I went to Stanford with no expectations about the basketball team. I got men's basketball season tickets mainly to watch the other teams in the Pac-10. That's when I saw Stanford take down the defending National Champion UCLA Bruins at Maples Pavilion. Brevin Knight's brilliance and Mike Montgomery's coaching triggered a basketball revolution, and two years later Stanford, led by a core of Juniors (Arthur Lee, Kris Weems, the late Peter Sauer), Tim Young, and sophomore Mark Madsen. Stanford had enjoyed a solid season, but losses to UConn and Arizona had tempered expectations heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The Cardinal started in Chicago and took down the College of Charleston and Western Michigan to punch its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive season. Freshman Jarron Collins helped spark a win over Purdue on a Friday night, and suddenly expectations underwent a massive shift, as Rhode Island upset Kansas, setting up a battle on Sunday for the Final Four that once seemed impossible but now seemed preordained.
My junior year was spent residing in Robinson House, in the unremarkable Sterling Quad. I had one of those beds you could raise so that you could have, you know, floor space. So I raised it an squeezed a couch underneath it. My freshman roommate came over and we settled in for what we were sure would be a crowning victory.
And then Rhode Island went to work. Playing off the spectacular guard tandem of Tyson Wheeler and future Houston Rocket Cuttino Mobley, the Rams were the aggressors all afternoon. Suddenly, the prospect of losing this game, this golden opportunity, became more and more probably as the clock wound down. Nothing was working for Stanford. The Cardinal was down six with a minute to go.
And then Arthur Lee went to work.
He drove down the center of the court and hit a running three pointer with a defender draped all over him. Stanford immediately called time-out. Coming out of the huddle, Coach Montgomery decided to go to the foul game early, even though Lee's three made it a one possession game. I've always wondered why more coaches don't have the conviction to stay with this tactic when it brings them back from a late deficit. Mobley was fouled by the always energized David Moseley, and made one of two. Lee then bolted down court one more time and dished to Madsen for a lay-up. 40.7 seconds remained.
At that point I hadn't been sitting for the majority of the second half. Doors were all open down the hallway and you could hear the shouts and gasps coming from each room. It felt like the entire campus was watching this game. Stanford takes another time-out and (at this point can I just say how awesome it was to have the late Al McGuire on the color commentary? I always considered him a favorite, and he was masterful as walked everybody through the exhilarating moments of this game. ANYWAY...) down 72-70, Moseley ran down his defender after a long pass down the middle of the court and committed a foul. There were now 38.8 seconds remaining in the game. Preston Murphy then nailed two free throws, and Rhode Island took a time out with a 74-70 lead.
The Rams smartly tried to deny Lee with pressure in the backcourt, but Madsen alertly returned to receive the inbound pass and got it to Lee, who bee lined down the court for an AND 1. This is his fifth point (plus an assist) in 28 seconds, and it took six seconds for him to make it down the floor and complete the floor. Stanford is now down one point with 32 seconds left.
It would be days before I actually heard Bob Murphy make this call. Lee jabbed his left hand and it finds leather. Madsen picked it up and Reynolds-Dean, who had inbounded the ball, fouled Madsen as he flushed it through the hoop. Cheers cascaded down the hallway, and now my roommate was standing and trying not to hit his head on the bed propped above the sofa. Keep in mind, there is literally no room to move in this space. My heart is now pounding, as what seemed to be a hopeless situation had now turned into one where my team was 26 seconds from San Antonio and the game's biggest stage.
Rhode Island dribbled the ball down and conveniently took 12 seconds off the clock before a misread on a back-cut led to a pass that went straight out of bounds. Stanford now had the ball, up two. The Rams fouled Kris Weems, who was Stanford's best foul shooter all season long. After making the first, he missed the second, giving Rhode Island a chance to tie with a three pointer. Stanford, who'd been fouling until the previous possession, then saw everything put in jeopardy from the least likely player on the court. Tyson Wheeler dribbled down the court, turned his back to Lee, then spun and put up a jumper that went nowhere...because Lee had come across and hacked him. NOOOOOOOO!!!! Lee sprinted the length of the court in protest, but the camera showed Montgomery keeping his cool, already signaling instructions for the next situation.
Fortunately for Stanford, Wheeler missed all three free throws, and Rhode Island was forced to foul the one man you didn't want to foul that March. Lee was perfect the entire tournament from the charity stripe, and his three free throws gave Stanford a 79-74 lead with less than five seconds to play. That Mobley drained a 35-footer to conclude the scoring is always forgotten, but the ball went through as the clock hit zero, and Stanford was in the Final Four. Stanford was in the Final Four.
Almost immediately, the phone started ringing. My Dad, Mom, Grandfather, all rang. My best friend called even as his own Blue Devils were taking the floor. My heart was beating so fast I could barely grip the phone.
It's impossible to convey what it's like when you're there at the start of something. I remember thinking what a big deal it was when Stanford became a "Nike" school, when it found its way to the Sweet Sixteen the year previous after giving UCLA the worst beating in the history of the storied Bruin program. We waited outside Maples that night to welcome the team home. Arthur Lee still had the net around his neck and his uniform on just as it was when he left the court in St. Louis. He was in a virtual daze, himself unable to comprehend what he and his teammates had done.
We didn't know it then, but that would be Stanford's only trip to the Final Four. Pac-10 championships and #1 rankings would follow, but that Sunday was the apex. It towers over so many of my college memories. I live in Los Angeles and still have Stanford Basketball season tickets with my frosh roommate to this day. Believe it or not, it took two years after college to get off the waiting list! 17 years later, it stands as the most memorable day in program history. It stands as evidence that Regional Championships don't just happen to "other schools,"and that there's no reason Stanford can't be an elite basketball school. It makes it all the more difficult to endure the recent struggles of the program, but it also stands as a beacon of hope come from the past. Maybe what was once can be again.