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Book Excerpt: A Celebration Of N.c. State's 1983 National Championship

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By By Tim Peeler
For ACCSports.com

December 4, 2007

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The following is an excerpt from Tim Peeler's "When March Went Mad: A Celebration of N.C. State's 1982-83 National Championship," a recent release from Sports Publishing. The book can be purchased at SportsPublishingLLC.com.

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CHAPTER 6

"Don't Drink At The Same Bar"

Christmas 1982 was sandwiched between two big road games – the pre-holiday loss at Louisville and a win over West Virginia at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. It was a neutral-site game (Jim) Valvano scheduled specifically because his team had performed so poorly in the NCAA Tournament the year before, losing in the first round to Tennessee-Chattanooga in Indianapolis. Valvano chose West Virginia as an opponent because the Mountaineers had won 27 games the previous season.

Of course, it was also a chance for him to see his family. Rocco and Angelina Valvano were in the stands, seated right behind the bench.

The players, who had a three-day rest for the holiday, did not even have enough time to eat leftovers. That was OK. Christmas came in April that season.

While on break, freshman George McClain developed a case of bacterial spinal meningitis, a swelling of the membranes around the spine and brain that is highly contagious. On Christmas Eve, he nearly died in a Greenville, N.C., hospital, as his temperature soared to 106 degrees.

With McClain laid up in his hospital bed, the team reconvened in Raleigh for their trip to Valvano's home turf. Because no one ever discovered how McClain had contracted meningitis, all the players on the team, as a preventative measure, were prescribed a dose of antibiotics – most likely Cipro, according to team trainer Jim Rehbock.

Two days after Christmas, the team left school for a short bus ride to Raleigh-Durham Airport. All the players, save Cozell McQueen, were in their seats waiting to depart when they began to talk about the biggest side effect of the antibiotic treatment: It turned their urine Gatorade orange.

The players figured McQueen – a frequent target of everyone's practical jokes – would not handle this sudden change in his bodily functions very well. So they decided to act like it was a symptom of spinal meningitis instead. That was all anyone could talk about when McQueen finally strolled onto the charter bus, found his seat, and sat down. He overheard someone a couple of rows in front of him say that orange urine was one of the first signs McClain noticed after he contracted meningitis.

A panicky McQueen shot straight up out of his seat and immediately headed to the front of the bus in search of Rehbock.

"Yo, Rehbs," McQueen said, frantically, "I think I got the sh*t."

The whole bus collapsed in laughter, and McQueen knew he had been had. Again.

For Valvano, the New York homecoming was both a blessing and a curse. Like his wife and three daughters, he had grown to like the homey feel of North Carolina. At the time, Raleigh had a small-town atmosphere, Interstate 40 was still under construction, and the only thing that resembled a major thoroughfare was the Cliff Benson beltline.

Valvano had gone to New York before Christmas for a press conference to promote the West Virginia game, which was one of six doubleheaders at Brendan Byrne Arena that season. The gleaming white edifice across the river from downtown Manhattan was still brand-new, having opened the year before with three consecutive Bruce Springsteen concerts. Primarily, it has been one of the nation's top sports arenas. Home of the NBA's Nets and the NHL's Devils, it is capable of seating 20,500 fans per basketball game.

After the pregame press conference, Valvano had to fly home to Raleigh. He left the Meadowlands at 4 p.m. hoping to catch a 7 p.m. flight from LaGuardia, some 20 miles away in northern Queens across the Hudson River. He waited in the back of a taxi for more than two and a half hours without traveling more than 10 miles. On his cabbie's advice, he decided to try a 9 p.m. flight from Kennedy in southern Queens instead. He made it with just a few minutes to spare.

"I was in a car over four hours to go 35 miles," Valvano said in his book, Too Soon To Quit. "This was one coach who was glad to get back home to North Carolina."

West Virginia, like Louisville, was an excellent test for the Wolfpack. Valvano used the Mountaineers as a barometer to see just how good his team might be.

In those days, every conference was playing by different rules regarding the shot clock and three-point line distance. West Virginia, in its first year of competition in the new Atlantic 10 Conference, played with a 40-second shot clock and a three-point line similar to the one used in college basketball today – tangent to the top of the key at 19-9. The Wolfpack was still adjusting to the ACC's experimental rules, which included a too-short three-point arc of 19 feet and a 30-second clock.

Valvano and West Virginia coach Gale Catlett agreed to use a 35-second shot clock and the A-10 three-point line, though no delineating markings were added to the court until after the doubleheader opener between St. Peter's and Arkansas. After that game ended, the facilities crew slapped down some temporary tape roughly 19-9 away from the basket.

Valvano had told his players that they were good enough to make it to the Final Four when they came back from Louisville. Now it was time to prove it against a team Valvano believed would be similar to those his squad might face in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The game was close early on, at least until the Wolfpack scored 16 straight points in the final minutes of the first half. After intermission, Dereck Whittenburg hit three three-pointers and the Wolfpack scored another 10 unanswered points, leading by as many as 15. But the Mountaineers kept the game close.

Then, with less than a minute to play, freshman Ernie Myers scored on a dunk from Sidney Lowe, pushing the Wolfpack's lead to eight points. Assistant coach Tom Abatemarco stood up from his seat on the bench, raised both his arms in a classic three-point signal, and yelled, "It's over!"

That was a bad move. The ever-superstitious Valvano never wanted anyone to declare a game over, no matter how big the lead. He grabbed Abatemarco by the neck and took him down behind the bench. Horrified assistant Ed McLean jumped up to shield his two combative co-workers – Valvano on top, Abatemarco on the floor – from the television cameras broadcasting the game, which ended with a pair of dunks by Lowe and West Virginia's Lester Rowe. Fortunately, no one ever saw the fracas, either on television or at the arena.

"I thought he was going to kill him, literally," said one individual who witnessed the fracas from the bench. "It wasn't like he was just grabbing him and pushing him – he had him down on the floor, giving it to him good."

After the game, Valvano and Abatemarco continued their fisticuffs in the hallway that led to the Wolfpack locker room. Valvano's father, Rocco, a former high school coach in New York, couldn't believe what his son had done.

When things quieted down, Rocco asked, "What did you do that for?"

"The game isn't over until the horn goes off," said Valvano, whose Italian temperament led to almost as many heated confrontations with his staff as it did late-night comedy routines. "What if we blow that game because this idiot jumps up?"

Remarkably, few people saw the outburst, but it is one of McLean's favorites from his five years as a member of Valvano's staff.

The game started at 9 p.m. and didn't end until the witching hour. Most of the reporters at the matchup were either back in the press room filing their stories or sitting on press row, furiously typing on a 20-pound Port-O-Ram word processor or a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer, which was little more than a keyboard with a four-line dot-matrix display. Both machines were early precursors of the ubiquitous laptops reporters use nowadays to remain connected to their offices for web surfing and lonesome pregame solitaire.

Abatemarco, who has a fiery Italian personality similar to Valvano's, confirms that his boss had him on the ground and was beating the crap out of him. And he wasn't all that bothered by it.

"We used to have a lot of fun together," Abatemarco said. "We really did. We had fun. We joked. We laughed. We cried. We did it all."

After the game, the players went back to the hotel – but not for long.

A handful of them – Ernie Myers, Mike Warren, Quinton Leonard, Walt Densmore and Tommy DiNardo, along with former teammate and New York native Phil Weber, who was serving as host – got dressed up and piled into the back of Weber's parents' station wagon.

They dropped Myers off at his home in Spanish Harlem, which at the time might have been one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country, especially for a wagon full of white college kids. It was well after midnight, and Myers told them not to make eye contact with anyone they might pass in the street. Then he jumped out of the car and dashed toward his mother's apartment building.

"Ernie isn't normally so fast," Densmore said. "But he was that night."

For Leonard, a senior, going out on the town in New York was an eye-opening experience, especially since the team had chosen to visit one of the most famous discos in the country, Studio 54. It has had bad karma for N.C. State basketball since Wolfpack legend David Thompson fell down its back stairs in the spring of 1984, tearing his knee ligaments and ruining his spectacular basketball career.

Watching the half-dozen basketball players, none of them under 6-1, climb out of the family wagon at 254 West 54th Street must have been similar to witnessing the McCaughey septuplets' birth.

Leonard, who saw little action on the court but much off of it, wasn't what you would call cosmopolitan. He stood with his back to the wall most of the night, particularly when the song "It's Raining Men" blared from the speakers. The famous disco was nothing like he had ever seen on his family's 1,000-acre farm in Louisburg, N.C.

"It was Quinton's first experience seeing gay people," said Laura Leonard, Quinton's widow. "They were following them around this club, and he and Tommy and someone else went to the bathroom where there was this big urinal. He was really uncomfortable because these guys were staring at them – until they started peeing bright orange."

No one pursued them the rest of the night.

When the players left the club, however, they found that the Weber family station wagon had a flat tire. They waited more than an hour for AAA to arrive and fix the flat, so they could return to the team hotel before anyone realized they weren't in their rooms. The bus that would take the team to the airport was leaving early the next day, as N.C. State would return for a New Year's Eve practice prior to its Jan. 3 game against Fairleigh-Dickinson. The group got back to the hotel well after 4 a.m. Not that anyone was waiting for them to return – Valvano famously didn't believe in player curfews.

"He had two basic rules while we were on the road: don't let your nightlife affect the way you play, and don't drink at the same bar that he did," Rehbock said.

In New York, no one had trouble obeying those guidelines.

Tim Peeler, a former ACC Sports Journal contributor who covered the ACC for several daily newspapers for almost two decades, is now the managing editor of GoPack.com. He also is a contributing editor for the Blue Ribbon basketball and football yearbooks.

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ACC Sports Journal contributor Andrew Jones caught up with author Tim Peeler to discuss "When March Went Mad."

On the book: The concept was easy, but I wanted to make sure that I went to it on an approach of not just any anniversary. It was a pretty significant team for college basketball. Obviously, it was huge for N.C. State. But I thought it meant more than a regular championship, maybe more than what happened in ‘82 with Carolina.

How it's endured since then and how it will endure forever. That shot will be shown, the dunk will be shown, the run around the court will be shown, forever.

On how every potential Cinderella is compared to the 1983 Wolfpack: Absolutely. Up to then, it was almost always a team from a power conference and was usually the best team. Loyola (Illinois) won it in ‘62, I think; it was a little bit of a surprise. Texas Western, even though people say it was a surprise, it was a team that was 28-2 going into the championship game. It was a pretty good team.

On why State's win is more lasting than other upset winners: I think it's because it wasn't so much that State won those games, it was how they won them. Overtime against Pepperdine in an arena that had maybe 2,000 people in it, but it was beamed back here and people knew it. The UNLV game was won on the last-second play. The Utah game was a blowout, but at one time in the second half of that game State was down and went on to win. They beat Virginia on the last play. They had to hold on against Georgia. It was just the fine line they treaded the whole time.

On if a national championship has ever made a star out of the coach more than that one: That's the whole thing. And the other component there is when Jim Valvano left N.C. State, he got tied into ESPN. And ESPN has kept him alive through the V Foundation and all the things that it does. And by keeping him alive that much and talking about the ‘Don't ever give up' speech, that was born out of the ‘83 championship. That team has been kept alive as well. People think Jim Valvano made that team, but I think that team made Jim Valvano. It put him on the national stage that he always needed to be on to get the kind of attention he got during that time.

On how fascinating it is with Sidney Lowe now the State coach: It's a huge thing for me and the book, but just remembering all of that, I was working on the book before Sidney was hired. (Peeler began working on the book around the time that Quinton Leonard, from the 1983 team, died. Peeler interviewed Lowe while Lowe was still with the Detroit Pistons.)

On that NCSU team being so much better than people remember: Had (Dereck) Whittenburg not injured his ankle (27 points in first half at UVa), State would have won more games and maybe that team would be remembered differently.

Two things I really tried to concentrate on was telling the full story, and the full story nobody knows much about in the regular season other than Dereck getting hurt. The book actually starts at the first pickup game that Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe ever played up in D.C. And it goes from there, how the whole team got there. There's actually some pretty fascinating stories how the players came together. It talks about Valvano coming, all the different components that brought this team together.

Mike Krzyzewski said, and this was a few years ago when I did a story about the 20th championship, that (the 1983 NCSU) team this year would be the preseason No. 1 with the talent that they had. They had three seniors, two really good young guys, they had the best junior college player from California signed that year in Alvin Battle. So it was a fairly deep and good team. That was a good collection of talent, but it was a team that had a lot of ups and downs.

On the hardest player to track down: I had to use the services of an investigator to find Walter "Dinkey" Proctor, who had lost contact with his team. He was the guy that was fascinating. He was the next Magic Johnson, a 6-9 point guard. He came out of New Jersey, he was big-time. Valvano said, "If we get this kid in school, we'll win the national championship."

On what happened to Proctor: He fell off the face of the earth. He hurt his knee in the Carolina game in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament (in 1983) and never played again. He fell on some really hard times. He was in jail for a while. He was in the Army for a while. He ended up in Greensboro now. He doesn't have any bitterness about it, but he's the one guy that lost touch with everybody.

On the most intriguing post-basketball former player's story: I think Terry Gannon, who everyone knew was the good-looking, All-American kid. And now he's on ABC doing a little of everything. You can see him do golf and figure skating, basketball. I think that's been good.

I think Ernie Myers has been a good story – Parade All-American, McDonald's All-American, top-three recruit in the country coming in, but he never had the career that everybody thought he'd have. Everybody thought he'd be an NBA guy, a scorer and a slasher. And even by his senior year he wasn't playing much. But he stayed in school, got his degree, did all the right things, and is a successful guy in business now.

In closing: It was so much fun to do. I went to Albuquerque. I went to Utah to see some people. I traveled all over trying to track people down. I got lucky on a couple of occasions getting people that happened to be in town. I met the guy that was the head of the New Mexico sports commission who was the sports editor at the newspaper there. So he just took me around every place in Albuquerque. He took me to the hotel where the team stayed. He showed me where the bar was that Valvano won his famous dance contest. It's a convenience store now.

I went out there and wanted to see all of these things just to get a feel for it. To see what The Pit was like. I actually went up to this town about 75 miles away from Albuquerque, where a third of all State fans had to stay. They had two hotels, and it was the uranium capital of the world. Forty percent unemployment, horribly depressed, and then here come State fans in there. They had pep rallies in there. It was just amazing.