ever—Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater. Still, that game was merely a regional final. And while it propelled Duke to the national title, the ultimate superlative must be reserved for a championship tilt. There are abundant candidates: the aforementioned North Carolina–Kansas triple overtime or Villanova-Georgetown; or 1982, North Carolina over Georgetown (a portent of things to come from a then spindly freshman named Michael Jordan); or a year later, with North Carolina State upsetting Houston's Phi Slama Jama juggernaut at the buzzer.
Then there is my all-time favorite, Loyola of Chicago stunning Cincinnati in overtime. I was both surprised and thrilled that the DVD devoted an entire segment to the oft-ignored '63 classic. That game has always been overshadowed by the '66 championship, when Texas Western, an even more anonymous and hardscrabble team than Loyola, with an all-black starting five, defeated Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team. But it was Loyola vs. Cincinnati that first signaled the great racial changes that were about to sweep the game. When the two teams lined up for the opening tip, there were seven black players on the floor—the first NCAA final where black players dominated the court.
Loyola was the first major college team to start four black players, leading to events that, while little remembered, were a watershed in the civil-rights movement. In the second round of the tournament, Loyola drew Mississippi State. In previous years, Mississippi State had turned down NCAA invites rather than risk being matched up with an integrated team. But that year the school accepted the bid. With sheriff's deputies headed to a pep rally bearing an injunction that would have forced the SEC champs to stay home, the team hid out in a dorm. The next morning the freshman team showed up at the scheduled departure as a decoy and the varsity literally snuck out of the state on a private plane. The Bulldogs lost to Loyola 61–51, but won a far greater victory by defying the state's segregationist governor Ross Barnett in daring to cross the color line.
From a basketball standpoint, the '63 final was memorable too. It featured what is quite possibly the most remarkable comeback in tournament history and not just one, but two buzzer-beaters. Cincinnati was a powerhouse—the reigning, two-time national champion, a squad that would send three of its starters into the NBA. Six minutes into the second half, Loyola was buried by 15 points and—in an era with no shot clock and no three-point shots—appeared doomed.
Loyola was still 10 points down with little more than 10 minutes remaining when Cincinnati made the questionable decision to go into a stall. The quicker Loyola team harassed the Bearcats into repeated turnovers and clawed their way back in the game. But with 12 seconds left in the game, Loyola trailed by one and was forced to foul. If Cincinnati made both free throws, we would witness the first NCAA three-peat. But when Cincy missed the second, Loyola rebounded and raced down the court. Jerry Harkness, the team's leading scorer who had been held scoreless until less than five minutes remained, swished a shot from the corner to send the game into overtime.
Overtime was a cautious affair. With 1:20 remaining in a tied game, there was a jump ball. Back then there was no alternate possession rule and no doubt that whichever team controlled the tip would hold the ball for the last shot. Loyola controlled the tap and then the ball for 75 excruciating seconds. But the last shot skittered off the rim and off the backboard—and right into the hands of Loyola big-man Vic Rouse whose soft put-back beat the buzzer and the Bearcats 60–58. The game was a "first," but also a "last"—the last "Iron Man" team ever, as Loyola used just five players the entire game.
For me, that memorable contest alone is worth the price of admission ($16.99 on Amazon). For others, while the highlights might not be those you would choose, it's hard to go too far wrong with the embarrassment of riches that is NCAA tournament history. The DVD concludes, in obligatory fashion, with the most fabled final ever: the 1979 showdown between Michigan State with Magic Johnson and Indiana State with Larry Bird.
Though the Magic-Larry rivalry would produce some extraordinary games, this didn't happen to be one of them. Its most remarkable moment, at least on this DVD, stems from Bryant Gumbel's pre-game introduction—and then only with 30 years hindsight. Gumbel opens his broadcast by saying, "You have to be living in Iraq" not to have heard about this game and these two superstars. That today March Madness infects Iraq too is a jarring note about history and the passage of time, distinctly at odds with what is supposed to be a sentimental journey.