Our family moved from the Jersey Shore to Baltimore in the summer of 1970. The following winter, an irresistible character began frequenting our television.
Lefty Driesell was equal parts coach, salesman and showman, and through sheer force of personality, he made University of Maryland basketball matter. His Terps introduced me to the ACC, and the addiction was immediate.
‘Twas theater even Frank Rich would applaud.
The first ACC game I recall watching on TV was unranked Maryland stunning No. 2 South Carolina 31-30 in overtime. The record book says it was Jan. 9, 1971. Memory says and microfilm confirms the halftime score — the Terps, ordered by Driesell to hold the ball, led 4-3.
In overtime, Maryland scored six points in the final 16 seconds, winning on Jim O’Brien’s short jumper. Cole Field House came unhinged as Lefty, in his second season, exited the floor fists a pumpin’.
I was 11 years old and cheering wildly.
A few years later, I won the free-throw shooting contest at Lefty’s summer camp. He presented me a trophy, but not a scholarship offer.
Our paths crossed again in 1984, when I covered my first ACC tournament, for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Times. Led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels were the defending national champions, ranked No. 1 and unbeaten in league play. Maryland was the No. 2 seed, its most gifted player a sophomore wing named Len Bias, whose hadn’t even made all-conference.
On semifinal Saturday, Duke upset North Carolina, sending the Blue Devils’ young coach, Mike Krzyzewski, to his first ACC final. There he met Maryland and Lefty, a Duke graduate who was 0-5 in ACC championship games, the most notable loss the 103-100 overtime epic to Sloan, Thompson and eventual national champion N.C. State in 1974.
Led by Bias, the Terps defeated the Blue Devils for Lefty’s first, and only, ACC championship. Clutching the trophy, Lefty threatened to bolt the hardware to the hood of a Cadillac and drive around North Carolina.
This week, thanks to good fortune and benevolent bosses, I return to the same arena, the Greensboro Coliseum, for the 60th ACC tournament, my 30th in succession, my 29th for the Daily Press.
Only when I moved here did I learn that Lefty had coached at Newport News High. Only then did I discover that one of the best players on his ’71 Maryland team, Howard White, graduated from Hampton’s Kecoughtan High.
Inevitably, much has changed over three decades. What was a cozy, three-day, eight-team affair has grown to four days and 12 teams. Next season: five days and 15 teams as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame arrive.
Bigger doesn’t necessarily translate to better.
Once among the toughest tickets in sports, the sole province of schools’ most generous donors, the ACC tournament has become a buyer’s market. Schools offer tickets to the general public, and casual fans can arrive later in the event assured they can strike a bargain on the street, perhaps for less than face value.
This doesn’t make the ACC tournament unique — attendance issues confront many entertainment businesses these days. But the swaths of empty seats are jarring to those of us of a certain vintage.
The game has changed, too. Rosters are younger, coaches more controlling, games slower.
Yet this remains my favorite week of the year, an annual reunion of fellow basketball mavens punctuated by Sunday’s championship game and NCAA bracket unveiling.
In 2009, a co-worker told me that she never missed the ACC tournament. Loved the basketball. Loved the vibe. She joined a group of us for dinner that March in Atlanta, the first time we’d met outside the office.