As the 1981-82 college basketball season began, no area team had made the Final Four since Georgetown had played for the championship of the eight-team 1944 NCAA Tournament. Maryland had reached the Elite Eight in 1973 and 1975 and Georgetown had done the same in 1980, but no area squad had truly been on the big stage.
Of course, no local team had ever had an intimidating center quite like Patrick Ewing, the Hoyas’ 7-foot freshman.
“My assistant Billy Stein and I had gone to scout a different player the first time I saw Patrick,” recalled John Thompson, then Georgetown’s coach. “We were watching him and I turned to Billy and said, ‘If you get him, we can win a national championship.’ “
Prophetic words. Coming off a year in which they had been upset by James Madison in the first round of the NCAAs, the Hoyas lost two of their first three games but won their next 13 led by Ewing, All-American guard Sleepy Floyd and fellow seniors Eric Smith and Ed Spriggs.
“Sleepy was a complete player,” Thompson said of a player whose brilliance has been diminished because he preceded Georgetown’s mid-1980s era of dominance. “People always talked about his scoring, but he was a terrific defensive player. He always wanted to guard the other team’s top scorer. He, Ed Spriggs and Smitty were our leaders. But give our entire team credit for adjusting to Patrick. They played together and made it work.”
Georgetown did suffer consecutive mid-season losses to Big East Conference rivals Syracuse, Connecticut and Providence, all of which it would avenge down the stretch while only losing at Boston College to finish 23-6.
After easily capturing their second Big East Tournament in three years, the Hoyas won low-scoring NCAA games with Wyoming, Fresno State and Oregon State to reach that long-elusive Final Four.
“When I came to Georgetown, that was our goal,” said Thompson, a Washington native who had taken over a 3-23 program in 1972. “Forget Washington not having had a Final Four team, a lot of programs in the Northeast hadn’t made the Final Four. Our team that made the Elite Eight (led by Floyd and locals Craig Shelton and John Duren) was the one that really got people’s attention around the country that we had a pretty good program.”
But that 1980 team didn’t take that last, big step. The 1982 squad topped Louisville 50-46 in the semifinals to earn title game matchup against longtime powerhouse North Carolina, coached by Dean Smith, a Thompson mentor who was still searching for his first championship.
“People made a big deal out of me being the first African-American coach in the Final Four,” Thompson said. “That’s fine, but a lot of non-African American coaches hadn’t been there, either.”
The championship game in the Superdome was tight the whole way. Georgetown couldn’t stop Tar Heels forward James Worthy but still led 32-31 at halftime. With 7:36 left, it was 56-54 Hoyas. When Floyd swished a jumper to give Georgetown the lead back at 62-61, Smith called time with 25 seconds left. Ten seconds later, a legend was born when Carolina freshman Michael Jordan, not Worthy or sophomore standout Sam Perkins, hit the go-ahead shot. Of course, the Hoyas still had a chance.
Thompson declined to stop the clock to design a play. And when Worthy, who was the MVP with 28 points, picked off Fred Brown’s pass for Eric Smith, the outcome was decided. The Tar Heels celebrated. Thompson bear-hugged his disconsolate sophomore guard.
“Michael Jordan wasn’t the player who hurt us until the end,” Thompson recalled. “It was James Worthy. But Michael did what he went on to always do: he made the big shot. When I hugged Fred, it was just the natural thing to do. I had no idea that people would make such a fuss about it. I’ll never forget a young girl coming up to me years later and saying, ‘We learned about you in our catechism class.’ That really surprised me.”
And Thompson was a little surprised to realize that yesterday was 30 years since that memorable night in New Orleans.
“I hadn’t really thought about it being the 30th anniversary until a couple of people mentioned it to me, maybe because the Final Four is back in New Orleans this year,” said Thompson, who resigned in the middle of the 1998-99 season and has been a broadcaster virtually ever since. “The way I look at it, we never made the Final Four because we always made the final two (winning the title in 1984 before losing another nail-biter in Ewing’s last college game in 1985). I don’t like to compare teams. When you win the championship, it’s a different feeling, but that (1982) team was great, too. We had a very good shot at winning the national championship, but we came up (just) short.”
Yes, they did, but they still went further than any Washington-area team had in nearly 40 years, a fact that doesn’t seem possible in a time when Maryland (twice, with one title), George Mason and Georgetown have all made the Final Four during the last 12 seasons.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7 The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.