By Steve Czaban Special to Published Mar 30, 2005 at 5:24 AM

{image1} Almost 20 years ago to the date, the Villanova Wildcats shocked the world. Playing a near-perfect game, a scrappy underdog of a team defeated mighty Georgetown and Patrick Ewing under their glowering and towering head coach John Thompson.

The Hoyas weren't simply the favorite that April Fools' night in Lexington, Ky. They were the most intimidating powerhouse in college basketball since the days of Wooden at UCLA.

How foregone was the conclusion that the Hoyas would win? So much so that CBS' Dick Stockton said at halftime -- with Villanova leading by a point -- "looks like the coronation will have to wait a little longer."


That coronation never came, as Villanova missed just one shot (one!) the entire second half en route to a shocking 66-64 victory. It is a story and a game worthy of the re-telling by the seasoned documentary hands at HBO. The one-hour piece entitled "Perfect Upset" is running all this month on the premium cable channel.

When I watched it for the first time on Monday night, the particulars of the story were nothing new to me. As an adolescent in the prime of my sports-watching glory in 1985, I was 16 and had no driver's license and cable TV at my parents' house. That year I lived the Big East on ESPN. Chris Mullin of the St. John's Redman (yep, well before the advent of "political correctness"), Rony Seikaly of Syracuse, Michael Adams of Boston College and all the rest.

In fact, I remember riding on a bus to visit the Washington Times on a field trip in high school the morning after the upset. I sat on the bus both stunned and pissed off while staring off into the early spring grayness. Not that I was a huge Hoya fan, but they dominated the D.C. area at the time, even with Len Bias at Maryland.

So, of course I rooted for them, even though I found Thompson to be strangely combative with the world outside his basketball team. It didn't help that at a mostly white Jesuit school, Thompson's teams were almost universally all black. Constantly lacking even the obligatory spot-up white-guy jump shooter that almost every college team had in its arsenal; it is safe to say that I never dreamed of someday playing for the Hoyas. There were no Reggie Williams pictures on my wall, and I did not own a Georgetown starter jacket.

But the Hoyas with Ewing were awesome to watch, and surely this was to be their night. A title had been thrown away (literally) two years ago when Freddie Brown became inexorably linked with James Worthy, and a supernova freshman named (at the time) "Mike" Jordan pierced our sporting atmosphere for the first time. Following their championship the previous spring in Seattle, the Hoyas were about to be cemented with the ever-difficult "back-to-back" stamp of greatness.

Then, sports happened. Villanova won.

The documentary does a fine job of detailing the how and the why of it all, despite the fact that many of the events in that game simply defy explanation. What I enjoyed most about the one-hour special was just the antiquated nature of how the game was played at the time. Specifically...

  • There was no shot clock, and no three-point line. Both came rushing into effect within three years after this game. While some would argue that Georgetown could have been more easily beaten with both, I tend to believe that a good three-shooter on the Hoyas would free up an unbelievable amount of operating room inside for Ewing.
  • There were no "breakaway"-style collapsible rims, meaning the iron was extremely unforgiving. For Villanova to shoot 79 percent on those old rims was even more impressive.
  • Gary McLain was a terrible shooter. Terrible! He had an unbalanced "push-loaded" shot that looked even funnier on the free-throw line. I am convinced that not a single Division I guard today has a shot as fundamentally unsound as did the eventual MVP that night.
  • Every player was a jumble of legs and arms, with very little muscular upper torso. I seemed to recall Michael Graham as being a rough and tumble badass the year before when they won the title. But the highlights show he would never survive in today's game as a so-called "power forward."
  • The shorts. My god, the shorts. Nut-hugging, crack-flossing, thigh-chafing abominations. It looks cruel and unusual in retrospect.

The special also has several priceless pieces of video that every sports fan under the age of 20 just has to see. Things like a packed house of rabid Villanova fans who greeted their team triumphantly just for making the Final Four! The sheer ferocity of Ewing's dunks and blocks, many of which hit the floor with such force as to bounce up over people's heads on the rebound.

And what could beat the 15-foot-tall handmade NCAA tournament bracket that ESPN's Bob Ley stood in front of while analyzing the tournament? You can literally see where somebody cut and pasted the names of the teams into the bracket like a high school art project.

The glorious victory was marred just two years later by McLain's admission to Sports Illustrated that he was a cocaine addict who played the national semi-final against Memphis State high on blow. A clip of a young big-haired Deborah Norville conducting the Today Show interview with McLain brought back another piece of priceless '80s pop-culture trivia -- NBC's ham-handed ouster of popular but aging morning host Jane Pauley.

In terms of a pure David-Goliath upset, some basketball analysts will say this one was hardly the greatest underdog triumph of all time.

The most famous and dramatic? Yes. But the biggest mismatch? No way. Ed Pickney and Harold Pressley were both first round NBA selections. And Villanova did play in the same conference as Georgetown, having fought the Hoyas tough in two losses earlier that year.

Furthermore, there was no great social or political implication of this win. It was not mostly all-black Texas Western beating all-white Kentucky. It wasn't Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics. It was hardly the Cold War proxy of USA-Russia at Lake Placid.

So if you expect the tear-jerking, jaw-dropping power of previous HBO sports docs, you won't find it here. This was just one helluva great game that reminds us of why we watch sports in the first place. Nothing more.

Still, children of the '80s like myself, will enjoy the time warp back to our days of (relative) innocence and be reminded of how much has happened in our lives since. For me, 20 years ago I was riding a bus in high school. Today, I happen to work at the same radio station as Thompson himself.

The coach I see and talk to briefly each day bears little if any resemblance to the guy who lost that game. He is easygoing, funny and anything but paranoid. Not exactly what most would expect from the legendary John Thompson.

But then nobody expected Villanova to win that night either. Life, and sports, can be unpredictable that way.

Steve Czaban Special to

Steve is a native Washingtonian and has worked in sports talk radio for the last 11 years. He worked at WTEM in 1993 anchoring Team Tickers before he took a full time job with national radio network One-on-One Sports.

A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Steve has worked for WFNZ in Charlotte where his afternoon show was named "Best Radio Show." Steve continues to serve as a sports personality for WLZR in Milwaukee and does fill-in hosting for Fox Sports Radio.