50 Years Later, My First Final Four Is Still The Best

A Coke machine does not float.

This is one of those things that does not seem to require experimental proof. The floating Coke machine is a theory that is very easily contradicted by empirical evidence. Throw one in a motel swimming pool and it will sink. It will always sink, just as a bowling ball will fall on your toe if dropped on a planet possessing a positive gravity. There is no possible way to falsify this hypothesis. Karl Popper wouldn’t have given it the time of day.

The trail to this discovery begins in 1971, when a young man from Massachusetts, already a basketball silly formed by 10 years of Holy Cross home games, was choosing a college to attend. He was undecided among the various institutions that had accepted him, including, to his eternal shame, Notre Dame, which had sent him a waiting-list letter by mistake, only to have a high-priced lawyer from New York call him at home to apologize and tell him he’d been accepted. He was very impressed with Notre Dame’s Borg-like alumni mechanism but, then again, Notre Dame, man. He just couldn’t do it. Then, he read a Sports Illustrated story by Curry Kirkpatrick about a snow-blind Catholic institution in the midwest that had a journalism school, and a successful basketball team run by a eccentric head coach and composed of players who could generously be called madcap. He was particularly taken by this passage:

One person unfazed by the presence of Lackey is [Gary] Brell, who has carved out his own saga and whose sometimes bizarre behavior is responsible for McGuire saying, “I’m the only coach in America with white problems.” After the Warriors’ victory in the NIT final, Brell could be seen hanging from the rim hacking at the net with a switchblade. Through the first four games of this season his hair grew to the unruly lengths generally associated with General Custer, and critical letters poured into the Marquette athletic offices. So McGuire had him trim it. Last week, after he had held Austin Carr to four points in the first half of Marquette’s victory over Notre Dame, Brell credited his performance to “I Ching,” a Far Eastern philosophy from which he garnered a “hexagram message” that he would be The Great Re-strainer against the Irish.

Before the game, Johnny Dee handed the German-born Brell a packet of mustard in a gesture calculated to counteract McGuire’s “hot dog” move of having his players shake hands with the opposing coach at the introductions. Brell threw away the packet, claiming, “It was German mustard; he insulted my nationality.” Part of the time Brell lives in a nine-bedroom coed house with nine other people, and he claims to want to someday reside in “a commune out West.” “This is the same nut who complains about the quality of motel towels on the road,” says McGuire.

This seemed to be a place that had its perspective on straight. And so it was, on a night in Greensboro, N.C., standing in the courtyard of a highway motel, he watched a Coke machine get tossed into a swimming pool. It sank. He felt justified in all things.

Fifty years ago last week, Marquette played in its first Final Four. The other teams were Kansas, North Carolina State, and the dynastic UCLA club with Bill Walton. For all of its success under head coach Al McGuire, Marquette had not had much luck in the NCAA tournament. In 1969, it fell to a last-second shot by Rick Mount of Purdue in a regional final. A year later, after being shuffled out of the Mideast Regional, McGuire told the NCAA to stuff it, took his team to the NIT, and won that, crushing Pete Maravich and LSU along the way. In 1971, the undefeated team that Kirkpatrick had written about lost to Ohio State in a game McGuire described as “the only time I ever got screwed without getting kissed.” (McGuire v. NCAA was one of the decade’s most entertaining feuds.) The next two seasons ended abruptly when first Jim Chones and then Larry McNeill took advantage of the blandishments of the ABA and NBA, respectively, and bailed early. You began to wonder if, to paraphrase Gene McCarthy on Walter Mondale, this was a program with the heart of a consolation game.

Then, in the 1973-74 season, things got very weird.

During the regular season, Marquette beat both Long Beach State and Wisconsin on last-second buckets; the latter victory occasioned McGuire to leap up on the scorer’s table to rouse the rabble. In the next day’s Milwaukee Sentinel, there ran a photo of the moment and, from a position below McGuire, the father of two Badger players was caught flipping a heartfelt bird at him. Eddie Sutton brought a nondescript Creighton team into Milwaukee, ran backdoor plays all night, and beat Marquette like a drum. But they finished at 26-5, ranked third in the nation, and went off to the NCAA’s Mideast Regional. I copped a seat on the bus with the band and went with them.

The first stop was Terre Haute and a doubleheader. Marquette played Ohio and Notre Dame played Austin Peay, which featured the legendary Fly Williams, a Brooklyn playground legend somehow transported to Clarksville, Tenn. “The Fly is open,” the APSU fans chanted. “Let’s go Peay.” Naturally, we were instantly enthralled. But Fly played the game as though his brain was permanently stuck on Scan. Once in that game, he missed a layup and was so mystified by this event that he stared at the hoop. He stared so long that the teams changed possession and Fly got called for a three-second violation because he was still in the lane, staring. Naturally, we were instantly even more enthralled. Fly got 26 and his team lost by 40.

Anyway, both Marquette and Notre Dame advanced and, a week later, I climbed on the bus with the band and we were off to Tuscaloosa for the Mideast Regional. Marquette would play Vanderbilt and the Irish would play Michigan. (It is important to remember that this was the Notre Dame team that had broken UCLA’s lordly 88-game winning streak earlier that season.) Damned if Campy Russell didn’t put up the game of his life. The freshman put 36 on the Irish, and Michigan upset them, which didn’t upset any of us, god knows. Michigan had left its band behind so a couple of Marquette horn players struck up “Hail To The Victors,” which I thought was right neighborly, and quite properly vengeful.

After which Marquette played Vanderbilt, and we witnessed the blossoming of Bo Ellis, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Chicago and an instant entrant on the roster of eccentric Marquette forwards. While the team’s mainstay was the formidable Maurice Lucas, Ellis was the free radical of the lineup, notable for his inability to keep his game shirt tucked in his pants. (Two years later, of course, Bo, who took fashion designing at a nearby women’s college, because why the hell not, designed game uniforms for which the shirt was meant to be untucked. They won a national title in those and then the buffet grazers at the NCAA banned them.) At a very tense moment of the second half against Vanderbilt, Bo threw down a thoroughly illegal dunk—dunking was forbidden at the time, largely because nobody had been able to stop Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from doing it—and got away with it. Vandy coach Butch van Breda Kolff went into orbit. The arena erupted. Debris flew from every corner of the building. It was that rarest of moments—a near-riot at a basketball game that Al McGuire had nothing to do with.

Two days later, Marquette beat Michigan, 72-70, to win the regional final. Back through the night to Milwaukee for the third and last quick turnaround. Three days later off to Greensboro. And this is where the sunken Coke machine comes in.

It was the Saturday night after the semifinal doubleheader. Earlier that day, Marquette had beaten Kansas, in which McGuire called “the JV game.” And then came the greatest college basketball game I’d ever seen, and one of the most transformative. UCLA and North Carolina State played to two overtimes. It’s hard to explain how dominant UCLA was. Those guys won every fucking year. They won with Kareem, and then they won for the two years after he left, and then Walton showed up, and they won two in a row with him. Yes, the tournament was smaller, and, yes, conferences only sent their champions, but, dammit, these guys won every fucking year. They’d even stomped the daylights out of NC State earlier that year.

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But NC State was nonetheless a different kind of team, because it had David Thompson, and David Thompson could fly, Jack. I’d seen Julius Erving at UMass, and he had been the damndest thing I’d ever seen on a basketball court. That night in Greensboro, early in the game, Walton had turned into that deadly jump hook, and Thompson was in the air, waiting for him. He knocked Walton’s shot off toward Winston-Salem, and that became the damndest thing I’d ever seen on a basketball court.

For a time, it looked as though UCLA was going to slip through to the final game against Marquette. They built up an 11-point lead late in the second half, which is what they always did when they won every fucking year. But there was something unstrung about them. Rumors flew in the Greensboro Coliseum that John Wooden had lost control of this bunch, especially of Walton, with whom he had shared a fractious mentor-student relationship all during their time together. You could almost see it happening as UCLA somehow blew the 11-point lead and was forced into overtime. And you could see it even more vividly in the second overtime, when UCLA went up by seven and couldn’t close the deal. NC State tore off a 13-3 run to win the game. The most poignant moment came when UCLA guard Greg Lee tried to set Walton up for a lob pass, and Walton shook him off, like a pitcher shaking off a catcher’s sign. That was when you could feel the wheel spin and the era end. UCLA was not going to win this fucking year.

Late that night, I was chatting over these events on the second floor of the balcony of our modestly priced motel. A naked person carrying a television set ran by. Then, another naked person, and then two more, all of them moving at top speed down the balcony. Not all of them were carrying television sets, however. Below, pool furniture had begun to decorate the surface of the swimming pool. The police dropped by twice, the second time in riot gear. I was watching the scene with a couple of Virginia fans who’d come to Greensboro for the ACC tournament and just stayed. “We have some fans,” one of them said, “but you bunch are crazy-ass.”

Gradually, it dawned on some of our number that we might be financially liable for some of the stuff that was floating in the pool. So a select delegation of our fastest-talking inebriates were dispatched to discuss terms with the manager. Reportedly, this was the drunkest negotiation since the last time Boris Yeltsin climbed a flight of stairs alone. Trapped four-on-one, the manager finally gave in and passed out, in that order. The next morning, we packed up the buses and a group of somebodies sank the Coke machine in the pool as a farewell gesture.

Marquette lost the championship game, 76-64, because nobody was beating NC State at that point, and because David Thompson spent most of the 40 minutes airborne. McGuire picked up two wild-assed technical fouls right before halftime, and that cost his team any momentum it had. The second half was largely a, well, technicality. Undaunted, Bo Ellis left his stamp on the proceedings when, during the awards presentation after the game, he took the head off of the female Bruin mascot and asked her for a date.

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It is now a half-century since these events. The tournament has grown into a sports-entertainment leviathan—and now with extra gambling! I still look back with a fondness edging toward nostalgia on my first Final Four, on the long bus rides, the windows framed in neon and the dark, on Bill Walton and David Thompson, and John Wooden and Al McGuire, both long gone now. And, echoing faintly behind the memories, the sound of one great splash. I am not yet used to thinking in terms of half-centuries, but I guess I better learn.


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