Original Old School: Storybook Ending

by March 29, 2009

As the NCAA Tourney winds down and 64 teams are whittled down to 1 (I see you, Scottie Reynolds), we continue to unveil Old School SLAM stories that are on-point. This week we take a look back at the ’76-77 NCAA Champs, Marquette.  Now known for Dwyane Wade, Tom Crean and their unique  jerseys, Al McGuire’s Marquette team was once the champs. Here is how SLAM recaptured that title game in SLAM #59.–Tzvi Twersky

by Ryan Jones

“Coach never actually got it out of his mouth, that he was quitting.” This is how Bo Ellis remembers it. He was there, with his teammates, crowded into a downtown Milwaukee restaurant on a cold December night, when Al McGuire came as close as he could to giving his players the news.

“He said coaching was starting to take a toll on his health, just felt like it was time to stop,” explains Ellis, a 6-9 senior forward and captain of that ’76-77 Marquette basketball team. “But to this day, he never got it out to say he was quitting. He broke down and started crying, and ran out of the restaurant. We finished our meal and kind of went about our business.”

It was a week before Christmas, and Al McGuire, in the midst of his 13th season as head coach, was 48 years old. His teams had averaged 25 wins a season over the past 10 seasons and made it to the ’74 NCAA Final. His career and his program were in their prime, and he stepped away. It’s hard to imagine now, even for those of us whose basketball memories don’t go back that far, whose only direct recollection of McGuire is of the quirky, refreshingly genuine TV analyst, not the street-smart, unconventional coach. Without ever getting the words out, McGuire—who died in January, 2001, at age 72—told his players the current season would be his last.

And then, as Ellis says, the Warriors (Marquette teams are now known as the Golden Eagles) went about their business. Their season had taken an unpredictable turn, but that didn’t change the goal they’d set before it began: a championship. Marquette finished the ’75-76 season No. 2 behind Indiana—and that Hoosier team went 32-0. “We were second to Indiana, who some say was the best team in the history of college basketball,” says Butch Lee, the hard-driving guard who joined Ellis as an All-American candidate in ’76-77. “So I said, Next year’s gonna be our year.”tkmaguirejb05

“Next year,” interrupted as it was by McGuire’s announcement, became far more difficult than Ellis, Lee or anyone else would’ve guessed. A preseason No. 1 in many publications, Marquette lost seven games during that long, strange winter, and entered the final weekend of the regular season unsure if they’d even make it to the Tournament—then boarded a plane for Ann Arbor to play at No. 3 Michigan. They got the news at halftime—yes, they’d been invited to the Dance—then went out and lost by a point to the Wolverines. And it didn’t matter at all.

“We realized that once we got the bid,” Lee remembers, “we were gonna win that thing.”

The ’76-77 North Carolina Tar Heels faced a different set of obstacles. “I remember somebody sent flowers to the basketball office with a note that read, ‘Carolina is dead.’ You know, like sending flowers to a funeral,” Walter Davis chuckles, remembering how the Heels were written off in midseason after senior center Tommy LaGarde was lost for the year with a knee injury. “After that, I think we lost two games the rest of the way.”

Actually, it was three—but the third didn’t come until the NCAA final. Led by the sweet-shooting Davis, All-American pg Phil Ford and precocious freshman Mike O’Koren, Carolina lost two in a row after LaGarde’s injury, then rolled to 15 straight wins. That run was impressive enough on its own, but all the more so considering both Davis (broken finger) and Ford (hyperextended elbow) were injured in the postseason, and each entered the championship game as damaged goods. As Ford says, “You have to give Coach Smith credit for getting the walking wounded as far as he did.”

Dean Smith was in his 16th season, and like McGuire, he knew his squad had potential. “We were excited about that team,” Smith says. “In December, we were out in Portland to play a real good Oregon team, and we crushed them. I thought, Gee, this team could win a championship.”

When it mattered most, the Jersey kids stepped up. Although they played in different time zones at decidedly different programs for diametrically opposite coaches, they had at least two important things in common: roots, and a knack for big play in big games.

Jim Boylan, Marquette’s starting point guard that season, had spent the previous two years at Division 2 Assumption (MA) College. Mike O’Koren, the smooth, lanky 6-8 forward, started almost immediately at Carolina, averaging 14 and 7 as a rook. What they shared was a Jersey City upbringing—they came up playing ball together just across the river from the Manhattan skyline—and pivotal roles in the ’77 final. How they ended up in that game, wearing opposing colors, is a story in itself.

“We used to get calls for transfers, but we didn’t take them,” Smith tells. “So Boylan called, and I called Al and told him Jim would be calling.”

“It’s ironic how it happened,” adds Hank Raymonds, McGuire’s lead assistant. “I saw Jim in high school, he was terrific. We got the call from North Carolina, and I said, If they can’t use him, we gotta get him, he can play!”

lee2And so he could, starting alongside Lee to form one of the best backcourts in the nation that year. And Boylan wasn’t the only Marquette player with a quirky UNC connection. There was Lee, who played for Puerto Rico (he was born on the island) in the ’76 Olympics because he wasn’t invited to try out for the U.S. Against the Americans, Lee scored 35 points to lead Puerto Rico to a near-upset. But the U.S.—coached by Smith and led by Ford, LaGarde, Davis and ’76 UNC grad Mitch Kupchak—survived 95-94.

And then there’s Ellis, by all accounts a shoo-in for the U.S. squad in ’76, whom Smith called “the smartest forward in college basketball.” As Smith recalls, the U.S hopefuls were asked to run a mile during training camp. When Ellis’s turn came, “He ran one lap and kept running,” Smith laughs. “I didn’t see him again until the championship game.”

Ellis remembers it differently. “I don’t think I’ve told this story before,” he says from his office at Chicago State University, where he’s head basketball coach. As Ellis tells it, he became ill during the run—a combination of grits and eggs in his stomach from breakfast and the heat of a 96-degree day—and couldn’t finish. That, and being homesick after traveling to Brazil for a pre-Olympic tournament, negated Ellis’s excitement about making the squad. “If I had to do it again, I would’ve been on that ’76 Olympic team, would’ve won a gold medal,” Ellis says now. “It’s a big mistake, but it had nothing to do with Coach Smith. He was very fair to me.”

Maybe, but as Davis cracks, “I think he used it as motivation anyway.”

Regardless, there was no shortage of motivation when UNC and Marquette tipped off on March 28, 1977 in front of 16,086 fans at The Omni in Atlanta, GA. Both teams were battle-tested: The Heels won their four previous Tourney games by a total of 13 points, including a one–point win over favored UNLV in the Final Four, while the Warriors survived scares against Kansas State and UNC-Charlotte.

Then there was the drama surrounding McGuire’s last game—and his potential to go out on the highest possible note—all played up heavily during the pregame by NBC’s Curt Gowdy, who intoned, “Al McGuire says goodbye tonight…He’s been a winner all the way, the most quoted, the most controversial and the most colorful college coach in America.” For the game’s first 20 minutes, he also looked like the smartest.

When Ellis picked up his second foul 1:38 into the game, McGuire, loath to go deep into his bench, kept his star forward in the game and protected him by switching defenses from man to zone. Crisis averted—Ellis played the entire half without picking up another foul and had 8 points and 7 boards at halftime. With 15, Lee—a Marbury-esque scoring guard whom NBC’s Billy Packer (clad in a godawful red plaid jacket) called “probably the most powerfully built and explosive guard that’s played college basketball in a long time”—was the leading scorer of the half. But it was a team effort, from the 11-1 run late in the first half to the stifling zone defense that helped hold the injured Davis and Ford to a combined 8 points, that gave the Warriors a 39-27 halftime lead.

From there, it was Smith’s turn to look smart—and he got help from O’Koren. The day before, O’Koren was asked if his 31-point effort against UNLV was a career high. His response: “Yeah, so far.” Laughing about it now, the current Nets assistant says, “It made me come out looking really cocky. I meant, yeah, so far, not like, Yeah, against Marquette I’m gonna get 35. So McGuire’s like, ‘Yeah, the cocky kid from Jersey City.’”

O’Koren had reason to be proud on this night, scoring 8 of the Heels’ first 10 points of the second half. He finished with 14 and a team-high 11 boards—the only double-double of the game—before fouling out in the final 90 seconds. For the moment, though, he had the Heels back in the game, and the UNC took its only lead of the half moments later, when reserve Tom Zaliagiris converted a steal into a layup for a 45-43 edge. Bernand Toone, one of two Marquette reserves to step on the court, tied it a minute later with a jumper. And that’s when the chess match emerged.

“It was sort of a cat-and-mouse game,” O’Koren says, describing the 2-minute, 57-second UNC possession that followed. It wasn’t until Toone’s game-tying basket that Smith went into “four corners”, the clock-chewing set that, before the advent of the shot clock, allowed his squad to hold the ball indefinitely. And when his coach gave the order, O’Koren had the best seat in the house. “I was at the scorer’s table trying to get back into the game, and I’d watch Coach Smith to my right, and Coach McGuire to my left,” O’Koren says, describing the back-and-forth strategizing. “Coach McGuire would say ‘zone,’ then Coach Smith would say, ‘Go four corners, get them out of zone,’ because he wanted to play against them man-to-man. Then when they came out of man-to-man, we’d go into our offense, and Coach McGuire would yell, ‘Back to a zone!’”

Smith successfully used the famous stalling tactic for much of his career, but on this night, it might have backfired. After nearly three minutes, senior backup Bruce Buckley cut toward the left block for a go-ahead layup. It was Buckley’s only shot of the game, and Bo Ellis ate it alive, swatting away any whiff of Carolina momentum. Still, every coach and player involved in the game agreed that Smith’s decision to go to the four corners was the right one. “Dean Smith caught some hell, but he shouldn’t have,” Raymonds says now.

Marquette went into a stall of its own, holding the ball for more than a minute before regaining the lead. Trapped at the top of the key, Ellis saw Boylan cutting toward the basket a half-step ahead of Ford. Boylan caught the bounce pass on his fingertips, pump-faked once under the basket, and threw in a reverse layup for a 47-45 lead with 8:31 left.

Carolina tied in once more on two Davis free throws, but Marquette scored on the next two possessions, and that four-point lead was airtight. For the game, the Warriors hit 23 of 25 from the stripe, including 12 straight in the final 1:29. With Marquette unwilling to miss from the line, and playing before the era of the three-point shot, Carolina was helpless.

In the final seconds of the 67-59 win, Al McGuire sat on the Marquette bench and sobbed. Struggling to check his emotions, spent and relieved and disbelieving all at once, he was barely able to acknowledge Smith when the Carolina coach jogged down the sideline to offer a quick congratulatory handshake. Then, as his players and fans celebrated all around him, he stood up, walked through the frantic crowd and into the locker room, overcome.

Lee, who finished with 19 points, won outstanding player honors and was joined on the All-Tournament team by Ellis (14 points, 9 boards) and junior center Jerome Whitehead, who finished the game with 8 points, 11 boards and 2 blocks. But Boylan might’ve been the real MVP—he helped shut down Ford, scored 14 points on 5 of 7 field goals and 4 of 4 from the line, and hit arguably the games biggest basket. Of the player he passed over a year before, Smith says, “He made some great shots. I thought he was the key.”

UNC was paced by O’Koren and Davis, who followed up a foul-plagued first half by scoring 18 of his game-high 20 points in the second half. Ford, hampered by elbow and Marquette’s D, shot 3 for 10 and finished with 6 points.

The game’s legacy is daunting. In all, 17 of the 21 players who stepped on the floor that night—not counting LaGarde, a ’77 first-rounder—were eventually drafted. The coaching ranks also benefited: Ellis, at Chicago State, while Carolina guard John Kuester, an assistant to fellow UNC alum Larry Brown with the Sixers, joins O’Koren and Suns assistant Boylan on NBA benches. But the real legacies can be traced to the men who coached the games, especially McGuire, whose stunning success over a comparatively short span is all the more intriguing by his unorthodox methods. “Al was a showman, a maverick, this was all a part of his getup. But he lived for the game,” says Raymonds. “Practice, forget about it. We had players tackle him on the floor, fight with him, we used to have a zoo. But when it came time to play…I tell you, he knew what was going on.”

No doubt—and now, 25 years later, so do his players. “After the game, Coach told us that as time goes by, this will be even more significant that it is now,” Boylan says of the game. “And that was absolutely true.”