Excerpt: The Greatest Upset Never Seen

The following is an excerpt from The Greatest Upset Never Seen by Jack Danilewicz (Nebraska, 2019).


Chapter 7: Miracle on Ward Avenue

December 23, 1982. Not yet half past 6:00 p.m., but already darkness has arrived in the tourist district of Waikiki, leaving behind the afterglow from a splendid December sunset.

That Virginia’s players and coaches spent most of the day in their hotel was a normal occurrence on game day, and no one seemed to notice the mist move over the Ala Wai Canal and into Waikiki.

By the time the coaches and players from Chaminade and Virginia reach the Blaisdell Arena, just east of downtown Honolulu, the rain has started up outside again. Hawaii res-idents do not like to drive in rain. They drive either too fast or too slow for conditions, panic, and man-made issues add to the holiday traffic snarl.

An hour before the game, the players were shooting around when Ralph Sampson and Tony Randolph had a chance to visit with each other on the Blaisdell Arena playing floor.

“Fans were walking out onto the floor and taking photos of Ralph,” Randolph said. “He came over to me and said hello. He didn’t know I was out here until he’d seen the roster that day. I said, ‘Let’s get together afterward.’ He said, ‘Okay’ and he patted me on the back.”1

A crowd of 3,052 had shown up a year before to watch Sampson and Virginia defeat the Silverswords by 16 points in the Blaisdell Arena. The official attendance mark was to be 3,383 for this night, a hearty crowd for a game hosted by an NAIA program, especially two days before Christmas, and with the Chaminade student body home for the holidays. For Virginia’s part, the crowd would be the smallest the Cavaliers would play in front of all season.

Allan Silva was to be among the former Chaminade players in attendance. He had been finishing up basketball practice at nearby Iolani School, where he was an assistant coach, and invited several of his colleagues to the game. Seven tickets were waiting in his name at the will call window, courtesy of his former coach, Merv Lopes. There were no takers. “They all said Chaminade’s going to get killed,” said Silva, who departed for the Blaisdell alone. Once at the arena, he noticed a husband and wife with four young children headed to the ticket window. Silva approached the parents and gave them his six remaining tickets.

“They sat next to me the whole game,” he said.

Forty-four hundred miles from Honolulu, in Atlanta’s CNN studios, sportscaster Fred Hickman had closed his nightly report by saying, “Virginia is in Hawaii tonight taking it easy against a team called Chaminade.”

Asked by new anchor Nick Charles to repeat what he’d said, Hickman replied, “Yeah, Sha-na-na!”

Back in the Chaminade locker room, Lopes had the match-ups for that night’s game displayed on the blackboard behind him. He had already led the players through their customary meditation session in the locker room before they went out to the floor to warm up. Chaminade was to start the same lineup it had to that point all season: Mark Wells and Tim Dunham in the back court; Earnest Pettway, Richard Haenisch, and Tony Randolph on the frontline.

Virginia would counter with a lineup that included guards Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle, forwards Craig Robinson and Tim Mullen, and Ralph Sampson at center.

A message, written by Lopes, was on the chalk board in the locker room. It read: “It’s an honor to play Virginia—so let’s go out and play the best way we can (aggressive).”

Indeed, as Pete Smith said, “Other Division I teams would have loved to be in the position we were in, with a chance to play the No. 1–ranked team in the country, and here were we, an NAIA team, getting the opportunity.”

Since the day the Chaminade players had arrived on campus, Lopes had preached living for the moment and being in the now, and he recognized that playing Virginia was as big an opportunity as there was for his team. “I decided to challenge them a little,” Lopes said. “I said to Mark Wells, ‘Mark, is Othell Wilson faster than you?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Can he jump higher than you?’ And he said, ‘No.’ They just looked at me at first, and then I went right down the list with each starter. The only one I didn’t challenge that way was Tony, because, of course, he had Sampson to guard.”

“There really wasn’t a big difference between the players until you got to Sampson,” Pete Smith said. Instead, when he got to Sampson, Lopes just threw his arms up in the air and said, “Well, Tony, what can I say?”

The team broke into laughter. It was the right comment for the moment and seemed to release any remaining pregame jitters.

“I just told Tony, this is a great game to play,” said Lopes. “Go out and show the people of Hawaii that you can play.”

Randolph’s high school coach, Paul Hatcher, was among those back in Harrisonburg who stayed up late to hear Mac McDonald’s call of the game. With Robert E. Lee High already on Christmas break, he did not have to be in bed early to teach later that morning and figured he could sleep as much as he needed before heading up to the school for basketball practice late in the afternoon.

“I thought, let’s see how much Tony gets to play and, of course, he ended up starting,” said Hatcher. “I was so pleased. The longer I listened you could tell Chaminade was focused, and you could feel it on the radio.”

At 7:40 Honolulu time—12:40 a.m. on the East Coast where it was now Christmas Eve—the game tipped off. The officiating crew included local referees Giff Johnson and Pat Tanibe as well as Tom Fraim, who worked out of the ACC. Fraim had also officiated both of Virginia’s games in Japan.

To the surprise of everyone, through the first ten minutes of play the Silverswords were the team setting the pace. When a shot by Mark Wells on Chaminade’s first possession had rimmed off, there was Randolph following up with a rebound dunk for the first points of the game.

As in the Hawaii game six days before, Randolph’s assertiveness neatly summarized the fearlessness with which he and his teammates would play that night. “They were not intimidated,” Lopes said. To combat Sampson’s size, Lopes’s plan was to move Tony Randolph further outside on the offensive end than usual, drawing the seven-footer with him.

“Merv had seen it in the films—they would have to move Ralph out [away from the basket],” said Mike Vasconcellos. Randolph scored Chaminade’s first 6 points and 10 of its first 15 in helping the Silverswords to a 15–10 lead seven minutes into the contest. Following his dunk on Chaminade’s first possession, Randolph had added a field goal from the wing, one midway in the lane following an offensive rebound, another from the baseline, and still another from the wing. The Silverswords’ other 5 points belonged to Earnest Pettway, who scored from the wing and added a conventional three-point play off a rebounded miss.

They went to the break even at 43-all.

At halftime, forward Richard Haenisch thought to himself, “So far, so good, but let’s see what happens in the second half.”

All was not well, after all. Earnest Pettway, who was having a game to remember of his own, had injured his knee in the first half and was looking questionable for the second. In fact, he would miss the next four games with strained ligaments, but no one knew it then.

Chaminade did not have money in its budget for a true athletic trainer. The job fell instead to Curly Fujihara, a short, soft-spoken man of Japanese ancestry who worked by day at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility and volunteered his time at Chaminade in the evenings. When Lopes was coaching at Kalaheo High School, Fujihara had befriended the coach and stayed on in his life.

Now, while Pettway sat in the locker room with his team-mates waiting for instructions from the coaches, he massaged his knee and whispered to himself, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay” over and over. Against the odds, he would return in the second half, playing on adrenalin and sheer determination. “Without a trainer, our rule was that you weren’t allowed to get hurt,” Mike Vasconcellos said.

Lopes was succinct as he stood before the team. “It’s up to you,” he said. “You can go out and win, or you can go out and lose; but it’s all up to you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s