Lowe's Journey

This feature story is from the November 2007 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently being shipped to subscribers. To learn more about our publication and how to subscribe, click on the link inside ...

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    Lowe's Journey

    Pack Pride Magazine
    November 2007
    WORDS: Tim Peeler
    PHOTOS: Jason Cole, Jeff Reeves, NC State Athletics

    n his new book, "When March Went Mad," author Tim Peeler met with every surviving member of the Cardiac Pack, Jim Valvano's talented but turbulent team that beat Houston for the 1983 NCAA Championship.

    As the Wolfpack celebrates the 25th anniversary of that improbable title, many eyes will be on one of the key figures who made that legendary possible, Sidney Lowe.

    That's because Lowe has now inherited Valvano's chair as NC State's head basketball coach. Those who saw Lowe run Valvano's offense as a stocky senior point guard might argue that he has already won the school a national championship. But can he do it from the sidelines, in just his second year as the Wolfpack's head coach? Perhaps that's too much to ask in such a short period of time of running the program. But Valvano won the national title in just three years at the school and, as his Destiny's Darlings proved over and over again, he certainly would never sell short the possibility of a miracle around the next corner.

    This excerpt of Peeler's book is one of the many feature stories about the individual players on the team, where they went after the championship and what they are doing now. The book also relives the remarkable events of that season a quarter-century ago, told mainly through the anecdotes and memories of the players who lived it.

    Sidney Lowe always wanted to be a virtuoso. His mother, Carrie, thought the youngest of her nine children might be talented enough to elevate his fortunes from the family's humble inner-city background to perform on the grandest of stages. She gave him a violin when he was little more than a toddler, and he loved playing the instrument.

    But at the age of seven, an elementary school teacher and youth league coach named Fletcher Tinsley took the bow out of Lowe's hands and replaced it with a basketball. He's been a court maestro ever since.

    Lowe found his grand stage as a point guard and as a coach. To be honest, those two roles are the same. Morgan Wootten, who benefited from Lowe's playground-sharpened skills for three years as the head coach at DeMatha, said he never had a player with Lowe's intuition and court sense.

    "He understood the game so thoroughly," Wootten explained. "He made everybody else better. He made everybody else believe in themselves. He wanted to be part of something greater than himself. He left his ego at the door. When Sidney had the ball in his hands, you knew everything was going to be all right."

    "I'm not going to score if it'll take points away from somebody else."

    That's how Jim Valvano felt when he became NC State's head coach in 1980, inheriting the DeMatha-bred backcourt of Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg. The day he got the job, Valvano called his younger brother, Bob. The first insight he had about his new team was not the depth of its talent, the grand scale of the program, or the passion of people who followed the Wolfpack. It was a simple observation: "This is going to be fun because I've got the best point guard I've ever had," Valvano said.

    For the next three years, Valvano called the plucky player "Coach Lowe." When the ball was in play, Valvano gave Lowe full reign of the team. The guard had permission to call any play he thought would work and to overrule the coach on any possession. The only thing Lowe wasn't allowed to do? Come out of the game. Whenever he asked to take a breather, Valvano either ignored him or repeated the line he first told Lowe as a sophomore: "You are not coming out of the game until your eligibility is up."

    Lowe never complained. He wanted to be in the game, not to score, but to conduct the symphony that played out every night on the basketball court. His unselfish attitude made him a coach's delight.

    "I'm not going to score if it'll take points away from somebody else," he once told Tom Harris of Raleigh's News & Observer. "My job is to keep everybody—the players, the coaches—happy. If I score, it helps one person—me. If I pass off to someone and he scores, I'm helping three times as many or more … because I get an assist, the player gets the points, and that helps the team. If I pass to somebody and he goes in for a dunk, that helps even more because it fires up the crowd and makes the team play harder."

    Valvano and Wootten—as well as other coaches such as Bill Musselman, Mike Fratello, and Flip Saunders—wanted Lowe by their sides for a reason: he had a winning intuition. At DeMatha, he had to wait his turn in one of the nation's most accomplished high school basketball programs—he wasn't a regular starter until his senior season. Still, under Lowe's baton, DeMatha won back-to-back city and state championships in 1978 and '79, the same years he wore an upperclassman's red jacket instead of one of the blue blazers that identified the school's underclassmen.

    He made an immediate impact at NC State, replacing three-year starter Clyde Austin as the Wolfpack's starting point guard and finishing second to Virginia's Ralph Sampson in the ACC Rookie of the Year race. Lowe went on his only international tour in 1981, leading Team USA to a gold medal in the World University Games in Bucharest, Romania, with a hero's symphony in two parts. First, he made a 70-foot jumper from the top of his own key at the end of the first half of what turned out to be a double-overtime classic against the Soviet Union. Days later, in the final moments of the gold-medal game, the fearless 6-foot guard drove past 7-foot-5 center Vladimir Tkachenko for a game-sealing three-point play.

    At NC State, Lowe quickly elevated himself among the school's great conductors, Lou Pucillo and Monte Towe. The Wolfpack appeared in three NCAA Tournaments in his four years and won both the 1983 ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament championships. His ACC-record 762 career assists was eventually surpassed, but in the 25 years since he played, no guard has come close to his career 2.94 assist-to-turnover ratio. He twice led the ACC in assists, was twice named all-conference, and won the Everett Case Award as the 1983 ACC Tournament's most outstanding player. As a professional player, he won three Continental Basketball Association championships as Musselman's floor leader.

    "Sidney Lowe was the brightest player I ever coached in 23 years."

    Lowe never found the same kind of success in the NBA, bouncing through five different organizations as a player. But the stocky guard did work his way back from the brink of retirement to become a productive role player for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a comeback that led Lowe to the coaching box. The Chicago Bulls took Lowe in the second round of the 1983 NBA Draft as the 25th overall selection, then immediately traded him to the Indiana Pacers. He spent one season there and bounced from Atlanta to Detroit in the NBA before finding a permanent home with the CBA's Tampa Bay Thrillers in 1984-85. After winning back-to-back CBA championships with the Thrillers, he gave up his dream of returning to the NBA in the summer of 1986.

    He took the only job he's ever had outside of basketball, managing The Magic Moment, an upscale Sarasota, Florida, restaurant owned by his Thrillers boss, Jeff Rosenberg. Lowe enjoyed running the 275-seat restaurant, handling inventory, checking in food supplies, and closing the place down at night. He went an entire year without touching a basketball, spending his free time playing golf and tennis. But Lowe was a conductor, not a chef. He needed to return to basketball. Besides, what restaurant lets the maître d' wear a red sports coat?

    In the summer of 1987, Lowe bumped into former Wolfpack teammate Thurl Bailey at a basketball camp in Utah. After he watched Lowe play a few games, Bailey convinced his friend to give basketball another try. Lowe rejoined Musselman with the Albany, New York, Patroons, which set a modern-day record for winning percentage with a 48-6 mark in the regular-season and won another CBA title. By the next year, however, Lowe returned to the Thrillers' franchise, which had moved to Rapid City, South Dakota. It was a crossroads in Lowe's career: Rapid City was far from his family, which had long been settled in Raleigh while Lowe was off chasing his hoop dreams, and far from the bright lights of the NBA or even the lowered lights of the restaurant lounge. Would Leonard Bernstein go to the Black Hills to lead a high school band in Sousa marches?

    Just as Lowe prepared for another trip to the CBA playoffs, he received a call from the Charlotte Hornets. The second-year NBA franchise signed him to a 10-day contract, offering him a chance to return to the highest level of professional basketball and to his family in North Carolina. (Lowe married his college sweetheart, Melonie Moultry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, soon after she graduated from NC State in the summer of 1984; she has maintained his family's permanent residence in Raleigh since 1985.) The next season, he signed a $500,000 contract to play for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves and Musselman, his longtime professional mentor. It was the beginning of a long-standing relationship with the franchise that included a post-playing career as a television analyst and an assistant coach for both Musselman and Jimmy Rodgers.

    On January 11, 1993, Rodgers was fired and Lowe was elevated to lead the struggling Timberwolves. At 34, he was easily the youngest head coach in the NBA. Valvano, for one, could barely contain his excitement. "Sidney Lowe was the brightest player I ever coached in 23 years," said Valvano, who had just begun his public battle with cancer. "He was the epitome of the cliché ‘coach on the floor.' I have already updated my resume and applied for an assistant's position with him."

    "I think I'm going to go for this job, because everything I told Lee, that's me."

    It was an unusual and difficult year for Lowe—one of the players on the Timberwolves roster was Bailey, the former NC State teammate who had convinced Lowe to give the NBA another shot. "Beyond weird," Bailey said when describing what it was like to play for Lowe. The franchise had little chance to succeed in those pre-Kevin Garnett days in Minneapolis, and the losses took their toll on a coach who had won national championships in high school and college and three professional titles as a player. Lowe thought that he could make his young players work as hard as he would have, that he could force them to make the right decisions, and that they would care about every game as much as he did. It was a time of great personal reflection for the young coach. "I missed my exit several times, going home late at night," Lowe said. "I drove past it by 20 miles sometimes."

    During one road trip to Phoenix, legendary Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons asked Lowe to drop by for a little free advice. "He took me in a room and said, ‘Listen, the only thing you can do is make sure your kids play hard and that they are organized. The reality right now is that you are not going to win many games.' I didn't want to accept that," Lowe said. "But what he was telling me was that I had a very young team, and I needed to make sure we did all the small things." Lowe learned that he didn't have to conduct with a mallet.

    Like his two predecessors in Minnesota, however, Lowe didn't last long as the head coach of the Timberwolves. The franchise fired Lowe after just a year and a half. He spent the next five years as an assistant coach with Mike Fratello and the Cleveland Cavaliers, positioning himself for another opportunity as an NBA head coach. That chance came on June 1, 2000, when he was hired as the head coach of the Vancouver Grizzlies. He shepherded the team's relocation to Memphis, but resigned from the job after the Grizzlies lost their first eight games in 2002, ending his NBA head coaching career with a 79-228 record. Lowe once again returned to Minnesota, this time as an assistant for Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders. He stayed there until 2005, when Saunders and his entire staff moved to the Detroit Pistons.

    It was near the end of Lowe's first season with the Pistons—which had amassed the best regular-season record in the NBA—that he began working with NC State athletic director Lee Fowler to select candidates for the university's head coaching position. At first, Lowe simply gave Fowler his thoughts about high-profile candidates whom Fowler was courting. "We need to get someone who really … understands the competition, that understands the ACC, that understands that you can walk out of your house and your next-door neighbor may be in blue," Lowe said. Eventually, it dawned on Lowe exactly who he was talking about—himself. "I think I'm going to go for this job, because everything I told Lee, that's me," Lowe told his wife. He was eager to bring his coaching knowledge and his NBA experience back to the school that he loved, even though he had never coached or recruited on the collegiate level. Fowler jumped at the chance to reunite NC State with one of its most decorated alums and was willing to wait for the Pistons to finish their season.

    "Through all of the athletic accomplishments and all the things I have done in coaching, she is more proud of me getting that degree than anything else I have done."

    But there was a problem: through all of Lowe's travels while chasing his NBA dream, he never completed his business management degree, despite his many promises to his mother, Carrie Lowe, that he would one day become the first member of his family to graduate from college. He was well short of that degree when he left school in 1983. He spent the next two decades chasing other dreams. "When I went to the NBA, I had a family," Lowe said. "At the time, my priorities were God first, my family second. I had to support them. That meant working camps in the summer and concentrating on taking care of them as opposed to worrying about myself."

    Lowe had always wanted to buy his parents a new house and move them out of the inner-city Washington apartment for which his mother was a maid. During his final season at NC State, Lowe told a group of junior high students, "I have a dream … to someday put my mama in a big house and let her have a maid to bring her cookies." When he signed his biggest contract with the Timberwolves, Lowe purchased a house for his parents and moved them, along with three of his sisters, to Raleigh. He considered it just a small part of his repayment for the sacrifices his mother made to support nine children and a disabled husband.

    But Carrie Lowe was looking for a different kind of reward. "I always asked him, ‘What's going on with your degree? OK, get to it,'" she said. "I constantly reminded him that he needed that degree." He also got an earful from his frequent golfing buddy, Dwayne Green, a former NC State football player who waved his degree in front of his friend's face every time Lowe won on the golf course.

    Over two decades, Lowe gradually reduced the number of hours he needed to obtain the degree, and by the time Fowler came calling, he was only two classes short. Fowler made the degree a requirement for employment, and Lowe made a commitment to finish his remaining hours at St. Paul's College in Virginia.

    In an emotional press conference on NC State's campus on May 6, 2006, Lowe was introduced as the 18th head coach in Wolfpack basketball history, a position Valvano once predicted he would have. In his first meeting with his new team, Lowe made a simple promise to the players: "I told them I don't have a lot of rules, just a few. To play hard, to play smart, to play together, and the most important thing of all—the biggest rule I have—is to have fun." After perfunctory questions from the media, Lowe walked along the floor of the Dail Basketball Practice Center, the site of his introduction, through the woods, and down the hill to the Paul Derr Track, where nearly a thousand Wolfpack fans were eagerly waiting to welcome him home.

    Wearing red and white, they shouted his name and cheered his arrival. For the next 45 minutes, Lowe talked and mingled. He introduced his family to faces he hadn't seen in many years. Before he left, Lowe raised both arms to flash the traditional wolf sign, and the crowd cheered wildly. The maestro was on his home stage once again.

    Weeks later, with tears in his eyes, Lowe knocked on the door of the home he bought his parents and handed his mother the diploma he had just received in the mail. "Through all of the athletic accomplishments and all the things I have done in coaching, she is more proud of me getting that degree than anything else I have done," Lowe said. "To be able to show her that diploma, basically at the same time I was named the head coach at NC State, is a dream I never thought would come true in a million years. I think there was some kind of divine help here that made everything possible for me. It worked out perfectly."

    At times, the Wolfpack struggled during Lowe's first season. He had a short bench, a thin roster, a long learning curve, and a rash of untimely injuries: many of the hurdles that new coaches face during a transitional season. Lowe was not deterred. "I am the head coach at NC State University," he said. "How can I not be excited?" He showed his enthusiasm by ordering a tailor-made red jacket to wear to big games, just as Valvano used to do. He unveiled the good-luck charm on a January afternoon, when the Wolfpack beat second-ranked North Carolina in Raleigh. By the end of the season, Lowe had a dry cleaner on call to keep his jacket clean during a four-day charge to the ACC Tournament title game in Tampa, Florida. The Wolfpack came up short against the heavily favored Tar Heels in the final game, but Lowe's first-year message was clear to anyone who might have doubted that he could put the Wolfpack in position to win, as he did during his playing days.

    He's ready to conduct the encore.

    This feature story is from the November 2007 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently being shipped to subscribers. CLICK HERE to learn more about the publication!

    NOTE: Tim Peeler's book, "When March Went Mad: A Celebration of NC State's 1983 NCAA Championship" is available on www.GoPack.com, at www.sportspublishingllc.com and at bookstores nationwide.

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