Nova's improbable championship still an amazing feat 28 years later
By Mike Gross, Sports Columnist email@example.com
They got the title right on this one.
Coaches of Davids about to face Goliaths, in all sports, invariably describe their chances thusly:
"If we can play a perfect game ....''
Villanova did it in 1985 against Georgetown, for college basketball's national championship.
The Wildcats weren't, as author Frank Fitzpatrick points out, literally perfect. They committed 17 turnovers against Georgetown's savage pressure defense, and "perfect,'' if you think it through, is an idea that doesn't even make sense in competitive sport.
But the Wildcats were close enough. They took only 28 shots, and made 22 of them. They shot 78.6 percent from the field, 90 percent in the second half, both final-game records by light years.
And they did it against not just the best team but by far the best defensive team in the country.
That's what sets this game apart from even most epic and unlikely upsets. They generally require complicity from Goliath, who must take David lightly or somehow play into his hands. Think of brain-dead Houston rolling over for Jim Valvano and N.C. State in the famous '83 final.
Nova beat the best team in the country on a night when it played like the best team in the country.
The Wildcats went into the NCAA tournament that year with 10 losses, and a modest 9-7 Big East regular-season record. They thought, understandably, their season was over when they were routed by Pittsburgh in their Big East regular-season finale.
In "The Perfect Game," Fitzpatrick makes two small but important points. The NCAAs had expanded from a 53- to 64-team field that year. Before the season, an NCAA rules committee had voted 8-5 to adopt a shot clock for the sport. A two-thirds majority was required. With 53 teams, Villanova wouldn't have gotten in. With one more vote for a shot clock, the deliberate Wildcats couldn't have won.
There is much more to the story than the box score, and Fitzpatrick thoroughly covers the game's dense context: Colorful Nova coach Rollie Massimino and his warm (and amusing, when the two men stood next to each other) relationship with towering Georgetown coach John Thompson; the stormy cultural ground held by the defiantly African-American Hoyas in Ronald Reagan's America of the 1980s; and the covert cocaine use of Villanova point guard Gary McLain, who later admitted to being high on coke during the team's visit to the White House.
This is Fitzpatrick's sixth book, all on sports, two on Penn State football, which he used to cover for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's also, of all things, the Inquirer's figure-skating writer. I was channel-surfing once and happened on him discoursing on the works of John Updike on Pennsylvania Cable Network.
He's perhaps best-known to the paper's readers for his snarky humor columns on sports.
There's no snark here, and none of Updike's virtuosic prose. There is also -- and this is a bit disappointing -- little or no evidence of in-depth interviews with the principals.
What this is, is a historical survey. What it surveys is the signal event (at least according to this critic) from an era in which basketball was finishing the transition from a gym-class game the real jocks played in the winter to stay in shape for baseball and football to a major-league sport and entertainment that lived, and lives, near the cutting edge of what America has become.
Not perfect, but close enough.n