CORRECTION: This column was updated at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 4, 2020, to correct the year to 1973 in the twelfth paragraph. It had previously stated 1974.
March 25, 1978. The clock having just hit 2:30 a.m. that Saturday, the last embers fading to black on a Centre College fraternity party in Danville, Kentucky, my roommate and I were supposed to climb into my Toyota Corolla at that moment and head toward St. Louis, where the NCAA tournament's Final Four would begin later that day.
But in the final hours before we were to drive across Interstate 64 toward Louisville, then on through Indiana and Illinois to reach the Gateway to the West, my buddy politely declined, his concern over missing something so mundane as a Monday quiz in Greek somehow getting the best of him.
A side note is important here: My friend is now chief legal counsel for a national insurance company and probably makes more in a month than I make in a year. To all you young folks out there who too often choose fun over focus: Proper priorities can pay big dividends later in life.
Then again, he did watch the national semifinals and finals that weekend on a television at Centre's Phi Delt house. Yours truly watched his first in-person Final Four from seats no more than 15 rows off the floor at the Checkerdome. I've still got the official souvenir program to prove it.
And had COVID-19 not begun to dramatically, if not permanently, alter all our lives — including canceling this year's Final Four — I would be sitting in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, covering my 29th Final Four for this newspaper, the first of those coming in 1988 inside Kansas City's Kemper Arena, where the 50th Final Four ended with a Kansas Jayhawks squad better known as Danny (Manning) and the Miracles shocking Oklahoma, 83-79.
But more on that later.
To briefly return to '78, I reached St. Louis a little before 8 a.m., my arrival trumpeted by a light yet steady snow. My cousin was nice enough to let me stay with her family that weekend, so I grabbed a longer nap at their home in the suburbs, then headed to the Checkerdome, where I bought a ticket to that day's semifinals of Notre Dame-Duke and Kentucky-Arkansas for $25.
Come Monday's title game between Kentucky and Duke, two scalped tickets for my 12-year-old cousin Steve Parker and me were still only $80 total, though that may have been due to the kindness of Ducksie Grissom, a ticket broker from Lexington, Kentucky, who took pity on a cash-strapped college kid.
Second side note: Upon returning to Centre, I found out I'd received a C for the Greek quiz I'd blown off. Said the professor, a native of eastern Kentucky, "If you'd asked me to go with you, I'd have given you an A."
How much has the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament and the Final Four changed since then? Prior to this year's cancellation, secondary market tickets for the worst seats in the house for the semifinals were going for $385 or more. Tickets for the final were in the $275 range for those same distant seats.
But in 1978, my cousin and I were no more than 15 rows from the court in the corner of the end zone to watch the Wildcats — thanks largely to senior Jack "Goose" Givens' 41 points — hold off the Blue Devils 94-88 to win their first NCAA title in 20 years and fifth overall, prompting Sports Illustrated to place Givens on its cover the following week with the headline "The Goose Was Golden."
But if Givens' golden effort remains the best Final Four performance I've seen inside an arena — UCLA star Bill Walton's 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting from the floor in the 1973 title win over Memphis is the gold standard — it isn't the only memorable moment I've witnessed in person.
Here are some of my superlatives:
Best championship game: Michigan over Seton Hall, 80-79 in overtime in 1989.
Best semifinal: Kentucky over Stanford, 86-85 in OT in 1998.
Best coaching job: Larry Brown, after his Jayhawks lost to Oklahoma twice during the regular season, stunned the Sooners 83-79 in the 1988 title game by running with them during a breakneck first half (it was 50-all at intermission), then severely slowing it down in the second. Brilliant, but hardly unexpected from the only coach to win both an NBA and an NCAA title.
Best team: Keep in mind, I wasn't in the stands for Indiana's undefeated team in 1976, the great UCLA teams of Lew Alcindor (1967-1969) and Bill Walton (1972-73) or Bill Russell's 29-0 San Francisco team in 1956, but Kentucky's 1996 champs won six tourney games by an average margin of 21.5 points, ultimately sending eight players to the NBA.
Five best players: Danny Manning (31 points, 18 rebounds in '88 title game), Duke's Christian Laettner, UCLA's Ed O'Bannon (30 points, 17 rebounds, three steals in '95 final), Givens, Rice.
Worst off-court moment: A couple of hours after Connecticut beat Kentucky in the 2014 final, my best friend and I headed to my car, only to find it had been towed. Three hours and $238 later, we finally returned to the hotel.
Best quasi-off-court moment: Arkansas having beaten Duke some 20 minutes earlier to win the 1994 title in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was sitting on press row, soaking in the postgame celebration as "One Shining Moment" played on the loudspeakers when I realized President Bill Clinton — a lifelong Razorbacks fan — was coming down the arena stairs a few feet from me, a handful of Secret Service agents surrounding him.
Perhaps because this was before 9/11, I walked up to him and asked what he was thinking when the Hogs' Scotty Thurman launched the shot that won the game.
Said Clinton, looking directly at me with those piercing blue eyes just before he shook my hand, his aw-shucks Southern drawl at its best: "Well, I was hoping it would go in."
Twenty-six years later, let us all hope this will be the only year our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, are held hostage by COVID-19.