When I Was In the Final Four

I don’t follow much basketball these days. But the week of the NCAA finals always takes me down memory lane. For I, you see, was in the Final Four, thirty-four years ago.

Funny thing is, I am an awful basketball player. My role will come to you if you answer the following trivia question: Who was the school mascot of the last Ivy League team to go to the Final Four?

Yes, I was The Quaker, the mascot for the University of Pennsylvania’s 1979 Cinderella team. Here are a few of my recollections of an unbelievable ride:

Let’s begin at the beginning. How did I end up as the school mascot? In college I hung out with a large group of guys, affectionately known as the Thursday Night Drinking Club, although I’m pretty sure that our partying sometimes extended beyond a single night each week. We loved going to all the Penn games, particularly those at the Palestra, often called “The Cathedral of College Basketball,” with its rich history and deafening acoustics. During our junior year, one of our buddies, Andy Stone, became the Quaker. Andy later became wildly successful in the mortgage banking business and he’s a terrific guy, but he wasn’t much of a mascot. My pals convinced me to try out. For reasons that I can no longer recall, I did.

The tryouts were a scene. The rest of the cheerleaders needed to demonstrate that they were attractive, limber people who could do gymnastics and sing on key. I had to demonstrate that I could do these things, in a manner of speaking, minus the attractive, limber, and on-key parts. Rather, I needed to be funny, quirky, ungraceful, and utterly without shame. (These skills have served me well through my subsequent career.) I got the job.

Before basketball season came football season, which was a disaster. Leaving Ithaca’s Schoellkopf Field, where I was under threat of attack by unruly Cornell students, required a police escort.

QuakerBut the worst was our game against Brown. I was dressed in my usual Quaker garb: tricorne hat, spectacles, blue knickers, red topcoat, white ruffled shirt, buckled shoes. Just another day at the office.

During the game, it began to pour. I was miserable: our team lost and the colors of my topcoat began to run. After the game ended, I went out to find my car on the Providence side street where I’d parked it. It was gone. I found a pay phone – yes, kids, this was in the days before cellphones – and called the Providence Police to report a stolen car. I was told I needed to come to the stationhouse.

And so I did. I’ll never forget standing there in the police station lobby, dressed like a droopy, pathetic Ben Franklin, dripping red dye onto the station floor. There must have been 20 officers who walked past me. Each looked briefly, rolled his eyes, and continued on. A few tsk-tsked and muttered, “I won’t even ask.”

Basketball season was better. Our team was fine – we had won the Ivies 8 times in the prior 10 years and without too muchQuaker Yearbook sweat we did so again, which earned us the Ivy League’s designated slot for the NCAA tournament. This slot is pure placebo: Ivy teams are rarely competitive in the tournament and, not unexpectedly, we were the 9th seed in the East (out of 10 teams). We anticipated a fun game or two, and then back to our studies – and our Drinking Club. After all, the last Ivy Leaguers to make it to the Final Four had been Bill Bradley’s Princeton team in 1965, 14 years earlier. None had come close since.

In Round One, we beat a solid Iona squad, and found ourselves up against the University of North Carolina, one of college basketball’s iconic teams. To make matters worse, the second round games would be held in Raleigh, North Carolina. No one outside of Penn’s team or its diehard fans thought we stood a chance to beat coach Dean Smith’s juggernaut, particularly in the team’s backyard. Our star player, Tony Price, later recalled that his mom told him that she couldn’t attend the game because it would be too painful to watch her son’s final college appearance. A 2009 CBS Sports 30-year retrospective described the scene:

The Quakers were in ACC country, bracketed with Duke and the Tar Heels. They might as well have been hillbillies busting into a country club. Even their cheerleaders were snubbed. A Carolina newspaper described them as pale and plump…

Ouch.

Shockingly, we sprinted to an early lead, but as the second half wore on we hit a dry spell and UNC came roaring back. With a few minutes left, the momentum had completely shifted to the Tar Heels, and they came back to tie us, as I recall. With both our players and time outs exhausted, North Carolina appeared unstoppable. The end seemed near for our heroes from West Philadelphia.

That’s when a miracle happened. Our point guard, James “Booney” Salters, a delightful guy who always had a smile on his face, stole the ball, raced down toward my end of the court, and went up for a layup. He was hacked by the defender, and he fell to the ground a few feet from where I was sitting at courtside. He was unconscious. I grabbed his shoulders. “Booney, Booney, are you OK?” I yelled with my pre-med ACLS technique. Thankfully, unlike Kevin Ware’s gruesome leg injury last week, Booney’s fall might have qualified him for an Academy Award, but not the OR. He turned his head ever-so-slightly toward me, broke into the faintest hint of a grin, and winked. And then he went back to being unconscious.

The trainer came out and worked on him; he rose a few minutes later to massive applause from the Penn section. That break was enough to upset the Tar Heels’ mojo: we went on to win the game 72-71 (a short video of the last minute of the game, announced by the legendary Marv Albert, is here). In North Carolina, they still refer to this day as “Black Sunday” – not only did we beat UNC, but St. John’s beat Duke in the second leg of the double header.

Coach W and Me at Pep Rally

And we kept winning, defeating excellent Syracuse and St. John’s teams to snag a berth in the Final Four. Suddenly, we were the Cinderella story of the year, perhaps the decade. Classes at Penn were cancelled during the week before the tournament in Salt Lake City. I led a pep rally (A pep rally? At Penn?) of wall-to-wall students, faculty, and alumni marching through campus to our football stadium, Franklin Field. The place was electric. A quarter-century later, coach Bob Weinhauer recalled the scene:

Franklin Field was filled with 8-10,000 enthusiastic supporters who could hardly believe that we were actually going to the Final Four. This was one of the most exciting athletic accomplishments at the University. However, at the time everything was happening so quickly we really did not have the opportunity to enjoy it. It takes 25 years of reflecting to really appreciate the excitement and the energy of Penn campus during that pep rally.

When you’re the Cinderella team, you have a feeling of invincibility – that God is on your side, that nothing can stop you. Our motto for the Final Four tournament: “Show No Pity in Salt Lake City.”

Unfortunately, there was one thing that could stop us, and it was a team from Michigan State, with a star player – perhaps you’ve heard of him – named Magic Johnson. We held on for a few minutes, and then fell behind, by 10, 20, then 30 points. We ended up losing 101-67, one of the worst blowouts in Final Four history, in a series best remembered for the matchup between Magic and the other legend of the day, Larry Bird (the Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State, 76-64, in the finals).

You can see why I get a bit nostalgic around Final Four time. I’ve been privileged to be part of a number of exciting events in my life, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like the run up to Salt Lake City.

* * *

A tragic postscript: two months ago, our Final Four team’s center, Matt White, was stabbed to death in his sleep by his wife in a Philadelphia suburb. The details remain sketchy, and we may never know exactly what happened. Matt was a key member of the ’79 team, and he’ll live on in the memories of those of us who were lucky enough to be there.

15 Responses to “When I Was In the Final Four”

  1. Jon April 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    “Rather, I needed to be … utterly without shame. (These skills have served me well through my subsequent career.) I got the job.”

    Truer words were never spoken.

  2. Mark Neuenschwander April 5, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Quirk! Loved it. Well done.

  3. Craig Slater April 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. As a Penn grad I watched the team’s run from Cleveland during my ortho residency. It was great then and your retelling of it was excellent. Thanks!

  4. Jairy Hunter, MD, MBA, SFHM April 5, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Best post ever!

  5. bev M.D. April 5, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Great story – compete with Magic Johnson!

  6. Rich Goldberg April 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    A few additional thoughts:

    In the final four game, we were down at the half 51-17. We actually penetrated inside a bunch – Matte White missed at least 4 easy layups.

    We played them even in the second half 50-50 but that was little consolation. Also, this was before Sports Center. While people had heard of Ervin Johnson, few people had seem him or knew how good he was. He absolutely killed us the first half. Everyone kept asking who is this guy and is he really this good. It turns out we had no idea.

    The T-shirt that we made up for the trip was light blue with white lettering. I finally got rid of it a few years ago. Age had worn it thin and sadly it seemed rather tight.

    Finally, I can confirm the existence of Thursday Night Drinking Club. From what I recall, it definitely used to continue into Friday.

  7. Eric Dobkin April 5, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Bob,

    Your story brings back many memories and eerie coincidences. I am a Penn Med alum and longtime Big 5 entushiast having grown up in Philly and remember that FInal Four well.

    My son (Penn ’11) was the Penn Quaker for 3 years (slightly better costume now).

    I cared for Tony Price’s son when he played for UConn several years ago whe I was at Hartford Hospital

    Matt White was tragically mudered by his wife about 3 blocks from my home in Media.
    It appears that his wife was suffering from severe psychiatric disease.

  8. Frank Thompson, MD April 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    What was most exciting about the Penn run to the Final Four was to see how the mascot increased the team’s energy, provoking the synergy of the players on the team to perform exceeding the sum of the individuals’ abilities.

    What is most interesting nowadays is to see how shameless and disinhibited you and many others in medicine are, especially pertaining to your views on MOC, HIT, guidelines, meaningful use, and hospital leadership.

    Yes, Bob, there are other valid viewpoints besides yours that are being ignored and depreciated as you and others desecrate the scientific method, ie where is the evidence that MOC improves outcomes, or that HIT reduces costs and improves outcomes?????

    • Jairy Hunter, MD, MBA, SFHM April 7, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

      “…What was most exciting about the Penn run to the Final Four was to see how the mascot increased the team’s energy, provoking the synergy of the players on the team to perform exceeding the sum of the individuals’ abilities.

      What is most interesting nowadays is to see how shameless and disinhibited you and many others in medicine are….”

      Congratulations on weaving this post into most contrived complaint I’ve ever seen.

      BTW, I thought mascots increased the fans’ energy.

  9. Budd Mishkin April 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    I thought the mascot’s best bit during the 1978-1979 season came before the game at the Palestra against Wake Forest. It was in late December just before winter break and it was the night before the big Econ 1A exam, which about a quarter of the school was taking. More than a few people showed up to the game with the famed Samuelson textbook, which had a very recognizable and colorful cover. As the players were introduced and during the national anthem, Wachter sat at center court reading the textbook, occasionally motioning for people to be quiet. Penn went on to beat Wake Forest that night, but Wachter had the best move of the night.

  10. Ellen Edelson Bortz April 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Hey Bob – Great to read your recap… I so remember sitting in the stands that day at the Pep Rally – really great college memories… and the photo with Veg!! How could I forget.

  11. Jane Carroll, C81 MBA 83 April 17, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    I saw you quoted in the Times today and said to myself, I knew him at Penn. But I read your bio and saw no mention of it. I persevered because I was positive you were the right person. Thankfully, you had written this article which brought back so many good memories it made me cry. Each March, I try to describe what it was like going to a Cinderella school, and your words explained it best. Thank you for being a great Quaker as well as a great mascot.

  12. ARCpoint Labs of Golden Valley April 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    What a funny story! Great trip down memory lane.

  13. Paul Reszutek May 6, 2013 at 1:21 am #

    Bob:

    Thanks for a lively take on our Final Four adventure. It was a wild ride that none of us will ever forget. In Salt Lake City, I knew we were in trouble when they put our WXPN broadcast location in one of the corners on the nosebleed level. My broadcast partner literally couldn’t see the court well enough to call the game. When I tell people the story today, I don’t know which they have a harder time believing–that Penn was in the Final Four or that I used to do play-by-play on the radio.

    Paul

  14. William Allen, MD November 7, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    Bob, this was an excellent blog post. It is great to take a break from serious stuff and tell a great story like this. It takes us all back to our college or med school days.
    Thank you,
    Bill Allen

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