Improbable basketball victory by small college in Hawaii still resonates

Reporting from Honolulu -- They are nine letters and three syllables that represent more than a singular college basketball upset.

Chaminade taught the sports world that anything can happen.

When an unheralded 6-foot guard dunks over a 7-foot-4 center who would be a three-time national player of the year … when a team from a tiny NAIA school wipes out a seven-point, second-half deficit against the top-ranked Division I team in the country … and when the final score reads Chaminade 77, Virginia 72, well, nothing seems farfetched anymore.

“It was more than an upset,” said Merv Lopes, the former Silverswords coach whose penchant for pulling out seemingly unwinnable games earned him the nickname “Merv the Magician.” “This was something impossible.”

That’s exactly what happened Dec. 23, 1982, in the Neal Blaisdell Center on Oahu, and 29 years later the repercussions are still lapping up on the shores of two Hawaiian islands.

If Chaminade doesn’t beat the towering Ralph Sampson and Virginia, there is no Maui Invitational, the made-for-TV extravaganza that lets the Silverswords take a stab at seven of the top teams in the nation each November. Their next foil is UCLA on Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center.


“This is the only school in America where David has a chance to beat Goliath every year,” said ESPN broadcaster Michael Wilbon, who covered Chaminade’s stunner over the Cavaliers for the Washington Post.

The Maui Invitational, in turn, has lured more than the likes of Duke, Memphis and Kansas; it also has enticed players who might have otherwise shunned the Silverswords for other small-college programs.

Chaminade’s roster has five Californians but no Hawaiians, continuing a recent trend of largely looking beyond a home state with few promising prospects. When the Division II Silverswords defeated Oklahoma, 68-64, last year, Temecula native Shane Hanson led the way with 23 points, Los Angeles native Steven Bennett made the go-ahead layup and former Simi Valley Stoneridge Prep and USC center Mamadou Diarra clinched the victory with two free throws.

The triumph over the Sooners was Chaminade’s sixth in the 27-year history of the Maui Invitational, a smattering of upsets symbolizing the parity that has overtaken college basketball. Division II teams are no longer pushovers given recent results such as Grand Valley State over Michigan State, Findlay over Ohio State, LeMoyne over Syracuse, Northern Kentucky over West Virginia and Seattle Pacific over Arizona.

“Every year you hear of some small school playing it close or beating a Division I school,” said former Chaminade guard Mark Rodrigues, assessing the legacy of his team’s shocker against Virginia. “Maybe over the years, it’s transformed to people thinking they can beat anyone.”

Of course, in the final week of 1982, Virginia wasn’t just anyone.

The Cavaliers were 8-0 and only a few days removed from a ballyhooed victory over Akeem Olajuwon-led Houston in Tokyo when they made a stopover in Honolulu on the way back to the mainland. Virginia players spent part of their time in paradise boogieing at a disco with members of the top-ranked USC women’s basketball team, which was in town for a tournament.

Chaminade also had reason to party, having recently beaten Division I rival Hawaii for the first time. Then, two days before taking on Virginia, the Silverswords fell to Wayland Baptist, a fellow NAIA school with a 5-9 record. In the stands scouting the game was Cavaliers coach Terry Holland.

“He probably said, ‘These guys can’t even jump,’ ” said Lopes, the former Silverswords coach who is quick with a quip.

Nobody outside the Chaminade locker room gave the Catholic school with an enrollment of about 900 much of a chance against mighty Virginia, particularly since the Cavaliers had shellacked the Silverswords in each of the previous two years.

“We were NAIA,” Lopes said. “Our budget was what they used for postage probably.”

Wilbon, who was in Honolulu to cover Maryland’s football team in the Aloha Bowl, had been instructed to take the night off instead of wasting time on a probable Virginia blowout.

But with Sampson recovering from flu, the only sports reporter in town from a mainland paper figured the nontelevised game was worth checking out. And at halftime, with the score tied, 43-43, Wilbon called his editors and told them to save space in case of an upset.

That seemed unnecessary when Virginia used a 7-0 spurt early in the second half to take control. Except the Silverswords, a pugnacious bunch who rarely made it through practice without a scuffle, didn’t back down.

Forward Tony Randolph repeatedly made rainbow jump shots over Sampson, a longtime friend and rival. The big men had attended neighboring high schools in Virginia and Randolph had dated Sampson’s sister, Valerie.

Sampson was the one on the wrong end of the flashpoint for the upset.

Tim Dunham, a speck of a guard at barely 6 feet, took an alley-oop pass and dunked over Sampson. The score was tied. The half-capacity crowd of 3,383 could sense history.

After a late flurry of free throws secured the victory, gleeful fans mingled with players on the court. Chaminade’s Rodrigues needed a moment to comprehend the unfathomable.

“I kind of joked and said, ‘Hey, is this for real?’ ” said Rodrigues, who lives in Tustin and works for a Japanese electric company. “Everybody said, ‘Hell yeah. Of course it is.’ ”

Wilbon breathlessly called his paper well after 2 a.m. Eastern time only to be told that a night editor, upon hearing of Virginia’s seven-point cushion on a radio broadcast, had rolled the presses. The greatest upset in college basketball history would have to wait another day before hitting newsstands.

It would be more than two decades before most of Chaminade’s current players learned of the upset while being recruited by the school. Now that they’re here, it seems like practically the only thing outsiders want to talk about.

“I don’t get tired of it,” said Matt Cousins, a senior forward from Santa Rosa. “That’s what kind of gets our identity, so without that game really we wouldn’t be much.”

The only visible reminder of the game on Chaminade’s picturesque hillside campus is a photo of the Silverswords huddled together in the moments after the final buzzer, index fingers thrust triumphantly into the air. The photo hangs on a wall inside a meager athletic office affectionately dubbed “the Shack,” where coaches wash team uniforms in a back room.

Coach Eric Bovaird, who is two games into his first season, faces many of the same challenges that dogged his predecessors: a minuscule recruiting budget, a home gym in which adjacent St. Louis High is the primary tenant and a lack of resources that most college programs take for granted.

When a video coordinator from Kansas reached Bovaird asking to speak to his counterpart with the Silverswords, there was no need to transfer the call.

“What can I help you with?” Bovaird said.

Footage of the Virginia upset was a staple heading into the Maui Invitational in previous years, but players such as guard Bennie Murray, a junior from Fairfield, Calif., are eager to forge their own memories.

“We definitely want to be known for something similar,” Murray said. “Those guys will always be remembered.”