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The 1991 Duke-UNLV Game: A Personal Recollection

It was about as perfect as basketball can possibly be.

1991 NCAA Divion I Men’s Baskeball Tournament - Final Four
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - CIRCA 1991: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils looks on during the 1991 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four circa 1991 at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. Krzyzewski has been the head coach of Duke from 1980-present.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In 1991, Duke had been to nine Final Fours and I had been to none so I was excited to get the opportunity to go.

Sure Duke was going to run into UNLV again after a crushing 1990 loss and there was a chance that could get ugly, but so what? How often do you get a chance to go to the Final Four?

So of course I went. I flew into Chicago and drove down to Indy with my brother.

On the way, we listened to sports radio and while no one gave Duke much of a chance in the rematch - Vegas had a crushing 30-point win in the 1990 championship game - one guy did.

Joey Meyer, then the coach at DePaul, having succeeded his legendary father Ray, said he thought that Duke would win. He pointed to Grant Hill as a key difference from the year before and said he would be a matchup problem for Vegas. He also praised Christian Laettner and Duke’s general toughness. He though the Blue Devils were a very different team in 1991 and time would prove him right.

The trip down was a pleasant roll out of Chicagoland into the vast farmlands of Indiana, through the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Potawatomi and Miami peoples on into Indianapolis.

Hunting buffalo on horseback was certainly dangerous, but when you pass through the plains and you imagine hunting buffalo on foot, with bows and arrows at best, well, it must have been incredibly dangerous. At least on horseback you’re roughly equivalent in speed and not nearly as vulnerable.

Americans saw it as vast natural farmland, and the farming culture of the Midwest, and particularly Indiana, proved to be fertile ground for what Shooter in Hoosiers rightly called the “greatest game ever invented.”

Basketball took root in small towns across the state and those towns built and still build palaces for their basketball teams. More than one Hoosier has come to Durham and said Cameron looks like a high school gym and that’s not an insult. It’s the same thing in Texas with high school football stadiums. Indiana has a distinct grass roots love of the game that is probably not matched anywhere else.

As we found out, the people in Indiana are just damned good people too. So while downtown Indianapolis was in a state of overhaul - a major project was underway that saw streets and sidewalks torn up all over - the city itself was incredibly warm and thoroughly relished hosting the Final Four. Every single person we met was unbelievably kind and decent. That is not an exaggeration.

We got into town on Friday and explored a bit. By Saturday, my sister-in-law, another brother and our mother, a life-long Duke fan, were all there, along with several other fellow travelers who made long, bond-forming road trips up and down the ACC over the years.

When we made our way to the Hoosier Dome, it was our first introduction to modern security: metal detectors were in place because the first Gulf War had ended in February and there were serious concerns about terrorism. It was an eye opener but ultimately we all came to believe that people were just there for basketball.

And basketball was everywhere around the Hoosier Dome.

There were games set up, photo booths, and celebrities walking around. Bill Walton passed directly beneath us at one point, looking very uncomfortable in a finely tailored suit. He was just beginning his broadcast career and looked unhappy. We didn't fully understand his flakiness at the time, which fans relish now, and certainly not the bravery it took for him to overcome serious personal challenges. Not many stutterers go on to have broadcast careers and Walton, in his post-playing days, also had profound back pain that led him at one point to consider suicide (fortunately he found answers and today is happy, flaky, pain free and occasionally shirt-free in his role as ESPN’s resident odd-ball).

Some arrogant entrepreneur was selling shirts on the sidewalk that said UNLV 36-0 back-to-back national championships.

Talk about tempting the Gods. But he was no worse than some of the Vegas players who publicly said that they were sure they’d crush Duke. A few easy steals and dunks and Duke would roll over, just like they thought Duke did in 1990.

Security kept people from entering early as a precaution and so fans milled around outside for a fairly long time.

Normally this might not have been a problem but Duke and UNC were both there and when the lines were queued up, although we don’t recall why, maybe just to keep some distance, Duke fans were going in one door and UNC fans the next one down. Duke fans started the old standby, “Go to Hell Carolina, Go to Hell!” and UNC fans fired right back.

For a few minutes it was frighteningly intense. The 15-501 rivalry was focused on two lines at the Final Four and UNC fans were clearly not ready to cede top dog status to Duke. It really felt like a brawl could break out.

Duke, however, was ready to claim it and Duke fans were eager to get in. UNC in the championship game? No one really wanted that, but if that’s what it took, then fine.

We had an idea for a sign which my sister-in-law made for us. It was the debut of the Duke Curse and it was two pieces of posterboard taped together with a list of everything that had gone wrong for teams that had knocked Duke out of tournaments since 1984 and asking UNLV if it was really worth it.

Our seat neighbors showed up soon, a pair of genial UNC fans, who asked to see the sign and thought it was funny. We had some good Triangle/ACC conversation before the first game but when Kansas came out on the floor, we both immediately and instinctively stood up and clapped.

The UNC fans were dismayed. “You mean you’re not pulling for the ACC team?”

“Uh, no...sorry.” It hadn’t even occurred to us.

One of them pointed to the banners for the four schools and said “see those? Three of them have banners. Maybe you’ll get one someday too.”

It was a little snotty, some classic North Carolina taunting (state, not school) because you can’t take it too far when you have to live with your rivals including, in some challenging cases, in the same house or even bed. You keep your glee to your own tribe or face the consequences.

As it turned out, Roy Williams and Kansas knocked off UNC and his mentor, Dean Smith, was ejected with two technicals. Smith made a point of shaking every hand on the KU bench as he exited late. Normally mild-mannered assistant Bill Guthridge, enraged, went after referee Pete Pavia in the hall after the game and had to be restrained. “That’s bush. That’s bush,” Guthridge screamed at Pavia “Where did you learn how to officiate?”

We found out later that Pavia had terminal cancer. The Final Four was his career finale; he retired after it was over. He died on October 10th, 1992, outliving Jim Valvano by about six months. Pavia called Valvano frequently to offer an encouraging word before he passed away.

After UNC lost, our neighbors, who really were nice fellows in the end, wished us luck and said they really hoped we would beat UNLV.

Very nice chaps, so we restrained our glee until after they left.

So then it was time for Duke and Vegas and let’s talk a bit about the Rebels and their fans.

When they came on the court, the other three fans bases didn’t really boo.

They mostly hissed.

It was a very strange moment. It wasn’t like the normal good natured or perhaps derisive or even passionate booing we see at sports events. It was just a mass disapproval. It’s hard to explain it but borrowing from Tom Wolfe’s description of Cameron, it was as if the three fan bases joined and became a colonial animal: Not you, they hissed. Anyone but you. You’re not getting this.

This was because UNLV, which had a long-running dispute with the NCAA, was in trouble again and true to the mascot, Vegas was rebelling. Here’s what David Teel, who just recently moved from the Daily Press to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, had this to say at the time.

Their fan base was best represented by an elderly woman in a leather hat and leather mini skirt and a t-shirt that read “the NCAA don’t know diddly,” a play on the Bo Jackson Nike commercials of the day. If the Final Four had been in Winston-Salem, she might have been arrested for public indecency.

It may have been a Southern Christ-haunted (as Flannery O’ Conner said of the South) reaction, but I found the Vegas fans repulsive and, I think it’s fair to say, most other non-Vegas fans did too.

They were just crude and clearly had a winning is all that matters philosophy that came straight from the casinos. Larry Johnson borrowed a phrase from the Vegas tough guys and applied it to basketball: it ain’t the winning. It’s the collecting.

I will say this: it seemed to me that the crowd reaction registered with the Vegas players. They seemed visibly shook by it. Their body language suggested that they were really unhappy with the reaction, possibly surprised that they would get booed on the weekend of their apparent coronation.

People know, in retrospect, that Vegas was tight in the Duke game. I’m convinced that there was a discernible reaction to the crowd’s hissing, that it was something akin to being shamed in church. And as far as college basketball goes, the Final Four is as close to that it gets. It’s the ultimate stage. All the dirty stuff, the cheating, the chicanery, falls away. It’s pure competition, pure basketball.

Just not that evening in 1991.

When the game started, Duke came at Vegas aggressively but the Rebels were, legitimately, great.

Between Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt, UNLV was loaded. George Ackles was a bit of a weak link but the defense was so good that it didn’t really matter.

When the ball went up though, Duke scored first and went up 13-5. But Vegas was not going to lose like that and at the half, UNLV was up 43-41.

Early in the second half though, Eackles picked up his fourth and backup Elmore Spencer twisted his ankle.

Anthony had a hand issue and had to ice it when he could and Hunter was also dealing with an injury. Things were tilting Duke’s way.

Duke’s biggest break probably came when Anthony fouled out with 3:51 left. By that point it had become clear that Vegas had a previously undetected weakness: the Rebels had a weak bench.

Despite Eackles, despite Spencer’s injury, UNLV only went seven deep with only Spencer and Evric Gray providing relief and only 23 minutes, three points, three rebound and one assist worth of relief at that.

Johnson, Augmon and Hunt played 39 minutes each and Anthony would have matched them if he had not fouled out.

After Anthony fouled out, Duke went on a 6-0 run, keyed by a Hurley three pointer that the said he’d been waiting for either all night or all year, and that run put Duke up 77-76 and provided the game pressure Coach K promised would suffocate the Rebels. Would Vegas fold?

Larry Johnson got two foul shots and, with ad odd hitch in his shot just before his release which seemed designed to lure people into the lane while they waited for him to finish split, tying the game.

And actually it did lure Thomas Hill into the lane, but Johnson, perhaps feeling the pressure, missed two out of three.

When Duke came down, T. Hill drove and missed, but Christian Laettner got the rebound and was fouled.

Vegas called a TO to try to ice the Buffalo native but as we learned later, there was no icing Laettner, and certainly not at the end of a game like that. Laettner was a ruthless competitor and he lived for moments like that.

So naturally he hit both and Duke was up 79-77.

With Anthony sitting, Vegas got the ball to Johnson, who you have to understand was pretty much unstoppable.

He hesitated though, tossing the ball to Hunt instead, who fired a long three that bounced off the rim.

Duke erupted in glee and exaltation. 1990, the worst championship defeat ever, had been avenged. Duke had beaten the unbeatable UNLV.

Coach K famously walked on to the court scowling, his hands pressing down, urging his Blue Devils to calm down because the job wasn’t done yet. No one listened. It was too perfect a moment not to celebrate.

As great as that was, it hardly compared to the scene in the stands. At this point, Duke was essentially doing a public service for much of the NCAA. Vegas was hated in a way that is hard to explain. Duke was still seen as the good guys, the knight that slayed the dragon. We imagine even some UNC fans, if unhappy with Duke winning, were still happy that UNLV had been stopped.

At 34 of the crowd had insisted, somebody had to do it.

Almost immediately a chant went up: 34-1! 34-1! 34-1! A much older man, probably in his ‘70s, ran from the bottom row of the bleachers to the top, high-fiving anyone who stuck their hand out.

It was a moment of absolute triumph, not least of all given the ass whipping UNLV had laid on Duke in 1990.

When we finally spilled out of the Hoosier Dome, we saw the guy with the back-to-back t-shirts had marked them down to $5.00. My only regret from that weekend was passing him by. I should have bought as many as I could have afforded.