Two superbly coached teams, Duke and Butler, battled it out on even terms right up until the final buzzer, when the potential game-winning half court 3-pointer bounced off the backboard and the rim. Had it made it through the net, it would have given the cinderella Butler Bulldogs a one-point win over the Duke Blue Devils.
Butler, with a tiny enrollment of only 4,000-some students (much smaller than the University of Nevada, Reno), had zipped through the playoffs, knocking off such powerhouses as Syracuse, whose coach was named coach of the year in college basketball earlier this week. What made the Butler story even more fascinating was how they illustrated the old saying about life imitating art. In their case, the Butler home gym is the one that was used in the classic basketball movie, “Hoosiers.” Star of that production was Gene Hackman who played a coach on the skids who comes to a very small high school and takes the team to a state championship. Many were calling the final game on Monday a “Hoosiers Part Two.” They very nearly had it right.
Recalling Hackman’s role in the film reminded this writer of the time that Hackman showed up in Incline Village in 1975 to play in the Clint Eastwood Celebrity Tennis Tournament that was sponsored by the Hyatt Hotel. Eastwood himself was a constant tennis player in his adopted hometown of Carmel, Calif., while Hackman was pretty much of a novice. Nevertheless, they paired well and both hosted dinners during tournament week. Hackman was coming off the hugely successful “French Connection” for which he won an Oscar. Eastwood was doing prep work on “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” which he later identified as his favorite Western of his long career in oaters.
It was easy to see that the two superstars would someday pair well in a motion picture and did so in a seminal Western “Unforgiven” for which they both picked up Oscars. Much later on, they reunited in a thriller called “Absolute Power.”
Getting back to the NCAA championship game, Duke was coming off a complete dismantling of what was supposed to be a strong team, West Virginia, in the semi-finals. Butler had managed to eke out a two-point win over Michigan State in the other semi. Based on its performance, Duke was given a seven-point edge in the title tilt, while it was thought that Butler might have expended too much energy in its semi win.
That was not the case, however, since at no time in the championship battle did the lead for Duke ever exceed six points. Every time that it looked like the Blue Devils were about to pull away, Butler would surge back and even take a slight lead on numerous occasions.
Probably the highlight of the game, for fans and local coaches alike, was how crisply both teams moved the ball and how all 10 of the players on the court never stopped running. One of Butler’s strongest talents all year was its defense and it showed to perfection in the final as they held Duke to a relatively low total of 51 points. On the other side of the coin, Duke’s defense was equally smothering, due in large part to the presence of its 7-foot, 1-inch center under the basket.
In addition to the above, both teams exhibited amazing foot speed, which reminded me of a platitude that my high school coach stood by: “You can coach everything but speed.”
It will be a long time before you see another NCAA championship game of such high caliber and drama.
The cable TV Western Channel here continues to rerun episodes of “Cimmaron Strip,” an ongoing series that featured Stuart Whitman in the lead as a no-nonsense marshall of the territory.
Whitman was a visitor here on two occasions, once several years ago as a tourist at Incline Village where he was a daily visitor to the tennis club at the North Lake Villas resort. A pretty good all around athlete, as he showed in his many movie and TV roles, he could handle himself well on the tennis court in the numerous matches he played with us. Prior to that, he journeyed here in 1993 as one of the celebrity stars of the Reno Pro Polo match that was put on at the Reno Livestock Events Center. One of his more memorable roles in motion pictures was a co-staring spot with John Wayne, also a regular visitor to northern Nevada. In a couple episodes of “Cimmaron Strip,” other notable actors who frequented this area were also featured. One of them was Richard Boone, of “Have Gun Will Travel” fame and a past winner of the Reno Silver Spurs as the best Western actor of the year in film or TV. Another stalwart on “Cimmaron” was Leslie Nielsen, who achieved his most fame in the spoof police pictures that started with “The Naked Gun.” Nielsen was in Reno not too long ago as the major celebrity to attend the Reno Air Races and while doing so had most of his grandstand partners in stitches during the event.
Catch “Cimmaron,” “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” to see the greatest number of Western headliners that made Reno and environs a regular stop.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.