They showed it again the other night on ESPN Classic. And it sucked them in. Again. In Manhattan Beach, Calif., Luke Walton collapsed on his sofa after a long practice, scrolled through the channels and hit pay dirt in time for the second half. In Spokane, Richard Fox was ordering a sandwich at Jack and Dan's, the tavern owned by John Stockton's father, Jack, just as the first overtime flashed onto the screen. It hardly mattered that Walton and Fox had devoured the game a combined 16 times already, or that each play has been burned into each man's cortex, a nonerasable brainwave DVD, for life. Ask yourself: Do guys ever click away from Top Gun—even when they're about to see Goose hit the canopy for the 89th time?
"Dude," Walton, now a Los Angeles Lakers forward, told a friend, "I've gotta watch this."
"Every day I think about that game," says Fox, a senior center at Gonzaga, who still chokes up—nine months later—just talking about it. "I'd never cried because of basketball before. That was the first time."
Eleven years ago SI laid out the three essential criteria for a great college basketball game. One, it must be significant, like the 1979 Magic-versus-Bird national championship game or Notre Dame's regular-season win that ended UCLA's 88-game streak in 1974. Two, the game must be superbly played: Think Duke's 104-103 East Regional triumph over Kentucky in 1992, in which the Blue Devils' Christian Laettner unspooled 20 shots (10 field goals and 10 free throws) and missed not one. Three, it must be larded with drama, preferably with a little-known figure—Villanova's Harold Jensen, North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles, Georgetown's Fred Brown—playing a central role.
Let's be clear. When Gonzaga and Arizona met in a second-round NCAA tournament game last March 22 in Salt Lake City's Jon M. Huntsman Center (the site where Bird and Magic birthed modern-day basketball), the result was not the greatest game in college hoops history. It had neither the lyrical perfection of Duke and Kentucky's 1992 classic nor the tectonic plate crashing of North Carolina's triple-overtime win over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1957 title game. But it was the greatest game of 2003, and it came at a time when college basketball, staggered by a skein of ethics scandals—and, soon after, the tragic murder of Baylor's Patrick Dennehy—may have needed it most.
Import? Here was ninth-seeded Gonzaga, everyone's second-favorite tournament team, facing down top seed Arizona, neutral court, winner take all. Excellence? Blake Stepp, the Bulldogs' circus-shooting point guard, poured in 16 points in less than seven minutes down the stretch, while Arizona forward Walton showed how to take over a game with passing, dishing out nine assists. Drama? The underdog jacked up three buzzer-beaters with a chance to win or tie, one of which bottomed out and two of which came painfully, tantalizingly close.
In the end the epic reminded us why college basketball, even without its megastars of the past, remains infinitely more compelling than the pro game. Ask the participants to recall their emotions today, and the word both sides invariably use is fun. And when Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf fouled out late in the second half, as Gonzaga's bench prayed and Arizona's linked arms, he started crying on the court. Try getting that out of Rasheed Wallace.
For our purposes the game begins midway through the second half, with Arizona leading 56-52 and 10:36 left on the clock. CBS's Dan Rather had just given an update on the shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq, and Dick Enberg was managing the awkward transition back to basketball. " Stepp: six points in the game, 2-for-10 shooting," he said. " Gonzaga needs more from their star." An unassuming juco transfer, guard Tony Skinner, had kept the Zags in the game with 15 first-half points, but now Stepp—like the male lead in a certain Jerry Bruckheimer '80s film—shakes off his doldrums and engages. As if on Enberg's cue, he pops his first three-pointer of the game. Then comes a two, and another three, and then a preposterous trey while being fouled and falling flat on his back.
" Stepp was killing us," says Walton, the most complete college player in years, who matched him in his own way during the final minutes: an assist, a steal, two big rebounds, a layup and three straight free throws. Arizona was leading 74-71 when the ball landed in Skinner's hands outside the are with 2:46 to go.
It's easy to forget that despite Gonzaga's five straight NCAA tournament bids and three Sweet 16 berths, its achievements border on the miraculous for a small school from the modest West Coast Conference. Skinner, now a senior, freely admits that his biggest thrill upon arriving in Salt Lake was seeing Duke play in person for the first time. Don't confuse admiration with fear, however, for no player on the court that day had more cojones than Skinner. Making like Jensen, the long-range revelation of Villanova's '85 champions, he sank his open three-pointer to knot the score at 74, the first time the Zags hadn't trailed since early in the second half. Yet the most important of Skinner's career-high 25 points would come in the dying seconds of regulation. With Gonzaga down 78-76, Stepp let fly with a three-pointer. When it missed, Skinner corralled the rebound and, in one whippet-quick motion, lofted a follow shot. It smacked the backboard once, rolled around three fourths of the rim, kissed the glass again and—inches beyond Fox's outstretched hand, moments after the red light had flashed and the buzzer had sounded—dropped.