The Game That Saved March Madness

11 minute read

I see the rim. I see the rim. A quarter-century later, Bob Scrabis can still see the rim.

Seven seconds remained in a first-round 1989 NCAA-tournament game between Princeton and Georgetown when Scrabis, the Tigers’ captain and lone senior, raised up to shoot. Before the game, Scrabis’ coach, the cigar-chomping pessimist Pete Carril, had set the betting line. “I think we’re a billion to one to win the whole tournament,” he said. “To beat Georgetown, we’re only 450 million to one.”

Yet Carril’s 16th-seeded Tigers trailed the Hoyas, the most dominant and polarizing team in college hoops, by a single point, 50-49, when Scrabis dribbled off a screen near the top of the key. I got it, Scrabis thought. A St. Patrick’s Day audience, then the largest ever for a college basketball game on a young network called ESPN, was going to see a 16th seed–the lowest in the tournament–beat a No. 1 for the first time, and Scrabis would be the reason. “It’s the shot you want when you’re playing by yourself in the driveway, dreaming of something like this,” he says. “But 6-ft. 10-in. guys aren’t hiding in the hedges.”

Georgetown freshman Alonzo Mourning, who would go on to become one of the best defenders in the NBA, pounced from the foul line to swat Scrabis’ shot away. The loose ball skittered out of bounds, where an official ruled it Princeton ball.

Now just one second remained in the game that saved March Madness.

Today the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which begins March 20, is a multibillion-dollar enterprise with the cultural and economic clout to rival the Super Bowl, in large part because of its underdogs and upsets. The nation’s workplace productivity plummets as millions of Americans, many of whom haven’t watched a game all season, furtively track the action on computers and smartphones, rooting for the small school they picked to pull an upset in the office pool.

That opening round has become an American ritual. But 25 years ago, some of those would-be Cinderellas risked being shut out. As the tournament boomed in the 1980s, expanding from 48 teams at the beginning of the decade to 64 teams just five years later, the representatives of the larger, richer schools started grumbling. Why give spots in the lucrative event to champions from leagues like the Ivy or historically black conferences like the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) or Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose teams had no shot at a national title? During the previous three years, the Ivy schools had lost in the first round by an average of 40 points. “The general theme at that period,” says Rich Ensor, commissioner of the low-wattage Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, “was to push people out.”

NCAA leaders hatched a plan to deny the champs from the weakest two conferences an automatic bid, on the basis of a league’s record the previous season or its performance leading up to the day the tournament brackets were announced.

Then Princeton was matched up against Georgetown. Entering the 1989 tournament, the Hoyas–who had five future NBA players on their roster–were a popular pick to win the national title. If Princeton could just stay close to Georgetown, all little guys deserved a shot. The game, says former MEAC commissioner Kenneth Free, whose conference bid was on the chopping block, “kept us alive.”

It did even more for the tournament’s value as a television event. ESPN had the rights to almost all of the first round, and it aired the game live in prime time. The strong ratings helped convince CBS executives that the broadcast network, which had the rights to the later rounds, should own the entire thing. “A game like that shows that the first round was something you should covet,” says former CBS executive producer Ted Shaker.

You can draw a straight line from that idea to the mega-event that the tournament has since become. By the end of 1989, CBS reached a seven-year, $1 billion deal to carry every round. That contract, which raised the annual fees CBS paid the NCAA by nearly 160%, would expose March Madness to a broader audience and set the tournament on a course of exponential growth that led to the most recent deal, a 2010 agreement with CBS and Turner for $10.8 billion over 14 years.

“The fact of the matter is,” says Ensor, “it all would have gone away if the powers that be had had their way.”

Clash of Cultures

The Georgetown-Princeton game might not have attracted much attention if Tom Odjakjian, then a programming executive at ESPN, hadn’t lobbied his bosses to put it in prime time. The talent gap was huge, but the plotlines, Odjakjian reasoned, were too tempting. “There’s a compelling Princeton-vs.-Georgetown, David-and-Goliath thing here,” he says.

Under coach John Thompson, hired in 1972, Georgetown morphed from a 3-23 college-hoops doormat into one of the top programs in the nation. Future NBA star Patrick Ewing led the Hoyas to the national championship a dozen years later, and the 1989 squad entered the NCAA tournament after winning the regular-season and conference-tournament titles in the powerful Big East.

They had earned their swagger. “Me and [Hoyas guard and Big East Player of the Year] Charles Smith had this little thing,” says Markhum Stansbury, the Georgetown team manager. “Before each game I’d go out to the court in the pregame warm-ups, watch the opponent shoot around, then go to the locker room to report back. ‘Smitty, you’re not going to believe this,’ I’d say. ‘They actually showed up.'” Princeton, meanwhile, had to scratch out a road victory at Harvard just to win its lightly regarded league. By pairing the Tigers with Georgetown, the tournament selection committee sent a clear message: There could be no bigger underdog.

The teams also had contrasting styles. The Hoyas pushed the tempo and pressured the ball full-court. “We had a very nasty disposition about us,” says Mourning. “We played hard-nosed, rough, very defensive-minded, in-your-face basketball.” The Tigers slowed the pace in an attempt to neutralize the physical gap with other teams. “You had to do something to take some minutes off the clock,” says Carril. “To shorten the game.” Carril’s squad ran an intricate offense designed to lull defenses to sleep. The moment they conked out, the Tigers deployed their signature play: a backdoor cut behind an unsuspecting opponent, often for an easy layup.

Each school was led by a future Hall of Fame coach who shared a rich connection: Thompson’s son, current Georgetown coach John Thompson III, played for Carril at Princeton and had graduated the previous year. “I knew Pete’s reputation, knew that he was a good coach,” says Thompson. “But I was more impressed with what I knew about him as a man. That’s why I let my son go to school there.” (A co-writer of this story, Gregory, played for Carril in the mid-’90s.)

Not that most viewers who tuned in on St. Patrick’s Day knew about that bond. To many, the distinction between the teams was as plain as day. All but two of Princeton’s players were white, while Georgetown’s entire roster–plus the 6-ft. 10-in. head coach, who had backed up Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics in the 1960s–was black. Most multimillionaire college coaches view themselves as CEOs, not change agents. But earlier that season, Thompson had walked off the court before a game to protest an NCAA proposal to deny scholarships to freshmen who didn’t meet certain academic standards. He felt the policy would disproportionately affect poor, black students.

“We’re talking about a group of black men who are basically saying to the college basketball world, ‘We dance to our own music. We do things the way we choose, not the way you want us to, and we’re not really interested in making you comfortable,'” says Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at USC. “And I think there were a lot of people who would have preferred to not see that power emanate from a black team and a visible black head coach.”

This came at a time when race was never far from the forefront of the national conversation. “People tend to forget how racially charged the ’80s were,” says Boyd. Thompson’s teams endured racist taunts from opposing fans–hecklers asked Ewing if he could read. “People thought we were thugs,” says Mourning. (Nearly all of Thompson’s players who stayed four years earned degrees.)

Many African Americans, however, viewed Thompson’s stances and star players with pride: Hoyas hats and Starter jackets became a status symbol. “If the Dallas Cowboys were America’s team,” says Stansbury, “we were black America’s team.”

Princeton players, meanwhile, sported flattop haircuts and tight cotton warm-ups–which gave the effect of a team cast from the 1950s.

“There’s no doubt that there was a big racial element to how Georgetown was portrayed,” says John Thompson III. “And there’s no doubt that there’s a racial element to how Princeton was portrayed too.” That was part of the appeal of the matchup, says Georgetown guard Mark Tillmon: “White against black. People wanted to see that.”

The script felt like something out of Hoosiers, the beloved basketball movie released a few years earlier. But all of the potential drama hinged on a far-fetched idea: that Princeton would actually make a game of it. And that’s not something even the team’s coaches were sure of. The day the matchups were announced, Princeton assistant coach Bill Carmody went to Chuck’s Cafe for some wings and to watch CBS unveil the brackets. He didn’t eat a wing. At the very top of the show, Carmody heard the news: Georgetown against Princeton, in Providence, R.I. “It was literally like someone was sitting on my chest,” he says. “I could. Not. Breathe.”

The Best of Sports

With one second left in the game and Princeton down just a point, neither could anyone watching. Especially ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who made a nationally televised pregame promise that if Princeton won, he would hitchhike from ESPN’s offices in Bristol, Conn., to Providence and lead the Tigers’ cheerleaders for the second-round game. At halftime, after Princeton’s clever passes and strong defense gave the Tigers an astonishing 29-21 lead, studio host John Saunders told a gobsmacked Vitale that the head of Princeton’s pep squad had just phoned, wanting “to know what size tutu you wear.”

The possibility had been building since the start of the second half, when Jerry Doyle scored to give Princeton a double-digit lead. The sense of the seemingly impossible–that a 16 seed could actually beat a No. 1 for the first time–made for the closest thing to a viral meme in an era predating social media. Friends called friends to urge them to turn on the TV, race to the bar, do whatever it took to watch the unfolding upset. “It was beyond amazing,” says Saunders. “For ESPN, it was bordering on historic. This was becoming destination TV.”

But Georgetown didn’t wilt. Behind Mourning, the Hoyas clawed back until they were up by a point with one second remaining. Princeton inbounder Matt Lapin passed to teammate Kit Mueller, who quickly put up a shot before time ran out. Mourning got a piece–of what, we don’t know. Something blew … but it wasn’t a whistle to send Mueller to the foul line. It was the horn, to officially end the game. Georgetown 50, Princeton 49.

The controversy over the final shot–foul or no foul?–has helped keep the legend of the game alive. “We’ll have to take that one up with God,” Carril said that night, “when we get there.” Mueller has come to agree with the call. And Mourning swats the debate away like one more shot. “I blocked it, man,” he says. “I didn’t hit anybody on the wrist the whole damn game.”

If the underdog fell a point short, college basketball scored a huge victory. Georgetown advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Duke. By the end of 1989, the NCAA reversed course on locking out weaker conferences. “It changed the way people watched the NCAA tournament,” says Saunders. “They weren’t just watching their team. They were looking for the upset.”

No 16 seed ever has beaten a No. 1 in the men’s tournament. But so much of the $10.8 billion event, which grows in value every year, is built around the hope that this year might just be the one. And it might never have happened were it not for that night in Providence in 1989 when Cinderella saved her invitation to the dance.


More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at