An envelope, a portal to the past: Inside was evidence of the lost art of scoring. The return address belonged to Ben, a generous reader who had e-mailed during the off-season to ask if I was interested in anything from his college-game DVD collection.
Out slid a stack of Memorexes, each in a hand-labeled paper sleeve. Ben also included a note. It said that the Feb. 3, 1990, game I requested—No. 20 Loyola Marymount at No. 14 LSU on CBS—was "epic." It only had one overtime but required three DVDs, and the sum total of the final score was 289. Two-hundred eighty-nine! This was acceptable usage of epic.
I didn't plan to watch the DVDs four times, but that's what happened. The "System" that Loyola coach Paul Westhead ran—full-court pressing, fast-breaking on prescribed routes, shooting within seven seconds of gaining possession—had considerable replay value. As did the duel between a rambunctious and lithe 17-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and a scowling and sturdy 22-year-old Hank Gathers. It would be Gathers's final national TV appearance; he would be gone from the world in 29 days. When viewed through a 2012 lens, the broadcast has that big, ominous cloud hovering over it and many little quirks inside—such as the ways CBS play-by-play man James Brown said Shaq's name: "Shah-KEEL-ah-NEEL" or "Shah-KEEL-the-NEEL."
Those pronunciations did not endure. Nor did the style of LSU's white Converse hightops or Loyola's white Reeboks, or the brand of sports drink served on both benches, a regional concoction called 10-K. I wondered if any ex-Tigers insist on its superiority to Gatorade.
But above all I wondered why the game resembled absolutely nothing that I cover as an adult. I miss the fast basketball from my childhood. Loyola cannot serve as the emblem of that era—even then the 122-points-per-game Hank and Bo (Kimble) Show was extreme—but other elite teams were paying little mind to the 45-second shot clock in '89--90, scoring at prolific rates. Oklahoma, the team atop the final AP poll, broke the 100-mark 15 times that season. Eventual national champion UNLV did it 16 times. This was the last great period of score-sheet stuffing, and the sport has been decelerating ever since.
Another season of the Control Era opens in two weeks. To steel myself for a winter of 61--59 slugfests, I immersed myself in a 22-year-old game and came away lamenting the death of triple digits.
SATURDAY, FEB. 3, 1990
Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge
To get themselves on CBS, Loyola Marymount's extremists acquiesced to an extreme itinerary. "When we first saw the schedule," Lions guard Tom Peabody recalls, "guys looked at Coach Westhead and asked, 'Are you out of your mind?'" It called for Loyola to play St. Mary's on Thursday night in Los Angeles (a 150--119 win), fly to Baton Rouge at 7:10 a.m. on Friday, practice in the afternoon, play LSU at 1 p.m. on Saturday, leave immediately on a return flight to L.A., land around midnight and host San Francisco at 5 p.m. on Sunday. As daunting as it seemed, Westhead says that once his players were in the middle of it, "they weren't fazed at all. They were so accustomed to running every day that it didn't even enter their minds to get tired."
Meanwhile, LSU coach Dale Brown, always more gunslinger than tactician, was not one to let conventional wisdom—that he'd be best served by playing slow enough to let 7-footers Shaq and Stanley Roberts post up the 6'7" Gathers—get in the way of good television. To Brown, the only honorable way to win was to out-System the System, to let virtuoso guard Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and his giants run. Thus the game opened with a burst of mostly sub-nine-second possessions, giving Brown the discombobulating sensation, on the sideline, that he was "a sock tumbling in the dryer."