The college basketball season has begun and UNC is emerging as an early season favorite. However as games are played and student athletes battle for supremacy, it’s interesting to measure how far the game has grown in the past 27-years. In 1981, the women’s game wasn’t as advanced or applauded as it now. In fact, ESPN aired the UCONN vs. Oklahoma women’s game in the primetime TV slot on Sunday, featuring super sophomore Maya Moore, against the dynamic Paris twins. As I look the landscape of how the game is revered and played, it pails in comparison to the best three teams of the modern era.
Back to the Future
The NCAA Men’s National Champion in 1984 was none other than the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by John Thompson. A few things stand out about this team, as they had a combination of fundamental skill, speed, and intelligent guard play, mixed with an indomitable frontcourt anchored by Patrick Ewing. Coincidentally after Ewing, the school was known for having great centers with Mutombo, Mourning, Othella Harrington, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, Michael Sweetney, and Roy Hibbert. Last but not least they were the ultimate team that played without fear, while imposing their Hoya Paranoia on all who opposed them.
What I remember of this team was their affect on my neighborhood and others like it. I grew up in Philadelphia, the home of the Big 5, and my beloved Temple University, but it was Georgetown that I identified with being the epitome of college basketball, because everywhere I looked, people were wearing hats, jackets, sweatshirts, and tees that were the imposing color of silver and navy blue. I don’t want to turn this into a sociology lesson, but when you have a successful program, with an all black cast the people within the urban areas will rally around them, with a fervor and loyalty beyond logic.
The Hoyas were acknowledged so much so, that the fledgling sneaker company at the time…Nike gave that team it’s own sneaker aptly named “The Terminator”, with the word HOYA emblazoned across the heel. Where I’m from, that’s a sign of the ultimate respect and not only did coach Thompson and his team earn it, they commanded it from any, and everyone.
This team is the predecessor to the acclaim that basketball players take for granted today. Prior to my penning this rather racially biased piece, I watched the movie HOOP DREAMS, and one thing I noticed throughout the film was the Georgetown University references. The documentary takes place on the North Side of Chicago in and near the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects, and the co-stars Arthur Agee, and William Gates, are seen through the years (‘88-‘92) wearing their admiration for the ’84 champions from Arthur’s basketball and baseball jersey’s to William’s tee-shirt. The Hoyas are just as much a constant in this masterpiece as are the people that look up to, and represent them.
1990 ushered in a new decade and along with it came a new breed of Hoya Paranoia that challenged the status quo in the form of the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. They were a band of brothers that had the same high-octane offense that was lead by a powerful front court with Stacey “Plastic Man” Augmon, and Larry Johnson. LJ with his, Texas style, gold tooth…played and lead with his raw emotions, directly from the heart and soul. The guards Greg Anthony, and Anderson Hunt paced the offensive with Anthony as a key to the defense that didn’t give opponents a chance to breathe or win.
In their championship match against Duke, they cruised to a 103-73 win, as their 30-point victory remains the largest margin in history. Naturally cites near and far embraced this team and their style of play. Everyone from my older brother to 2 Pac had the Runnin’ Rebels shirt, hat, or jacket. I’ll never forget the UNLV hat and STARTER jacket that Tupac wore in the Brenda’s Got a Baby video.
I had a red UNLV shirt that I wore a least once a week the summer following their title run. They were easy to rally around because unlike most other college and professional teams…this team was more like me, and the people in my community.
There is one team in recent history, that combined the intimidation of Georgetown, and scoring ability of UNLV…and they hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan…the Wolverines of the University of Michigan. They were affectionately known as the Fab Five. In the fall of 1991, college basketball received a facelift from Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson.
Standing at an impressive 6’8″, Rose the left-handed lead guard controlled the team’s offense, while Jimmy King was Mr. Defense. The frontcourt was lead by Webber and his ubiquitous scowl, which made him a fan favorite…while Howard and Jackson rounded out the forward positions with flair.
The Fab Five played in the National Championship game as freshmen and sophomores, but much to my dismay…they were not able to win it all like Georgetown and UNLV. Had they been able to beat Duke or North Carolina their lore would have grown and would have been bigger than perhaps the game itself. They are the 5 most important freshmen in the modern college basketball era. In relation to where they stand in the bigger picture of sports, they are up there with Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali.
This team has been heralded for everything that is both right and wrong with team sports. They are credited for basketball players wearing black socks, and long baggy shorts. Black socks are commonplace now, but in that day it was very rare, and the long shorts…well I can recall other teams wearing long shorts, but Michigan at that time, did everything better. They even had their “own” Nike sneaker with the never seen before Huarache that had replaced the high ankle support with straps. It became a truly remarkable shoe that is as historic, as the players that first wore them.
I was a point guard and I wanted nothing more than to grow taller and be just like Jalen Rose, while a lot of my friends wanted to overpower opponents like Webber. Even to this day, a pair of Michigan shorts on the basketball court is a sign of respect. There will never be a team like this again and while a lot of people, and the mainstream media didn’t understand or like their style, they were in actuality a very good team with a coach that led the ’89 team to a National Championship. They were and still are reviled because of the fact that they were young, talented, teen-aged men, that didn’t cater to the decorum of the NCAA tradition. Aside from their unique love of the game, their only crime was the color of their skin, and not the content of their character.
History and experience are great teachers, and what I learned from these teams is that there is nothing more beautiful than the play and cohesiveness of a team, as they have inspired not only athletes, but millions of people worldwide. It was an evolution, or better yet. a revolution to the end of the way things used to be.
The Most Known Unknown.