Timing is everything.
In May 1979, I graduated from LSU, three-fourths full of knowledge and one-fourth full of crawfish, ready to dazzle the reading public with my writing skills.
Just a couple of months before the fine folks in Baton Rouge decided to give me a degree, after a check of any unpaid campus parking tickets and missing library books, the Southeastern Conference re-started its men’s conference basketball tournament after an absence of almost three decades.
So for a hoops-lovin’ guy like me, who walked out of college and immediately into sports writing, sitting through 11 games in four days has been nirvana for 33 straight years as of Thursday when the SEC tourney starts in Atlanta.
No matter how compelling the regular season has or hasn’t been, wall-to-wall tourney basketball is a blast, especially the first two days when you show up at the arena about lunchtime and leave hunting for a midnight snack.
I love every minute of the sights, the sounds, the smells, the expected (Kentucky usually bringing 20,000 fans if the tourney is in the Georgia Dome like this year) and the unexpected (like the Great Tornado Tourney of ’08 that started in the G-Dome and ended in Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum).
It’s not just about the basketball. It’s about spending time with fellow media members, having a few days to get caught up with each other. It’s the same for fans, a good place for old college buddies to reunite, or for Dad and Mom, but moreso Dad to invite his now middle-aged son and maybe a grandson for a few days of male bonding over dunks and hot dogs.
It’s also a gathering place for former coaches, players and athletic adminstrators to reminsce.
“I go just to see old friends and there are a lot of people who like me that do the same,” said 80-year-old Joe Dean Sr., former LSU athletic director, TV analyst and All-SEC standout for the Tigers. “I could spend three hours at breakfast each day just talking people coming and going.”
Dean played the last game of his LSU career in the ’52 SEC tournament championship game, and was named to the all-tourney team for the second consecutive year. The Tigers lost to Kentucky in the finals, 44-43, in Louisville’s Jefferson County Armory and as it turned out, the tournament was then put in mothballs until the late 70s.
Why? No one seems to know, though Dean and a few other old-timers have their theories, the foremost being that basketball just wasn’t a very big deal back then (except for Kentucky which dominated the sport in the SEC through the early 80s).
“The campus arenas were very poor in those days, it was terrible,” Dean says. “You could hardly go to Georgia and win, because the roof leaked when it rained. Ole Miss played its home games on the second floor of a building. Some new arenas started being built, but there just wasn’t an emphasis on basketball.”
The first SEC tournament, the initial championship event held by the then-newly formed league, was staged Feb. 24-28, 1933, at the Atlanta Athletic Club. The tourney was conducted 19 straight years, even in 1944, when only six teams partcipated because of World War II.
While no one can say for sure why the league quit playing the tourney, the sad part is all the great players who never had a chance to play in a SEC tourney.
Such a list is staggering, with 23 first-team all-Americans and 13 first-round NBA draft choices including four in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – LSU’s Pete Maravich, Mississippi State’s Bailey Howell, Kentucky’s Dan Issel and Kentucky’s Pat Riley (inducted for coaching the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to a combined five NBA titles).
It would have been awesome to see Maravich, college basketball’s all-time leading scorer and consummate ball-handling showman, in a league tournament setting. The same goes for Howell, one of the greatest rebounding machines in SEC history, and for Issel, who’s still ninth on the SEC career scoring list and who might be the best player in league history never to win conference Player of the Year honors, because his college career coincided (1967-70) with Maravich.
Many players who never had the opportunity to play in the SEC tournament rarely thought about it as time passed, as the tourney became a distant memory. But once the tournament re-started, former players couldn’t deny stirrings.
“I would have enjoyed playing in a conference tournament, it would have been a lot of fun,” says TV analyst Larry Conley, a three-year starter for Kentucky from 1963-66. “Re-starting the tournament helped elevate the exposure of basketball in this league.”
The basketball tournament was also beneficial in the sense that it gave the SEC office ideas of how to market its league championship football game. The creation of FanFare, the interactive basketball festival that runs in conjuction with the league tournament, showed the league it could heighten the event experience for even those fans that didn’t or couldn’t buy tourney tickets.
The tourney re-started just in time for former Kentucky guard Kyle Macy, a three-time All-SEC first team selection and the first-ever SEC tournament Most Valuable Player since the re-start.
Macy, a starter on UK’s 1978 national championship team, was able to play in the first two SEC tourneys as a junior and senior. The Wildcats lost in the finals both years – 75-69 in overtime to Tennessee in ’79 when Macy was named the MVP, and 80-78 to LSU in ’80 when Macy was on the all-tourney team.
“We really didn’t know what to expect the first year,” says Macy, now a SEC TV analyst, of his initial conference tourney experience. “But once we got down there, it was fun because it was great to get all the teams in one location.
“That (’79) tourney will always be a special memory for me, because I played well and the NBA (the Suns) drafted me (in the first round) after my junior year. At the time, you didn’t have to declare for the draft, because it was my fourth year since I sat out a season (’76-’77) after transferring (from Purdue). But I still came back for my senior year and again we almost won the (SEC) tournament.”
The first five of seven SEC tournaments after the re-start were played at the Birmingham (Ala.) Jefferson Civic Center. Rupp Arena hosted three times before SEC coaches complained playing on Kentucky’s home court was an advantage the Wildcats didn’t need. Vanderbilt hosted twice in Memorial Coliseum, LSU once and Tennessee once.
But the season that changed the course of the SEC tournament – how it was viewed nationally, how ticket demand changed and where it would be played in the future – was in 1991-92 when the league expanded to 12 schools.
One of the two new schools was Arkansas, coming off three straight Southwest Conference regular season and tourney championships and a 1990 Final Four appearance. The Razorbacks, playing coach Nolan Richardson “Forty Minutes of Hell” fast breaking and defensive pressing style, could score 90 points in a blink. Not only would they speed up opponents, who would crumble under the pressure, but the Hogs created a frenzied, loyal fan base as avid as Kentucky’s.
The ’92 SEC tourney was the last ever played at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center. But on so many levels, it still might be the most compelling ever played, because it had a dramatic story line each day such as:
Ole Miss coach Ed Murphy resigned after his team lost to Georgia, 85-66.
What was special was the affable Murphy, 76-98 in six seasons guiding the Rebels, conducted one of the best farewell press conferences in league history.
Murphy walked on the podium, looked at the packed interview room, adjusted the microphone and said with a laugh, “This is like an Irish wake. Most people come just to make sure.”
And for the next 20 minutes, Murphy was the standup guy that every one knew and loved.
“I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me,” Murphy said. “There are a lot more coaches who have had worse seasons, won less games, had more problems with (NCAA) rules and or had problems with kids.”
A personal note here: Ed Murphy is one of my most favorite coaches that I’ve ever covered. He loved coaching, but it was never life or death.
For instance, there was the time in December 1987 when Murphy scheduled Baptist Christian, a tiny school from Shreveport, for one of those store-bought, non-conference home wins. I walked in Ole Miss’ Tad Smith Coliseum about 15 minutes before tipoff and there were maybe 200 fans in the stands.
So I strolled over to Murphy and said, “Hey Ed, it might be a good idea tonight that instead of having your public address guy waste time with the pregame introduction of your starters, it would probably be quicker if your starters go seat-to-seat in the stands and introduce themselves to people that actually showed up.”
Murphy gave a belly laugh while good-naturedly cursing me.
Arkansas and its fans introduced themselves to rest of the Southeastern Conference.
The Razorbacks had won the regular season championship in their first year in the SEC after jumping from the Southwest Conference. Arkansas had usually dominated the SWC and its post season tournament in Dallas where the Hogs’ faithful would color the city Razorback red.
But even in a new league and different postseason site, the Arkansas fans did the unthinkable at their first visit to the SEC tournament – they bought as many tickets as Kentucky fans, who long considered the conference tourney as the “Wildcats Invitational.”
The brave new SEC world was never more apparent when Kentucky and Arkansas played in back-to-back games in the second round.
The Wildcats were in the process of hammering Vanderbilt when Arkansas’ players, dressed in their warmups, walked out of a tunnel in the first half. They sat in a designated area to watch some of the game before heading back to the dressing room to prepare to play Georgia.
When the Arkansas fans saw their boys, they automatically broke into their favorite cheer, calling the Hogs. As “Whoo Pig Sooey” echoed throughout the arena, you could see the UK players glance around with bemused looks while the Big Blue fans tried to respond.
After the game when UK coach Rick Pitino was asked about the Hogs’ reception, he slyly replied, “I thought it was for a pretty lady.”
Once Arkansas beat Georgia in its first SEC tourney game ever, 73-60, with Bulldogs’ coach Hugh Durham saying of Hogs’ long-range shooter Todd Day – “One shot he hit was so far out it should have counted for four points” – the fireworks were just starting.
The third game of the day between LSU and Tennessee boiled down to a wrestling match in the post between LSU’s oversized Shaquille O’Neal (7-1, 295) and Tennessee’s undersized Carlus Groves.
LSU was breezing with a 22-point lead with 10:05 left in the game when Tigers’ guard Jamie Brandon fed O’Neal in the lane. He spun and gathered himself to dunk, but as he began his jump, Groves reached around O’Neal’s waist with both hands and yanked him back in place.
Three officials’ whistles blew to call the foul, but Groves yanked O’Neal again to throw him to the floor. O’Neal, falling backward, caught Groves with an elbow trying to push him away.
Both benches emptied, and LSU coach Dale Brown ran on the floor to scream at Groves, because he felt Groves had played dirty against O’Neal in previous meetings. Brown pushed Groves (which Brown later denied), Groves took a swing at Brown and missed. Referee Andre Patillo tried to restrain Brown while another official, slender Michael Smith, boldly attempted to grab O’Neal from behind, and looked like he was hanging on to a brahma bull.
In fact, a few years later when Smith became an NBA ref, one of his first games he worked involved the Orlando Magic whose center was O’Neal. When Smith reminded O’Neal of the Groves fight, Shaq said, “Mike, I didn’t know that was you on my back.”
It took 20 minutes after the O’Neal-Groves title bout for the officiating crew of Smith, Patillo and David Bair to sort through the madness and find the guilty parties. They had to look at the TV replay of the fight several times to determine O’Neal and Groves would be ejected, also earning an automatic NCAA one-game suspension for fighting. Eight other players – four from each team including three LSU starters – were tossed.
Brown wasn’t ejected and didn’t get a technical because NCAA rules stated that a coach had a right to “come on the floor to try and stop an altercation or to make the situation better.”
In the postgame press conference, an emotionally wrought Brown rallied to vent long and hard. “The league should be embarassed – a terrible injustice was done,” Brown said. “The wrong people were ejected. It’s an absolute lie that I took a swing or pushed him (Groves). I went out there because I thought he was coming back at Shaquille. I guess my legacy in this league is to be the fall guy.”
Brown got on the phone to then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who was in Kansas City as chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee. He told Kramer that O’Neal’s punishment was unfair and that LSU was going to withdraw from the tourney, forfeiting its semifinal matchup with Kentucky.
LSU did show up for the first semifinal, losing 80-74. It was Brown’s daughter Robyn who convinced her dad his team should play. She told him, “Daddy, not showing up is exactly what some people will want you to do. Kentucky wants to win that tournament without having to play you.”
The second semifinal, a 90-89 victory by No. 17 Alabama over No. 7 Arkansas, was 40 minutes of two teams with six eventual NBA first-round draft choices playing in fifth gear. Tide guard Elliot Washington hit a deep corner three-pointer with 1.6 seconds left for the game-winner, then had to hold his breath as Arkansas center Oliver Miller launched a 93-foot heave that bounced off the backboard, a foot wide of the rim, as the game-ending horn sounded.
“This was the championship game,” said Arkansas’ Day, who scored 39 points. “It won’t get any better than this. Every time I hit a big shot that I thought put them away, they’d come down to hit a big shot to get right back in it.”
There were highlight reel plays almost every possession, like Alabama’s Robert Horry jumping so high to block a Day layup that Horry hit his shoulder on the backboard. Or Tide point guard James “Hollywood” Robinson converting a drive between two defenders, driving full speed and spinning 360 degrees.
It was Robinson who penetrated the lane on Alabama’s last possession, drawing a double team and passing to a wide-open Washigton in the corner.
“Shoot it, Elliot,” Robinson screamed.
“I had no choice but to shoot,” Washington said.
No. 9 Kentucky’s 80-54 blowout of Alabama seemed like an emotional letdown compared to the rest of the tournament.
But it was important to Kentucky, because a NCAA probation gave UK sanctions that forced it to vacate its ’88 SEC tourney title, made the Wildcats ineligible for postseason play (including the SEC tourney) in ’90 and ’91 and failed to recognize UK as the ’91 regular season SEC champs.
So yes, winning the ’92 SEC tourney was the re-birth of a program that four years later won the ’96 national title over Syracuse, lost in the ’97 NCAA finals to Arizona and won another national championship in ’98 over Utah.
“We’ve had championships taken away and we’ve played with asteriks next to our record,” said then-UK forward and current Arkansas coach John Pelphrey. “Nobody can take this away from us.”
The ’95 tournament, the first time the SEC staged the tourney in the big stage of the Georgia Dome, was a spectacle. It played out the way everybody hoped with defending national champion and No. 5 Arkansas playing No. 3 Kentucky in the finals.
Kentucky led 80-80 with 1.3 seconds in regulation when forward Rodrick Rhodes got fouled on a drive. Just before he went to the foul line, UK’s Pitino pulled Rhodes aside and whispered in his ear, “This is why I put you back in the game. This is your moment.”
Not quite. Rhodes badly missed his first free throw and his second hung on the rim before falling off. Arkansas forward Corliss Williamson rebounded as the buzzer sounded ending regulation.
Pitino never played Rhodes in overtime, explaining Rhodes couldn’t stop crying after his misses. It looked like Arkansas would win when it hit its first four shots in the extra period, easing out to a 91-84 lead. But Williamson fouled out, Kentucky made up a seven-point deficit in the final 40 seconds for a 95-93 victory and the largest crowd ever to watch a SEC tourney game – 30,057 – finally exhaled.
Every year at the league tourney, I hope that there’s a game or two as intense as Alabama-Arkansas circa ’92 or Kentucky-Arkansas ’95, or maybe a great individual performance.
And selfishly, as a writer, I hope I get a quote so good that I can recite it by heart decades later.
That’s why every year, just before this tourney tips, I raise a press room cup of Dr. Pepper and a bag of Golden Flake chips (both official SEC sponsors) to toast late Alabama guard Alvin Lee.
It was Lee who gave me and Joe Biddle of The Tennessean what we considered the quote by which all future SEC tourney quotes would be judged. Lee played for the Tide from ’87-’89, and arguably remains as the best three-pointer in ’Bama history. The two years he was a starter, ’87-’88 and ’88-’89, he shot 48 percent (72-of-150) and 46.5 percent (72-of-150) respectively from trey land.
Check the SEC record book and Lee, who tragically died in a car crash in 1999, is still the SEC career record holder for three-point percentage (for players between 200-299 attempts). He finished at 47.3 percent, 132-of-279.
Obviously, the numbers indicate the man had a radar-lock shooting stroke when he was in rhythm. That’s why it was a shock at the ’89 SEC tournament in Knoxville when Alabama edged Ole Miss, 64-56, in the second round, Lee made just 2-of-12 shots and scored a mere 9 points.
The next day in ’Bama’s 83-79 semifinal victory over Vanderbilt, Lee returned to form, scoring 24 points. He hit 4-of-5 threes, including three straight three-ball missles in the faces of Vandy defenders during a 1:44 stretch of which Vanderbilt’s Barry Goheen said afterward, “He hit shots that you shake your head over.”
Naturally, inquiring minds like myself and Biddle wanted to know about Lee’s dramatic turnaround, how he was stone cold on Friday against Ole Miss and sizzling hot against Vandy on Saturday.
So in the dressing room, we found a tired, but smiling Lee sitting in a chair in front of the locker and peeling off his sweaty socks.
Me: “So Alvin, you were on fire out there after not hitting virtually anything against Ole Miss. Was is it a case of just getting better looks at the basket?”
Biddle: “Or did you just get in some extra shots in this morning at shootaround?”
Lee: “Nah man. I played a little tight against Ole Miss, so I tried to relax myself by listening to some music.”
Me: “So it was just the music that helped?”
Lee: “Well, I got my girls back.”
At this point, there’s an awkward pause. Biddle and I are thinking the same thing. We don’t know if Lee is married or has children or what. Judging from what he said – he “got his girls back” – we both think Lee might be in a custody battle.
But we pressed on.
Biddle: “Your. . .uh. . .girls?”
Lee: “Yeah, my girls, my old shoes. Yesterday, I was wearing some new kicks. Hurt my feet. Today, I got my girls back. They beat up, they stinky, but I loves ’em!”
At that point, we thanked Lee for the interview, walked out in the hall and had to lean against a wall we were laughing so hard. Then, we declared it was the greatest postgame quote we’d ever gotten.
It still is, at least for me.
Here’s to you, Alvin. And your stinky girls that forever smell sweet during March Madness.