It was the winter of 1983 when a young, floppy-haired Jim Valvano and his North Carolina State Wolfpack stood at 9-7 at the end of January and, with one of their star guards – Dereck Whittenberg – injured, the prospects for an NCAA tourney run were dim.
Whittenberg, the glue that held the Wolfpack together, had gone down with a foot injury in January and N.C. State’s hopes of a national championship were bleak at best. After the 6-foot senior returned to the lineup in early February, Valvano’s troops promptly lost to Maryland and a Ralph Sampson-led Virginia team that was ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time.
Despite all of the adversity, Valvano held true to his belief that his squad could win a national championship. His plan was simple: Win the ACC tournament. And the Wolfpack would have to, otherwise, they would never earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. In 1983, only 52 teams were invited to the big dance and with double-digit losses, the Wolfpack were not going to be an at-large participant.
During the season, Valvano had his team practice winning the championship. The team would take the court minus any basketballs and would be armed with a ladder and a pair of scissors. Players would take turns climbing the ladder and cutting the nets as if they had just won the national title. Little did they know their coach had prepared them for what was to come.
The Wolfpack drew Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tourney and, with a Lorenzo Charles free throw, were able to squeak by the Demon Deacons, 71-70. Charles, one of the team’s poorest free throw shooters, hit the second of two shots for the win.
The road to destiny continued as N.C. State defeated a Michael Jordan-led North Carolina team, 91-84, in overtime. Jordan had fouled out of the game and Sam Perkins missed a long jumper with just two seconds remaining in regulation. With two minutes to go in overtime and UNC up by six, Valvano went to what was considered a unique strategy at the time. He instructed his players to foul in order to send the Tar Heels’ players to the free throw line. The strategy worked and the result was a trip to the ACC final.
In the ACC tournament championship, the Wolfpack had to face, for the third time, Ralph Sampson and Virginia. The 7-foot-4 Sampson was the nation’s top player and Virginia, 27-3, had beaten Valvano’s squad twice already during the season. After the Cavaliers jumped out to a sizable lead, Valvano scrapped the original game plan and went to a triangle-and-two defense. In a normal triangle-and-two, the players in the triangle play a zone while the two remaining players match up with the offense’s two best players. Valvano, always the innovator, put both players on Sampson. The result…an 81-78 Wolfpack victory and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The string of close games continued in the first round of the NCAA tourney as N.C. State battled Pepperdine. The Wolfpack were down by six with 1:00 remaining in overtime when Cozell McQueen’s put-back tied the game at 59-59 and sent the game to a second extra session. N.C. State would remain alive with a 69-67 victory in that second overtime.
The second-round opponent would be UNLV (coached by Jerry Tarkanian at the time) who had a tremendous forward in Sidney Greene. The Rebels held a 12-point lead through much of the second half, but the Wolfpack cut it to just one, 70-69, with just 25 seconds to play. Thurl Bailey, N.C. State’s soft-spoken big man, would score off of a Whittenberg miss and the Wolfpack advanced with a 71-70 win.
In their regional semifinal, the Wolfpack would get their first “easy” win in weeks over Utah but then, for the fourth time of the season, would have to face Virginia. Valvano and company found themselves in a familiar spot – down by seven with seven minutes to play. Charles would hit two free throws with 23 seconds to go and, for the second time in a month, the Wolfpack would defeat Virginia, 63-62, and advance to the Final Four.
After another fairly tight contest with Georgia in the national semifinal – a 67-60 N.C. State victory – the Wolfpack would face the nation’s No. 1 team, Houston, in the final. The Cougars had possibly the most athletic team in the history of college basketball. Two future NBA Hall of Famers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, were surrounded by 6-5 high-flying Benny Anders and 6-9 tough guy Larry Michaeux. Six-foot-seven-inch Michael Young was as good as any player in the country and Reid Gettys gave Houston a pure shooter. The Cougars beat Louisville, 94-81, in the semifinals, a game in which they had 13 dunks, thus living up to their nickname, Phi Slamma Jamma.
On April 4th of 1983, the “Cardiac Pack” would go up by eight points in the first half much to the amazement of the entire college basketball world. Drexler picked up his fourth foul in the first half and spent much of the game on the bench. Valvano figured if the Wolfpack could just stop Houston from dunking the basketball that his team may have chance.
In the second half Olajuwon started to get rolling and helped Houston gain a seven-point lead with ten minutes to go in the game but Olajuwon was tired. The Wolfpack used that to their advantage and Wittenberg tied the game at 52-52 with 44 seconds left. N.C. State would hold the ball for one last shot while the Cougars went to a zone trap to try and get a steal and a possible win. Coach Guy Lewis’ strategy almost paid off when Bailey attempted a pass to Whittenberg who was 30 feet away. Whittenberg picked up the errant pass and threw up a 30-foot prayer that wound up an airball. Olajuwon, fearing being called for goaltending, had moved away from the basket. That allowed for one of the greatest moments in all of college basketball. Charles would grab Whittenberg’s miss in midair and dunk the basketball as time expired and the Cardiac Pack and their brilliant leader, Valvano, would win the national championship.
The basketball world had been taken by complete surprise. Later, we would learn of Valvano’s battle with cancer. He would give his infamous speech at the 1993 ESPY awards where he told the audience to “never give up…never, ever give up.” And Valvano never did. Neither did his 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack.