by Jack Erwin
It’s an unwritten rule of parenthood: Don’t take your 6-year-old to a sports riot. Fortunately for me, my normally hyper-cautious father ignored that rule in 1983 when N.C. State won the national championship. Twenty-five years ago this Monday, the Wolfpack pulled off one of the classic upsets in sports history, beating Houston on Lorenzo Charles’ last second put-back (or alley-oop, depending on your perspective). That night my dad took me up to Hillsborough Street in Raleigh to watch what seemed like the entire State campus parade by in drop-top Camaros. I’ve bled Wolfpack red ever since.
Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with most of the players on that team for a 25th anniversary oral history that appears in the May issue of SLAM. Not surprisingly, there were far too many great anecdotes from that year to fit in one issue, so while the magazine piece concentrates on the NCAA Tournament, this special online feature provides the backstory for that season (as in the magazine piece, classes refer to the ‘82-’83 school year).
On March 21, 1980, Iona College’s Jim Valvano is introduced as N.C. State’s 15th coach, inheriting a freshman class that includes Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey.
Dereck Whittenburg, senior guard: Sidney and I had just graduated from high school and we played in the Boston Shootout. After the game this guy comes up and hugs me and Sid and says, “love you two guys, my name is Jim Valvano, Iona College.” And I said, “You own a college?” That was a standing joke for years.
Sidney Lowe, senior point guard: One of the first meetings after he was hired he told us all that he doesn’t owe us anything, he didn’t recruit us, so it was basically up to us to please him. That was a jolt to young guys like us.
Thurl Bailey, senior forward/center: We all noticed that he was very confident and he knew what he wanted and had no reservations about talking to you about it. His dream was to win the national championship.
Cozell McQueen, sophomore center: He came up to my house and the guy was like a comedian, saying all this jive like, “wanna win a championship” and “wanna be Coach of the Year.” I had already talked to [Maryland coach] Lefty [Dreisell] and [North Carolina coach] Dean [Smith], but I had never heard a coach talk like that before.
Ernie Myers, freshman guard: I was a sophomore in high school and he was recruiting a guy on my team [for Iona]. That year we were playing against one of our top rivals, Rice High School in New York, and V came up to me after the game and he said in two years I’m coming back to get you. I wasn’t thinking about college or anything, so he gave me the first inclination that I might be able to go to college. And then two years later he was the first guy knocking on the door to recruit me. He said, Remember I told you I’d be back in two years? I’m right here, what’s up?
Coming off a first round NCAA tourney loss in ‘82, State is picked to finish third in the ACC in ‘82-‘83 behind national no. 1 Virginia and defending national champion North Carolina.
Lowe: Going into that year, Whitt and I had already played six years together; three in high school and three in college, so we had experience there.
Terry Gannon, sophomore guard: That was a team that belonged to Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey. V wasn’t this disciplinarian who motivated through fear, he was one of us, and it fit perfectly because the seniors controlled everything, they ran things.
Tommy DiNardo, junior forward: The seniors were a great group of leaders, cracking jokes on everybody. Even though they were cracking on the underclassmen, it made you feel like you were being noticed, those guys care enough to actually poke fun at you. The locker room environment was a big part of our success.
Bailey: We knew we had a pretty good team, but we had a very difficult schedule, with North Carolina and Virginia twice, Memphis State, Louisville, Notre Dame.
7-2 and ranked in the top twenty in the nation, State is leading Virginia at home when Whittenburg goes down with a broken foot, an injury that is reported as possibly season-ending, and the Pack loses 88-80.
Lowe: For me it was almost devastation. Here was a guy I’d played with for seven years and it was our last time around. The mindset was, “Hold on until Dereck comes back.”
Whittenburg: I had the same injury on the opposite foot my senior year of high school so I knew what the diagnosis was going to be. I always knew I was coming back.
Gannon: We probably would have never won a national championship had Whitt not gone down in that game, because it allowed guys like Ernie Myers and myself to get battle tested.
McQueen: It changed our whole rotation and over the long haul, it made us a better team. V was the type of guy, if you produced, he didn’t care who you were, you were gonna play. Ernie stepped in and was thrown right into the mix. We lost some games, but it made us think, OK how can we win now?
George McClain, freshman guard: The freshman, we thought we were just as good as the starters, we wanted their job anyway. I had just come off of winning a title in high school, Ernie Myers had just come off a title, we wanted to win. So we paid attention and when we got our chance, we tried to do what we had to do.
Myers: He was an integral part of the team, but I didn’t feel the season was over because he was hurt. We just thought we’re going to have to play harder.
In Whittenburg’s absence NCSU goes 9-5, including a home victory over UNC. Whittenburg returns with three games left in the regular season, but the Pack drops the first two, to Virginia and Maryland. At 16-10, State faces Wake Forest on senior day, winning 130-89, scoring 74 points in the second half and setting the ACC record for combined score in a conference game.
Alvin Battle, junior forward: I never did talk to him about it, but when Whitt came back I think Coach V had a vision of going to the NCAA final. He just picked it up, like OK I got my boys back and we have an opportunity to do something special.
Whittenburg: It was a magical day. That’s one of the games that’s not highlighted as much, but it started the run.
Gannon: Everything went right for us. Now we’ve got Whitt back and you’re thinking, We can beat the world.
A week later State faces Wake again in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, eking out a 71-70 win when Lorenzo Charles, after missing the first, sinks the second of two foul shots with three seconds left.
Lorenzo Charles, sophomore forward: Nobody talked about winning the tournament, but we knew it was going to be difficult because we finished the season with double digit losses, and back then the NCAA didn’t invite a team into the field with double digit losses.
Lowe: Lorenzo, Cozell, Ernie, they had unbelievable poise for young guys. So when Lorenzo went up to the line, I thought he was going to make both. But after the first one I got a little worried, I’ll be honest.
Charles: The first shot I took was a brick, way off to the left. I was a little nervous though, it was my first time being in a situation like that. But I changed the arc and knocked down the second one.
In the semifinals, the Pack defeat Carolina 91-84 in overtime, holding Michael Jordan to 4-12 shooting. UNC’s Sam Perkins rims out a three at the end of regulation, and Whittenburg scores 11 points in OT.
McQueen: People didn’t give us a lot of credit for our defense. We were aggressive, we never got caught up in, â€˜OK, this guy’s an All-American, this guy’s a player of the year. We didn’t back down from no one.
Gannon: Whitt really struggled through most of the game, but just absolutely took over in the overtime session. Dereck was an extremely tough guy and mean at times on the court, which gave us some heart.
McQueen: Whitt might take a lot of shots, but in his mind, any shot he took, he thought he could make it. He didn’t let nobody intimidate him.
Facing Virginia in the ACC final, State wins 81-78 on two Whittenburg free throws with 6 seconds remaining. With 35 seconds remaining, the 6’0″ Gannon contributes a key steal on 7’4″ Ralph Sampson, the three-time national player of the year.
Bailey: I loved playing against Sampson. It was always that David and Goliath scenario whenever we went up against him.
Charles: A couple times we made the decision to just let their wing players shoot the ball, we weren’t even going to let Ralph catch the ball, we wanted to limit his touches.
Gannon: I had no business trying to reach in and stop Ralph Sampson from dunking. I was on the weak side and he was on the opposite block. He had a clear path to the basket and probably didn’t see me because I was down around his knees. He went up for what should’ve been an easy dunk and left the ball down with me.
Myers: They had already beat us twice that year, and it’s hard to beat a good team three times. And we wound up beating them twice.
After winning first and second round games in Corvallis, Oregon, and advancing to the Final Four with Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight victories (over Utah and Virginia, respectively), the Pack return to Raleigh after an 11-day absence (the team traveled from the first and second rounds in Oregon directly to the regionals in Ogden, Utah), the Pack’s bandwagon becomes increasingly crowded.
Whittenburg: We were getting ready to practice and 5,000 people are at Reynolds cheering us on. I said to Jimmy, “What are all these damn people doing here? We didn’t get here like this.” And he said, “Let’s just enjoy it.”
Lowe: We were young kids and we had put ourselves in a position to possibly play for a national championship. There were thousands of fans at the airport, on the overpass as we went by on the bus, it was just unbelievable.
Gannon: At that point we felt, Bring ’em on. Who we playing, the Celtics? No problem, we’ll find a way to win.
With their spot in the national championship game secured after a Final Four win over Georgia, the Wolfpack players head out for their customary post-victory night on the town, and run into some unexpected co-celebrants.
DiNardo: The Saturday night after the semifinals, a group of us went out. We couldn’t find a whole lot going on, but we happened to go into this one place and there were several of the Houston cheerleaders there. We started talking to “very, very nice girls” and some of ’em came back to the hotel with us and we hung out for a while. They were some fun girls. I guess they kind of looked at us as more down to earth, normal folks than a lot of the players on the Houston squad. They felt they related more to us than they did their own players.
After their Final Four triumphs in Albuquerque, State returns to a true hero’s welcome in Raleigh.
Whittenburg: The easiest way to explain it is we were rock stars for the next six months.
Gannon: There were rumors that there were some people at Reynolds Coliseum waiting to greet us, but we didn’t have a sense of what that meant until we turned onto I-40. No one was on the highway because anyone that was had pulled off to the side of road and were on top of their cars. When we turned onto campus we could barely fit the bus through the road because there were 30,000 people jammed into a 13,000 seat arena waiting to greet us.
Myers: We came back to our rooms and our doors were covered with Thank You cards. I couldn’t walk to class without a crowd of people following.
Lowe: The campus was rocking, the city was just lit up, fans up and down the street in their cars with their horns blowing, it was packed. Dereck and I were going to get something to eat and these guys picked us up and carried us to the restaurant. It was an unbelievable experience.
McQueen: I’ve played and been all over, and I’ll be walking in an airport and have people say, “Aren’t you Cozell McQueen? I always bet on the underdog and I won thousands of dollars on that game.” I always say, “Well, where’s my cut?”
On April 28, 1993 Coach Jim Valvano passed away after a very public fight with cancer, a little over a month after giving a rousing speech at a 10th anniversary celebration for the ‘83 team.
McQueen: We didn’t have any All-Americas on that team, what we had was a group of players that played together and believed in what we did. Our motto back then, one thing we learned if nothing else, was never give up, never ever give up, anything you do.
Lowe: He was everything, he was the one that provided us with that belief that we could win.
Gannon: I don’t think any coach could’ve won the national championship with that team but Jim Valvano, because he was one of us. I don’t think sports are all that, we’ve got guys fighting in Iraq right now, but we get letters from people who were sick and we did give them the inspiration to fight and we had this effect. It makes you realize what kind of impact you can have if you do things the right way.