The Road to the Final Four is like a genealogical family tree. You don’t need GPS or Google or an old-time atlas. All you need is one set of basketball footprints and you can trace your roots.
For me, it all starts in North Dakota. It started at the 1970 NCAA Tournament.
It starts with Dale Brown and Lute Olson. It is happy and sad. It is triumph and tragedy.
On Dec. 7, 1990, a date seared into my basketball consciousness, I walked into the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and took a seat next to Brown and Olson. The schoolboy rivals from North Dakota agreed to meet the night before No. 2 Arizona played No. 18 LSU at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
I filled a notebook listening to the North Dakotans.
At Minot’s St. Leo High School in 1953, Brown was the top scorer in all of North Dakota; rival Minot High had won the 1949 and 1950 state titles, and was considered the state’s top basketball city.
But in 1952, Olson led Grand Forks Central High to its third state championship in seven years. It was a fight for the top: Minot and Grand Forks. Brown and Olson.
Over the next four decades, Brown and Olson went their separate ways, career coaches who had another notable connection that night in Baton Rouge: Brown coached LSU to Final Fours in 1981 and 1986. Olson coached Iowa to the 1980 Final Four, and repeated at Arizona in 1988.
There was an unspoken tension between the two rivals; Brown is a world-class talker. The stoic Olson isn’t the best listener, but they got through the night and 24 hours later Shaquille O’Neal led the Tigers to a 92-82 victory over Arizona.
I was privileged to be in their company because Brown hired me to be Utah State’s basketball manager in 1970. It was the right place and the right time; the Aggies were in the middle of a golden era in which they played in nine NCAA Tournaments in 21 years.
Brown was USU’s lead assistant coach and a dynamic recruiter; he brought three future NBA players to rural Logan, Utah, and four more who would play in the EuroLeague.
But no season was better than ’70, when the Aggies raced to the Elite Eight against mighty John Wooden and UCLA. So began my infatuation with college basketball; it was Brown who encouraged me to work at the student newspaper and pursue a career in sportswriting. Even on my worst days, of which there were many for a beginning writer, he would say, “I loved your story today.”
He was Dale Carnegie with a whistle around his neck.
What I’ve learned most from that long-ago era of college basketball is that the games are fun, but life after basketball doesn’t always break the press.
Those wonderful Aggie players, my friends and contemporaries linked to North Dakota and Dale Brown, have encountered so much tragedy it doesn’t seem fair.
Bob Lauriski, my classmate at Logan High School, Utah’s Mr. Basketball, died two years ago, alone and single. Kenny Thompson, the hotshot point guard from nearby Sky View High, committed suicide in 2012. Ed Epps, a beat-you-off-the-dribble shooter Brown discovered in Washington, D.C. — the man whose last-second shot beat Santa Clara in the 1970 Sweet 16 — died of stomach cancer in a Virginia nursing home eight years ago.
Oscar Williams, a bulldog of a point guard recruited by Aggie assistant and future UCLA head coach Jim Harrick, is serving two consecutive life sentences in a Las Vegas prison for murdering his wife. His Inglewood, California, teammate Mike Santos, another Harrick recruit who starred on the Aggies’ 1975 NCAA team, died of a heart attack in 2008.
Before Brown left USU to become the head coach at LSU, he recruited the Idaho player of the year, Jim Boatwright, a 6-foot-9-inch stretch-four before anyone knew what a stretch-four was.
On the night the Aggies played their first game at BYU’s new Marriott Center, January 1972, I stood by Boatwright as we entered the arena to play the No. 13 Cougars.
He surveyed what was then the nation’s largest college basketball arena, 22,000 seats, and said, dryly: “Maybe we’ll get them at home.”
Boatwright, who played eight years of EuroLeague basketball, died of liver cancer in 2013.
When I think back to those NCAA games against UCLA and against UTEP’s Tiny Archibald and Montana’s Jud Heathcote, I don’t recall the scores or statistics. I do remember how many of the Aggies died way too young.
In those college days, we had a weekly poker game that would go from 6 p.m., until sunrise. Boatwright and Lauriski were regulars as was Brown’s latest, greatest recruit, Glenn Hansen, a homeboy from Grand Forks Central High. Lute’s old school.
Hansen led Central to the 1970 North Dakota state championship, just as Olson did 18 years earlier.
After his NBA career, Hansen completed a master’s degree in engineering, moved back to Grand Forks and owns a construction company. Three years ago, he was inducted into his high school’s Hall of Fame. When a photographer for the local newspaper, the Grand Forks Herald, asked Hansen to pose for a picture, he stood next to the trophy case at his old high school.
The photo was taken immediately in front of the display for Lute Olson.
On Thursday, Arizona opens the NCAA Tournament against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks of Grand Forks.
For some, for me, The Road to the Final Four still goes through North Dakota.