The Perfect Game: How Villanova's Shocking 1985 Upset of Mighty Georgetown Changed the Landscape of College Hoops Foreverby Frank Fitzpatrick
Critically acclaimed veteran sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick takes readers courtside for one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, the 1985 Villanova/Georgetown national championship showdown
A veteran Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Frank Fitzpatrick has long followed and covered Villanova basketball. In all that
Critically acclaimed veteran sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick takes readers courtside for one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, the 1985 Villanova/Georgetown national championship showdown
A veteran Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Frank Fitzpatrick has long followed and covered Villanova basketball. In all that time, nothing compares with the Wildcats' legendary 1985 upset of Georgetowna win so spectacular and unusually flawless that days after its conclusion, sports columnists were already calling it "The Perfect Game."
The game, particularly its second half, was so different from what observers expectedso different, in fact, from what anyone had ever seen that a shroud of myth almost immediately began to envelop it. Over the years, the game took on mythological proportions with heroes and villains, but with a darker, more complex subtext. In the midst of the sunny Reagan Administration, the game had been played out amid darker themesrace, death, and, though no one knew it at the time, drugs.
It was a night when the basketball world turned upside down. Villanova-Georgetown would be a perfect little microcosm of the 1980s. And it would be much more. Even now, a quarter-century later, the upset gives hope to sporting Davids everywhere. At the start of every NCAA Tournament, it is recalled as an exemplar of March's madness. Whenever sport's all-time upsets are ranked, it is high on those lists, along with hockey's Miracle on Ice. Now, through interviews with the players and coaches, through the work of sociologists and cultural critics, through the eyes of those who witnessed the game, Fitzpatrick brings to life the events of and surrounding that fateful night.
“A veteran Philadelphia sportswriter revisits the thrilling 1985 NCAA national championship basketball game… [Fitzpatrick] insightfully deconstructs the racial framework surrounding the game, the appalling bigotry aroused by Thompson's disciplined, unsmiling, walled-off Georgetown team, and he reminds us of the cultural impact of the Hoya-inspired boom in athletic merchandising and the merger of hip-hop and basketball. An unforgettable game recalled in all its glory, but with its warts remembered too.” Kirkus
“Fitzpatrick profiles all the key players as well as the coaches, tracks the schools' journeys to the finals, and provides an appropriately breathless account of the game, which was one of the last to be played without the three-point shot or a shot clock. Ranked as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball, the 1985 title game continues to give hope to underdogs everywhere. A very intelligent bit of basketball history.” Booklist
“The Villanova Wildcats' victory over the Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA men's basketball championship remains one of the greatest surprises in sports history… Veteran sportswriter Fitzpatrick (And the Walls Came Tumbling Down) is at his best weaving the stories of the two schools and their basketball personnel.” Publishers Weekly
“[Fitzpatrick is] intent on demystifying the college football coach, moving beyond the spectacle of Saturday afternoon to reveal flesh and soul and humanity.” Buzz Bissinger on The Lion in Autumn, New York Times
“Fascinating. . . . One of the best books ever written on the rise and fall of a great college football coach.” Allen Barra on The Lion in Autumn, San Francisco Chronicle
“A rather startling success ... [Fitzpatrick] relies on his own tenacity and attention to detail with just the right amount of historical perspective.” Gene Collier on The Lion in Autumn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Brilliant.” ESPN.com on And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
“An admirably researched account of the barrier-shattering championship game that slam-dunked segregated college basketball. . . . Fair but devastating in its portrait of persistent prejudice, this is a landmark account of a landmark event.” Kirkus Reviews on And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
“A fascinating look inside team dynamics ... A fine baseball book, sure to be savored by fans for years to come.” Booklist on You Can't Lose 'Em All
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Read an Excerpt
We must control the tempo of the game.
—final comment in Villanova’s title-game scouting report on Georgetown
That, at least for those who understood college basketball, was Villanova’s real margin of victory.
If an April 4, 1984, NCAA Rules Committee vote to add a forty-five-second shot clock beginning the following season had been 9-4 in favor instead of 8-5, the Wildcats’ 1985 championship might never have happened. Had a shot clock been utilized in the 1985 NCAA Tournament, the number of land mines on Villanova’s already perilous path to history would have increased dramatically. Maryland, North Carolina, Memphis State, Georgetown, all teams that arguably had more talent but less patience, would not have been as constrained, as susceptible to Massimino’s machinations. The Villanova coach was a chess master. Thompson knew that as well as anyone. The Georgetown coach had cautioned those who early on doubted 19-10 Villanova’s ability to compete in the tourney. “Bet the jockey,” Thompson said, “not the horse.”
Though Massimino valued preparation and fundamentals and was a defensive wizard, the aspect of basketball that most concerned and fascinated him was pace. He loved to milk the clock for his purposes, to control his team’s tempo and disrupt his opponent’s. “We don’t ever intentionally hold the ball,” Massimino said before the Georgetown game. “But we’re going to try to control the tempo of the game. We’re going to make the extra pass. We’re going to try to get the ball inside.” That was how he constructed and instructed his team. Villanova had a more than capable point guard, an experienced core that didn’t easily panic or turn the ball over, and a matchup-zone defense few opponents ever really deciphered. Massimino’s defensive and offensive strategies were intertwined. The fewer possessions opponents had, the less likely they were to solve the defense. “When they score in the 70s and 80s,” Massimino said, “we don’t win.”
Villanova, of course, had played with a shot clock. The Big East had experimented with one in conference games during the 1984–85 regular season, including Villanova’s two losses to Georgetown. In retrospect, the use of a clock might explain why the Wildcats never found their stride until the tournament. But even in games with one, Massimino’s approach changed very little. So when the device was removed for the postseason, his Wildcats’ adjustment was an easy one. Without a clock, the Wildcats were able to frustrate opponents. During Villanova’s national semifinal victory, in fact, Memphis State’s players clearly were unnerved by their opponents’ lengthy possessions. Their equally annoyed fans filled Rupp Arena with chants of “BOR-ING … BOR-ING … BOR-ING.” The result was an ugly Villanova victory. When afterward it was suggested to Dana Kirk that the Wildcats were the tournament’s Cinderella, Memphis State’s coach huffed, “Cinderella must wear boots.”
In CBS TV’s opening to its championship-game coverage, Brent Musberger, while lauding Georgetown as a dynasty about to be coronated, also made note of what would be a key element. “No team has taken advantage of the lack of a shot clock in this tournament,” the broadcaster said, “more than Villanova.” Actually, the Wildcats would hold the ball for forty-five seconds or longer only twice, the most significant a nearly two-minute possession near the end of the first half that resulted in them exiting the floor with a 29-28 advantage. But they hurried no shots. The ’Cats, without any time constraints, knew they could be patient in finding holes, especially in the scary heart of Georgetown’s gambling defense.
Yet it might all have been different if, at that NCAA Rules Committee meeting twelve months earlier, a single vote had gone the other way. With a shot clock, Villanova might have been eliminated in the early rounds, even in its opener against Dayton. And Ewing and Georgetown might have won a second consecutive championship and been recalled today as one of the college game’s great dynasties instead of as its version of golf’s Greg Norman—a towering figure denied legendary status by cruel fate.
* * *
A 9-4 vote was required because regulations governing the NCAA Rules Committee mandated a two-thirds majority for any change to the game’s guidelines. That thirteen-member panel was comprised of veteran coaches and athletic directors from all three NCAA divisions. Vanderbilt coach C. M. Newton was its chair, Springfield College rules guru Ed Steitz its secretary. Other members included coaches Eddie Sutton of Arkansas and Jerry Krause of Eastern Washington. Junior colleges were represented by Bob Sechrest, the coach of Missouri’s Mineral Area Community College. For them and their committee predecessors, change was an ongoing process. Through the years, the committee had tinkered constantly with basketball, reacting to new problems, correcting old mistakes, anticipating trends that could threaten to tilt the competitive balance. As a result, by the mid-1980s, basketball’s pioneers would not have recognized the sport. The cages that once surrounded many courts had been removed. Walls that once were in play were made out-of-bounds. Originally restricted to one, players were permitted unlimited dribbles. The center jump after every basket was eliminated. A lane, a three-second rule, and a ten-second violation were added.
The committee, which always included a representative from Springfield College, the Massachusetts school where Dr. James Naismith had been teaching when he invented the sport as a winter diversion in 1891, tended to be overprotective. When, for example, it became obvious that behemoths like Bob Kurland, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor could use their height in ways Naismith never anticipated, the committee acted. Consciously or not, race occasionally appeared to play a role in the committee’s decisions. As with America in general, it was an inescapable issue in basketball. And the more blacks came to dominate the game, the greater the reaction. The committee, some suggested, seemed more inclined to rewrite the rules when its concerns were about large black men. To counter Chamberlain’s enormous impact, for example, the committee shifted into overdrive. It banned offensive goaltending and inbounds passes over the backboard, mandated that players had to remain stationary on free throws, and that the defensive team had to have at least two men beneath the basket on those shots. The lane, originally six feet when it was added to stifle Mikan, was widened to twelve feet in the era of Chamberlain and Russell.
But the alteration that drew the most suspicion came in 1967, when the rules panel prohibited dunks. Given the timing, it was hard to argue that the arbitrary decision was not racially motivated. The ban was enacted the same year the spectacularly gifted Alcindor enrolled at UCLA, a year after David “Big Daddy” Lattin’s emphatic dunk had punctuated Texas Western’s surprise NCAA title-game triumph. “Dunking typified what a lot of people felt about blacks in basketball,” said Perry Wallace, who in 1966 became the first African-American to play in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). “It was threatening.” A decade later, after professionals like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan had transformed the dunk into an iconic American artistic expression, one whose appeal was an integral part of basketball’s resurgent popularity, the committee finally lifted its ban.
* * *
By the time Villanova and Georgetown met in 1985, many of the questions surrounding the participation of blacks in basketball were moot. African-American coaches like Thompson, Temple’s John Chaney, and Arkansas’s Nolan Richardson headed prominent programs. Black players had starred at the collegiate level for more than two decades, and at every position. Even the old segregated conferences had opened their doors wide for them. In the Deep South’s SEC, forty-two of the league’s fifty starters in 1983 were black. So were all twenty starters on the four Southern schools that comprised that year’s Final Four: Houston, Louisville, Georgia, and North Carolina State. When Villanova and Georgetown met in the 1985 championship game, in which all ten starters were black, the average men’s team included 5.7 black players, double the 1966 figure.
But despite those encouraging trends, America and the mostly white men who ran basketball were far from color-blind. The focus of the racially obsessed in the 1980s merely had shifted to concerns about style and attitude. Dunking, speed, athleticism, improvisational flair, and, to some extent, up-tempo play were seen as symbolic of black basketball, a style often portrayed as “undisciplined.” “That means ‘nigger,’” Georgetown’s Thompson told Sports Illustrated in 1984. “They’re all big and fast and can leap like kangaroos and eat watermelon in the locker room.… It’s the idea that a black man doesn’t have the intelligence or the character to practice self-control.” Conversely, despite countless examples to the contrary, self-control was viewed as a hallmark of white basketball, along with long-range shooting ability and a slower pace. A shot clock, its critics suggested without ever saying as much, would punish the diminishing pool of white players and reward more athletically blessed blacks. “[A clock] is also a boon to coaches who prefer to assemble great athletes and let them run and gun rather than think,” wrote columnist Pete Axthelm, encapsulating the prevailing wisdom for his Newsweek readers in 1985.
For the most part, college basketball continued to be played without a clock, not because coaches wanted to hold the ball for minutes on end, but because when an opponent had superior talent, or a tenuous late lead needed protecting, they took comfort in knowing there was an option. But sentiment was changing fast. A 1980 National Association of Basketball Coaches poll found that by an overwhelming margin members opposed the implementation of a shot clock. Two years later, 42 percent favored adding one. And by 1983, nearly half—49 percent—wanted a clock. At 1984’s Final Four, when the competing coaches were asked for their opinions, only Thompson opposed a clock. “Based on inconsistency during the regular season in conferences, I would prefer it the way it is,” he said.
While there’s no indication race was a factor in the shot clock’s eventual implementation, it is interesting to note that in 1985, nearly two decades after Texas Western’s groundbreaking triumph, all thirteen members of the rules committee were white men. When in 1984 those white men came together in Seattle for their annual post–Final Four session, on the day after Georgetown had won the championship at the nearby Kingdome, it was expected that they would approve a shot clock for all collegiate games, beginning with the 1984–85 season. In fact, a Washington Post story a week before had suggested the change was a fait accompli. “The [only] question to be determined,” the Post story predicted, “is whether the clock will run the entire game or be turned off in the final four or five minutes.”
The best argument against a shot clock, for many, was North Carolina, where the widely respected Dean Smith had revolutionized end-of-game strategy with his much-imitated “four-corners offense.” Its concept was simple: Spread your players, have them pass the ball constantly to open teammates, and if the trailing team wanted to challenge the setup, wanted to risk fouling or leaving someone open beneath the basket, so be it. But while purists applauded the strategy, most casual fans hated it. During a March 7, 1982, nationally televised matchup with No. 3 Virginia, No. 1 North Carolina held the ball the last seven minutes and six seconds to protect a one-point lead. Despite loud boos from the sold-out Greensboro Coliseum crowd, the strategy proved successful. Criticized sharply, Smith, who had learned the game at Kansas under Phog Allen, a protégé of Naismith’s, pointed out that the ultimate object of basketball was to win, not to win pretty. And there could be little question about the four corners’ effectiveness. Between 1966 and 1972, Smith’s Tar Heels had used the tactic in 107 games and won 105 of them. The four corners soon warranted a page in almost every team’s playbook. “There probably wasn’t a coach in the country who didn’t teach an end-of-game stall,” said Don Casey, who coached then at Temple.
Even John Thompson. Thompson had learned it while serving as Smith’s assistant on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. In a March 1984 NCAA victory over Southern Methodist, just a week before the shot clock vote failed, Georgetown successfully stalled throughout the second half, countering the widely held but mistaken notion that his was a run-and-gun team. Like so much of what Thompson and Georgetown did, his strategy was instantly criticized. It was one thing to protect a lead in the final minutes, but holding the ball early or in the midst of a game seemed antithetical to the sport’s intent.
* * *
Proponents of a clock liked to point to a game on December 15, 1973, when Temple faced host Tennessee in the final of the Volunteer Classic. Temple’s Don Casey, hoping to pull Ray Mears’s Volunteers out of the packed-in zone they favored, had his underdog Owls hold the ball whenever they got it. “We thought it would give us the best chance to win,” Casey explained. “So we took two guys and put them out by the twenty-eight-foot line, had them standing about five feet apart. We had them pass the ball back and forth, back and forth.”
Mears wouldn’t fall into the trap. With Tennessee’s defense content to sit back, Temple guards Rick Trudeau and John Kneib just kept ping-ponging the ball. Basketball Digest would later describe the two as looking “like Easter Island statues in their Chuck Taylors, passing the ball back and forth for minutes at a time.” The two did so, unchallenged, for the final eleven minutes of the first half, after which underdog Temple trailed the home team by just two, 7-5. When the Owls continued to stall in the second half, the sold-out crowd and Mears grew angrier, more vocal. “What are you doing? Play basketball!” Tennessee’s coach shouted repeatedly at his counterpart. “If you don’t like it,” replied Casey, “come out and get us!” Frustrated fans began booing and hurling ice at the Temple bench. Seven Tennessee state troopers had to be positioned between the Owls and the increasingly hostile crowd. Incredibly, not a single field goal was made in the second half. Tennessee won what remains the lowest scoring game of the modern era, 11-6. Afterward, statisticians determined that the Owls had held the ball for thirty-two minutes and five seconds of the forty-minute contest.
Mears wasn’t any happier when the game was over. “The people had come to see basketball,” he said. “We invited teams from East and West so they could see different styles of basketball. Temple had an Eastern style. I told Casey, ‘I gave you $10,000 to come in here to play and I’m disappointed. I’ll never invite you back.’” So concerned were Tennessee officials about the irate fans that, to appease them, university president Ed Boling ordered Mears to have his Volunteers come out afterward and play an intrasquad scrimmage. The school delayed sending Temple its $10,000 check for more than a year.
The kind of negative reaction Temple provoked became increasingly problematic in the 1980s as a boom in cable television brought more college basketball games to TV and more revenue to athletic departments. Sponsors and spectators wouldn’t spend money, the conventional thinking went, to watch two teams play catch. When in 1983 a nationally televised Kentucky-Cincinnati game deteriorated into a stall-ball match, which Kentucky eventually won, 24-11, ESPN was bombarded with complaints. And those gripes were quickly redirected to NCAA headquarters. Fans wanted to see more points, more action. Instead, by 1982, scoring in NCAA games had dropped for seven consecutive seasons and, at a combined 135 points a game, was at a thirty-year low. “We’re in the entertainment business,” said South Alabama coach Cliff Ellis, a shot clock proponent, “and that’s not entertainment.”
As the ’80s progressed, the calls for a clock ratcheted up. “College basketball,” Sports Illustrated, then the conscience of American sports, pointed out in 1982, “is becoming a study in tedium.” The Sun Belt had been using a clock for several seasons, after its 1978 postseason tournament concluded with a 22-20 game. Both attendance and competitiveness had increased. And even though the clock was turned off during the last four minutes, Sun Belt games produced an average of twenty more points than those in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten. Still, the purists, particularly those on the stodgier East Coast, weren’t convinced. By eliminating the ability to stall, they argued, the rules makers would be eliminating the possibility of David-and-Goliath upsets. “It’ll just be run-and-gun like the NBA and the little guy will no longer have a chance,” said Casey. Besides, why tamper with a sport that had never been more popular? Ever since Magic-Bird in 1979, the television audiences for all college basketball games, but especially those in the NCAA Tournament, had been exploding. Why mess with success?
When it finally became clear that change was inevitable, some coaches philosophically opposed to a clock conceded they could swallow one if it were turned off late in the game. “A team should be able to hold the ball then,” said Boston College coach Gary Williams. Others said it needed to be paired with a three-point shot that would force teams out of their zone defenses. “There are some who believe it has to be a package deal,” said Steitz, the longtime rules committee power and the man behind the three-pointer’s eventual adoption. Besides, supporters liked to point out, look at what a shot clock had done for the National Basketball Association. In 1954, the eight-year-old NBA was struggling to survive. Its games, marked by an increasing physicality, tended to be slow, plodding, and low-scoring. Unless tempted by doubleheaders or pregame performances by the Harlem Globetrotters, fans of the league’s nine teams simply weren’t buying enough tickets. In the 1953–54 season, average attendance for NBA games was barely 3,500.
Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone, a nervous little bowling alley proprietor who craved action, understood the discontent. So he set about handicapping it. Whenever he particularly enjoyed a game, Biasone dissected it. What he found was the more shots that were taken, the more points scored, the better he liked it. He charted how many shots the two teams took in those games. “I noticed it was usually about 60, or 120 for the two teams,” he said. Biasone then divided 120 into the number of seconds in a forty-eight-minute game—2,880—and came up with roughly twenty-four. Why not, he thought, guarantee that teams shoot the ball at least once every twenty-four seconds? After the 1953–54 season, he proposed a twenty-four-second clock and the NBA owners—desperate for any crowd-pleasing gimmick—adopted it. The next season, team scoring jumped from an average of 79 points a game to 93. By 1958 it hit 107. Per-game attendance showed a similar bounce, reaching 4,500 in 1955–56 and continuing in an upward direction. “The shot clock,” said Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, “saved the NBA.”
* * *
The NCAA, meanwhile, hoping to spice up a sport it only recently had sanctioned, added a thirty-second clock for women’s basketball in 1970. By the early 1980s, men’s leagues like the Sun Belt were experimenting with one, some forty-five seconds, others thirty or thirty-five. And even though the 1985 NCAA Tournament would be played without one, twenty-three leagues had used a clock during that regular season. Three—the Atlantic 10, Pacific Coast, and Big Sky—also tried a three-point shot.
But on April 4, 1984, to almost everyone’s surprise, the rules committee announced it hadn’t been able to reach an acceptable compromise. By an 8-5 vote, the shot clock proposal had been rejected. Iowa coach George Raveling, who was not a member, summarized the point of contention: “There are a couple of people on the rules committee who believe it should be off the last two minutes of the game because it rewards poor defense and promotes zone defense.” (At that meeting, however, the committee did adopt a change confining coaches to a twenty-eight-foot-long box. At the time, many believed it was aimed at Thompson, who liked to roam and get close to the officials he generally towered over and intimidated.) So when the 1985 men’s tournament began with games on March 14, the clock, like Cinderella’s pumpkin at midnight, disappeared. It was a decision that struck many coaches as ridiculous. “For the tournament, we’ve gone from a forty-five-second clock,” said Dave Bliss, whose SMU team played with one that season, “to a forty-minute clock.”
Copyright © 2013 by Frank Fitzpatrick
Meet the Author
FRANK FITZPATRICK has been a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than thirty years. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his numerous awards include first place from the Associated Press Sports Editors in the Best News Story category. He is also the author of Pride of the Lions: The Biography of Joe Paterno, as well as And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western, and the Game That Changed American Sports. He lives in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
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You are worth my tears...or were worth my tears.
Great detailing of both the season leading up to the classic game and the game itself. Fitzpatrick provides insight into both coaches from the perspectives of a limited group of witnesses. An enjoyable read, even though Fitzpatrick chases the "Reagan is a racist" rabbit trail for a section of the book.