Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Sports fans always applaud upsets, and there have been many in history, starting when David defeated Goliath. God sometimes performs miracles: The hapless NY Mets winning the 1969 World Series. The NY Jets led by Joe Namath winning the Super Bowl. Appalachian State defeating Michigan last year in football. Mike Tyson being knocked out by Buster Douglas (Buster Douglas!). Even Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones losing to the longshot Birdstone in the Belmont.

Incidentally, the term "Upset" was derived from the name of a horse. In 1919, the great racehorse Man O' War went undefeated through its entire racing career except for one race in which it ran second to a horse called Upset. The name of that horse entered our vocabulary to define an improbable winner against great odds.

The greatest upset in college basketball history occurred on Dec. 23, 1982, before a crowd of 3,500, when the unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Virginia Cavaliers traveled to Honolulu to face the obscure Chaminade University, a tiny school of 800 students that shared its campus with a high school. Their team nickname was the Silverswords, named after a Hawaiian flowering plant. The school was named after Father William Joseph Chaminade, a French priest who ministered to the people during the worst days of the French Revolution at great risk to himself. The school had planned to change its name to Honolulu University, but shelved that plan after the Virginia game.

Virginia was led by star player Ralph Sampson, a 3 time College Player of the Year. He was 7'4" tall, very quick and agile and a good shooter. They also had 2 other players who went on to play in the NBA. They had been to the Final Four in 1981.

Earlier in the season, they had already beaten two Top 5 teams, plus they beat Duke by 13 points at Duke. They defeated perennial basketball power Georgetown, who had lost to North Carolina and Michael Jordan in the previous year's championship game. Georgetown featured All American Patrick Ewing, who is now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In another game against Houston, which Sampson missed because of illness, the Cavaliers easily won anyway. Houston went to the NCAA Championship game later that season, losing at the final buzzer to North Carolina State. Houston featured All Americans Akeem Olujawon and Clyde Drexler, both now in the Hall of Fame. Olujawon was the first player drafted in the 1984 NBA draft, ahead of the Chicago Bulls's 3rd pick, a player named Michael Jordan.

To say that Virginia was an imposing team was an understatement. And Chaminade, an NAIA school and little known to basketball fans had gone 28-3 the previous season and ranked No. 4 among small colleges. One of their losses that year was to Virginia, 75-59. Leading up to this Virginia game, Chaminade was coming off a 64-61 loss to Wayland Baptist, two nights earlier. Wayland Baptist, out of Amarillo, Texas, also beat the No. 2 ranked small college team, Oklahoma Christian that season but finished with a losing record, 13-20. Certainly, Wayland Baptist couldn't be considered in the same league with Georgetown, Houston or Duke when it came to basketball.

Beating the likes of Hawaii-Hilo and Pacific Lutheran is not like playing in the big leagues or major college ball. College teams just don't beat the NY Yankees. To paraphrase the late sportswriter Damon Runyon, "The race doesn't always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

On paper, Chaminade had nobody who could match up against Sampson. Their center was Tony Randolph, who at 6'7", was 9 inches shorter than Sampson. But ironically, Randolph grew up in Virginia where he had played high school ball and pick-up games against Sampson on several occasions. Randolph had even dated Sampson's sister. He was a tough kid whose parents died when he was young, who played at Panhandle State in Oklahoma after high school, but transferred to Chaminade to be near his brother who lived in Hawaii. After the game, he was given the nickname "Miracle Man."

Randolph knew Sampson's moves, and in the game was all over him like a cheap suit. When Chaminade had the ball, Randolph attempted to draw Sampson outside to guard against his long range jump shots. Randolph, mostly unguarded outside, his 9 of 12 from the field that night and scored 19 points. When Virginia had the ball, the fearless Randolph leaned on Sampson to keep him out of dunking range. Every time the Cavalier star touched the ball, he attracted more traffic than the freeway in rush hour. He dutifully passed the ball off, but the Virginia guards kept missing their outside shots.

Chaminade Coach Merv Lopes's coaching salary was $2,000 that season as a part time coach with a $24 recruiting budget (for postage?). He emphasized team play, with his players helping out each other on defense, moving the ball around and running set plays. In the first half, the Chaminade players quickly got over their stage fright and played even with the much larger Virginia Cavaliers. At half-time, the score was tied at 43. In the second half, the lead see-sawed, and neither team could get ahead by more than 7 points. Chaminade stayed close and took a 64-62 lead on an alley-oop pass from reserve Mark Rodriguez to the 5'10" Tim Dunham with Sampson in the vicinity. The teams traded baskets, and with 90 seconds to go, the Silverswords took a 70-68 lead on a basket by Randolph. Then they went into a stall to run out the clock, and the Cavaliers were forced to foul the smaller Chaminade players. Fortunately for the Silverswords, they were able to knock down their free throws to clinch a 77-72 victory. They were out-rebounded by Virginia 55-31, but only the final score counts.

To quote Chaminade player Richard Haenisch, "In the second half the crowd sounded like 35,000. You could hear them saying, 'Oh my God, they can beat these guys.' They rushed on the court and I sat on the rims. It was a great feeling."

The news of the upset hit the Associated Press wires about 2 A.M. on the East Coast, and the sportcasters on duty at that time were incredulous. The late Tom Mees, at the end of his shift on ESPN's SportsCenter, at first refused to read the news story, thinking it was a hoax. He had never heard of Chaminade, and he called Honolulu to check out the story. Several newspapers called in to ask which Virginia had lost, thinking it was Virginia Tech or Virginia Union. Others asked if Ralph Sampson had played in the game. (He did, scoring 12 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.)

From time to time, Sampson, who now works with youngsters in Atlanta, gets asked about the game. He is understandably reluctant to talk about it. Essentially, he says that the Virginia players played their hearts out in Japan several days before and that when they arrived in Honolulu, they were thinking about relaxing on the beach rather than getting ready for a game.

Neither team won a championship that year. Virginia reached the Elite Eight, and lost to the eventual upset champion North Carolina State. Chaminade was eliminated by South Carolina-Spartanburg in the NAIA tournament and finished the season with a fine 33-5 record. The following season, the Silverswords still had some magic left--they defeated major college power Louisville. But the laws of probability soon caught up with the team and they haven't beaten any major teams in recent years.




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