Most teams spend weeks perfecting their zone defenses. We had two days. “I remember [assistant coach Bill] Carmody cussing me out because I didn’t understand where to slide in the zone,” says Johnson. Carmody would take over as Princeton coach the next season; he’s now the head coach at Northwestern. “I asked, ‘What if a UCLA guy drops here?’ And he started yelling at me, ‘Other guys have figured it out! You figure it out!’”
Yet it was notable that while we were learning a knuckleball defense on the fly, UCLA was complaining about its seeding. Jim Harrick, UCLA’s coach in 1996, still thinks his team got hosed by the selection committee. “If I talk about it, people are going to say I’m sniveling,” says Harrick from his home in Southern California. “I’m really not sniveling, but I am. But I’m not sniveling behind the scenes.” Harrick points out that Arizona, which finished behind UCLA in the Pac-10 standings, played in Tempe, Ariz., for its opening rounds that year. But UCLA, the league champs, was forced to fly east. Harrick suspects that Bob Frederick, the athletic director at the University of Kansas who led the tournament-selection committee that year, did not want his school, which was seeded in the West Region, to share a bracket with UCLA. In December, the Bruins lost to Kansas in Lawrence, Kans., 85-70, but Harrick believes Kansas still feared UCLA. “You may think my thought process on this is strange, but crazy things have happened,” says Harrick. (Frederick died, after a bicycle accident, in 2009).
The Bruins had other problems. “There was just a lot of chemistry-type issues about who was going to be the star,” says Kris Johnson, the son of former NBA player and UCLA star Marques Johnson, and a sophomore forward for UCLA. “I can’t say we were the most focused team going into the tournament. We kind of went into it like, ‘Ivy League, schmivey league.’ It was a total ‘whatever.’ What-ever.”
In other words, UCLA arrived in Indianapolis embittered, a bit disinterested and contemplating conspiracies. Princeton, on the other hand, was soaking up the scenery. Everyone was geeked up that a police escort accompanied us from the Indianapolis airport to our hotel, which was a good half hour from downtown Indy and under construction; that’s the price you pay for being a lower seed. During the Ivy season, the only cops we saw on postmidnight bus trips through New England were those chasing down the long-haul truckers ready to pass out.
At the RCA Dome, Carril and a few of our players conducted a genuine press conference. “There was like a dais,” says Steve Goodrich. “We were used to being in the basement of Jadwin [Gym, Princeton's home court], talking to, like, [former Trenton Times beat reporter] Mark Eckel. There’s a different level of national media and stuff, and that was certainly a first for us. We got these pins that got you access to stuff, the ball was different, your school’s name is on the banner for the regional. I mean, I took two days off from school every year to watch the first two days of the tournament. It was the dream. It’s what you play for.”
After playing in bandbox Ivy League gyms for the past two months, taking the floor of the RCA Dome, home of the Indianapolis Colts, was breathtaking. The locker room seemed like a mile from the court. Jaws on the floor, we gazed into the cavernous upper deck, realizing that basketball should not be played in a 60,000-seat football stadium. “It was like trying to shoot in a park out in the woods,” says Brian Earl, then Princeton sharpshooter. “There was no depth perception. I was nervous about that because we weren’t going to be doing a ton of driving to the basket.”
The day before first-round games, the NCAA opens shootarounds to the public, at no cost. These sessions, which last an hour for each team, almost always turn into dunking exhibitions. UCLA went before us and gave the crowd an air show. Then we came out and opened up practice with our usual drill, called “star passing.” This drill essentially required the team to stand in a circle around midcourt and toss the ball around for five minutes; this must have been the sort of drill that seemed cutting edge for the students of James Naismith, the PE teacher who founded basketball in 1891.
Talk about a letdown for the fans. After a few more minutes of mind-blowing dribbling up and down the floor, we formed a layup line! We had a few guys who could dunk; Carril, however, would hold an eternal grudge if you dunked in warm-ups but failed to grab a loose ball during practice or the game. So trying a slam wasn’t worth the risk. Princeton forward Chris Doyal, however, was a senior who no longer cared about angering Carril, with whom he had clashed for four years. The floor felt springy, so the husky forward barreled in for a baseline dunk.
“I’ll never forget the f—ing sarcastic clapping,” says Goodrich. “We were [at] the last practice of the night, it was late, and the defending champs has just come on and put on a show. Everyone was leaving, and about four people stuck around to see, ‘Oh, what do these guys do?’ And I just remember these four people clapping in an amused fashion.”
No one figured that 24 hours later, the cheers would be anything but a joke.
There Was Panic
A few hours before tip-off, Miles Clark, a senior who served as Princeton’s team manager, wasn’t expecting much raucous applause for the Tigers. Clark filled the tub in his hotel room with beer and ice. He figured that a few players and coaches would want to give Carril a proper send-off later that night. “I just thought, ‘This is it,’” says Clark, now an attorney in Washington, D.C.
Before Princeton ran out for pregame warm-ups that Thursday night around 9:30 local time, the last of the four first-round games played in Indy on March 14, the Tigers found themselves standing next to the UCLA players in the corridors of the RCA Dome. “I remember thinking about how friggin’ big they were,” says starting guard Henderson, now an assistant coach at Northwestern. “Bad planning on our part.” Looking for any advantage, a few minutes earlier Anthony “Red” Trani, a Princeton stonemason and friend of Carril’s who was part of our traveling contingent — as a son of a steelworker, Carril adored blue-collar pros — had wiggled his fingers and shook his shoulders outside the UCLA locker room, like a bad actor in a horror flick, trying to place an old Italian curse on the Bruins. Carril called it “the whammy.”
Once we arrived on the court, the atmosphere was charged — in UCLA’s favor. “I remember UCLA coming out, and they looked like the Lakers,” says Darren Hite, a Princeton reserve who grew up playing against several UCLA stars in south California. “They just looked like they had been there before.” The UCLA cheerleaders heckled a pair of Princeton sophomores, Brian Douglas and Doyl Burkett, who were two of only four Princeton students in the crowd of 30,000, aside from team members, media and the band, who made the trek out to Indy during midterm-exam week. Douglas, clad in bright orange, freely admits he looked like a geek. “We had so few students, there was a lot of fodder to make fun of,” says Burkett. “They were definitely the national champions — even the cheerleaders had swagger.”