It's rare to find my whole family - my husband, my stepdaughter, myself and the cat - in the same room, at the same time, doing the same thing, for any length of time. This especially applies to watching television, as our viewing interests are disparate. My husband doesn't watch much TV, my stepdaughter is into her quirky teenage stuff (Dr. Who and the like), and my favorite shows contain either a final score or Tim Gunn. (The cat isn't too picky, though there was that notable time he discovered Animal Planet.)
Last night was a memorable exception. There we all were, stacked like cords of wood in the bed, hanging on every word of ESPN's latest 30 for 30 production: "Survive and Advance," the story of the 1983 N.C. State basketball team.
It's a story I thought I knew, and I do in fact remember key parts (I was nine on April 4, 1983.) I remember the last-gasp shot Dereck Whittenburg heaved toward the basket, which turned into the best assist ever when Lorenzo Charles snared it a few inches shy of the rim and dunked it home for the greatest upset in NCAA basketball history, the greatest sports memory of my lifetime and, in ESPN's estimation, the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.
I give ESPN a fair amount of grief, as loyal readers will know. I can't stand a lot of things the entertainment-before-sports network has done to the games I love. To name a few: Schools held hostage to ridiculous tipoff times in order to make a little-watched 10 p.m. or 11 a.m. telecast on ESPNU; the dumbing-down and Foxing-up of in-game graphics, like the latest addition, the virtual shot clock embedded in the floor; the hiring of former coaches or players who can barely communicate and installing them as studio analysts and sideline reporters, who wouldn't have a clue (as illustrated by Lights Out at the Super Bowl) of how to actually report a story if their lives depended on it; touting the "exclusives" ESPN has somehow gotten when said "talent" returns to coaching or playing; the phenomenon of every female sports personality from here to Timbuktu sporting Erin Andrews beauty-pageant hair; the nasty little habit of taking credit for (or at least not properly citing) other reporters' work ... trust me, I could go on.
But when ESPN gets something right, it gets it right. The installments of 30 for 30 that I've seen have been riveting, revelatory docu-dramas, and "Survive and Advance" raised the bar even higher.
Whittenburg, an apparent ball hog who (perhaps no surprise) was an executive producer of the piece, can annoy me as an overly excitable announcer, but was laugh-out-loud hilarious as the key cogs of the 1983 team gathered around a table in a Raleigh, N.C. restaurant. His behind-the-scenes insights and bawdy humor added an intimacy to the archival footage of the Cardiac Pack's unbelievable run, beginning with the ACC tournament championship that N.C. State had to win to make the then-52-team field. To do so, the Pack only had to beat some of the most luminary names of the day and of all time: James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson.
There are so many things that strike you as you go on the journey again with these men, 30 years removed from the moment but still so alive in it. You realize how close - and how often - that journey came to ending, including a first-round NCAA overtime victory against Pepperdine that saw N.C. State down by six with less than a minute to play and had Terry Gannon thinking he was headed back to history class the next day. That win was fueled by Pack coach Jim Valvano's unconventional, just-win baby approach, which included sending an 83.5 percent free-throw shooter to the line twice in that final minute. Each time, said shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one.
You realize how, by the time the nation took notice of N.C. State, it had become about so much more than basketball. The players tell of a woman, keeping a vigil by the hospital bed of her comatose husband, watching the games, learning the Pack's story, and writing a letter to tell the team how it inspired her - and, she hoped, her husband - to keep fighting.
You realize that Sidney Lowe's round, open face has not changed one iota in 30 years.
You realize how Valvano truly loved his kids, and the limelight. He preened for the cameras and refused to stop having a good time, telling one audience that yes, for the first time, his staff had conducted a bed check the night before, and that "all the beds were there." As Cinderella kept ducking the bouncers trying to evict it from the ball and at last booked a date with high-flying Houston and its fearsome Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity, Valvano assured reporters that if his team secured the opening tip on Monday night, it might take a shot by Tuesday morning.
Of course, that's not the way it went, and even though you - we - knew how the game ended, you - we - still sat up straighter as the seconds ticked down. My husband squeezed his daughter's hand with his left hand and my hand with his right, his eyes fixed on the screen, waiting to see the unbelievable unfold again.
I'm not entirely sure what my stepdaugher made of it. She's heard the story and watched The Shot before, as my husband's father attended N.C. State. She likely hadn't seen two grown people behave with such sustained, simultaneous lunacy, laughing so hard the cat abdicated his post at the foot of the bed, agonizing over a game three decades old, and still wiping away tears as we kissed her goodnight.
What I hope she made of it is what I try to tell her: that sports is so much more than sports. At 13, she already knows way too much about loss, and "Survive and Advance" certainly has it share of that, from Valvano's death of cancer a little more than 10 years after creating the One Shining Moment to dwarf all others as he ran in a demented circle onto the court, wildly looking for someone (Whittenburg, it turns out) to hug after Charles' dunk, to Charles' death in June 2011 when the bus he was driving crashed.
But what I hope she also took from the show, and what she takes from life, is that there can be such transcendent joy amid the crushing pain, that laughter through tears can be the most powerful, cleansing kind. My favorite part of Jimmy V's now-iconic ESPY speech is not the "Don't give up, don't ever give up" mantra but the bit of Italian spice he offers to the unseen guy blinking the green wrap-it-up light. The man was dying, unable to get on and off the stage without help, but he was finished when he said he was finished.
There will never be another 1983 Wolfpack, for many reasons. Foremost and most obviously, that perfect storm of storylines will simply never come together at such a perfect time again. There are other factors; namely: players the caliber of Sampson, a three-time AP player of the year, will never again still be playing their senior season, having established themselves as the giant of their sport and looming as Goliath for any audacious would-be Davids to challenge. These days, if you beat Kansas or Kentucky (well, not this year), you beat the program, the reputation, the records in the media guide. You don't go up against the 7-foot-4 dominating force in the middle who has humbled your team for years and beat him TWICE in three weeks.
In a way, that's good. Magic is best when it's preserved, a singular moment frozen in time and tight shorts, not reprised year after year, with plenty of advance warning about how amazed you're going to be. And in a way it's sad, because what will my stepdaughter's 1983 Wolfpack be?
I know she'll find, and make, her own magic, sports-related or not. I know there will be plenty of memorable moments in this year's NCAA tournament, which I plan to spend every moment of Thursday and Friday drinking in. I'm just glad that, for two hours anyway, the three of us shared some 30-year-old magic, and that time, which can be so ruthless, hasn't diminished it, not one bit.