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There’s March Madness, then there’s March 14, 1981


Mike Miller

Tuesday night’s First Four games dangled the promise of a delightful NCAA tournament. By delightful, I mean fraught with drama, upsets and amazing TV.

And if we’re really lucky, we’ll have a day just like they had 31 years ago.

This feature by Tim Layden of recounts the craziness of March 14, 1981 when three buzzer-beaters – including U.S. Reed’s ridiculous 55-foot heave that sent Arkansas past defending champ Louisville – were aired live, captivating a national TV audience and providing the moniker that sticks with the tournament to this day: March Madness.

Much of it details the logistics involved (cutting from one live event to another wasn’t common then), but the good stuff begins when No. 1 seed DePaul gets bounced by St. Joe’s and segues into the double-dose of Arkansas-Louisville and Oregon State-Kansas State.

A long excerpt, (apologies; it’s too good to cut):

The screen went full to that game in Los Angeles, where Kansas State was dribbling down the clock, from 1:35 to 1:05. Suddenly, Gumbel popped back up, brandishing a pen in his right hand, punching the air with his left. Gumbel: “OK, we are going back to that game at Pauley Pavilion, but we’ve got a one-point game going on in Austin, Texas ... '' Here, at this point, behind Gumbel on the big TV, viewers could actually see Arkansas’ Darrell Walker inbounding the ball to U.S. Reed. “Bryant was pretty quick on that pivot, I remember that,’' says Terry Ewert, who was producing the game on-site in Los Angeles. He had to be. " ... so let’s go back to Marv Albert and Bucky Waters.’'

On the screen, Reed advances toward half court, dribbling to his left, and then back to his right, toward the sideline, Louisville’s Eaves and Wright are chasing, keeping their distance. Albert: “Thank you Bryant. Time running down. Arkansas having trouble getting ... ''

Reed plants his right foot just short of the midcourt stripe and lets it fly, even following through with a fishhook. He would later tell journalists that before the game he practiced some long shots. “But not that long,’' he says now. Albert: “U.S. Reed with a fling. It’s good! It’s good! Let’s see, do they say it counts? It’s all over.” (In the background, Waters says “Oh my.’')

There is chaos on the floor, Arkansas players in a giant pile with fans and cheerleaders. Albert lets it play for a few seconds. Albert: “Arkansas has defeated Louisville, U.S. Reed hitting from halfcourt and it’s a one-point incredible victory for Arkansas. It’s a mad scene here in Austin, Texas. Arkansas over Louisville. Let’s go back to Bryant Gumbel in New York.’'

Seconds later, Rolando Blackmon hit a game-winner of his own. Madness. Beautiful Madness. We can only hope for the same this season.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.