It can’t be 20 years since Seton Hall made it to the Final Four, can it?
Twenty years since the Pirates played in the national championship game and lost 80-79 in overtime to Michigan? Since P.J. Carlesimo, the coach with the beard, led the team from the basement to the penthouse, capturing the hearts of New Jersey and the fancy of the college basketball world?
Yes, it has been 20 years. Some of today’s students weren’t even born when the greatest basketball season in Seton Hall history was played. But a lot of Pirate fans remember, and were part of the frenzy. Here is how it happened.
A season of optimism
As an assistant athletic director and the team’s media liaison, I was fortunate enough to be an insider. The three-week ride in the NCAA Tournament was the craziest time of my professional life, and the most fun.
The Final Four season was so amazing on many levels.
“Seton Hall’s magic run in 1989 was like an ongoing fairy tale,” said Michael Tranghese, who was the associate commissioner for the BIG EAST Conference at the time.
(He became commissioner a year later.) “Every time they won, you kept thinking back to where they had been just a few years earlier. It remains as one of the great stories in BIG EAST history.”
Reporters who witnessed the team’s good nights after what seemed like an endless string of bad nights also were pulled in.
“It’s still the most fun I’ve had professionally covering a team,” said Tom Luicci, who reported on the Pirates for The Star-Ledger in Newark. “You didn’t want it to end. And for a team that had not had a lot of success, they handled it really well.”
The season started with some optimism, but not a barrelful. The Pirates were coming off a 22-13 year and their first NCAA bid in school history. It was quite an accomplishment for a team that finally had started to climb after seasons of mediocrity.
Still, most college basketball observers were ready to dismiss the team. Preseason prognosticators had the Pirates in the lower half of the BIG EAST standings, and conference coaches ranked Seton Hall seventh out of nine teams.
But Seton Hall’s coaches and players felt differently.
“All of the guys spent that summer doing the extra work, the extra training,” said John Morton, the team’s standout guard. “We were excited that we made the NCAAs and we wanted it to continue. I never played on a team with so much good chemistry.”
The season opened in November at the Great Alaska Shootout. The Pirates won their opener over Utah, then knocked off Kentucky and defending NCAA champion Kansas to win the Shootout title.
“Walking away from Alaska, I thought, wow, we’re going to be good,” said Bruce Hamburger, an assistant coach.
In December, the Pirates went to New Orleans and won the Sugar Bowl Classic, defeating Virginia and DePaul with relative ease.
The Hall was 12-0, and becoming a hot story. On Jan. 3, Pirate fans filled the Meadowlands arena to capacity for the first time as Seton Hall hosted Georgetown. The team responded with a 94-86 win.
“Selling out the Meadowlands was something that a lot of people said we could never do,” said Larry Keating, the athletic director.
The Pirates handled the regular BIG EAST season with talent and maturity, finishing in second place with an 11-5 record. Carlesimo was named BIG EAST Coach of the Year for a second straight season, and center Ramon Ramos was named All-BIG EAST First Team and won the conference scholar-athlete award.
Seton Hall advanced to the conference semifinals before losing to Syracuse 81-78, then awaited their second NCAA invitation. The Pirates were 26-6 and ranked 11th in the nation at the time.
The NCAA Tournament odyssey began in Tucson, Ariz., where the Pirates defeated Southwest Missouri State 60-51 and Evansville 87-73. Everyone notices when you win NCAA games, but Seton Hall was still floating under the national radar.
The next stop was Denver for the West Regionals to face Indiana and legendary coach Bobby Knight. Undaunted, the Pirates won 78-65 in convincing fashion.
Next up were the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and Coach Jerry Tarkanian, who had the best career coaching record in the nation. Seton Hall held only a four-point lead at halftime, but pulled away in the second half for an 84-61 triumph.
The Pirates had just handed Indiana and UNLV their worst NCAA Tournament losses ever, and incredibly, were headed to Seattle for the Final Four.
Seton Hall was due in Seattle just four days later, so it was decided the team would spend a couple of days in Santa Monica, Calif., instead of trekking back to New Jersey. The team decided to let its regular beat reporters know where they would be staying, if the writers agreed not to divulge which hotel.
It was a nice plan, but the news was out, and the national media latched on to the Pirates story. The phone in my hotel room rang off the hook for three days.
A hotel operator actually called to say he was happy I was checking out.
“Every step along the way, the players were so poised and not fazed by what was happening around them,” said Joe Quinlan, who was an assistant Seton Hall athletic director at the time. (He now has the top post.) “We had our academic advisers with us. We had the media attention and, of course, the games. The kids just did what they needed to do.”
So much had happened in just a few weeks. Now, the Final Four was here, and there were the Pirates taking the floor in the spacious Kingdome to meet Duke on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The first several minutes of the game were a nightmare, as Duke exploded to a 26-8 lead. After all the Pirates had accomplished, was it really going to end like this?
The answer was a resounding “no.” During a timeout, Carlesimo told his team to forget about the score and just keep playing. It seemed like an impossible charge, but it worked. Led by guard Gerald Greene, the Pirates would not die. They chipped away and cut the deficit to 38-33 by halftime.
In many ways, Greene epitomized Seton Hall’s rise to prominence. As a freshman and sophomore, he and his teammates absorbed the body blows of BIG EAST competition on a regular basis. Greene, who grew up in Brooklyn, helped the team to a National Invitation Tournament bid as a sophomore, and to the school’s first NCAA bid as a junior. Now, he was keeping the Pirates afloat with his talent and his spirit.
Seton Hall wore down the Blue Devils in the second half, scoring an amazing 62 points and pulling away for a comfortable 95-78 win. Forwards Andrew Gaze, the Australian Olympian, and Daryll Walker, the steady New York City native, led the way with 20 and 19 points, respectively.
The Starting Five
hometown: Melbourne, Australia
- Member of the 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Australia Olympic teams. Served as the flag bearer for Australia’s team in the opening ceremony at the Sydney 2000 Games.
- Won the National Basketball League (NBL) scoring title a record 10 times and was crowned MVP 7 times.
- Resides in Australia, where he works as a television commentator for the NBL.
- Has his own brand of basketball shoes, “Gaze,” and appeared in season five of Dancing With the Stars in Australia.
hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Nickname was “General.”
- Member of the 1987 BIG EAST All-Star team that toured Australia.
- Resides in Charlotte, N.C.
hometown: Bronx, N.Y.
- Scored 35 points in national championship game against Michigan.
- First-round draft choice by the Cleveland Cavailers in the 1989 NBA draft.
- Now serves as assistant coach for St. Peter’s College
hometown: Canovanas, P.R.
- Starter on the 1988 Puerto Rican Olympic team.
- Signed by the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA.
- In December 1989, was in a car accident that ended his basketball career and left him in a coma for more than a year.
- Still a major celebrity in Puerto Rico, he returned to Seton Hall in 2006 to be inducted into the Seton Hall Athletic Hall of Fame.
hometown: New York, N.Y.
- As a freshman, he played in all 32 games and set a school record by making 31 straight free throws.
- Had team-high 11 rebounds in national championship game against Michigan.
- Known as the comedian on the team
Seton Hall was headed to the national championship game. Michigan, fresh from its victory over Illinois, would be the opponent, led by All-American forward Glen Rice.
This was college basketball’s ultimate game, and Seton Hall would be in it.
So close, and yet . . .
The Pirates arrived at the Kingdome late that afternoon and went through their usual pre-game routine. Carlesimo had a practice of walking through the media room before the game to talk to the Pirates local beat reporters.
The routine had resulted in wins, so Carlesimo wasn’t going to change anything. The national media was wide-eyed, not believing a coach would take time to make casual conversation with reporters before playing for the national championship.
The Michigan game started a little like the Duke game. The Pirates fell behind early, then closed the gap until they were down just 37-32 at halftime. Seton Hall grabbed the lead with 2:13 to go, and at the end of regulation play the teams were tied at 71 points each.
The Pirates still had gas in their tank for overtime play, as John Morton nailed a goosebump 3-point shot that put Seton Hall ahead 79-76. But at the end, it was a fateful foul call with three seconds left that allowed a Michigan guard named Rumeal Robinson to sink two free throws.
The run was over. Michigan had won, 80-79.
Morton, by the way, finished with 35 points. No player has scored that many points in a national championship game since that day.
After the game, the Pirates would not blame the foul call for their defeat. Their perspective was incredible for a group of college players who had come so close winning the national championship.
Greene may have said it best after the game: “It’s disappointing to come this far and lose, especially the way we lost. It hurts. But you’ve got to remember how far we’ve come. Four years ago no one thought we had a chance at anything like this.”
It’s been 20 years now. And we remember that chance. It’s quite a memory.
We’re out of space and there are still so many things about the Final Four year that we didn’t get to. Like the huge welcome for the team by thousands of Pirate fans at the Recreation Center. And the parade for the team on South Orange Avenue a few days later. (Yes, it really did happen on South Orange Avenue.)
Or the Mass in the desert in Arizona.
But those stories will have to wait, maybe until the next anniversary of the greatest season in Seton Hall basketball history.
John Paquette is associate commissioner of the BIG EAST conference. He worked at Seton Hall as an assistant athletic director from 1986 to 1990.
The Road to the Final Four
The 2008-09 season will mark the 20th anniversary of the men’s basketball team’s memorable run to the 1988-89 NCAA championship game. It was a team that will be forever remembered as the squad that heralded Seton Hall’s arrival as a big-time force in college basketball.
Despite the Pirates’ overtime loss in the title game, the season remains the most successful in school history and catapulted Seton Hall into the national athletic consciousness. The season remains one of the most astonishing college basketball campaigns of any school in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.
To mark the occasion, a documentary film commemorating the team and its achievements is due for release in February 2009. Excerpts from conversations with those who experienced this historic journey are below; the full 90-minute film will be available as a souvenir DVD through the Pirate Blue Athletic Fund (pirateblue.com).
“Even being around that team, I didn’t expect them to do what they did. I knew they were good; but you know, the Final Four, that was for schools like Kentucky, and UCLA, not Seton Hall.”
— Steve Smith
“Without what the team did, without the class and dignity they showed, the enthusiasm they gave, this school today wouldn’t be what it is. There’s no doubt about that.” — David Siroty
“P.J. Carlesimo is very well respected. That’s largely due to his work ethic. He works tremendously hard. People follow his example of work, not the other way around.” — Joseph Quinlan
“Going to the Final Four was a significant achievement for him because he had been under some pressure. In a lot of ways he put more pressure on himself than outside entities could do. That’s just the way that he works and the way that he does things.” — Joseph Quinlan
“The year before, you’d see ‘Sellout’ posted on the ticket screens at the Meadowlands. We just couldn’t believe it. You would watch people fill the arena. First the first level, then up the half court upstairs. Then they started creeping into the corners. As the place filled, you would see people way up at the top, and we just giggled.” — David Siroty
“I coached the baseball team for 31 years. In ’89, everybody on the baseball team was looking to get back to the dorm or wherever so they could catch the basketball team on TV. Sometimes that conflicted a bit with baseball, but we managed to get the games over and get back so they could watch.” — Mike Sheppard
“All of a sudden we’re getting calls from people around the country, Duke and Michigan alums asking, ‘Can we have your tickets?’ We didn’t even know how we would get tickets to the few season ticket holders we did have, let alone how to distribute them through a lottery. There were nonstop meetings. We were here 20, 21 hours every day.
“I remember going with Mark Berard to the airport with the boxes of Final Four tickets. The street value had to be 2 or 3 million dollars at least. Our fear was, ‘Oh my God, what would happen if that box opens and there are tickets all over Newark Airport?’
“The boxes were heavy and we had to keep them with us at all times. So we saw a wheelchair and we just took it and put the boxes on it. We just couldn’t carry them anymore. ‘What’s in the box?’ everybody would ask. We would try not to tell, but when people at the airport and down at the gate would say, ‘You have to check those bags.’
“We would say, ‘We can’t.’ ‘Well what’s in them?’ they’d ask. ‘We can’t tell you,’ we’d say. Eventually we would have to whisper that they were Final Four tickets. One airport employee freaked out: “Oh my God, Final Four tickets? That’s unbelievable.” — David Siroty
“Every restaurant, every bar, everybody had pictures up and blue and white signs saying, ‘GO PIRATES. Let’s do this!’ Week by week, it was a gigantic tidal wave. Everybody got the fever.”
— Mike Sheppard
“The guys all had cowboy hats. They bought them as a team in Denver with their meal money because they had won the West.” — Steve Smith
THE FOUL CALL
“I did not watch the championship game tape for a long time. Ten years. One night it was on ESPN Classic. It was late in the game, so I watched it. The referee called it as a foul so it was. Everybody has their own opinion on it and what they would like to have seen.” — Joseph Quinlan
“When I left the University in November 1989, I went to work on the NCAA men’s basketball championship staff. During the 1990 tournament, I went to the game officials’ breakfast in Long Beach, Calif. There was one seat open. I took it and sat next to a gentleman I knew. He complimented me on my Final Four ring. ‘Would you mind if I looked at it?’ he asked.
“I figured the man might not recall where he had met me before. So I showed him the ring, and then he realized how he knew me.
“I learned a lot of things working with P.J. Carlesimo. I knew I needed to exhibit some of the grace and dignity that P.J. did after we lost against Michigan. The man sitting next to me was John Clougherty, the game official who had made the call against Seton Hall the year before.
“There was nothing to gain by my having a difference of opinion with a game official a year later. It is a lesson P.J. taught us all about.” — Joseph Quinlan
“The beauty of the way the team and P.J. conducted themselves was shocking. The class that they held themselves in. P.J. said, ‘No one will complain about John Clougherty’s foul call. No one.’ And no one ever did. That’s really one of the defining moments, I believe, in the school’s history.” — David Siroty
“We were getting reports that there were people dancing in the streets in South Orange. The players couldn’t believe that: ‘What, are you kidding?’ Then there were reports that they had to shut down South Orange Avenue, that it was chaos at the school.
You were in a bubble with the team. You were in the eye of a hurricane. You didn’t know what was circling around you. That was mostly because of the job P.J. did keeping everybody grounded. The excitement was there, but it wasn’t what you would think of: dancing and jumping up and down. It wasn’t like that, and it never was with those players.” — David Siroty
“We got off the plane, and we wondered if anybody would be there. But there were news cameras and at a certain point in the airport there was a mob of people and security everywhere.
“They created a parade from the airport to Seton Hall. It was up South Orange Avenue, through Newark, to the school. There had to be 15 or 20 police cars and the bus.
“Gerald Greene asked me, ‘What’s going on? Is the president here?’
“And I remember saying, ‘Gerald, this is for you.’” — David Siroty