A veteran Philadelphia sportswriter revisits the thrilling 1985 NCAA national championship basketball game.
Knowledgeable commentators agreed that eighth-seed Villanova would have to play a perfect game to defeat defending champion juggernaut Georgetown. Though the Wildcats were not flawless on that April Fool’s night in Lexington, Ky., they did manage to shoot almost 79 percent and beat the Hoyas 66-64 to pull off the most improbable victory in basketball history. As the narrative proceeds through each team’s season, builds toward their tourney selection—the field expanded to 64 teams that year—and progresses to the Final Four, Fitzpatrick (Pride of the Lions: The Biography of Joe Paterno, 2011, etc.) sketches some of the important players in the drama: Villanova’s tourney MVP Ed Pinckney, dynamic point guard Gary McLain, inspirational, longtime trainer Jake Nevin and Georgetown’s imposing center, Patrick Ewing. The author handles the coaches especially well: the Wildcats’ Rollie Massimino, not quite the “linguini and clams” teddy bear everyone supposed, and the Hoyas’ John Thompson, not entirely the heartless intimidator. And though he never quite delivers on the promise of his subtitle, Fitzpatrick expertly paints the Reagan-era college basketball landscape, a time without a shot clock, three-point baskets, or drug testing for tourney players. The pedigrees of these two private Catholic universities, the flowering of ESPN, the glory days of the Big East and the historic pull of Philadelphia’s Big 5 rivalries are all part of Fitzpatrick’s story. In particular, he 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.