ESPN’s Survive and Advance

Updated: March 18, 2013

In a rather fitting prelude to the start of this week’s NCAA Tournament, immediately following their breakdown of the brackets ESPN rolled out a new documentary by Jonathan Hock which detailed the national title run by the 1982-1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack. 

Even the casual fan has probably seen the classic winning play of Lorenzo Charles dunking in Derek Whittenburg’s miss at the buzzer a dozen of times.  After all, it has been a staple of CBS’s Final Four coverage for decades now, and every year around this time that particular highlight (along with Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug) brings us back to that memorable night at The Pit.

While this film effectively told the story of a never say die team that managed to survive and advance, there were a number of factors at play that made this a compelling watch.

As mentioned in this documentary, with players such as Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Chris Mullin competing on the collegiate ranks, the time period covered truly was one of the best eras of college basketball.  N.C. State’s title win was sandwiched between UNC’s famed victory in the ’82 championship game and Georgetown’s ’84 triumph over Houston – pretty decent company to be in.  The top player of this era was Ralph Sampson, who stayed all four years at the University of Virginia and became one of the most dominant college players of all-time.  With no “one and dones”, it was reiterated how much stronger the level of competition was back in the 80’s.

It was also like living in an alternative universe seeing basketball games being played without the use of a shot clock.  Can you imagine teams holding the ball for minutes on end waiting to take the last shot?  Apparently that’s what used to happen; making six point leads feel like you were down by 20. 

It truly was amazing to see how many times N.C. State came to losing during their run, both in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.  They were up against it versus Wake Forest, UNC, UVA (twice), Pepperdine, UNLV, and Houston.  A play or two here or a whistle there and this epic story could’ve easily ended prematurely.  The unconventional methods used by Jimmy V were deemed innovative at the time, and he repeatedly used his “hack a whomever” philosophy to extend games and slow down the opposition’s momentum.        

As a kid I always used to watch the old Final Four highlights that were put on a loop every year around this time, and one of the games that always stood out was the 1983 national semifinal matchup between Louisville and Houston.   It was an unbelievable game containing countless dunks and explosive plays, and when the Cougars emerged victorious it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would go on to win the title.  This film did a good job of illustrating just how dominate Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team was with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon and how athletically they were ahead of their time.  Ranking as probably one of the best teams to have never won a title, Guy Lewis still likely regrets slowing the pace down in the second half instead of staying true to character.  Though he was still extremely raw, even back then Olajuwon was a force of nature.  He was dominant in the title game, becoming the last player to earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award while playing for a team that failed to win the national title.      

For  years I had known the story of the ’83 title game and Jimmy V’s battle with cancer in the early 90’s, but what I had never realized was that he had a falling out at N.C. State before joining ESPN.  This documentary could’ve easily glossed over the dark side of things, but instead presented the events and facts as they occurred in order to present viewers with the entire story.  It was inferred that Valvano might’ve let his success get to his head a little bit, and when he started bringing in questionable recruits the little things began to slide and his control started to wane.  Though many of the allegations in the book Personal Fouls were later deemed inaccurate, they helped set in motion an investigation that ultimately led to probation at N.C. State.  Jimmy V resigned due to internal pressure, and the rest is history. 

The clips of Valvano mixed in throughout are compelling, and his appearance at the ’83 squads’ ten-year reunion event will cause your emotions to sway.  This team comes off as an extremely likeable based on the numerous interviews and interactions of the group, and I am glad Hock gave us all a chance to hear their story and get to know them a little better.    

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