Jack “Goose” Givens has never lost his innate sense of timing.
Thirty-four years ago, in the final game of a storied college basketball career at the University of Kentucky, he saved his very best performance for last – a career-high 41 points in the Wildcats’ 94-88 victory over Duke in the NCAA national championship game in St. Louis.
“I was just reacting naturally, taking the shots that were there for me, just catching and shooting,” recalls Givens, 54, the third all-time leading scorer in UK history. “It was a great situation to be in as a player, the perfect storm for me. It’s fun to have a game like that, and it’s super fun when you do it in your last college game and you win the national championship.”
And after living most of his post-college life in Orlando where he and his wife raised a family, empty-nesters Jack and Linda Givens recently moved back to their native Lexington, Kentucky area, just in time to see the Wildcats unexpectedly advance to Saturday’s Final Four in Houston.
“We have our hotel room and we have our tickets,” Givens says. “I’ve grown attached to this team, because they are underdogs and had to overachieve to get where they are now. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Of course Givens wouldn’t. Having UK in the Final Four for the first time since 1998 when Tubby Smith coached the ’Cats to the national title is a special occasion.
But when you think of Kentucky’s seven national championship teams, the one name that immediately pops out to the average basketball fans is Jack Givens.
On the biggest stage in college basketball, he played the best game of his life. He has never stopped wondering why he was the chosen one.
“I think about it all the time, because we had a great team with a lot of great players,” Givens says. “I just figured God kind of said, `O.K., it’s going to be your night. Let’s see if you’re going to be able to live through this.’ ”
It shouldn’t have been a stunner that Givens turned it loose in the final 40 minutes of wearing his blue and white No. 21 jersey that Kentucky eventually retired.
The 6-5, 205-pound, left-handed small forward had been the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball and earned Parade All-America honors as a senior at Lexington’s Bryan Station High in 1974. But because previous Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp didn’t sign the school’s first black player (Tom Payne) until June 1969, Givens wasn’t a diehard Kentucky fan.
But he eventually began watching the Wildcats because of a pair of smooth shooting forwards named Tom Parker (1969-72, a one-time first-team All-SEC) and Kevin Grevey (1972-75, a three-time first-team All-SEC).
“Tom Parker could really shoot the ball, a lefty small forward who was a lot like Kevin Grevey,” Givens says. “I loved the way Tom played, so that made me change my thinking towards Kentucky.
“Then, I saw Kevin play a lot when I was a high school senior. He could catch it and shoot it. I patterned my game after his, and I learned a lot from him once I enrolled and practiced against him. Kevin was a great teacher who showed me the mental aspect of different game situations.”
Givens isn’t being modest when he says that he was fortunate to be the UK starter who just happened to have the third best scoring performance in an NCAA championship game that night against the Blue Devils. Being the hero of the moment was the norm on that season’s 34-2 Kentucky team that had four battle-tested seniors in the starting lineup.
As freshmen in 1974-’75 and Givens and center-forward Rick Robey were key contributors on a 26-5 UK team that lost to UCLA, 92-85, in the NCAA finals. It was the 10th and last national championship for Bruins’ coach John Wooden, who announced his retirement after the game.
A year later in 1975-’76, center Mike Phillips was added to the UK playing rotation. Robey went down with strained knee ligaments after 12 games. But Givens (20.1 points per game), Phillips (15.6) and fellow sophomore James Lee (9.3) rallied the Wildcats to a 20-10 record and the NIT championship at a time when winning the NIT was prestigious since the NCAA tourney had just a 32-team field.
With Robey healthy and raring to go, Givens, Robey, Phillips and Lee combined to average 55.1 points as juniors in 1976-’77 as UK went 26-4, losing 79-72 to North Carolina in the NCAA East Regional finals.
“North Carolina got a double-digit lead on us and went into that four-corners offense,” Robey says. “Since college basketball didn’t have a shot clock back then, we had to foul and they made something like 35-of-36 free throws. I think if we would have gotten in the Final Four that year (the other teams were national champ Marquette, UNLV and Charlotte), we would have won the national championship. None of those teams were running teams and nobody could run with us that year.”
Obviously, the pressure was on by the time Givens, Robey, Phillips and Lee reached their senior seasons in 1977-’78.
“We knew `This was it’ for the four seniors,” says Robey, 55, who played eight years in the pros, won an NBA title with the Celtics in ’81 and is now the proud father of University of Florida offensive lineman Sam Robey. “We’d had a good career, but that last Kentucky team I played on all knew each others strengths and weaknesses. If we saw the opposing team had a weakness, we worked hard to exploit it.”
It certainly helped the four seniors to finally have the services of first-year starter Kyle Macy, a skinny, but savvy sophomore point guard who transferred from Purdue. He became the final piece of the puzzle that made the Wildcats virtually unbeatable. Macy was calming force, a deadly shooter when called upon, but also someone who knew it was his priority to run the team.
“Kyle’s dad had been a coach, so Kyle knew the game well,” Givens says. “It always helps when your point guard knows the game as well as Kyle did. He also shot well from the outside and defenses couldn’t help out as much inside as they did in previous years. And he was a great free throw shooter, which was apparent against Michigan State (in the regional final) when they had to foul Kyle and he made free throws down the stretch.
“If we could have put Kyle Macy with the team we had our junior year, it would have been our best team by far, even better than our senior year.”
Maybe so. But Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall was just happy to get Macy’s services just in time to pair him with the four seniors. It was then in his sixth year as UK’s coach after the former ’Cats assistant succeeded his legendary boss Adolph Rupp, that Hall realized Kentucky had all the elements required of a championship team.
It had inside-outside balance, it had experience and it had chemistry. UK started the season 14-0, and lost 78-62 at Alabama where Macy says “our legs were dead because Coach Hall killed us in practice the night before on that old Tartan floor at Alabama and we were a step and a half slow the whole game.”
The Wildcats bounced back with three more wins, lost 95-94 in overtime at LSU in which both teams lost numerous starters to fouls.
That defeat was on Feb. 11. Kentucky didn’t lose again, closing the season with 13 straight victories.
There were some close calls along the way, especially in the NCAA tourney when UK went 5-0. The ’Cats edged Michigan State and Magic Johnson, 52-49, in the regional finals and then squeezed by Arkansas and its talented triplets (Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ronnie Brewer), 64-59, in the national semifinals.
“It seemed like every game in the tourney, a different guy had a big night, showing the versatility and depth of our team, the different ways we could beat teams,” says Macy, 53, who played seven years in the NBA, coached Morehead State for nine seasons and is now a TV analyst for SEC games and the UK network.
“Against Florida State (in the first round), the reserves started the second half and got us out of the deep sleep we were in. Truman (Claytor) and Mike Phillips, both guys from Ohio, had big games against Miami, Ohio (in the regional semifinals). I had a pretty good game against Michigan State. Against Arkansas, someone else took over.
“We could guard people, we were physical, we could handle the ball so pressure wouldn’t bother us, we could overpower you inside with our size and we had a bunch of outside shooters.”
So by the time the Wildcats were sitting in their locker room at the St. Louis Checkerdome on March 27, 1978, waiting to take the floor for the national title game vs. Duke, they felt like the national championship was theirs to lose.
“We knew we had enough to win that final game,” Givens says. “I was as calm and as confident as I had been for any game in my career. I knew we were as prepared as we could be. I thought we had more talent than Duke. And I was making just about everything I shot in pregame warmups.”
When Duke started the game in a 2-3 zone defense, Givens basically dipped in and out of the wide open middle. Time and again, Macy found him alone in the lane at the free throw line. All Givens had to do was turn and shoot over late-arriving Blue Devils’ center Mike Gminski.
Duke never adjusted the entire first half, and Givens took what the defense gave him, which was plenty. He scored 23 points in the opening 20 minutes, including UK’s final 16 points, for a 45-38 lead at the half.
“When you have a guy like that, it really breaks things down and makes the game plan a lot easier,” Macy recalls of Givens shredding Duke, “because all you’re trying to do is find him. It was like `Where’s Jack?’
“Duke kept playing that zone, and we kept flashing Jack in the middle. For some reason, Gminski didn’t feel like he was quick enough and never consistently stepped up to take that away. When he did, Jack would give him a ball fake and go by him. So I was looking to get the ball to Jack as much as I could.”
Not one Wildcat protested the force-feeding of Givens. They wanted to ride the Golden Goose as long as possible.
“We were a very unselfish team,” Robey says. “If somebody was on, we got the ball to him. But when I look back at films (of that Duke game), it’s amazing Duke didn’t move a defender up in the zone to stop Jack.”
No one was sorrier to see the halftime horn sound than Givens. As hot as he was, the last thing he wanted to do was sit in the locker room and feel his sweat dry. But even intermission didn’t chill his jets.
“I was feeling good going into halftime,” Givens says. “My teammates just kept moving the ball until they could find me, and my last five minutes of the first half set the tone for the rest of the game. I hit a few shots early in the second half, which is what you want to do to see if you can keep it going coming out of the locker room.”
Duke made a slight defensive adjustment in the second half and even played some man-to-man. Kentucky countered by sending Givens to the corners, where he was so good that he even skimmed in a baseline jumper off the side of the backboard for his 38th and 39th points.
“When you make a shot like that,” Givens recalls of his circus corner shot, “it’s like `Please give me two or three more of those to see what I can do.’ ”
The Blue Devils didn’t know quite how to defend Givens, whose previous career best scoring effort had been in the mid-30s. Duke guard Jim Spanarkel, who scored 21 points vs. UK, said after watching Givens hit 18-of-27 shots and grab 8 rebounds, “Jack Givens played the best game I have ever seen anyone play.”
Givens says he knew he wasn’t Duke’s top defensive priority prior to tipoff.
“They had been concerned about our bigs (Robey, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds against the Dookies, and Phillips, who played just 11 minutes because of foul trouble),” Givens says. “Our bigs had the ability to score freely inside, so I guess Duke felt like it was going to make us win the game from elsewhere.
“Fortunately, I got hot. My teammates found me and I kept making shots. A lot of my shots came from that 15 to 20-foot range, but I was able to make shots pretty much all over the floor. So Duke couldn’t focus its defense in any one area of the court.”
As years have passed and Givens’ hair gets a little whiter, he thinks about that magical night in St. Louis when the basket seemed as wide as an ocean.
“Every year, I realize how difficult it is to get to the Final Four, especially to win it,” Givens says. “Everything has to be in place, everything has to be aligned, everyone has to do their jobs. So as each year goes by, winning the championship means more and more.
“Over the years, people have asked me what I was thinking during that (Duke) game. You don’t have time to think, because if you’re thinking, you’re not playing. I had no clue at the end of that game that I was even close to 41 points.
“I wasn’t thinking about the pressure, I wasn’t thinking about the next game, because it was the last game of my career. All I had to do was stay in that moment. And because of all the experience I’d gained in my career, I wasn’t thinking.”
Givens’ long and winding road – two years in the NBA for the Atlanta Hawks, five years playing in Japan and the rest as a broadcaster for the Orlando Magic and running an Orlando AAU girls program that produced a string of college players – led to him and his wife returning home to the Bluegrass State.
“My wife said it was time to go home, and she has followed me around for 30 years,” Givens says. “We both wanted to get back to Kentucky, and I had a job offer.
“It’s great being back, it’s great being in the (Rupp) arena. I’m totally shocked that the fans still know who I am, but that goes along with playing Kentucky basketball. They never forget you.”
Neither has Duke.
Especially if they watch this.