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.
But 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 much 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…
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.
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.
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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.