This has nothing to do with China, so if you care about the Middle Kingdom, then flip to the next blog post. But if you care about basketball, read on.
In the Spring of 1989, I was a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia. UVa has many traditions that distinguish it from other schools. We don't say "campus," but "grounds." It's not "freshman," "sophomore," etc., but "first-year," "second-year," etc. And it's Mr. Jefferson, not President Jefferson, T.J., or any derogatory title. And at least in the 1980's, we wore coat and tie to the football games. And instead of a marching band, we had a pep band that raised hell.
Before I was addicted to China, I was a sports junky. And I still am. Tonight I'll be watching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. But in 1989, I was in the stands with my friends. That year UVa had a pretty darn good team. A few years before, the UVa Cavaliers (or Wahoos) had been on top of the college b-ball world, with 7-4 Ralph Sampson leading the way. The Wahoos -- a fish that can drink its weight in beer -- were basketball royalty but could never get over the top in the NCAA tournament. Remember upstart Chamanade, the team that beat UVa in an early season tourney in Hawaii? Once Sampson left, UVa wasn't part of the discussion among elite teams, but it was still quite good, surprisingly good, in fact.
UVa made the 1989 tournament, I believe, as a 5-seed. It won its first two games without too much stress, at least, again, that's what I remember. Sitting in our apartment at the end of the first weekend, my friends and I looked at the TV and realized that the next round for us wasn't that far away, in Lexington, Kentucky, about an 8-hour drive from Charlottesville. Should we blow off classes right in the middle of the semester just for a game or two? And we were broke, could we afford tickets? We called, and the tickets were only $20/person for 3 games -- 2 on Thursday night for the Sweet 16 and 1 on Saturday afternoon for the Elite 8, with the winner going on to the Final 4. (Or was it $20 for each game? I don't care. I'm old and can't remember.) That settled it, we were going! We being: myself, Keith Kimberl, Chris Trimble, and Daren Blythe.
I was taking a few classes my last semester, but didn't care a whole lot about them, at least compared to going to game. I told my Chinese-language teacher I'd be busy with “something” and couldn’t go to class. No problem, he said.
Okay, I see this is getting long, so let’s get to the high points.
UVa was matched up against Oklahoma in the first game, and Michigan and North Carolina played in the second game. The Sooners were picked by everyone to crush UVa. They had Stacey King, who later went on to win 3 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls (perhaps another player for Chicago was more responsible for that). Mookie Blaylock was their point guard. I mention him because his name was Mookie. Mookie is a neat name. Not many people are named Mookie. Do you know anyone else named Mookie? Not me.
UVa shocked the world. A nip-and-tuck game the whole way, UVa pulled ahead in the last 2 minutes, and we were victors! UVa’s weapon was a player named Richard Morgan. He wasn’t consistent, but when he was on, he was on and could shoot from anywhere. Way up in the upper tiers of the arena, we went absolutely bezerk, and that’s how I spell that word, so no complaining. This is a spell-freedom post. We stuck around for the second game, and to our ACC surprise, Big Blue was better than Carolina Blue. And they kept playing that dang song, “duh…duh, duh..duh, duh, duh…” It made me sick. But we’d get them in the next round, right?
We won on Thursday night and then had to find a place to stay. Keith’s cousin said we could stay with her, but a drive through the Kentucky night brought us to an empty home in a far away suburb. So we went back up to Lexington and found a room at a motel, something like “The Fisherman’s Motel,” in the center of the country far away from any sizeable body of water.
It took about 10 seconds to fall asleep. In the morning we awoke to a bright sun and found that a touring rock band was staying in the room next to ours. I think they towed their equipment in a U-Haul, so they weren’t incredibly successful. Today, they’re probably a banker, psychologist, and high school math teacher. Among our group, we were all doing fine in school, but Chris was the stand-out, and not just because he stood 6-4. He was just smart, freaking smart. And worse, he worked hard, freaking hard. He could’ve been drunk his entire college career and showed up for final exams high, and he would’ve gotten A’s, I’m absolutely certain. I believe there was a small window of time when he considered trying this… Well, not really. He wouldn’t have done that. He was an E-school student, that is, an engineer. He studied a simple subject – nuclear engineering. He went on the serve in the Navy for a few years, then switched on a dime to become a specialist on companies and innovation. He now teaches this stuff at Dartmouth and has an article in the Harvard Business Review about once every six minutes.
Well, that Friday, while the rest of us were killing time playing hearts, Chris unloaded his super-duper Commodore computer from the trunk of Keith’s tiny car and worked through the day. When I opened the door to get some sun, the band looked in and saw Chris typing away. We were so proud!
The next day we went to the game all psyched and full of excitement. It took Michigan 5 minutes to pop our balloons. Glen Rice, damn him, could not miss. Hit from the top of the key, hit from the corner, the top of the key…and on and on. UVa couldn’t hit the side of the barn. Well before halftime the game seemed already long decided. We had to suffer through another hour and a half of humiliation. Then that darn forsaken music, “duh…duh, duh..duh, duh, duh…”
We left the arena deflated, but we found a way to raise our spirits. Like Lu Xun’s character Ah Q, we found a way to find victory in defeat. Driving east on Route 64 back toward Virginia, a car pulled passed us and we saw it had a lot of dark blue & yellow flags and paraphernalia all over it. U Michigan scum hid within the doors. Well, heck with them. “Pull up next to them,” Daren said. “I’m gonna moon them.” Is he nuts? Well, perhaps. But why not? So Keith raced the engine of this tiny white car, and got up close. Daren stuck his cute ass against the right window. If there hadn’t been glass, the driver of the other car could easily have reached over and wiped him. But with the glass, my impression is that this caused his ass to spread across the window, making it even larger and a site to behold for the folks driving next to us, not to mention to the horses grazing along the side of the road.
We got them! They decelerated pretty quickly, shocked by what they saw. Then a minute later, they pulled up alongside, and one of them returned the favor. Not a pretty sight in the least. And so much for respect of intellectual property rights. As Daren said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” With that, we had a long, but satisfying drive back to camp…no, to the grounds.
To bring things full circle, tonight there is no UVa, Oklahoma or Michigan playing. Carolina is, but I can’t root for or against them. But the U. Michigan coach from that game, Steve Fisher is coaching San Diego State, and they’re playing tonight against the Connecticut Huskies. The best footnote to the 1989 game is that Fisher inherited the team suddenly from coach Bill Frieder, who ran out at the end of the 1989 regular season to take a job with Arizona State. Can you imagine how he must have felt having jumped ship and then watching his former team win it all? Oops!