There isn't much time. Coach says what he has to say. We’re about to head out. But I have to go. Bad. I slip into the bathroom. A man sits on a sink, smoking a cigarette. It’s Dean Smith. His North Carolina team just lost to San Francisco. Big opening-round upset. He still looks stunned. But so do I. Because I’m alone in a bathroom with a basketball legend.
“Good game, coach,” is the best I can do.
Coach Smith nods, takes a deep drag, exhales. And I suddenly don't have to go to the bathroom anymore.
I’m not supposed to be here. Me or my team. We are
Until: Cal State Fullerton 90, New Mexico 85.
And here we are again. The Titans are back. Forty years to the week when we blew a basketball nation’s mind. Only it’s against
It can happen again. I know. Because, in a way, I’m still there, the last man at the end of the pine, still screaming, which is a miracle in itself.
I suck, a two-minute man in high school. The last two minutes. I seek acceptance at a school where I have a chance to keep playing. Or at least practicing. There’s only one. Cal State Fullerton. Not the varsity. The junior varsity. I try out, make the team, resume the sitting position.
The Baby Titans are not superfluous. We serve the varsity's needs. Practice dummies are expensive. So they beat on us for free when need be. It’s a humble price to pay to play the game. Or sit and watch. We’re the opening act, the cheap comedians before the main attraction.
I grow. I get better. Hit double digits in scoring. Even dunk. At 6-7 and a wispy 180, I’m a pine man no more.
And then it’s over. No more Baby Titans. We’re not worth the gym time. They scrap the team.
Our fake glory days are done. I’m just one among 22,999 students my junior year. Until someone taps me on the shoulder: “Coach Dye wants to see you.”
I nearly pee my Quicksilver short-shorts.
There are five of us. Jayvee refugees. We aren’t called up. We’re rescued. We know our place in practice, the sidelines, waiting to give someone a rest, roll over, play dead, whatever.
A trainer tapes my skinny ankles. Someone washes my sweaty gear. I have a locker, free shoes, free socks. It’s all fairy dust. I’m Cinderella before my high tops even hit the hardwood.
I quickly catch Coach Bobby Dye's eye. My play is the absolute antithesis of how to box out, rebound, hit the outlet, fill the lane, cut to the hole, move your feet, find your man, block the base, hand in a face, communicate.
I provide all these teachable moments of what not to do, punctuated with Coach Dye's, “Get off the floor.”
There’s a reason his throat is always raw. Me. But I’m in awe that he knows my name, even if it’s prefaced with light profanity.
I’m a puppy among the big dogs, the pedigreed, the all-everything. Bunch. Anderson.
I elbow Mike Niles in the temple, topple Greg Bunch in a box-out drill gone terribly wrong, bounce balls off the back of Keith Anderson’s head.
But one man's nightmare is another man's dream. That's how I become the unofficial team mascot, like a Dalmatian, good for a laugh and a head scratch.
The season hasn’t even started yet.
We don’t just get free food on game days, we get whatever we want. Sizzler! Surf and turf. Baked potato. The whole salad bar bit.
I am no less slack-jawed by free swag. I don't travel with the team, but they return bearing gifts. Receiving a pleather suit bag from the Cougar Classic in Provo, Utah, is like winning tournament MVP to me. All I did was listen on the radio.
The Titans are a decent 5 and 2. Beating Brigham Young is big. Shut down some dude named Danny Ainge. But the season turns the corner in Game 8 against Aurora College of Illinois.
A minute left. Fullerton's up 75-47. Coach Dye, the strategist, clears the bench. Ten seconds left. Fast break. It's two on none. Seven seconds left. Steve McCarthy dribbles the right lane. Five. He dishes to me. Three. I go hard to the hole. One. The ball rolls in. The buzzer sounds. Fullerton wins 77-47. The crowd goes insane.
It actually does, and that’s the way it is — at home at least — the rest of the way. I symbolize the dagger. Or bring on the clown. Either way. A blowout is a blowout. Chanting my name becomes a wonderful thing, like Romans calling for a toothless lion.
I’m on a roll, make the travel team. Sort of. The bottom feeders pick numbers from a hat. I win. And I’m on a plane to paradise.
Portland State's Freeman Williams leads the nation in scoring. The Titans hold him to a measly 14, win by 18. It’s a statement game, and my two minutes on the floor say it all.
Something special is going on. But not everyone sees that. Three dudes quit for lack of playing time. It’s unfathomable to me, like quitting a dream job. But Coach Dye says they march to a different drummer. So I slide up the bench three spaces closer to the heartbeat of the team.
I write a series of stories for the Daily Titan, front-page profiles of each player. It’s not objective journalism. They’re pure puff pieces, low on depth, high on adjectives and adulation. My advisor calls it a conflict of interest. But after the Titans run off four straight wins in conference play, the stories take on a spirit of their own, and I’m the accidental oracle with a byline from the bench.
At 13 and 3, it’s not a season of ho-hum headlines anymore. Personalities start to pop off the page. The bespectacled Greg Bunch and his unearthly hops. Mike Niles, the muscle-bound enforcer. Keith Anderson, the shot caller from the hallowed hardwood of Verbum Dei High. Kevin Heenan, the thin-goggled duke with 30-foot range. Steve Shaw, the mountain in the middle. Mike Linden, Brooklyn personified with every no-look pass.
Even the supporting cast gets props. The Bigs: Dave Rhode, Greg Palm, Daryl Roper. The Hustlers: Tom Morgan, George Barrios. The Thankful: Jay Williams, Steve McCarthy, me.
Nobody actually believes anything will come of it. It’s just Fullerton. Not UCLA. But there’s a growing curiosity with every story. Not faith, necessarily. But enough to wonder if what I write isn't just hype, that the Titans believe in themselves, in Bobby Dye's name, amen.
And then the season nearly flutters away like old newspapers in a Santa Ana wind.
A balanced offense and shut-down D. Coach Dye drills it into us. It isn't perfect but it works. Six and two in conference play, 15 and five on the season. Hard work, faith in the system, sharing the ball. Everybody gets a touch. Even me. Although mine are limited to pregame layups.
Then we lose three straight. And brotherhood suddenly becomes a family feud of finger pointing.
Coach calls a meeting. I sit in the back, the shell-shocked foster child, afraid we’re falling apart.
The meeting itself is unprecedented, but coach sees a turning point we don't. An opportunity to stop and think before the glory train derails. His questions are simple. Are we individuals or are we a team? How close are we willing to be? Do we care enough to know each other, be friends to each other, share with one another? Or will ego wreck this team?
There are grumbles and shrugs and shifty side glances. I keep my yap shut. This is big boy talk. But I will them to get along.
Nobody hugs it out. Nobody confesses. But coach Dye gets his answer. The Titans win three straight to close the regular season.
The Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. sounds more like a community fitness center than a college sports conference. It’s not a national powerhouse like the Pac-10. It’s a dodgy bastion of state schools and a couple of minor UCs. And Fullerton is a relative newbie, a fourth-year member with little tradition.
Even at a respectable 18 and 8, the Titans are a third-place team in a second-rate conference. Forget the NCAAs. Winning the PCAA is a long shot.
Closed doors. Top secret. We practice something new. It’s called the four corners, the high and wide, a spread offense of four men in four corners, passing and cutting, passing and cutting, passing and cutting. It’s straight from Dean Smith's playbook, a North Carolina trademark, predicated on patient and unselfish play.
There is no three- point line in ’78. No shot clock. Ball control is everything. It’s tailor-made for a team that was falling apart only three games prior. The Titans rose to the challenge then. Now, coach Dye is all in. Put up or shut up, Psychology 101.
Nobody sees it coming. San Jose State, San Diego State, Long Beach State. Not even close. The offense works to perfection. The Titans play as a team.
Someone holds up a sign in the stands that says "We Believe." His name is Jeff Ostby. But we call him The Oz. It doesn’t get more yellow brick road than that.
The NCAA tournament isn't the lunacy it will become. It isn't even known as March Madness yet. It’s literally half that. Just 32 teams. Three games on the floor to the Final Four.
But the Western Regional is a bracket of nobility. UCLA, North Carolina, San Francisco, Arkansas, New Mexico,
I play my part. In a color-coordinated combo of madras, polyester and fake leather, I’m as proud as a mud brown peacock, absorbing the student body sendoff as we board the bus for the airport.
Coach Dye says, “You look like a team manager,” and leaves me holding his bags.
The fact that mine are even in the cargo is a miracle of attrition. I owe the dudes who quit the team a big debt of gratitude. I feel the ghost of their remorse in the back of the bus. I’m sitting in their seat by default. Nobody has to tell me to buckle up and enjoy the ride. I am the MC of humility, clutching a golden ticket and coach Dye's shaving kit.
Next thing I know I'm huffing Dean Smith's secondhand smoke in a Tempe toilet. In light of what happens next, it’s almost ceremonial because in the spirit of his high and wide, we smoke the Lobos.
The pundits call New Mexico red hot going in, ranked fourth in America. Coach Dye is all humble pie, just glad to be here, honored, self-effacing. Down by 10 at the half, he takes off his mask, revealing the Wizard of Nutwood. Full-court press, four corners offense, inside, outside, run the clock and everybody rocks. Keith Anderson 23. Kevin Heenan 22. Mike Niles 19. Greg Bunch 18. Good night, Lobos. Hello, Cinderella.
Or as Dick Enberg half-condescendingly asks, Cal State Who?
He’s about to find out.
Sweet Sixteen. And Fullerton is the only school that doesn't have a team picture. Either somebody forgot or it was all part of coach Dye's long con. But he uses it, turning the Western Regional’s two-dollar souvenir program into another psychological sucker punch. We’re just un-photogenic hayseeds at a debutante ball, no picture ID, just a bindle stick of servility, just happy to be in Albuquerque, don't mind us.
And nobody really does. Not San Francisco. Not seven-foot All-American Bill Cartwright. We’re Jack to his Giant. He’ll eat our magic beans for lunch. In the week leading up to our certain doomsday, one writer calls us "scrappy," a nice way of saying easy pickings.
Coach Dye can’t agree more.
In the meantime, “We believe” is in full-on campus cult mode. Even my teachers want the inside skinny, pulling me aside as a low-rung disciple of Dye, as if I have the scoop on miracles. The faithful, including my dad, make the 783-mile pilgrimage to find out first hand.
His job won't let him take time off. So he quits.
"Sit down! Sit down!" he screams at somebody blocking his view. "That's my son down there!"
Warmups aren't even over and it’s already a hostile crowd. This is The Pit, home of the Lobos, the team we beat to get here. So their fans show up to boo, 17,000souls in a big bright bowl of sour grapes. San Francisco is their proxy for payback.
Even our parents have to fight for position. They’re overmatched and bullied. Just like the action on the floor.
Big Bill Cartwright trash talks his way to 19 points in the first 20 minutes. Down by 12 at the half, it looks like the jig is up. The crowd jeers. The Titans are exposed. Too little. Too slow. Too Fullerton.
The Dons aren't dumb. It’s simple math. Our depth chart doesn't add up. Coach Dye uses only six dudes. It’s a faulty equation. He isn't a mad scientist. He’s a shallow charlatan. The first half only exposes the charade.
And that's exactly where San Francisco makes its mistake.
Coach Dye goes to the bench to 6-11 Dave Rhode and 6-10 Greg Palm. Two rarely used bigs on one. A Bill Cartwright sandwich. And Cartwright chokes. San Francisco panics. The Titans take advantage. The crowd switches sides with the changing tide. The score is tied at 72. Three seconds left. Keith Anderson from the top of the key. Good!
The Dons are assessed a technical for calling a timeout they don't have, as if coach Dye literally plans the whole game out to a T.
The gate to the Elite Eight is masterfully unhinged. Our glass slippers are official. Cal State is dancing in.
Fullerton, that’s who.
I’m riding high on the Cinderella rep. Fancy hotel. Cheers and beers. Attaboys and backslaps. I’m just a glorified towel boy in a uniform, a star by association, which makes it all the more unbelievable in the confetti of the night, that I, a nobody, am even standing at the free buffet, let alone eating.
Coach Dye tries to sell the same aw-shucks story to the media, but with a grin, like even he knows it’s getting a little thin. He doesn't so much sing the praises of Arkansas and its triple threat of All-Americans, Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer. It’s more of a whistle, like, wow, whew, imagine that. We sure aren't in Fullerton anymore. The same propaganda as before, the same wry smile.
But we’re way past believing. Titanmania is in full effect. The Pit is electric. Nothing is impossible.
Even at the half, down by 15, doomed, done, no one exhales.
The specifics are vague memories now. The emotion is not. Even 40 years later, my blood pressure jumps. I still feel it, the yes, yes, yes of every comeback bucket, the fist pumps and collective roar, the timeouts with our arms around each other, frozen in the middle of another miracle.
Four corners. Full-court press. Bunch bangs the boards. Heenan drops bombs. Niles muscles the middle. It’s backlit snapshots from the bench of my mind, one dissolving to the next, until it's clutch time, down by one with less than two minutes left, and bam, Anderson answers. And bam, Arkansas answers back.
Fullerton is out of timeouts. Arkansas runs the clock. Titans intentionally foul. Arkansas goes to the line. One and one. Miss. Bunch rebounds, kicks the ball up court. Eighteen seconds left. It's the same scenario as San Francisco. Down by one. Anderson at the top of the key. The crowd rises on cue. It's Bobby Dye deja vu. Fourteen seconds left.
That I remember. The memory reel shifts to slow motion, frame by frame, and it's always the same.
Anderson doesn't take the shot. He drives the lane. The ball is stripped. No foul called. Arkansas runs the court for a layup.
The clock strikes midnight. Cinderella weeps.
The sportswriters give coach Dye a standing ovation at his departing news conference in Albuquerque because it’s not about what could have happened. It’s about what did happen. And how it happened. Teamwork. Togetherness. Sacrifice. They’re just idyllic nouns until they actually coalesce into something believable, something magical, something like Cal State Who. And something like Cal State Now.
We might not fully realize it, but it’s the character of a team that draws proclamations. Literally. The Yorba Linda City Council designates a day in our honor.
We stand behind the council members as coach Dye receives a plaque bearing a glass slipper. Someone has a camera. We finally have our team picture.
We step out into a light rain and go our separate ways. But we all check the weather every March for a forecast like this Friday’s.
There’s a 40-year phenomenon when lightning strikes twice.
It’s expected to hit
Purdue won’t know who hit them.
Tom Corvin, a 1979 Cal State Fullerton graduate, is a retired television reporter/producer living in Kansas City, Mo. He played in four games during the 1977-78 season, his first and last on the Titans’ varsity. He scored one basket.