Americans who were more than five years old on March 30, 1981 probably remember where they were when they learned that President Ronald Reagan had been shot by the mentally ill John Hinckley at one of the entrances to the Washington Hilton, just yards from the hotel’s pool where I had spent so many happy hours of my childhood.
I remember that day for a related, but different reason. The NCAA men’s basketball final was scheduled for that night in Philadelphia where I was a senior at Penn. Thanks to my high school buddy Mike Rosenthal, who was a senior at Indiana, I had a ticket for the game in exchange for letting Mike and his pal John Kendrick crash in my dorm room. My fellow sports fanatic/classmate, the late Scott Bruskin, joined our final foursome.
However, when Reagan was shot, the NCAA put the decision on whether to play the game that night in the hands of first lady Nancy Reagan. At first, it seemed that the President might die, but when he was out of danger, she gave the go-ahead to play. We drove to the Spectrum, enduring the “How ‘Bout Them Hoosiers” shouts from Mike and John. As we parked, we heard the sad news on the radio that White House press secretary Jim Brady, who had also been shot by Hinckley, had died.
The game itself wasn’t great as sophomore wunderkind Isiah Thomas led Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers past Dean Smith’s North Carolina team that featured James Worthy and that would win it all the next year on a last-minute shot by a freshman named Michael Jordan.
The really weird part of the night happened as we drove home and heard the news that Brady hadn’t died after all. Paralyzed from the waist down, Brady has been a crusader for gun control ever since. Reagan went on to serve two full terms. Knight, Thomas, Smith and Worthy are all now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Spectrum was imploded in November adding to the list of now-gone or abandoned arenas and stadiums where I watched history happen. And the only Knight-Smith championship game matchup was historic even more so because of the dramatic national political circumstances surrounding the game.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.