The finale of one season. The beginning of another. And a memory.
As Villanova battled Michigan in the national collegiate basketball championship game, the baseball season was still in it’s first week, although the weather didn’t play along in many places.
The remembrances of one of the most polarizing sports broadcasters ever, Howard Cosell, because in the late days of March, he would have been 100 years old.
As we went to press, the NCAA title game was still in question, but not this reporter’s thoughts of Villanova’s first national crown, in a game that may have been the most shocking in history.
The year was 1985, and in dominating the Final Four at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky were three schools from the mighty Big East.
Heavily favored Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s were joined by Memphis State, which later dropped the State and became simply known as Memphis.
Those were the days when the Hoyas from Washington D.C. struck fear in the hearts of those who they played and those who observed because of their style and demeanor.
John Thompson, the hulking head coach who wore a scowl that never changed, led a band of athletes who wore the same scowl and played the game with a ferocity bordering on pure meanness. They had captured the NCAA championship the year before and were hungry for bear once more. Few doubted they would defending their title successfully, Georgetown advanced to the final game against Villanova. The Wildcats were a loose bunch, who wore their competitive but amiable personality proudly. And why not?
Their head coach was friendly, smiling Italian, Rollie Massimino, who liked to talk of pasta as much as basketball.
That year, I was assigned to be the host of the Final Four on CBS, handling the opening of the broadcasts, the half-time segments and the post-game wrap-up from a studio set-up in the Rupp Arena stands.
The broadcast team calling the games were two legends: Brent Musburger and Billy Packer.
The Final Four was to be a coronation of the Hoyas.
Mystery shrouded Georgetown in those days. They would set up their headquarters for those games in a location out of the city, unknown to the media.
They would conduct secret practices, and say little to reporters.
In later years, I got to know Thompson when I worked with him on NBA telecasts on TNT. We would often travel on the same planes leaving town.
He was one of the most warm and relaxed people I ever got to know in my career. He told me the whole Georgetown mystique was an act.
It was his way of creating an aura around his team he thought would be effective. He said to me once, “Everyone wanted to know what was behind that door. The fact is, there was nothing at all”.
From Thompson to his star Patrick Ewing and down to the last man on the roster, it all worked.
It all added to the reasoning it was just a matter of time before Georgetown would win another championship.
But it didn’t happen. Villanova totally stunned the basketball world by beating the Hoyas 66-64. They called it the Perfect Game.
It was April Fools night, but it was no joke.
Villanova took a 55-54 lead with 2:37 remaining and never trailed again. The Wildcats withstood the suffocating Georgetown pressure defense.
It was the first year the field expanded to 64 teams, and the last game before the shot clock was installed. This is significant because Villanova took only 10 shots in the second half.
But they made nine of them. They used the clock to their advantage expertly. In the game, Villanova was an incredible 22-28 from the field. That’s a 78.6 percentage if you’re
wondering. At the end of the game, as senior forward Dwayne McClain cradled the ball on the floor, running out the clock, Musburger wrapped up his terrific call of the shocker and threw
to me to begin the post-game wrap-up, I could think of only one thing to say. “That’s why they play the game”, were my first words.
That’s why I think it is foolhardy to predict a winner in any game, in any sport.
That’s why they play the game, may not be what people want to hear. But that’s my response, more often than not.
Despite the weather not cooperating in many spots, baseball is back and there is no more definitive sign of Spring.
When I was a kid, I counted the days till Opening Day. My Giants, (before they broke my heart and moved from New York to San Francisco), would barnstorm with the Cleveland Indians,
heading home after training in Arizona. The Giants and Indians would play games in cities such as Denver, Oklahoma City and Indianapolis before opening the season.
Opening day is a time for hope, anticipation and optimism. Deep down you may know your team would need everything to break right to even have a chance to contend. But why not?
I will never forget the sights and sounds of opening day. As my father and I approached the Polo Grounds, in upper Manhattan, where the Giants played, the sight of the ball park with the light towers to help form the shape of the park, my heart sang.
Walking inside, where it was dark, the sounds of vendors selling scorecards, the smell of cigars (which in those days was accepted, and actually added to the scene), and the buzz of the crowd
headed to their seats, was heaven to a youngster.
But nothing matched the walk through the tunnel to the bright sunlight and sea of green inside the park, freshly painted and the grass with the beautiful sight of the diamond and the infield dirt. The sound of the music from the PA, and the crack of the bat during batting practice was unmatched.
The teams warming up in their colorful uniforms: the Giants in their home white, the Cardinals in their traveling grays with red and blue. The sight of the centerfield clubhouse, emblazoned by the “Chesterfield” cigarette sign, was an picture I can still see today.
Then, the game. Great if the Giants won. But even if they lost, they were only 0-1.
How many of you have had a similar feeling, whether it was a big league game, or a minor league opener in a small city? It doesn’t matter.
If you’re not a kid, you certainly recall Howard Cosell. A sports broadcaster of a different cloth. You may remember him on ABC’s Monday Night Football telecasts, and his many interviews with the great
Muhammad Ali on Wide World of Sports.
I first heard him on his two network radio segments at 8:25 in the morning and at 5:25 in the afternoon. It was called “Speaking of Sports”.
It was the first, and in my opinion, best journalistic sports shows of all time. I thought Cosell was a brilliant writer, but I learned he never wrote a word. It was all ad-lib. His vocabulary was exemplary, to use a Cosell adjective.
For example, on the morning of December 27, 1968, he began his morning sports program by saying, “the real athletes this morning are named Borman, Lovell and Anders” referring to their return to earth after
orbiting the Moon on Apollo 8.
He was the first, and maybe the only sports commentator who strongly defended Ali when his Heavyweight title was taken away from after Ali refused to be inducted into the Army on religious grounds.
Cosell didn’t side with the fighter, but claimed he had not received due process under the Constitution.
The Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision ultimately backed Cosell up.
Roone Arledge’s decision to make Cosell part of the Monday Night Football triumvirate in the booth was a masterstroke. Viewers loved and hated Cosell, almost equally. He had an unquestioned impact.
His style was unique. He had a staccato delivery, emphasizing words he wanted to punctuate. His face had a kind of hawk-like appearance which also set him apart from the norm in the profession.
I knew him, and I liked him because I had the feeling he was always putting people on.
I was able to be amused, impressed and sometimes appalled, all at the same time.
The day I first met him in his ABC office on Sixth Avenue in New York, he wore dark glasses with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
I followed him to the newsroom where he merely glanced at the sports wire, then took a ride with him in a cab to his apartment.
He had his late afternoon five-minute show to do, which he did from his living room.
He opened a cabinet, removed a microphone, a headset and a stopwatch and on cue, proceeded to deliver a perfect, lucid, report on the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament, citing golfers’
scores and wrapping up the day’s events. After a one-minute break, he did a commentary on Rhodesia’s stance in the upcoming Olympics.
It was all off the top of his head. All timed out perfectly.
He would have been 100 on March 25th.
One of a kind, like him or not.
The Perfect Game
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