Forecasting a super 'Nova

Frank Fitzpatrick
Frank Fitzpatrick
Posted: March 13, 2013

An excerpt from Frank Fitzpatrick's book,

"The Perfect Game," on Villanova's title run.

 

Alby Oxenreiter was a prophet.

Dwayne McClain finally understood that as he hugged a basketball to his chest and sprawled across Rupp Arena's polished, hard maple floor late on the night of April 1, 1985. At that moment, his underdog Villanova team led mighty Georgetown by two points and, though for him it seemed an interminable span, less than two seconds remained until the Wildcats would become college basketball's most unlikely champions ever.

McClain was in the spotlight, which is where he'd been for much of that NCAA championship game. He'd played as if possessed, doing whatever was needed, whatever he wanted, scoring a game-high 17 points, rebounding, defending, even spitting - literally spitting - at Georgetown. When the horn sounded, he would be holding the ball. He would be a hero, a champion, a 6-foot-6 slice of history.

Suddenly, as if he were being granted an opportunity to absorb the historic moment, to preserve the scene forever like some snowglobe village beneath glass, the chaos around him froze. The din of 23,214 voices throbbed in McClain's head as Georgetown's Horace Broadnax hovered helplessly above him. Villanova fans already were thrusting arms and fingers into the air. His 5-foot-8 coach, Rollie Massimino, had begun moving toward his Georgetown counterpart and physical opposite, 6-foot-10 John Thompson, for a postgame handshake, the contrast of tiny mortal and giant a perfect symbol for the remarkable game that was now nearly complete. On two sides of the gleaming court, rows of sportswriters were bent over their keyboards, trying desperately to translate their astonishment into words. Behind them, in seats occupied by coaches and NCAA administrators, heads were raised toward the scoreboard in search of the final confirmation for this basketball miracle. And above it all, the lights in the Kentucky arena's girded ceiling glowed like a welcoming heaven.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Or rather it should have been.

Instead, in that instant, McClain remembered he'd experienced it all before, nearly five years earlier. In the fall of 1980, he was a Massachusetts high school senior on a recruiting visit to Villanova. As he sat that day in a cramped office in the university's tiny field house, he listened to a tape recording by Alby Oxenreiter, the student play-by-play announcer on the Wildcats' radio station. The second-most recruited player in New England - only a gifted 7-foot Cambridge center named Patrick Ewing drew more interest - McClain had yet to choose a college. Privately, he was leaning toward Villanova, in part because the two friends he'd made at a Pennsylvania basketball camp that summer, Ed Pinckney and Gary McLain, were talking about doing the same. They sensed things were changing fast at Villanova. That same year the Wildcats had become members of what would soon be the hottest basketball conference on the planet, the Big East. Comprised of schools from populous East Coast cities, the year-old league was well on its way to becoming a sporting phenomenon.

A small Catholic college on Philadelphia's tony Main Line, Villanova already had a noteworthy hoops tradition. In 1939, the Wildcats had played Brown in the first NCAA tournament game ever played. Paul Arizin, named one of the NBA's fifty greatest players on the league's 50th anniversary in 1996, had starred at Villanova after World War II. And in 1971, just nine years before McClain's visit, Villanova had reached the NCAA title game, only to be beaten there by one of John Wooden's UCLA juggernauts.

Massimino, the wily son of an immigrant shoemaker, had succeeded Jack Kraft in 1973 as the Wildcats coach. He saw the Big East as an opportunity, a way to pry Villanova away from its Philadelphia roots and transform it into a national program. To accomplish that, he understood, he would need to intensify his recruiting efforts. He might not be able to go nationwide yet, but any hotshot senior on the East Coast certainly was going to hear from him. And so Massimino contacted Oxenreiter, an energetic Central Pennsylvanian who called Villanova's games on student-run WKVU. The coach asked the communications major to create make-believe broadcasts in which the players he was recruiting would star in imaginary Villanova victories of the future. Massimino told Oxenreiter that his assistants would provide him with biographical material on the recruits. He could invent the rest. Eager to impress, the youthful broadcaster closeted himself in a campus audio booth. With a reel-to-reel tape player, a rudimentary splicer, and a young man's imagination, Oxenreiter began to mix reality and fantasy. The improvised play-by-play descriptions he created were surprisingly impassioned, the starring roles he devised for the recruits always dramatic. He layered on crowd noise, stirring music, interviews with coaches, even commercials.

Massimino was impressed by the tapes and requested several for 1980s hot recruiting season. One would be for Ewing, far and away the nation's greatest prize. The Jamaican-born center reportedly had narrowed his choice down to six schools, and Villanova was one of them. By the time Ewing visited there, however, it was clear he had already made up his mind. He listened politely to Oxenreiter's recording, but it didn't sway him. He was bound for Georgetown in Washington to play for Thompson.

Oxenreiter then set out to produce a tape for McClain. The versatile and athletic swingman would, of course, be its hero. But what about the other details of this concoction? Oxenreiter decided the imaginary game would take place in 1985 since that would be the player's senior season. And it wouldn't be just any game. For ultimate effect, he made it the NCAA championship, an event whose popularity had exploded the previous winter when Magic Johnson's Michigan State team defeated Larry Bird's Indiana State in what would be the most viewed college basketball telecast ever.

Choosing an arena was easy. Just a few months earlier, in July, the NCAA had announced that the venue for 1985's Final Four would be Rupp Arena, in Lexington, the University of Kentucky's home since 1976. Now Oxenreiter needed a championship-game opponent for McClain and the Wildcats. He'd used North Carolina on another recording. The era of UCLA dominance seemed over at last. He briefly considered Kentucky until he realized that both schools had Wildcats for mascots. Too confusing.

Then Oxenreiter remembered Ewing also would be a senior in 1985. Surely any team aspiring to a national title, real or imagined, would have to contend with him and his team. And it looked increasingly like Georgetown was going to be his team. Besides, Ewing and McClain knew each other. Surely, the Worcester schoolboy, who never was able to do so in their high school meetings, would relish beating the 7-footer in their final collegiate game. Then, just for good measure, he decided McClain would be the game's high scorer and have the ball in his hands when it concluded.

With those additions, the milieu for Oxenreiter's six-minute production was complete. It all sounded so implausible at the time: Villanova vs. Georgetown. The 1985 NCAA championship. Rupp Arena. The closing seconds. High scorer McClain with the ball and . . .

. . . and now a half-decade later, the player thought, as if it had been fated by some sorcerer's spell, the fantasy on the tape had come to life.

A day before that title game, a headline that topped a Lexington newspaper's interview with coach-broadcaster Al McGuire seemed to sense what was coming: "It Will Take Divine Intervention to Stop Georgetown." As far as Villanova's players and coaches are concerned, that's exactly what happened.

They believed, then and now, that powers beyond their own were at work that night in Kentucky.


From "The Perfect Game" by Frank Fitzpatrick. Copyright © 2013 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, L.L.C.

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