In about a month’s span, the NCAA Tournament captures the entire nation like the Superbowl does in one day. It’s a spectacle to behold, from the Cinderella story stomping their way through storied institutions to the ultimate play in sports, the buzzer-beater. And guess what? NCAA basketball is back. Sure, the regular season probably flies under the radar of your average sports fan. But for basketballheads, the return of professional and collegiate hoops marks the real beginning of the year. Who will triumph this season? UNC won it all last year, but face heavy competition from No. 1 ranked Kansas, Michigan State and Texas, among many others. The season is sure to be full of upsets, disappointments and surprises, just like the 1980 Louisville team, led by Coach Crum and hometown hero Darrell Griffith. Relive their journey 29 years ago, as they marched their way to battle UCLA in the tourney final.–Matt Lawyue
by Michael Bradley
Despite the fine educations Pervis Ellison and Herbert Crooks received during their time at the University of Louisville, they obviously hadn’t learned one vital bit of information: Don’t mess with Dr. Dunkenstein. How else can you explain the call they made from a local radio station one summer morning in 1990, with the intent of messing with the good Doctor? Maybe they missed that particular history seminar. Maybe they were out of town with the Cardinal hoops team. Whatever the reason, they didn’t know. And that was too bad.
Ellison and Crooks were proud members of the ’Ville’s ’86 national title team. Led by “Never Nervous Pervis,” the Cards smacked Duke in the final game to complete an improbable run. Four years later, they wanted to grab the Louisville heavyweight belt. The ’86 champs wanted Dr. Dunkenstein—Darrell Griffith—and his ’80 championship teammates, The Doctors of Dunk. The charity run was all set for Freedom Hall, and Ellison and Crooks wanted to talk some trash. Big mistake. “That team had a pride in what they did that was second to none,” their former coach, Denny Crum, says. “They were six years older [than the ’86 team], but they practiced for that game. They didn’t want to lose anything, ever.”
Unfortunately for them, Ellison and Crooks didn’t know that. “They were at a radio station, and they called me up and started saying on air how they were going to kill us and that we were just old men,” Griffith says. “Well, we killed them.”
By halftime, the lead was about 20 points. If the ’80 champs hadn’t let up on the throttle, the money raised for charity might have gone to the ’86 squad to help soothe their battered egos. Thing is, the ’80 Louisville Cardinals are the standard for this great program. Even if Rick Pitino’s talented bunch wins it all this year, they’d still be five-point underdogs against Griffith and his pals. That’s how it is with legends. In their day, at a time when the dunk had just been re-introduced to the college game, Dr. Dunkenstein and his associates were the most gravity-defying group of ballplayers around, which is why their firmly ensconced in the game’s Legends Division.
“As we got older, we realized what we had started,” Griffith says. “After us came [Houston’s] Phi Slama Jamma and the rest. But it all originated with us.”
The Cardinals pressed from the opening tip and ran with abandon, culminating their fastbreaks with feats of acrobatics rarely seen on college courts. Unlike the other rip-and-go outfits, Louisville could play it rough, too, with bruisers like Wiley Brown and Rodney McCray locking down the interior, and Derek Smith and Roger Burkman agitating on the perimeter. “We had some competitive practices,” Crum says. “They didn’t want to lose and really competed. But when we played games, they all stepped up.”
It all began with Griffith, the Louisville native who in ’76 had promised his hometown a national championship when he committed to the Cardinals out of Male High. He could have left for the ABA from high school but he stayed around. Could have gone pro after every year with the ’Ville. But he didn’t. “When I went to college I had two goals: to get my degree in four years [Which he did.—Ed.] and to bring a championship to the program,” Griffith says. He had built his reputation as a high schooler, tearing it up against college and pro players for the Chocolate City team in the Dirt Bowl League at the local Shawnee Park courts. “That league rivaled the Rucker,” Griffith says about the legendary New York run. He’s right. Players from the Kentucky Colonels and Indiana Pacers showed up nightly, including mighty 7-2 center Artis Gilmore, on whom Griffith dunked in the summer before his freshman year at Male. “I didn’t get up and scream and holler after it,” he says. “I just got back and played defense.”
By the time Griffith’s senior year rolled around, the city’s basketball creditors were demanding payment. The Cardinals had been an uninspiring 2-3 in NCAA tourney play during his tenure, and the criticisms of Griffith and his game had started to mount. He couldn’t handle the ball well. He didn’t play defense. “I listened to my critics and coaches, and I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were,” he says. “I wanted to be the best player I could be.”
That summer, Griffith haunted Crawford Gym, the Cardinals’ practice court. He drilled incessantly and ran games with anybody who showed up. Crum once got a call from campus security who was concerned because Griffith was in the gym at 1 a.m., working out. “I told him, ‘Who do you think gave him the key?’” Crum says. Often, he was joined by his teammates who figured if the Doc was in, they had better be, too. “Darrell had one more shot at a championship, and he got in the gym and started to work,” Brown says. “We got in there with him.”
The previous Louisville edition had featured five talented freshmen but not enough experience to make a serious postseason run. When the Cards fell to Arkansas in the ’79 Midwest semis, they were frustrated because they realized they hadn’t played to their potential. Louisville had made it to the ’72 and ’75 Final Fours but had never won it all—in part because of UCLA’s dominance—and the ’79 stumble was another disappointment. “I’ll never forget that loss to Arkansas,” Brown says. “We had the talent, but we weren’t as close as we needed to be.”
The ’79-80 Cardinals were tight. Despite a 12-man roster with players from Kentucky, Georgia, New York and Indiana, the Cardinals blended into a unit that played well together on and off the court. “That bond still holds to this day,” says Scooter McCray, a forward who injured his knee early and missed most of the season. “Once you get that chemistry, it lasts throughout your life. It’s rare.” Even today, nearly 30 years later, many of the team members live in the Louisville area and stay in regular contact.
Crum’s steady approach was a key component. “Cool Hand Luke” wasn’t a screamer and didn’t berate the players. “No matter what the situation or how much pressure there was, he didn’t lose his cool,” Burkman says. “His demeanor kept us under control. He always said, ‘Just execute.’”
For ’79-80, Crum decided to implement a fast-paced style that maximized the team’s athletic ability and minimized its lack of height. Freshman Rodney McCray was supposed to be the tallest player, listed at 6-9, but when the measuring tape came out, he was 6-7, like Brown and Scooter. “He had a big butt, so people couldn’t get next to him,” Scooter says. “That made him seem 6-9.”
At first, it seemed like Rodney wasn’t going to play, even if he was 6-11. Though talented, he wasn’t too enthusiastic about practice. The trouble was, three games into the season, Scooter went down with a serious knee injury, and Rodney had to step in. At the time, he was considering a transfer, because he thought the coaches didn’t like him. “I think he didn’t want to beat out his brother,” Crum says. It took Big Brother to set him straight. “Back then, you had guys who called themselves ‘gamers,’ and guys who were practice players,” Scooter says. “At the collegiate level, you have to give it in practice and the game. It didn’t sink in on Rodney until I got hurt. He realized he had to play.”
The Cards won the first six games of the season before falling to Utah and Illinois during a seven-day stretch in December. The team could mesmerize with its high-flying antics and pummel some teams with its press, but consistency was a problem. After the loss to the Illini, the Cardinals put it together and won 18 straight, stomping through the Metro Conference and even whipping ninth-ranked St. John’s in a Madison Square Garden homecoming for the McCray brothers. Louisville weathered brutal road trips and overcame lackadaisical play to find ways to win. The basic formula was pretty simple: Griffith would score 20-25 a night, and everybody else did their jobs. “We had a nucleus of guys who would accept their roles,” Brown says. “We knew we could expect [a lot of] points out of Darrell, and we would fit in.”
The ride lasted until Feb. 21, when the Cards made a return trip to the Garden, this time to take on Iona. Although Scooter was back and practicing to help himself and the team, he couldn’t play. “That showed what kind of commitment he had,” Griffith says. “There were no egos on the team. He didn’t want to waste his time.” Iona was coached by Jim Valvano and led by 6-10 center Jeff Ruland, a no-finesse beast with surprising athletic ability. The overconfident Cardinals didn’t stand a chance. Ruland scored 30 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a 77-60 victory. “We got drilled,” Brown says. “Ruland destroyed us.” Iona legend has it that Valvano celebrated so vigorously that he was found the next morning sleeping on the bar at a local establishment. For good reason—it was the biggest win in Iona history.
The loss led to a team meeting. “We didn’t want to get embarrassed anymore,” Brown says. But it didn’t dampen the ’Ville’s spirits. Nothing could do that. The players goofed on each other non-stop, and there was even some history made, thanks to big Daryl Cleveland, part of the Georgia connection. “One day after practice, we put our hands together, and Daryl said, ‘Put it up high,’” Brown says about the birth of the high five. “That started it.” From that point on, the Cards didn’t slap down low. They went high, and the nation followed along.
By the time the Final Four was set, the nation didn’t know what to think. Convening in Indianapolis—early in the season, Cleveland had said, “The ’Ville is going to the ’Nap.”—were Louisville, a second seed, sixth-seeded Purdue, fifth-seeded Iowa and eighth-seeded UCLA, hardly what one could consider the nation’s elite. Louisville had needed overtime to beat Kansas State, 71-69, in their opener, finally fending off outstanding Wildcat guard Rolando Blackman. Little-used guard Tony Branch’s off-balance 15-footer at the buzzer was the difference and rescued Griffith, who had fouled out two minutes earlier. “I looked at my jersey and said, ‘Dear God, please don’t make this the last game I play,’” Griffith says.
Six days later, Louisville needed overtime again to beat rugged Texas A&M and its zone, 66-55. Neither win was impressive, and Crum was worried the Cardinals wouldn’t be ready for fast, athletic LSU in the Midwest regional final. Despite setting a new indoor record for trash talking, the Tigers couldn’t keep up. Internal discord (two of the players allegedly fought in the locker room at halftime) and an inability to handle the Cardinal press led to an 86-66 Louisville rout. The ‘Ville was indeed going to the ‘Nap.
Once there, it encountered a game Iowa team that couldn’t match up athletically, especially once star guard Ronnie Lester went out with a knee injury after a mid-air collision with the feisty Burkman, whose actions were hardly malicious. Louisville triumphed, 80-72, behind 34 from Griffith. “We broke them down,” he says. Griffith was now one game from fulfilling his promise.
The final against UCLA was an entirely different matter. The upstart Bruins had shaken off a nasty early stretch to become a hungry defensive outfit built around forward Kiki Vandeweghe and point guard Rod Foster. Since Crum was a former John Wooden assistant, and first-year Bruin head coach Larry Brown had adopted Wooden’s classic high-post offense at mid-season, the teams were quite similar. “We knew it was going to be a struggle,” Wiley Brown says. “We both ran the same things.”
A struggle it was. At halftime, UCLA held a 28-26 lead. Louisville wasn’t dunking, running or playing well. Crum was furious and even used the dreaded C word—choke. Obviously, the Cardinals were not amused. Griffith was particularly agitated. “I had never seen him like that,” Brown says. “He was pissed off at the way we were playing.” When Griffith had been recruited by UCLA, he turned them down. “I told them, ‘You have a lot of championships. I want to be the one that beats you,’” Griffith says. With tempers short, Griffith spoke up.
“I told them to loosen up,” he says. “We weren’t playing how we usually played. We had to lay it on the line. It couldn’t come from the coach. As the leader, I had to take it to them.”
The Cardinals were inspired, but UCLA remained strong. Although Louisville battled, the Bruins led, 50-45, with 6:28 left. With 4:32 left, UCLA held a 54-50 advantage, and Vandeweghe was headed in for what could be a backbreaking dunk after a steal. But Jerry Eaves caught him and disrupted his path. Maybe it was a foul. It wasn’t called that way. The ’Ville came storming back. Eaves nailed a jumper. He converted a driving layup. Tie game. After a Foster miss, Griffith hit an 18-footer to make it 56-54, Cardinals. Louisville forced a turnover and Derek Smith converted two free throws. When Rodney McCray hit one of two freebies with 0:14 left, Louisville had a 59-54 advantage and the national title.
“It was an awesome feeling for me,” says Griffith. “I was from Louisville, and it was my childhood dream to see the city with a championship. My mind went into rewind as I remembered all the work that went into it.”
Griffith didn’t go home on the team bus. He chose instead to make the 100-mile trip from the ’Nap to the ’Ville with his brother, Michael, a huge Parliament Funkadelic fan who had bestowed the Dr. Dunkenstein nickname on Darrell. “I wanted to drive through the city and see how people were reacting,” he says. “People were all over the streets.” When the team arrived on campus, bedlam reigned. People hopped on top of the bus, caving in the roof. The next day, 20,000 people packed Freedom Hall to celebrate the fulfillment of a promise. “The city wasn’t going to forget that,” Brown says.
And no group of upstarts was going to take it away. Behold the 1980 Louisville Cardinals: National Champs. More importantly: City Champs.