- Wayne Drehs
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Returning to the arena and sitting next to the same court of the most awe-inspiring moment of his athletic career, Thurl Bailey couldn't help himself.
As the college basketball game in front of him ended and his duties as an analyst for the University of Utah came to a close one night recently, Bailey walked out from behind the scorer's table, stood on the exact spot as he did on that snowy Albuquerque night in 1983 and closed his eyes.
"I let the moment run right through me," Bailey said. "I pictured myself passing the ball to Dereck (Whittenberg). I watched him miss the shot. I pictured Lorenzo (Charles) come out of nowhere to grab the rebound and dunk it. It felt like we were champions all over again."
Upon opening his eyes, Bailey, now 41, did his best impression of a 10-year-old sports nut, jogging to the other end of the floor, raising his arms high above his head and unconsciously re-enacting a chaotic celebration.
"I had goosebumps," Bailey said, "just like it was yesterday."
Of course, it wasn't. It was 20 years ago that North Carolina State shockingly beat Houston 54-52 in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. But you'd be hard-pressed to convince Bailey or any of his former teammates that their memorable run happened four presidents ago.
For most of them, life hasn't changed all that much. Bailey still can't walk through an airport without being recognized. Whittenburg doesn't go a day without being reminded of his famous airball. Same goes for Charles, whose rescue of Whittenburg's miss gave N.C. State the title.
And then there's Cozell McQueen, who once ran into former professional wrestler Ric Flair -- only to have Flair ask McQueen for his autograph.
"He says, 'I know you,' " McQueen recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah, man, I know you, too. You're on that WWF wrestling, brother.' He goes, 'Yeah, but, you played on that N.C. State team. I want your autograph.' And I'm like, 'What?' I thought he was joking."
How tender is college basketball's soft spot for this group? Even relatively unknown Mike Warren -- a sophomore who rode the bench in '83 -- is revered in North Carolina for merely being a part of greatness.
"I was a nothing, a nobody as far as that team goes, but people are always asking me to speak at their Kiwanis club or church group or something," Warren said. "I don't know that I understand it.
"Coach (Jim) Valvano told us that night it would be a whole lot bigger 20 years from now than it was at that moment. And he was right."
The reason? It's perhaps the greatest underdog story in sports history. Before Villanova, before Rulon Gardner, there was N.C. State. Anybody needing to be inspired, anybody looking for a reason to believe had to look no further than Valvano's never-say-die bunch of overachievers.
"It was bigger than a basketball game," Bailey said. "I remember some of the letters we got, the effect we had on people's lives. They'd say watching us play inspired them to achieve more, to be better people. It taught a lesson about chasing your dreams."
Not many would be as bold to dream this big, though. Forget for a second that in N.C. State's championship-game victory over No. 1-ranked Houston it beat a team on a 26-game winning streak, with two players, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, who would later be named to the NBA's All-Time 50 Greatest Players list. Throw that out the window and consider the other long odds the team overcame.
In seven of the team's last nine victories, they trailed in the last minute.
The Wolfpack needed to win the ACC tournament to even qualify for the NCAAs. And they barely did that, beating Wake Forest 71-70, North Carolina 91-84 in overtime, and Virginia 81-78.
In the postseason, N.C. State managed to beat Ralph Sampson-led Virginia, which it had lost to twice during the regular season.
In one regular-season stretch, the Wolfpack lost six of eight, including back-to-back 18-point losses to unranked teams.
In the team's opening-round Tournament game against Pepperdine, the Wolfpack rallied from a six-point deficit with 24 seconds left to win in overtime.
No team had ever won the NCAA championship with 10 losses.
"The reality is, we probably weren't the third or fourth best team in the ACC," Warren said. "And yet we beat a team that had two of the NBA's top 50 of all time. We beat a team that had the No. 2 draft pick for the Celtics (Maryland's Len Bias). We beat a team that had arguably the greatest player (North Carolina's Michael Jordan) that ever lived. And we beat one of the greatest college players of all-time (Virginia's Ralph Sampson). That's not supposed to happen."
Outcome after outcome was so shocking, the stars seemed so aligned, that even now, 20 years later, former Houston guard Drexler wonders if a higher power had a hand in helping the Pack. Consider: Valvano became a national figure that night, and even after his death in 1993, his V Foundation has raised $27 million for cancer research. Some of that, no doubt, can be traced to 1983.
"That game had to be fate," Drexler said. "Because if he doesn't win that game, we don't get to know Jimmy Valvano the way we do. And because of his, the way his life ended, I think that was destiny. It had to be.
"If we played them 20 times, I still don't think they'd win but that one game. So it had to be destiny."
While those on the outside point to the unlikely ending of the game as the ultimate example of fate, those on the inside of the program point to the team's opening-round game against Pepperdine.
In that game, N.C. State cut Pepperdine's six-point lead to two with eight seconds left and Whittenburg was at the free-throw line with a chance to tie. He was the team's best free-throw shooter, yet Valvano insisted that McQueen, a left-hander, switch sides of the free throw lane with Charles so his dominant hand could be on the basket side in case of a miss.
Charles didn't think it would make a difference and shrugged Valvano off. The coach insisted he move. Charles moved. And when Whittenburg missed the free throw, the ball bounced directly to the left hand of McQueen, who tipped it in to send the game to overtime. N.C. State eventually won 69-67.
"The way it worked out, only a goofy 6-11 lefthander could have made that shot," Charles said. "People talk about the shot I made in the championship game? Well, if Cozell doesn't make that, we lose to Pepperdine. And we're not even talking about this. That was the difference-maker."
Just as fascinating as the odds N.C. State overcame are the endless stories behind the scenes of their run. Warren, for example, spoke recently of the unique manner in which he and some teammates killed the nerve-wracking final hours before the title game.
"The game wasn't until like 9 p.m., so we're sitting around Monday afternoon and one of the football players goes and gets a six pack of Coors," Warren said. "We thought this was pretty cool because at that time, they didn't ship Coors east of the Mississippi. So me, Terry (Gannon), Bobby and Max Perry sat in the room drinking Coors beer. There wasn't anything else to do."
Trainer Jim Rehbock is still amazed that Valvano was even able to coach that night. The coach was stricken by a nasty case of the flu that left him with a 104-degree fever. Rehbock had to give Valvano intravenous fluids before the team left the hotel for the arena. And after the game, as soon as Valvano's media obligations were over, Rehbock and the team doctors sent the head coach home.
"Imagine that," Rehbock said. "He wins the national championship, it's the biggest night of his life, and he has to head back to the hotel and go to bed. But he didn't even fight it. That will tell you how sick he was."
Throughout the tournament, Valvano couldn't have been in better coaching form. He took the pressure off his players by putting it on himself. Bailey recalled one specific instance, when the media made a fuss about the team staying out too late on Final Four weekend.
"Somebody said something about the players not getting enough rest," Bailey said, "so coach goes, 'I know there was a concern about the players. I want everybody to know I had bed check last night and all the beds were there.' "
The ultimate mind trick was saved for just before tip-off, when Valvano erased the entire team's game plan from its locker room chalkboard. All weekend long, he told the media, his players, even his assistants that if N.C. State won the tip, they might not shoot until Tuesday, to keep the vaunted Cougars and Phi Slamma Jamma from touching the ball. College basketball had no shot clock in 1983.
"He goes, 'If you think we're going to hold the ball in front of 40 million people, you're friggin' crazy,' " Warren said. " 'We're going to stick it up their ass.' When he laid into us like that, it was like the weight of the world was off everybody's shoulders. We were a fired-up team. We didn't need doors. We ran right through them."
Twenty years later, the bond of the magical run has kept this team close. In January, the group gathered for a 20-year reunion at N.C. State's home game against North Carolina. Alvin Battle, a junior forward on the '83 team, runs an e-mail chain where everybody shares personal news or pictures of their children. Bailey, a broadcast analyst for the Utah Jazz, often crosses paths with Lowe, a former NBA head coach. McQueen, Charles, Warren and a handful of others still live in the Raleigh area and communicate regularly.
"You know what? I can tell you where just about everybody is off that team from the top of my head," Warren said. "And I would have to take out a pad and pencil to figure out where half the guys are from my junior and senior team. It was that special."
They've all shared a life-altering experience that can never be taken away from them. They were there. They were the ones making the shots, grabbing the rebounds and defying reality.
And if you ever need perspective on just how much it means, ask Bailey, who played 12 years in the NBA, went to the playoffs nine times, released award-winning R&B CDs and yet ranks playing on the '83 team at the top of his all-time accomplishments.
"It's in a category all its own," Bailey said. "Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever top what we experienced that year."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
For the players involved, N.C. State's 54-52 title win over Houston remains a vivid memory.