Friday, March 21, 2014

The Curiosity is Killing Me

When I was a kid, reading the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, there was a syndicated writer named Sydney Harris, who wrote a column called “Strictly Personal.” Occasionally, he would do a bullet-points installment called “Things I Learned From Looking Up Other Things.” It always fascinated me, and spurred both my love of newspapers and arcane research.

The invention of Google was like high-quality crack cocaine for me. So, periodically, I’ll try to do what Harris did so well, and jot down some things I come across that are interesting for no apparent reason.

  • Sydney J. Harris was on Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents.

  • President George Herbert Walker Bush (41) was the middle school baseball coach of wrestling legend Chief Wahoo McDaniel.

  • One of the few artists to refuse permission for Weird Al Yanknovic to parody one of his songs was Paul McCartney. Yankovic planned a highly orchestrated version of the best James Bond theme song ever, McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” It was called “Chicken Pot Pie.” McCartney, a lifelong vegetarian, didn’t want to promote the eating of animals, so he said "no." Tonight, I’m having chicken pot pie for dinner.

  • In the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s alma mater, the lyrics have the school’s initials in the wrong order.

  • Mormon-influenced Utah has the highest number of porn subscriptions of any state in the country.

  • One of the 15 babies used to portray the quintuplets in the movie “Raising Arizona” was fired because he learned to walk during the movie’s production.

  • Dec. 7 really should be a “day that will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt said. Not only was the U.S. attacked on that day by the Imperial forces of Japan, but is also the date, in 1917, that President Wilson declared war on Austria-Hungary in World War I.

  • The movie “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was supposed to end with a massive war-room pie fight. It was eventually deleted for many reasons, including the fact that after the president (as played by Peter Sellers) was hit full on with a cream pie, General Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) said: “Gentleman! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!” The date of the first test screening was Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

  • In North Carolina, golf has a higher economic impact on the state’s economy than all scientific research and development.

  • Fresh pineapple has proteins that break down meat, which is why your mouth feels like it has gone through a food processor after eating a few pieces. I don’t know if Cap’n Crunch has the same proteins or not.

  • Brothers Moses “Fleetwood” Walker and his brother Welday, African-American baseball players from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, both played in the major leagues in 1884, 62 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
  • UNC Charlotte says it’s a mere coincidence that its athletics teams are called the 49ers and the school is located on Highway 49. It claims that 49 signifies the year in which the university’s predecessor the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina was saved from being shut down by the same ‘49er spirit showed by the California settlers  who endure hardships to reach California for the big gold rush of 1849, similar to the nation’s first gold rush in nearby Reedsville. Now I ask you, which explanation seems more plausible?

  • Manhattan University’s athletics nickname is the Jaspers, named for Brother Jasper of Mary, F.S.C., who contributed something important to the world of sports: the seventh-inning stretch. As the baseball coach at Manhattan in the late 1800s, Brother Jasper noticed that students became lethargic around the seventh inning. So he went into the stands at that point and got them to move around. It quickly became a tradition and spilled over into the major leagues because of Manhattan’s regular exhibition games against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Case's Madison Square Garden Curse

NC State Hall of Fame Coach Everett Case never had much luck at Madison Square Garden.
For a half century, Madison Square Garden, once the epicenter of college basketball excitement, was shut out of March Madness, because of its role in attracting the gamblers that nearly killed the sport in the early 1950s and '60s. This year, after an absence of 53 years, Madison Square Garden will host a portion of the NCAA Tournament.

In the entire history of the NCAA Tournament, there has never been a bigger upset or a longer game.

Fifty-eight years ago this week, NC State headed into the 1956 NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 ranked team in the country and the only real opposition for top-ranked San Francisco and All-American center Bill Russell. If all went as planned, the two college basketball superpowers would meet on March 24 at Northwestern’s 8,117-seat McGaw Memorial Hall in Evanston, Ill.

But Everett Case’s Wolfpack could not reverse its Madison Square Garden Curse.

For years, Case had put together some of the nation’s best teams, built around great players like three-time All-Americans Dick Dickey and Sammy Ranzino and center Bobby Speight. They helped “The Old Gray Fox” win six consecutive Southern Conference championships in Case’s first six seasons on campus.

And they helped the coach step into the spotlight at the Garden, at the nation’s most famous basketball venue. Case had taken teams there before, but in 1948, in NC State’s second postseason appearance, the Wolfpack lost to DePaul in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. In 1950, the Pack beat Holy Cross and its superstar guard Bob Cousy at the Garden, but lost in Case’s only trip to the NCAA semifinals to eventual national champions City College of New York.

In 1951, Case and his team were eliminated in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at the Garden, then came back to Raleigh the next weekend to lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 5 Illinois, back when teams could participate in both events.

It got to the point that competitors across the new Atlantic Coast Conference began to make fun of the Wolfpack, which had lot of success when hosting big events like the Dixie Classic and the ACC Tournament at friendly Reynolds Coliseum – where Case always had right of first refusal for the officials that were retained for the most important games – but generally failed on the big stage.

“State is 100 percent and two men better when they play at home,” said outspoken Wake Forest star Dave Budd.

McGuire, who had been hired at North Carolina to knock Case off his ACC pedestal, even got in a biting dig at the Pack’s lack of success on the national stage.

“Each time I go to New York, I rave and I rave about State,” McGuire said. “Then when they go up there, they never live up to expectations.”

So in 1956, Case’s best team headed to the Garden with a monkey on its back and Ronnie Shavlik’s arm in a cast.

Even with an injured Shavlik, NC State won its third straight ACC title.
That’s because in State’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest, Shavlik suffered a broken bone in his left wrist, an injury that was supposed to end his senior season and, therefore, his career. But Shavlik was in uniform when the Wolfpack hosted the third-annual ACC Tournament at Reynolds Coliseum and, even hampered, helped his team win its third straight title and its ninth conference championship in 10 years. He was a contributor, with 33 rebounds in semifinals and finals. But teammate, and fellow All-American, Vic Molodet, was the star, scoring 79 points in his team’s three games. Shavlik’s performance garnered national attention, and before the Wolfpack played in the Garden, the soft-spoken star appeared on Perry Como’s New York-based talk show.

Even though it lost three games to ACC opponents that year, finally breaking a 23-game winning streak to ACC competition, the 1955-56 Wolfpack was the best team Case ever assembled, with seniors Shavlik and Molodet leading the way. Teammates John Maglio, Phil DiNardo, Nick Pond, Cliff Hafer, Bob Seitz and Lou Dickman gave Case a talented array of options.

But before they could face Russell, they had to contend with tiny Canisius College of Buffalo, N.Y., in the unbalanced tournament’s opening round. There were eight teams in the East, six teams in the Midwest, six in the West and five in the Far West, with San Francisco, UCLA, Utah, Kansas State, Kentucky, Houston and Iowa all getting first round byes.

Canisius had its own unique entry into the tournament, as champions of the Western New York Little Three Conference, so named because there were only three teams in the league: Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure. The Golden Griffins posted a 4-0 league record to earn its bid.

By double- and triple-teaming the injured Shavlik, Canisius took an early lead in the game, forcing the fatigued Wolfpack, which played almost as many games in its conference tournament over a three-day span as Canisius played in its conference season, to scramble to keep up. Canisius led 43-34 early in the second half, but the Wolfpack finally took its first lead at 65-63 with a minute to play on a jumper by Maglio, a junior guard. Canisius’s Dave Markey tied the score and the Wolfpack turned the ball over on its next possession. But Golden Griffins captain John McCarthy fell down as he drove for the game-winning basket and regulation ended in a 65-65 tie.

The sellout crowd became restless in overtime and actually booed both teams after they slowed the tempo, scoring four points each in the first overtime, two points each in the second overtime and no points in the third overtime.

Both coaches let loose the brakes in the fourth overtime. Three of Canisius’ best players had fouled out of the game, but the Wolfpack just could not shake the Griffins.

With 14 seconds to play and the Wolfpack leading by one point, Maglio was fouled, opening up the opportunity to pad his team's lead and break the MSG curse. The 73 percent free-throw shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one, Canisius grabbed the rebound and raced down the court with the final seconds ticking away. The ball ended up in the hands of Fran Corcoran, a little-used reserve who had averaged less than one point per game all year long and was only in the game because half of the Golden Griffins' regular six-man rotation had fouled out of the game. He wasn’t even listed in the tournament game program.

Of course he made the shot, a jumper from the top of the key, his only basket of the game, giving the tiny school with a 3,000 enrollment a 79-78 victory, and the biggest upset the tournament has ever seen, though it is little remembered these days because there is no “One Shining Moment” footage to go with it.
USA Today talked to Corcoran a few years ago and used him as an example of players who made historic shots in the NCAA Tournament.

This list of tournament upsets doesn’t even mention the game, though it does have the Wolfpack’s 1983 win over Houston as the greatest upset in the tournament’s history.

This list from ESPN ranks it as the No. 6 biggest upset and this list of the tournament's 50 greatest Cinderella stories has it ranked No. 15, with the State's Cardiac Pack No. 2.
Only one other time has an NCAA Tournament game gone to four overtimes, but it didn’t much count when it happened and the outcome doesn’t exist anymore. In 1961, St. Joseph’s beat Utah 127-120 in four OTs in Kansas City in the old NCAA consolation game, played between the two semifinal losers before the national title game. The win was later vacated because of Saint Joseph's involvement in a gambling scandal.

State finally did have some success in the Garden, returning in 1978 for the NIT, where it reached the title game before falling to Texas. And Jim Valvano led his first NC State team to the ECAC Festival title in December 1980 with wins over Iona and St. John's.

For Case, who was so often let down when he tramped on college basketball’s biggest stage, his opinion didn’t change from the moment the game ended at Madison Square Garden in New York until the day he died some 10 years later in Raleigh’s Cameron Village.

“This is my greatest disappointment in 36 years of coaching,” Case said.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Coach Looks at 40

I mentioned on Twitter the other day on what would have been Jim Valvano's 68th birthday that I had written a story about him when he turned 40. A couple people asked about that story, so here it is. It's kind of weird that I wrote this at 20, half the coach's age at the time, and I'm now looking back at it at 49, which is two years older than the coach when he died in 1993. Three months after this was written, Valvano was named NC State's athletics director. Some would say athletics at the school haven't quite been the same since.

© NC State Student Media 1985

Jim Valvano wants to throw a party for himself.

He’s getting ready to turn a big corner that every man must face, and he wants to cut loose by having a throw-down with the student body.

Yep, Little Jimmy V is turning 40 years old – the Big Four-Oh – on March 10, 1986. And it’s scary.

“I’m shocked,” he says in anticipation of that most dreaded of all decades. “I did not think it could happen to me. I keep going around asking everybody ‘Do I look 40?’ I can’t. I feel like I could go over to one of the frats and say, ‘Hey, I’m Jim Valvano from Rutgers, a member of the Beta House. I wanna stay with you.

“It’s just amazing to me that I’m going to be 40 years old.”

Well, it’s only 106 more shopping days until V-Day, so preparations are necessary. But what does one do for someone who does everything?

At Operation Basketball in Greensboro, Coach V told Atlantic Coast Conference media members that he wanted to have a party – a big party.

“It’s either going to be at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City or a Moose Lodge somewhere in Raleigh,” he said. “Everyone is invited. Even those who write bad things about me. Even those who say I do too much.

“But bring your own booze. I’m not feeding you.”

Since that Sunday three weeks ago, Valvano seems to have changed his mind.

He now wants to party with the student body at State. What better way to keep one’s youth than to slam with the best young partiers in Raleigh? No stuffy old banquets. No tuxedos. Just break out the cut-offs and the national championship T-shirts.

“Maybe we’ll have it right here on campus,” he said. “The entire student body is invited to my birthday party. Maybe I’ll have it at the Brickyard.”

Uh, nice thought, but, uh, that’s not quite possible, Coach. [Note: The Brickyard was completely torn up at the time for a renovation and expansion of D.H. Hill Library.] But, hey, there’s got to be some place on campus. If not, maybe that Moose Lodge is still available.

Seriously, Valvano would like the chance to speak to the student body, something he has not done except for an informal performance after the national championship. What better occasion than his birthday?

Unfortunately, a man of Valvano’s many talents is busy. He has an engagement planned for that day, a speech in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s already scheduled,” he says. “But as soon as I’m back, I want to have a party with the student body. I’ll bring the hats and noisemakers.”

And since the ACC tournament ends March 9, wouldn’t it be nice to have a double celebration for Coach V’s birthday and his team’s conference title?

“That would be even better,” he said, smiling.

But turning 40 doesn’t really bother Valvano. He’s still having fun. Of course, that may all change, come March 10.

“I guess I’m going to have to get serious about life,” he says, contemplating a number that before only described his jacket size. “I better figure out what I want to do in life.”

Considering he’s had a sampling of almost everything, Valvano shouldn’t have a hard time deciding. During his previous 39 years, and especially in his six years in Raleigh, Valvano’s been having a ball.

“I tend to enjoy almost everything I do,” he says.

And he tends to do everything he enjoys.

Valvano has been anything from a culinary expert and writer to a national television personality. He appeared every Monday for three months on the CBS Morning News and was a guest analyst for an NBC basketball broadcast. And for four dreamy days while working on a piece for the CBS show, he fulfilled every schoolboy’s fantasy as a Los Angeles Dodgers bat boy.

“I went with them to St. Louis, then I went with them to Pittsburgh,” he says. “The visiting team will pay the bat boy $25 a day. After I was finished, the Dodgers voted not to pay me anything. They thought I did a terrible job.”

And Raleigh’s most popular hero even got to interview a few sports greats: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, golfers Nancy Lopez and Kathy Baker, and cyclist Greg LeMond. He even talked to the man of the summer of ’85.

“I got to interview Pete Rose,” he says. “I never thought that I would get to do that. I am a tremendous sports fan, so to talk to those people is such a tremendous thrill.”

In light of all the negative press by the local media about his super-involvement, it would seem logical that Valvano would feel uncomfortable becoming a big-time journalist. Not true.

“Anytime you try to do someone else’s job, you start to gain respect for them,” he says. “Just to put together a piece for national television of four minutes is a remarkable number of hours. I have a healthy respect for journalists.

“But then they should have to do my job for a while. How’d you like to do the Carolina game at Carolina this year?”

Valvano didn’t limit himself to American thrills. This summer, he went international.

He, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and St. John’s mentor Lou Carnesecca traveled to Italy to head an international basketball clinic for the World Association of Basketball Coaches.

“It’s a worldwide clinic that meets once a year for 1,100 coaches from 35 countries,” he says. “To just talk and share ideas about this great game to people from all over the world is kind of special, especially since it was in the land of my ancestry.”

He even got to relive a little history while he was there.

“I had people come up to me with magazines in their native tongues from their land about our 1983 national championship team,” he says. “That was really unbelievable. To have them to know the names of the players was just great.”

The fast-talking coach also secured a sense of identity on the trip.

“In America, I’m an Italian,” he said. “Down South, I’m an EYE-talian. I had to go to Italy to become an American.

“But you really appreciate this country. You get a tremendous sense of pride when you go somewhere else. I was not an Italian in Italy; I was an American and proud of the United States.”

Upon returning to the States, Valvano had to set his sights toward his team and various other activities. Like recruiting. And public appearances. Speaking engagements. And interviews. Oh, yeah, don’t forget practice.

The person with the unenviable task of keeping up with Valvano’s schedule is his secretary, Frances Lewis, who has to rate as one of the hardest working people on campus. Next to Valvano, of course. She alone probably knows just how busy the coach really is.

“In September he does a lot of clinics and home visits,” she says. “And he gives the whole month of May to the Wolfpack Club, going wherever they want him to.

“During these months, he usually doesn’t even get a Sunday off. Sometimes, he goes six or seven weeks without a weekend at home.”

But Valvano doesn’t mind. He explains that his many off-the-court activities have sort of a medicinal quality, especially during the basketball season.

“That’s how I burn off that disappointment,” he says. “It prepares myself, rejuvenates me, charges my batteries.”

If that doesn’t work, or the verbose Rutgers graduate finds himself speechless – if that is even possible – Valvano has something else to turn to.

“I’m proud of my education,” he says. “When I have trouble expressing myself, I use the words of others. I was fortunate enough to have majored in English, so I have many words to choose from.

“There is a poem I kind of like which was written by T.S. Eliot. It’s called ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.’ There is a constant refrain in there where he says, ‘Do I dare, do I dare, ascend the stair, with a bald spot in my hair?’ That feeling of inadequacy. That vulnerability we might all have.

“I’m not afraid to do something which is unconventional to someone else because they categorize what a basketball coach is supposed to be. I guess what I am saying is, I am not afraid to show my bald spot.”

Even as he approaches the age when most men are afraid of just that.