Yes Virginia, there really is a UMBC


Back in February of 1981, I was working the copy desk at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel when Notre Dame beat then undefeated and top-ranked Virginia and Ralph Sampson. The headline I wrote for the next day’s paper was “Yes Virginia, there really is a Notre Dame.”

Similiarly, two weeks before Christmas in 1982, Sampson and the top-ranked Cavaliers were upset by tiny Chaminade, an NAIA school, in Hawaii.

These upsets were certainly amazing, but nothing like what happened in the first round of the NCAA tournment when 16th seed UMBC took out top-ranked and #1 seed Virginia 74-54. Finally, for the first time ever, a #16 seed beat a #1 seed. Make it one win and 135 losses.

Wow, this is the granddaddy of all NCAA tourney upsets. UMBC, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, became U Must be Cinderella. Fans rocked in the stands and the streets. The school’s website crashed after the game.

You know what this is like?” CBS Sports analyst Bill Raftery said after the game. “This is like saying, well, you know, one day the aliens are going to land here and that’s going to be incredible. But in the back of your mind you’re like, ‘C’mon, man, we all know the aliens are never going to land here.'”

We all thought we knew – a 16 can’t beat a 1. Not only did the UMBC Retrievers win, they won by 20 points, scoring 53 points in the second half against the nation’s top defensive team. Virginia allowed just 53.4 points per game during the regular season.

This is beyond madness. It’s insanity.

The UMBC victory easily ranks as the top upset in the history of the NCAAs, but there have been man others. Here are the top dozen, in chronological order:

12 Great NCAA Upsets

1944:  Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (OT) — Utah originally turned down an invitation to the NCAA tournament, but was given a second chance after losing in the NIT, and after Arkansas pulled out of the tourney after two players were injured in an automobile accident.  In those days there were no seedings and no 64-team field, just two, four-team regionals and a title game at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Utes were the youngest NCAA champion in history; the team’s average age was 18 years, six months. And in the midst of World War II, the team had two Japanese-American players, one on release from an internment camp. The Utes defeated Eastern champion and heavily favored Dartmouth in the championship game on a set shot by forward Herb Wilkinson in the first overtime championship game in NCAA history.  Utah became known as the Whiz Kids, Zoot Utes, and the Live Five from the Jive Drive.

1956: Canisius 79, North Carolina State 78 (4OT) — The Wolfpack was ranked second in the nation when they faced Canisius in the first round. The Golden Griffins won in four overtimes. The two teams set a record for longest NCAA Tournament game that’s been once tied (1961), but never broken. The San Francisco Dons, led by Bill Russell, won the NCAA title that year.

UTEP1966: Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65 — Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) and its all-black starting five was a heavy underdog to Kentucky’s all white starting five, including Pat Riley, and openly racist coach, Adolph Rupp. Yet the Miners managed the win. Rupp “carried the memory of that game to his grave,” wrote his biographer, Russell Rice.

1979: Penn 72, North Carolina 71 — The Quakers beat top-rated UNC in the East Regionals and later St. John’s in the Eastern regional finals, and became what remains the last Ivy League team to make the Final Four.  Penn would be the only team to beat four higher seeded opponents to reach the Final Four until the feat was matched in 1986 by LSU and again in 2006 by George Mason. Penn was crushed in the national semis by Magic Johnson and Michigan State, which went on to beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State team for the championship.

1983: NC State 54, Houston 52 — NC State had lost 10 games during the regular season and wasn’t expected to be in the title match. The Cougars and their “Phi  Slamma Jamma” crew of Akeem (later Hakeem) “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, meanwhile, were the nation’s top-ranked team and on a 25-game winning streak. But when Lorenzo Charles slammed home an errant shot as time expired, the Wolfpack had an improbable win and coach Jim Valvano went “looking for someone to hug.”

1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 — Many thought the eighth-seeded Wildcats didn’t belong on the same court with Patrick Ewing and the defending champion Hoyas. Georgetown had already beaten Villanova twice during the regular season. But the Wildcats  shot a record 78.6 percent from the field, missed only one shot in the entire second half, and became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the national championship.

1991: Richmond 73, Syracuse 69 — Richmond became the first No. 15 to beat a two seed The win inspired the immortal headline: Orangemen Bitten by Spiders. Other 15-2 shockers include Santa Clara over Arizona in 1991 and Coppin State over South Carolina in 1997. More below.

brycedrew1998: Valparaiso 70, Mississippi 69 — One of the most famous last-second shots in basketball history and the poster child for buzzer beaters was the three pointer by Bryce Drew, left, that helped 13-seed Valparaiso beat Ole Miss in a stunner.
2006: George Mason 86, Connecticut (OT) — A suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., that was a dicey choice to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, the 11th seeded Patriots upset No. 1 seed UConn and reached the Final Four. The Patriots were only the second double-digit seed to make the Final Four, matching LSU’s run, also as an 11th seed, in 1986. They were the first true outsider to crash the quartet since Penn and Indiana State both got there in 1979.

2010: Northern Ohio 67, Kansas 65 — It’s rare that the top seeded team in the tournament goes out this early. But NIU guard Ali Farokhmanes, the answer to future trivia question, hit a three-pointer with 34 seconds left to ultimately doom Kansas in the second round .The top-seeded Jayhawks were knocked out by ninth-seeded NIU in one of the bigger surprises in NCAA history.

2012: Lehigh 75, Duke 70 – Lehigh, a 15 seed, engineered the upset over second seed Duke. Led by C.J. McCollum, the Mountain Hawks from the Patriots League stunned the Blue Devils and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.

2016Middle Tennessee 90, Michigan State 81 – Big 10 champs and a trendy championship pick, coach Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad fell to Middle Tennessee in a shocker.

Related Blog: Top 10 Championship Games in Final Four History


1951–my birth year in sports


Thomson_19511003Recently I read “1941: The Greatest Year in Sports” by Mike Vaccaro, the excellent columnist for the New York Post. Vacaro interweaves vignettes about the year in sports – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams .406 season, Whirlaway’s Triple Crown, Joe Louis over Billy Conn and more – with the shadow of war hanging over the world in 1941. Excellent read.

My favorite sports year is 1951 – my birth year. That was a great year for sports.

Start with “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth inning home run off Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds  that gave the Giants the National League pennant over the Dodgers. At one point in August, the Giants trailed Brooklyn by 13 1/2 games, yet came all the way back to win a dramatic playoff game on what is generally regarded as the most memorable home run in baseball history,

The Yankees went on to beat the Giants in six games in the World Series. It was Joe DiMaggio’s final appearance in the Fall Classic; while Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays found October’s spotlight as rookies.

The year 1951 saw the first professional championship in North America for a team based West of St. Louis. The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cleveland Browns 24-17, gaining revenge for a last-minute loss to the Browns in 1950.

Earlier in the 1951 season opener, LA quarterback Norm Van Brocklin passed for 554 yards and five TDs in a 54-14 win over the New York Yanks. That record has stood up for more than 66 years.

The world of boxing witnessed the career intersection of two of the game’s all-time heavyweights. Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. In an October bout at Madison Square Garden, Marciano, age 27, knocked down Louis, 37, twice in the eighth round before the fight was called as a TKO.

The great golfer Ben Hogan overcame a near-fatal automobile accident in 1949, winning both the Masters and the US Open.

In the NBA, the New York  Knickerbockers nearly overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Rochester Royals before losing in seven games. The Royals won the final game 79-75 on April 21. It was their first, and to date only, NBA Championship.

That same day, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup four games to one over the Montreal Canadians, with all five games going into overtime. Bill Barilko scored the Cup-winning goal; sadly it turned out to be his final goal. Barilko died in a plane crash during the summer in a fishing trip to northern Quebec.

Happy Birthday, Dad


The first college football game ever televised, Waynesburg vs. Fordham in 1939.

On a steamy August Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1938, New York right-hander Monte Pearson, shown below right, pitched the first no-hitter in Yankee Stadium history. The Yanks beat the Cleveland Indians, 13-0, that afternoon to complete a doubleheader sweep.

Pearson, who was 16-7 that year and won exactly 100 games lifetime,  faced the minimum 27 batters, striking out seven. Tommy Henrich and Joe Gordon each homered twice.

In the opener that day, Joe DiMaggio’s third straight triple of the game plated two runs in the bottom of the ninth to cap a three-run rally and give the Yankees an 8-7 victory. A crowd of 40.959 was on hand Pearson_Monteas the Yankees increased their American League lead  to 12 games en route to their third straight championship.

One year later come September, Fordham University defeated Waynesburg College of Pennsylvania, 34-7, at Randalls Island in New York. But that wasn’t the story. NBC filmed the first college football game ever televised, as Bill Stern brought the play by play to viewers.

Waynesburg’s Bobby Brooks made history with a 63-yard touchdown run, the first televised TD. Reportedly, there was no victory dance in the end zone.

The W2XBS broadcast signal had about a 50-mile radius, and there were about a thousand TV sets in the New York metropolitan area at the time. The signal didn’t even reach Waynesburg, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. So who saw the game? Who knows?

Columbia Shocks Army
In October of 1947, Army was a huge favorite as the Cadets brought a 32-game winning streak into New York to face Columbia’s Lions. Army had not lost since 1943; Columbia was coming off losses to Yale and Penn.

Army led, 20-7, at the half, but the Columbia combination of quarterback Gene Rossides and received Bill Swiacki brought the Lions back for a stunning 21-20 victory.

maris60And in September of 1961, Roger Maris of the Yankees, pictured left, hit a long home run into the upper deck at the old Yankee Stadium against Baltimore’s Jack Fisher. The round-tripper was Roger’s 60th of the season, equaling the mark Babe Ruth set in 1927.  Maris hit number 61 on the final day of the season, setting a record that many feel still stands.

These events, interesting in of themselves, have something else in common. My father was right there for each and every one. He was just 13-years-old at the Pearson no-hitter, a game he attended with other family members. The decision was made to leave once the Indians got their first hit. That never happened.

My Dad went to the Waynesburg-Fordham game with his cousin, who was at that time the manager of a powerful Fordham team.  By the time Maris tied the Babe in 1961, my Dad was a father of four, two boys and two girls, including me, the oldest. Of course, my Mom had something to do that.

My Dad took me to my first Yankee game nearly 60 years ago. He also brought me to my first Giants game, also at Yankee Stadium, and to my first Knicks and Rangers games at the old Madison Square Garden.

He’s always been there for me, whether it be cash, advice or a good meal. There’s still nothing I’d rather do than talk sports with my old man. I treasure the times I spend with him always.

Happy Birthday. Love you, Dad.

(Note: My father turns 92 today. World War II veteran, engineer, lifelong Yankee fan, married for 67 years, father of our, grandfather of 13, great-grandfather of 10. He’s the smartest man I’ve ever known.)

Related Links

Happy Father’s Day

TV Firsts

Jabbar part of the conversation of best ever

1758742ADB_DNA023133068Who’s the best basketball player in history?

The most popular answer is Michael Jordan. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are popular selections. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are certainly in the conversation. LeBron James is a favorite of the current generation and still climbing.

A name that rarely…if ever…comes up is Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Surprising, considering the big man’s pedigree. Here are 10 supporting arguments for Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the best ever.

1. POINTS: He’s the leading scorer in NBA history with 37,387 points. Karl Malone is second.

2. MVP: Kareem won the NBA MVP award a record six times. Jordan won five and LeBron is a four-time winner.

3. RINGS: He’s won six NBA championships, one with the Bucks and five with the Lakers. Only Robert Horry and a bunch of Celtics have won more. Russell is the leader with 11.

4. DEFENSE: Kareem was selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive team 11 times.

5. REBOUNDS: He’s fourth all-time in rebounds with 17,440, trailing only Wilt, Russell and Malone.

6. ALL-STAR: Jabbar appeared in 19 NBA All-Star games, the most in history. Kobe Bryant is second with 18.

7. BLOCKS: Only Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutumbo have more blocks than Kareem.

8. UCLA: Won three straight NCAA titles with UCLA in 1967,68 and 69, and made first team All-American each year.

9. GAMES: Only Robert Parrish played in more NBA games than Jabbar.

10. SCORING AVERAGE: Kareem averaged 24.6 points per game throughout his career.

The Bullets and the amazing comeback of 1948


The Cleveland Cavaliers recently engineered the greatest second-half comeback in NBA playoff history when they rallied from 25 down at the half to beat the Indiana Pacers 119-114.

Amazingly, that broke a record that stood for nearly 70 years, ever since the Baltimore Bullets came back from 21 down to beat the Philadelphia Warriors 66-63 in the 1948 NBA Finals.

In an era without the 24-second clock and a three-point line, the Bullets came all the way back to win, on Philadelphia’s home floor no less. And it remained the largest comeback for 70 years, a lifetime of games. None of the great Celtics or Lakers team or Jordan’s Bulls or the Spurs or anyone else ever made a bigger comeback,

In 1948, the defending champion Warriors, fresh off their Game One victory, rolled to a 41-20 halftime lead over the Bullets. “In those days, if you got behind that far, the game was over,” Baltimore player-coach Buddy Jeannette recalled years afterward. “There was no 24-second clock to help you come back. But somehow we did. We took our time and made our shots and caught ’em. I don’t know if we were so good or Philly was so bad.”

Philly’s leading scorer Joe Fulks helped matters by continuing to shoot — and miss. And the Bullets helped themselves by driving to the basket for good shots. The home crowd sat stunned. The Bullets cut the gap to 48-40 in the third quarter. Then, in the last period, it was all Baltimore. “We were up by one with four seconds to go, and I tipped in a missed free throw,” Bullets forward Paul Hoffman recalled.

Connie Simmons led the Bullets with 25 points that night, Hoffman had 12 and Kleggie Hermsen 10.Joe Fulks led the Warriors with 27, most of them in the first half. 

The 66-63 victory was one of the more impressive comebacks in sports history. Unfortunately, nobody paid much attention to pro basketball then. The story received a few paragraphs on the back page of The New York Times. Still, it gave the Bullets the momentum they were looking for.  

The Bullets went on the win the series in six games for their only NBA championship. The Bullets were, in effect, an expansion team in the 1947-48 season having come over from another league, the American Basketball League to the Basketball Association of America, which would become the NBA beginning in 1949. The Baltimore franchise folded in 1954, and the Bullets remain the only defunct team to win an NBA championship.

The Baltimore Bullets returned to the NBA in 1963, after two years in Chicago as first the Packers and then the Zephyrs. They became the Capital Bullets in 1973, the Washington Bullets in 1974 and the current Washington Wizards in 1997. The Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in 1978 to win their only NBA title.

Jesuit All-Stars: A team for the ages


It was a battle for Jesuit supremacy when Marquette and Xavier met in the West Regional Final of the NCAAs last week. Marquette and Xavier are two of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States, many of whom boast a proud and rich basketball heritage.

Jesuit schools have fared well in the tournament, winning six championships since the NCAAs began in 1939. In fact, five of the previous six Jesuit entrants in the Final Four wound up winning titles. The University of San Francisco, centered by Bill Russell, above, took back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956. Holy Cross won in 1947, Loyola of Chicago in 1963, Marquette in 1977 and Georgetown in 1984. Santa Clara made the tournament in 1952, but failed to reach the finals.

Gonzaga became the seventh Jesuit Final Four entry by beating Xavier, and could become the first Jesuit school to win the championship in 23 years.

The list of outstanding Jesuit college basketball players, many of whom went on to win the NCAAs, would stack up well against any competition.

All-Time Jesuit All-Star Five:

C – Bill Russell, San Francisco

F – Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

F – Elgin Baylor, Seatle

G – Bob Cousy, Holy Cross

G – John Stockton, Gonzaga

Jesuit Reserves:

C – Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown

C – Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown

F – Tommy Heinsohn, Holy Cross

F – Maurice Lucas, Marquette

F – David West, Xavier

G – Allen Iverson, Georgetown

G – KC Jones, San Francisco

G – Dwayne Wade, Marquette

G – Sleepy Floyd, Georgetown

G – Dana Barros, Boston College

10 reasons why the Knicks will never win


While James Dolan and Phil Jackson laugh, the Knicks burn

1. James Dolan — Born silver spoon in hand as heir to a Cablevision fortune, he has run the Knicks into the ground with a rash of poor personnel decisions. A recent Sports Illustrated poll named Dolan the worst owner in the NBA. The Knicks problems start at the top.

2. Phil Jackson — He won 11 rings as a coach and two more (ironically with the Knicks) as a player, but he’s been a dismal flop as president of the Knicks. Instead of stepping up as a leader and addressing the situation, Jackson left coach Jeff Hornacek to clean up the Derrick Rose mess. And the list goes on, from the hiring of ill-equipped coach Derrick Fisher, to his insistence on running the old-fashioned triangle offense to his signing of injury-prone Yannick Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract. Jackson has tarnished his legend.

3. Leadership — It starts at the top. See No. 1 James Dolan, No. 2 Phil Jackson and No. 5 Carmelo Anthony. What leadership?

4. Accountability — Without leadership, there is no accountability. Derrick Rose goes AWOL, leaves the team in limbo, and then returns to a slap on the wrist. Heck, he’d didn’t even get suspended. In fact, he’s still starting.

5. Carmelo Anthony — Leaders make those around them better players. Not the case with Carmelo, the so-called face of the Knicks. Carmelo is a great scorer, but he’s all about Carmelo.

6. Derrick Rose — Work Rule #1. If you’re not gonna be there, if you can’t make it to work that day, tell the boss. Derrick Rose had time to run off and catch a flight to Chicago, but didn’t have time to call or text the Knicks to tell them he would miss the New Orleans game. See No. 4, accountability.

7. Teaching –He’s the crown jewel of the franchise. Knick fans are pinning their hopes on Kristaps Porzingis. And yet, how’s he going to become a better basketball player if the follows the tone of the current Knicks. Who’s going to teach him low-post presence and how to play defense. There are no mentors in sight.

8. Culture — There’s a toxic atmosphere in the Knicks front office. Who can forget Isiah Thomas and the sexual harassment suit the Knicks settled out of court. The poor decisions, like multiple lottery picks for Eddy Curry. Being hosed by Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade. See No. 1 James Dolan.

9. MSG — Playing in the world’s most famous arena actually hurts the Knicks. There’s a long list of players who seem to up their game whenever they visit New York. Michael Jordan, Kobie Bryant and Steph Curry are just a few examples. Even average players play better at Madison Square Garden.

10. History — It’s been 44 years since the Knicks won their last championship. I was in college when the Knicks last won. Now I’m on Medicare. And it ain’t happening this year either. A charter member of the NBA, the Knickerbockers have won just two titles in their history.