PHILADELPHIA _ It was raining on that March afternoon in Philadelphia when the newsroom commotion began. People started pointing at the television sets and gathering around them. The primitive computer system suddenly froze, as too many people asked it to perform the same command at the same time, all trying to fetch the latest details from the UPI wire on the shooting of the president, Ronald Reagan.
It was March 30, 1981. It was 25 years ago, the last time the Final Four came to Philadelphia.
It was as controversial a day as this tournament has seen, when the NCAA played on, despite an assassination attempt on the president. The Hollywood liberal elite, although they weren’t known as such back then, postponed the Academy Awards telecast for a day, but the All-American NCAA played through, and several NBC broadcasters openly ripped their network’s decision to telecast the game.
Read what Bryant Gumbel, NBC’s pregame host, said that day:
“It makes the people covering this game look like this is all we care about,” Gumbel said. “My personal opinion is that they shouldn’t play. There is a time to play and a time not to play. If the Academy Awards can be pushed back, so can the NCAA finals. ABC and CBS are on the air, and we’re playing bleeping games. It doesn’t look good for us. It makes us look like callous boobs.”
Here was the timeline: The president was shot at about 2:30 p.m. EST, the consolation game between LSU and Virginia was scheduled for 5:00 – yes, this was the last-ever consolation game at the Final Four – and the championship game between Indiana and North Carolina was set for 8:23.
Reports were still sketchy, as they say, when the NCAA Division I Basketball Committee members began arriving at the Spectrum, coming separately in small groups in taxis from Center City. Then, as now, the committee picks the field and administers the championships. This would be their call, in consultation with the schools and other NCAA executives, and the news and rumors were all over the place.
Remember the famous scene when ABC anchor Frank Reynolds announced what he had just been told in his ear, that press secretary James Brady had died in the attack. Then, minutes later, a reporter at the hospital said that Brady was alive, though critical, and Reynolds angrily said, on-air, “Let’s nail it down. Let’s get it right.”
That is the kind of day it was. Reagan was initially thought to be OK. Only later was the severity of the wounds known, and that they would require surgery to repair.
Meanwhile, the doors at the Spectrum were opening and fans were arriving. They played the consolation without a second thought. After it was over, I’ll never forget one of the LSU kids, when I asked him if they should have played the game, saying, “Why not? He ain’t no kin of mine.” I’m still not sure why I didn’t put it in the paper, other than that he was a kid, and I was embarrassed for him.
It got to be 7:00 p.m., and then 7:30, and there still was no announcement from the committee on the championship game. The big issue that night among reporters was trying to figure out NBC’s involvement, and not just reporters. As North Carolina coach Dean Smith said, “It wasn’t my decision to make. But I didn’t want NBC to make it.”
At one point, Smith and Indiana coach Bobby Knight – yeah, he was still Bobby then – met in a Spectrum alcove. They said they just mostly talked about the president, not a potential postponement. Meanwhile, the committee, headed by Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, said it waited until the president’s doctor said that he had pulled through surgery OK. Then, it decided to play.
Duke said that, absent the positive medical report, the game would have been postponed. He said that a further complication (the Sixers had a home playoff game scheduled for the next night) was not a factor. And he insisted that the television people were not involved.
“They (NBC) had no input whatsoever,” he said. “The initial decision was made by the persons I indicated, committee members plus Indiana and North Carolina officials. NBC was not in the room. I am totally amazed that this kind of feeling can come into the picture.”
Duke also said, “I have no second thoughts,” even though he was pretty much fricasseed in the newspapers the next day.
For its part, NBC executive producer Don Ohlmeyer said, “We made a decision at 6:30 p.m. that if the report (was that) the president was in sound and stable condition, as it turned out to be, we would televise the game. If the president came out of the operating room in anything other than in good and stable condition, and the news division felt it was a necessity to stay on the air until the situation was resolved, we were committed to not telecasting the game. It was that simple.”
And so they played, after the obligatory prayer and moment of reflection. Fans who were interviewed were in favor of playing. Players, too. The announcers, though, remained torn.
Al McGuire said, “I want the people to know that I’m here because this is my job. I really don’t think my saloon style fits in this kind of atmosphere. I would have preferred not to be on the air tonight.”
After which, Dick Enberg said, “We’d hoped they would postpone the game 24 hours.”
But they played, and Indiana won the championship, and there was so much going on that people stopped talking about what had happened Saturday night, when Knight got in a confrontation with an LSU fan in a hotel, and the fan ended up in a garbage can.
And the nation? The television ratings were up 4.6 percent from the previous year.
And Reagan? From his hospital bed that night, legend has it, he wrote a note that said, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
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