Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: The Perfect Game (2013)

By Frank Fitzpatrick

Every national championship game in college basketball in the 1980s - especially if we can bend the dates to include 1979 - seemed like an epic confrontation. We had Magic and Larry in 1979, Michael and Patrick in 1982, Jimmy V in 1983, Keith Smart for Indiana in 1987.

One of the best, though, came in 1985. The Patrick mentioned above, as in Ewing of Georgetown, seemed destined to win his second national title while finishing a spectacular career with the Hoyas. As we know now, unheralded Villanova got in the way and somehow took home the title.

Many of those games are worth examining well after the fact. Philadelphia writer Frank Fitzpatrick does his part well by looking at the major upset in his book, "The Perfect Game."

The game was played in a memorable era in college basketball era. The Big East had exploded on to the landscape at that time, with fabulous players, interesting coaches, and intense rivalries that seemed to develop overnight. What's more, ESPN seemed to have a conference game on every night of the winter, so names such as Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Dwayne Washington became well known in short order.

Ewing was the dominant figure, though, a youngster who had immigrated to the Boston area at a young age and who developed into a basketball star. Georgetown won the recruiting battle for his services, and the Hoyas reached the NCAA finals in his freshman year - only to lose to North Carolina as Dean Smith finally won his first national crown. Georgetown didn't make the Final Four in 1983, but captured the title in 1984 and was top ranked in 1985 entering the tournament.

As for Villanova, the Wildcats seemed a little lucky to be even in the NCAA tournament. As Fitzpatrick points out, Villanova might have been sitting at home had the field not been expanded to 64 teams that year. But it made the tournament, and worked its way up the ladder to the Final Four in Lexington, Ky. Georgetown's semifinal win over St. John's - the Big East had three of the four teams in the national semifinals - came across as a warm-up to a coronation. But as you know, Villanova had other plans. It played a near-perfect basketball game to come away with a championship.

It's difficult to give a full play-by-play description of a basketball game years later, and Fitzpatrick instead gives plenty of background material to fill out the book. The basketball histories of Villanova and Georgetown are reviewed, and the coaches Rollie Massimino and John Thompson are well profiled. Then there is the matter of the personalities of the two teams. Both were small Catholic schools from urban areas, but Georgetown was the school that took on a mystique that seemed to resonate among African Americans - if merchandise sales are any barometer. Racism was often in the air for Georgetown games, sometimes in the form of signs or actions (bananas were frequently thrown at Ewing), and they certainly added an extra charge to the atmosphere. The Hoyas, for their part, seemed to thrive on it with an attitude that almost silent shouted, "we don't care what you think about us."

This is all researched nicely enough by Fitzpatrick, and the story moves along quickly. There are a couple of problems with the story, which aren't really of the author's making. First, no one besides an assistant coach at Georgetown, Craig Esherick, was willing to talk about the game at length from the Hoyas' perspective. Some of the Villanova players did speak to Fitzpatrick, but the story still feels a little distant and less personal. Usually books like this, written a couple of decades later, don't have that issue.

Plus, while the game had a happy ending, the Villanova story had a very unhappy postscript. Guard Gary McLain revealed later that he was a cocaine user during his time with the Wildcats, claiming to use the drug during the season and even on the way to the White House for the ceremony with President Reagan. Massimino never regained his magic touch at Villanova, as the Wildcats didn't come close to a repeat performance in the next few years. Massimino ended up jumping to Nevada Las Vegas, and Massimino wasn't forgiven easily for McLain's problems and the high standards that he set but couldn't reach again.

Still, Fitzpatrick captures the time and feeling of that point in basketball history nicely enough. The pages go by quite quickly. His book on the 1966 NCAA basketball final, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," struck me as better because we knew less of the story. But "The Perfect Game" still works pretty well. If you followed that Villanova team closely, this is a worthwhile read and purchase.

Three stars.

Learn more about this book.

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