LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For me, this is the best day on the sports calendar.
Better than the Super Bowl.
Better than Game Seven of the NBA Finals.
Better than White Sox Opening Day.
Better than anything.
The four college basketball teams with the savvy, poise, luck, resolve and talent to survive the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament gather with the entire college basketball world for the NCAA Final Four semifinals.
I covered my first Final Four as a last-minute add-on, sidebar guy for the Louisville Times in 1981. The last time I was there for Final Four Saturday, the WDRB Sports team was in Indianapolis with Kentucky five seasons ago.
Subtract the 1982 trip to New Orleans when I stayed home for the birth of my son, that’s 34 Final Fours, including 33 in a row.
This is Final Four Saturday. There are no games.
In a season where Louisville or Kentucky could have taken everybody to Atlanta for another Final Four, I was where I supposed to be on Saturday — sitting with my media guides, record books, press pins and programs.
The novel coronavirus can stop the games. It cannot stop the memories — or, more importantly, the powerful Get Well wishes for friend and former co-worker Jody Demling, whose condition improved Saturday as he battled the symptoms at a hospital in Louisville Saturday.
No game. Plenty of memories.
Final Four memories — semifinal division games only — from the 34 Final Fours I was fortunate to cover.
BEST GAMES (Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana division)
1. Houston 94, Louisville 81, 1983, Albuquerque
No disrespect intended by selecting a game that U of L lost, but this was the Welcome to the 21st Century game.
It was played above the rim at ridiculous speed in high altitude with multiple pros (Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, the McCray brothers, Milt Wagner, Lancaster Gordon, Charles Jones, Larry Micheaux, Michael Young).
Phi Slama Jama vs. the Doctors of Dunk.
The final score is misleading. Louisville led by five at halftime but with Manuel Forrest injured the Cards relied on a seven-player rotation. That became an issue at mile-high altitude.
Fatigue and Houston’s athleticism punished U of L in the second half as the Cougars scored 58 points, dunking six straight possessions at one point.
“At times, I thought I was in the London Blitzkrieg,” official Hank Nichols told Greg Johnson of NCAA.org.
“When you were under the basket and those guys came down, you just got out of the way. They threw them down so hard that if it didn’t touch anything, it would kill you. It was just one after another.”
2. Indiana 97, UNLV 93, 1987, New Orleans
Defense wins, right? For Indiana to defeat one of Jerry Tarkanian’s best teams, the Hoosiers would need to keep the game in the 60s or 70s, right?
Bob Knight had a better idea — crisp and relentlessly efficient offense.
Indiana matched the Rebels bucket for bucket — and won by making 35 of 56 two-point field goals (62.5 percent) and 21 of 28 free throws (75 percent).
3. Kentucky 86, Stanford 85 (OT), 1998, San Antonio.
I have a friend who is such an ardent Kentucky fan that he stores his considerable UK memorabilia collection in a room he named “The Wildcat Lodge.”
This week that friend watched a replay of the Stanford game and texted this analysis:
“Lucky to win. (Wayne) Turner held late and (officials) never called it. Held jersey (of Stanford player). No call! Stanford was good.”
That championship was unlike the ones the Wildcats won in 1978, 1996 or 2012 because it came from a UK team that was not packed with future NBA stars, a group not carrying the burden of super-sized expectations.
4. Louisville 72, Wichita State 68, 2013, Atlanta
I know the NCAA scrubbed this one from the record book. It isn’t scrubbed from my memory.
Tim Henderson from deep. Twice. Luke Hancock from deeper. Three times. Stephen Van Treese with three rebounds, a steal and a block. Russ Smith doing Russ Smith Things — good and bad. Louisville winning after trailing by a dozen with less than 14 minutes to play.
BEST GAMES (Non U of L, UK, IU edition)
1. Duke 79, UNLV 77, 1991 Indianapolis.
The Rebels were a lock to become the first unbeaten champion in 15 seasons. They were the defending champions. They had embarrassed the Blue Devils by 30 points in the national championship game a year earlier.
They had Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and the rest of Tarkanian’s talented rogues.
Mike Krzyzewski had taken Duke to the Final Four in 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1990 — and whiffed.
The Blue Devils did not whiff this time. They were better, inspiring former UCLA coach John Wooden to walk out of the RCA Dome uttering this famous line:
“A lot of teams have won one in a row.”
2. Duke 95, Maryland 84, 2001, Minnespolis
The Terps led by 22 points in the first half and by 11 at halftime. And this wasn’t a fluke Maryland team. Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Lonny Baxter returned the next season and won the national title.
But at the Metrodome the Terps melted in the second half, allowing 57 points. Shane Battier torched them for 25 and Jay Williams has 23. Coach K proved he did not require Christian Laettner to win a title.
3. Michigan 83, Illinois 81, 1989 Seattle
Everybody remembers the Wolverines survived Seton Hall on a fortunate whistle in the 1989 championship game. Everybody, except Illini fans, forgets the Wolverines were equally fortunate to survive the semifinals, too.
In a game with 33 lead changes, Michigan won after Sean Higgins scored with a rebound of a missed three-point shot with two seconds to play.
Illinois was No. 3. The Illini had beaten Michigan twice during the regular season — and had ended the U of L careers of Pervis Ellison and Kenny Payne the previous week.
They were terrific. But it was Michigan’s year.
4. UConn 79, Duke, 2004, San Antonio
J.J. Redick is on the list of players who did not get his national title at Duke. Blame Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and the Huskies.
Down 8 with about 3 1/2 minutes to play, the Huskies scored the next 12 points. Okafor blocked a shot by Redick in the final 20 seconds after UConn finally went ahead.
The Circle City has hosted the Final Four at Market Square Arena, the RCA Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium — and it always feels as if the entire city is celebrating college hoops.
Because it is.
2. New Orleans
Convenient walk to the Superdome. Remarkable memories like Keith Smart’s shot for Indiana in 1987, Chris Webber’s timeout in 1993 and Anthony Davis’s swat festival in 2012.
And the food ain’t shabby.
The Four Four hasn’t been back since the Kingdome was taken down but this is the place that introduced me to Starbucks (the original location) and Nordstrom. Jack Nicholson hung out in the press room in 1995 with UCLA.
My home for two days (another story), the Twin Cities have always been a spot that gives the Final Four the old college splash of hospitality.
Plus, Prince showed up and played a small club one night.
1. Alamodome, San Antonio
I could have put San Antonio on my list of favorite cities, but it fits better here. The Alamodome did the best job of creating intimacy for a gathering for more than 40,000 — and the walk from the Riverwalk to the game was energizing.
Former Utah coach Rick Majerus loved the restaurant scene, too, recommending a lunch deli that was off the charts.
2. The Pit, Albuquerque
My visit to the 1983 Final Four was my only visit to New Mexico but the place reminded me of a larger version of Chrysler Field House in New Castle, Indiana, with its steep walk from the entry to the floor.
And, I always wonder if Walter White, Jimmy McGill and Gustavo Fring were in the crowd that day.
3. The Spectrum, Philadelphia
My first Final Four venue has to make the list. This was the house where Dr. J and Moses Malone played. It was an old-school basketball arena where the fans were seated close enough to the court that players, coaches and officials heard everything fans yelled.
Bob Knight didn’t appreciate that.
4. Rupp Arena, Lexington
The last time the Final Four was played in the state of Kentucky was here in 1985. Patrick Ewing, John Thompson and Georgetown don’t have great memories but everybody else does, especially of the Sunday night party that Anita Madden had at her farm.
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