As another ACC basketball season is underway, I can't help but think about this being the 30th anniversary of N.C. State's most incredible season ever. Their national championship in 1983 ranks as one of the most improbable post season runs of all time. As both a long-time N.C. State fan and as a young news photographer working the night shift at the time, the Cardiac-Pack's NCAA Tournament championship left vivid memories for me.
Jim Valvano was still a relatively new head coach at State. During his first year in 1980, I was an illustrator for N.C. State's "The Technician" student newspaper. Check out my Coach V cartoon published in one of the editions:
I was in my junior year at State and working part-time on WRAL's studio production crew. I wormed my way into helping production photographer Bill Redding shoot highlights for some of the State games, which aired on Valvano’s TV show produced at WRAL. I had the chance to go solo, shooting and producing a feature for one of those shows. It was sort of a "Day in the Life" of one of Valvano's freshmen players, point guard Sidney Lowe. I followed Lowe to his math class at Harrelson Hall and later set up an interview with him sitting on a bench at the campus Brickyard. He spoke about the exuberance of the new coach and his infectious enthusiasm for the game.
Valvano was nothing if not animated. He spoke with his hands. He always seemed on the verge of saying something funny. You could hear the joke coming from a mile away. His eyes would squint a little as the corners of his mouth spread to reveal a picket fence smile. He broke the mold as to what we had come to expect of ACC basketball coaches.
Whether it was Dean Smith, Norm Sloan or Frank McGuire, the hair style was basically the same; high and tight, well controlled with a touch of Vitalis to keep it all in place. Valvano's hair hung over his ears. His black bangs covered an angular forehead and prominent brow. His walk was a loping stride. It reminded me of how Groucho Marx entered a room in his films, complete with an unlit cigar in hand. He knew that his presence changed the whole environment from ordinary to potentially memorable. Every crowd was his audience.
I took Redding's place as highlights photographer on a few away games, some that required travel by plane and a hotel stay. I loved those. Assistant coaches always hung near Coach V and followed him into his hotel room where he retold hilarious stories of New York basketball icons like Lou Carneseca of St. Johns. On the plane, even with the drone of the engines and hum of air conditioners, you could always hear Coach V's voice above everyone else’s, always accompanied by bursts of laughter.
He loved being the center of attention. During his run through the 1983 NCAA Tournament, even before some of the more miraculous wins, he grabbed the attention of national media with memorable one liners. Until the end of the regular season, N.C. State's year was faltering. They' had lost shooting guard Dereck Whittenburg to a foot injury for most of the season, but he returned for the last few games before the tournament. It was just the spark the team needed to pull itself together for an amazing streak.
Winning the ACC Tournament was their only hope for getting the school's name onto the NCAA brackets. That's exactly what they did. Valvano was at his best in tournaments. He was the consummate motivator. His players always knew something magical could happen if they just played with the kind of passion Valvano preached. On their side was the recent implementation of the three-point line for NCAA games. The team wasn't good enough to beat opponents with lopsided wins. The object was to keep it close, hit the three pointers, survive and advance.
Back home, State fans knew their next win might be their last, so they celebrated each win as if it were the big title game. I was working the night-shift as a news photographer that March. As soon as the final buzzer tallied another heart stopping Wolfpack victory, you could almost hear the revelry on State's campus all the way from the WRAL parking lot. Reporter Tom Lawrence and I met up with our live van on Hillsborough Street next to the D.H. Hill Library. The van tech pulled a camera and audio cable down to the Brickyard where a crazed crowd of students celebrated.
I had a "sun gun" light mounted on my camera. The '79 Ikegami cameras were virtually blind in dimly lit rooms or outdoors at night, so I always had to wear a heavy battery belt around my waist to power the "sun gun." As soon as the light popped on, it was like attracting light hungry moths. The State students rushed behind Tom, nearly pushing him over, and screamed at the camera holding up their index finger. "NUMBER ONE, BABY! WHOOOO!" Then came the snowballs. Yes, it had snowed the day before, and the white icy missiles came in arcs from the dark night sky. Most of them were near misses, but a few connected, hitting my head or the camera.
The snow ball attack was nothing compared to the night we beat Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma for the championship. The crowd flooded out onto Hillsborough Street. To get an overview of the crowd and bonfires from a safe place, I went into Mitch's Tavern and asked permission to shoot from their upstairs balcony. As soon as they saw me, students started throwing beer cans, a few were still half full. Reporter Harold Wilson leaned over the railing to stop the cans from hitting me.
I saw a couple of fans climbing the telephone poles at the intersection. One actually got up onto the wires and hung there like a pig on a roasting spit. I fully expected him to get roasted by thousands of volts of electricity. As dangerous as it seemed to me in Raleigh, for Coach Valvano back in New Mexico with his team, it was the greatest moment of his life. It was a legendary season and Valvano loved riding the wave as far as it would take him.
It wasn't hard to get caught up in ACC basketball fever. I caught the fever in 1969-70 basketball season. My dad was manager of the Student Supply Stores on the State campus, so I wore a lot of NCSU logo clothing and laced my Chuck Taylor All Star Converse high tops with red shoe strings.
Most of the games weren’t on TV, so I listened to the games on WPTF radio with announcers Bill Jackson and Wally Ausley. Their commentary painted a vivid picture of the action on the court. My heroes on that '70 team were Vann Williford, Rick Anheuser, Paul Coder, "Dirty" Dan Wells and Ed Leftwich. I didn't realize it then, but Ed Leftwich was the first black player ever to play on a State team. Up until 1966, with Bill Jones at Maryland, there had never been a black player on any ACC team.
In the next few years, there were just a few black players filling a spot on ACC rosters. Charlie Scott and Bill Chamberlain had become big stars at UNC. David Thompson was the undisputed star on the undefeated 1973 State team along with 7'4" Tommy Burleson and 5'7" Monte Towe. They modeled a friendship on and off the court that made it easier for fans to accept these early integrated teams. Of course, those players won the national championship in 1974.
Fast forward to Jim Valvano's 1983 team with five black starters – Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg, Cozell McQueen and Lorenzo Charles. I wasn’t aware of all these historic “firsts” at the time. To me, these were simply great athletes who gave me and other Pack fans the upper hand against our UNC friends – and wonderful memories to cherish for a lifetime.