New Orleans delivers Final Four magic


With 19 seconds left and his team trailing by two, Michigan forward Chris Webber frantically dribbles into a corner and calls a timeout the Wolverines don't have. A technical foul is called and his team loses to North Carolina, 77-71.

Six years earlier, a Keith Smart jumper gives Indiana a 74-73 lead and Syracuse lets four precious seconds slip away before calling a timeout with one tick left on the clock. The inbounds pass is stolen and the Orangemen lose.

And five years before that, while setting up his team's potential game-winning shot, Georgetown's Fred Brown inexplicably passes the ball directly to North Carolina's James Worthy, erasing a chance at victory. The Hoyas lose, 63-62.

If the walls of the Superdome could talk, these are the Final Four stories they would tell. Three times the Final Four has come to the Big Easy and three times the championship game has ended in rather peculiar fashion.

Perhaps the thinner dome air creates a lack of oxygen. Perhaps the Bourbon Street hangover from a Saturday semifinal win still lingers on championship Monday. Perhaps this is just a building of unparalleled magic -- after all, the New England Patriots shockingly beat the St. Louis Rams here to win Super Bowl XXXVI.

Whatever the case, the facts are difficult to ignore: Three Final Fours, three remarkable endings to the college basketball season.

"I don't know if there's a ghost," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose Orangemen can get another shot at the NCAA title on Monday if they can get past No. 1-seeded Texas in Saturday's semifinals. "I had a tremendous experience for five days, 39 minutes and 56 seconds there. I'm gonna try to get that other four seconds in this time."

The dome's aura isn't all bad. Both Smart and a little known freshman named Michael Jordan hit two of college basketball's biggest championship shots in the Superdome.

But for Webber and Brown, and to a lesser extent Boeheim, the cavernous facility must feel as uncomfortable to them as Shea Stadium does to Bill Bucker or the Old Sombrero does to Scott Norwood.

Nobody has been more blistered than Webber. While Brown and the Hoyas went on to win a championship the season after his famous turnover, Webber turned pro and the Fab Five never won their title.

And for all of Webber's accomplishments in college -- leading Michigan to two national championship games, earning first team All-America honors as a sophomore and scoring more points and grabbing more rebounds than anyone else in the '93 tournament -- it's his timeout that's remembered most.

Here's what happened: With about 15 seconds and his team down by two, Webber took an inbounds pass, appeared to travel but wasn't penalized and then dribbled over half court toward his bench. Trapped in the corner by two Tar Heel defenders and with no one available to pass to, he did what basketball instinct told him to do.

He called a timeout.

"I remember thinking, 'Oh no -- I hope the ref didn't see that,' " teammate Jalen Rose said at the time.

But he did. And the Wolverines were whistled for a technical foul. Tournament MVP Donald Wlliams hit the two free throws, and two more after he was intentionally fouled second later, to seal the game.

"How did it happen? Or why did it happen?" former Michigan coach Steve Fisher said. "Sometimes, when you get in the heat of battle, things happen that you say just can't happen."

Especially in New Orleans. After the game, some of Webber's teammates suggested that he heard the bench yelling "no timeouts" and mistook that for "call a timeout." But the power forward had no excuses, facing the music after the game by saying: "Whether or not I heard voices is irrelevant. I cost my team the game."

He handled the gaffe with class and humility. Not only did Webber answer numerous questions about the play, he even made jokes about it. Later, he and his mother would form the TimeOut Foundation, which aids inner-city youth in Webber's hometown of Detroit. And his father would order license plates with "Timeout" on them.

"I think that was a point in my life in which God wanted to make me stronger," Webber said recently. "At that time I could not understand it, billions of people seeing you mess up on TV. But I saw that people were kind of sympathetic. They supported me when I needed them."

Webber's blunder is remembered more than his 23 points and 11 rebounds, more than the 25 points scored by Williams or the fact that with that win, Dean Smith joined Denny Crum, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches who had won two or more national titles.

Interestingly, it was Browns' blunder that helped Smith win his first title. Over the years, Smith has insisted he would have won both titles without the additional help. And in a way, he almost wonders if it would have been easier had Georgetown or Michigan mustered a legitimate final shot.

"It probably would have been better if Brown had thrown it to Sleepy (Floyd) in the corner and Sleepy shot it and missed and we got the rebound," Smith said. "Then we wouldn't have those questions."

As smoothly as Webber has handled the firestorm over his mental lapse the past 11 years, Brown has chosen to remain in anonymity. In the early 1990s, he told Georgetown's publicity department to stop filtering interview requests his way. Even though he won a title in '84, all anybody wanted to talk about was his turnover. And he grew tired of it.

The play went down like this: After Jordan drained a jumper to put the Tarheels up by one, Georgetown head coach elected not to call a timeout and instead hope his team could catch North Carolina off-guard.

The plan, apparently, was to get the ball to Floyd in the corner. But when Floyd was blanketed by Carolina defenders, Brown panicked, picked up his dribble, then threw the ball directly to Worthy, who was standing beside him.

After the game, an utterly dejected Brown told reporters he was trying to get the ball to Eric Smith.

"But it wasn't him," he said.

Worthy killed a few seconds off the clock before Georgetown defenders fouled him with two seconds remaining. Even though he missed both free throws, it didn't matter. The Hoyas were out of time.

"That was the first game the whole tournament where Georgetown hadn't worn white," Dean Smith said. "I think Freddie just forgot and threw it to the first white jersey he saw."

Boeheim's blunder isn't nearly in the category of Webber and Brown. And his team put itself in that situation by missing a series of costly free throws in the game's final minute. After Smart's jumper with five seconds left, both Orangeman co-captains, Greg Monroe and Howard Triche, said they tried to call timeout immediately, but weren't heard by the officials.

When officials finally granted Syracuse a timeout, there was just one second remaining. And Derrick Coleman's ensuing inbounds pass was, fittingly, stolen by Smart.

Three Final Fours, three heartbreaking endings. The Hoyas got their redemption two years later. The Wolverines are still looking for it. And Syracuse? Well, they have a chance to drive away the demons of 1987 in that same eerie building this weekend.

"Bobby Knight said I'd be back when we shook hands at the end of that game," Boeheim said. "But I didn't think he was that smart. I thought he meant I'd be back in the tournament. He meant I'd be back in New Orleans. And we was right."