GREENSBORO, N.C. — I’m officially a graybeard.
You know you’ve been around when you walk into the Greensboro Coliseum and veteran fellow sportswriters, turn and point and say, “Hootie’s got to be in this conversation.” For those of you who don’t know, that’s my longtime nickname and another story for another time.
Their topic of conversation was what sports journalist had been to the most consecutive ACC Tournaments. Today is the league’s 60th, my 40th in a row. Not a record. Not even second place.
Al Featherston of Durham has covered 45 in a row, Bill Haas of Greensboro 43.
Most of you could care less about such streaks and that’s not what this column is about. Instead, these are my ramblings about having lived the dream of covering this wonderful event for all these years and some of my favorite memories.
Like many of you growing up in ACC Country, I was exposed to the league’s basketball while growing up in the 60’s. There was the “ACC Game of the Week” each Saturday and we would crowd around our black-and-white TVs (later color) and watch the only game available to everyone in the region.
Basketball fans couldn’t wait for Saturday to come. It became an addiction. Little did I suspect that someday my path would cross with many of those coaches, players, and others such as the TV crews of the day Jim Thacker, Billy Packer and Bones McKinney, along with legendary ACC public relations man, the colorful Marvin “Skeeter” Francis.
Hanging out with those guys as an adult, playing golf, sharing a pop or two, listening to old war stories, was more than I had ever dreamed of.
My first ACC Tournament was in 1974 in this very arena (since remodeled) when North Carolina State, led by the best college basketball player I ever saw — David Thompson — and Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe beat Lefty Driesell’s Maryland team in what many still refer to the “greatest game ever played.”
“Stormin’ Norman” Sloan’s Wolfpack won 103-100, and I never thought that could be topped until I covered my first NCAA Final Four that same month in the same building. That’s when the same N.C. State team stopped UCLA’s seven-year run of national championships, beating the Bill Walton-led Bruins in double overtime in the national semifinals.
State went on to win the national championship by beating Al McGuire’s Marquette team. I got to know McGuire pretty well in the years afterward when he became a TV analyst, but that’s a story for another day.
Other memories worth noting …
1976: Virginia’s only ACC Tournament championship ever when “Wonderful Wally” Walker stole the show as Terry Holland’s “Cardiac Cavs” upset three nationally-ranked opponents within 72 hours if my memory serves, to claim an unforgettable moment in Wahoo history.
1982: Chatting with Miami coach Jim Larranaga after practice on Wednesday night brought back this memory. As Larranaga recalled, some of the best players in college basketball history were on the floor as Holland’s UVa team battled Dean Smith’s Tar Heels. Sampson, Jordan, Worthy, Perkins … and the two teams held the ball. Smith went into a zone and Holland was determined to hold the ball until UNC came out of the zone. Carolina didn’t, but won 47-45. As a result, college basketball got the shot clock.
1984: Lefty Driesell rolled into town to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” and “Amen,” and beat Duke in the championship game, only the Terps’ second-ever ACC title. Will never forget in the press conference afterward, Lefty telling media: “I’m going to put this trophy on my car as a hood ornament and drive through every hamlet in North Carolina.” That’s how bad he wanted to win a title, but especially on Tobacco Road.
1994: The last time Virginia played for the ACC Championship. Jeff Jones’ Cavaliers were in control against favored North Carolina until a huge snowstorm in Charlotte knocked out the power in the coliseum. It was kind of like the most recent Super Bowl. The lights went out and so did UVa’s chances of winning after a super-long delay. UNC 73, UVa 66.
1995: Who could ever forget the jaw-to-jaw confrontation between Clemson coach Rick Barnes and Carolina’s Dean Smith. Looked like we were going to have a donnybrook before cooler heads prevailed. It was all about Smith protesting a “hard foul” by Clemson’s Iker Iturbe. If you ever run into John Feinstein, get him to relive that postgame question to Smith, who heartily complained about the European players and their hard fouls. Some day remind me to tell you then-ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan’s meeting with the two coaches shortly afterward.
1995: What a memorable tournament. Wake Forest’s Randolph Childress put on a performance for the ages by scoring 107 points in three games, sweeping MVP honors and leading the Deacons over North Carolina in overtime for the crown.
1997: Eighth-seeded N.C. State playing four games in four days before losing to rival UNC by 10 in the title game. Everyone (not wearing blue) in the joint was rooting for the upset because of the courage the Wolfpackers exhibited.
Those are just a few. There are too many more to mention here, including so many of those Duke vs. Carolina bloodbaths, some of Bobby Cremins’ Georgia Tech teams, Maryland coach Bob Wade collapsing during a game and being rushed to the hospital. There was the only gunshot I’ve ever heard at any sporting event one season when the Baltimore Ravens’ personal bodyguard’s pistol accidentally went off during a game and wounded the bodyguard in his own buttocks.
So many games; so many memories. If you had told me all this when I was a kid mesmerized by that black-and-white screen, that I would get an up close and personal view of all this, I would have declared you as “certifiably insane,” as former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg referred to anyone not believing his team deserved an NCAA bid at the event a couple years ago.
We’ve gone from seven teams and a three-day event in ’74 to 12 teams and four days now. Next year, with Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt jumping aboard, the ACC Tournament will spread to 15 teams over five days of basketball. Louisville joins the mix in 2014-15.
Enjoy the 60th. I’ll enjoy my 40th.