So, Kansas took down North Carolina in New Orleans to win this year’s NCAA basketball championship (Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk! – love those college cheers). Thus ends the 2022 version of one of sport’s very cool formats, the Final Four. With Duke involved, I was particularly interested in the recent confluence of action at the Superdome, because I have two good friends who are Blue Devils.
Denis Wiesenburg and I have been friends since junior high, fellow graduates of the Pascagoula High Class of 1966. There were several reasons we became buddies—for a while, we were probably the only two guys in our class who played chess; we both were quite successful in the school science fairs; and, man, did we enjoy playing and watching sports. If I had a nickel for every pick-up basketball game Denis and I played in, I’d be a rich man.
When it came time for college, he headed to Durham and I to Oxford, still keeping in close contact and sustaining support for each other’s college teams. I went with Denis to watch Duke play in the old Sugar Bowl Basketball Tournament in 1968 (at historic old Loyola Field House), and he caravanned over to New Orleans with a bunch of us to see Ole Miss win the 1970 Sugar Bowl (football this time).
Those last two references made it even more appropriate that Duke would be playing in this Final Four in the Crescent City. Denis, who is now professor of marine science at USM, did get to attend (along with his son and daughter), and cheer on his beloved Blue Devils in the semi-final versus North Carolina. Although I sure wish Duke had won and sent Coach K out in style, I am so glad that Denis got to be there.
My other Dukie friend is my pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pascagoula, the Most Very Reverend Dr. Edwin Kirby. Eddie is outstanding in the pulpit, and still has a decent mid-range game on the basketball court. Plus, what a warrior: he also attended the Duke game that Saturday night in the Superdome, got home about 1:30, then was able to stand and deliver at FUMC at 8:30 and 10:45 on Sunday (told me on the way out of church, “you ain’t seen a nap like the one I’m taking this afternoon”).
In addition to my Duke connections, watching the Final Four brought back memories of the three times I myself have been able to attend that august event over the years, as follows.
- 1977: At the old Omni in Atlanta. My pal Dick Ingwersen, then and now an Atlantan, grabbed us some tickets, and we had a blast. The field was North Carolina, UNC-Charlotte (with future Celtic great Cornbread Maxwell), UNLV under the colorful Jerry Tarkanian, and Marquette. Al McGuire, later known as one of the best basketball color commentators ever (he coined the term “aircraft carriers” for inside players), was coaching his last season for Marquette, and his Warriors sent him out with tearful joy by winning the championship.
- 1982: Oh, boy. North Carolina with James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a freshman named Michael Jordan. Georgetown with Patrick Ewing and Sleepy Floyd. Louisville with the McCray brothers and Lancaster Gordon. Houston with Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Geez, what’s that, about six future Hall of Famers? Enjoyed this one in New Orleans with buddies Roy Myers, Gary Stevens, and the late Rex Gordon. Might have been a cocktail or two mixed in there. UNC beat Georgetown in the championship game 63-62 on Jordan’s iconic shot with seconds left, a video/screenshot you see over and over on NCAA coverage to this day.
- 1993: Back to New Orleans for a North Carolina-Michigan (Fab Five) championship game. All due respect to the great friends mentioned above, but this was my favorite Final Four trip, as I took my son Cooper, then 11 years old. He and I still talk about it all the time. Another famous game, the one in which Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout that his team didn’t have with seconds left, sealing UNC’s close victory.
So, boy, have I been fortunate with the Final Four. Famous players and coaches, exciting games, memorable moments. Most of all, the joy and camaraderie felt when enjoying something together with friends or family.
If you like basketball and ever get the chance, try to make it to a Final Four. The pageantry of the semi-finals with four different fan bases is special, and the championship games usually produce, as CBS likes to say “One Shining Moment.” You might even eventually see a replay of a historic game or play every year, and be able to say, “I was there.”