Over the past 45 years I’ve enjoyed sitting on press row for college basketball, especially at Dayton and Ohio State.
Covering the game has sometimes been secondary to my interactions in the press seating area. This was especially true before parts of press rows were converted to high priced courtside premium seats for big donors. In addition to media members following either or both teams, I could be in the company of NBA scouts, personnel from league offices, and scouts from future opponents.
Back in mid-December of 1993 I was at Ohio State where an adjacent seat was reserved for West Virginia University, an upcoming Buckeye opponent. When the occupant arrived I noticed his 1983 NCAA championship ring that said “NC State.” I introduced myself and was greeted by Dereck Whittenburg, then an assistant coach at West Virginia and a key member of the national champs of a decade earlier.
I immediately replied, “You’re the guy whose shot was caught and slammed for the winning basket against Houston.” He smiled and responded, “That was a pass. Couldn’t you tell?” I’m sure this wasn’t the first time he’d had such an exchange. Whittenburg initiated one of the most iconic plays in NCAA tournament history and it’s still seen almost 40 years later.
I remember watching that 1983 title tilt after returning home from Cincinnati Reds opening day. Mighty Houston, aka Phi Slama Jama with Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, was tied with NC State as time was running out. Whittenburg desperately launched about a 30 footer that was well short, but the ball was caught and jammed home in one motion by Lorenzo Charles for the deciding bucket as the buzzer sounded.
Bedlam broke loose on the Albuquerque court. Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano ran wildly onto the playing surface to locate and hug Whittenburg to continue a tradition that had begun earlier in the journey. North Carolina State had lost ten games during the regular season, sprung upsets to win their conference tournament, and then taken the top national prize. This was the biggest upset of all in a 1983 tournament that saw lots of “David beating Goliath” as Dereck told me on our night in Columbus.
These memories remained fresh back in 1993 and I’m sure they still do today as the Washington DC native works for the athletic department at his beloved alma mater in Raleigh, North Carolina following a lengthy coaching career. Coach Valvano had passed away from cancer earlier in 1993 at age 47 but a pair of ten year reunions brought him back together with his guys before his departure.
Those final gatherings were important to Whittenburg as he recalled a man he loved “who created a family atmosphere at NC State. Coach was the same way with us as he was when you saw him commentating on ESPN. Outgoing, caring, and funny. Never a dull moment. He was a fabulous guy.”
As I departed St. John Arena on that December night of long ago, I thanked Shelby County native and Ohio State Sports Information Director Steve Snapp for my seat assignment to which he replied, “I thought you’d enjoy Dereck Whittenburg.”
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross joined the local sports media in 1975.