Satisfaction. North Carolina State University’s Wolfpack men’s basketball team outmuscled and outhustled UCLA in a NCAA tournament semifinal tilt in 1974 to dethrone the mighty Bruins.
The hoops team from the University of California, Los Angeles was on the doorstep of invincibility. UCLA had won seven straight national collegiate titles, from 1967-73.
Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden had built a program that many labeled a dynasty. He was known as the “Wizard of Westwood” (the neighborhood where the campus is located).
N.C. State coach Norm Sloan was determined to “pull the rug out from under UCLA” in 1974. His squad obliged, escaping with a thrilling 80-77 victory after two overtime periods.
That outcome was major front-page news all across the land.
One photograph captured the essence of the game and the significance of N.C. State’s accomplishment. It appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated showing 6-foot-4 David Thompson of N.C. State “jumping over the top” of 6-foot-11 Bill Walton of UCLA to control the basketball.
Both players’ arms were well above the rim, but Thompson’s hand was about 6 inches higher than Walton’s. (Sloan claimed it was at least 8 inches higher.)
David Thompson’s greatness as a “college basketball phenomenon” was validated during that 1974 Final Four. Teammate Monte Towe said: “David was one of the greatest of all time to be in the air and adjust his body, being able to catch the ball (above the rim) and lay it in.” (Dunking the ball was prohibited from 1967-76.)
Tim Stoddard, one of the Wolfpack forwards, said Thompson was “pretty much able to do anything on a basketball court. You would constantly see things that were amazing. To see how high he jumped was kind of phenomenal. He was such a tremendous athlete.”
Larry Brown of the University of North Carolina, who coached Thompson for a time as a professional, said David Thompson was “Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan.”
Jordan said he was 11 years old in 1974 when N.C. State won the national title, and “I was in love with David Thompson.” Jordan thought so highly of Thompson that when Jordan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he invited his boyhood hero to be his presenter. (Thompson had been enshrined in 1996.)
But that 1974 Wolfpack team wouldn’t have done what it did without Tommy Burleson. “He was 7-foot-2, incredibly mobile and fierce,” wrote JD King, a Duke basketball historian.
Former television commentator Billy Packer said: “Burleson was a senior. You don’t see that much in college basketball anymore. Players like that go early to the pros.”
Barry Jacobs, noted sports writer and author, once reported on coach Sloan’s love affair with the 5-foot-7 Towe as a player. “The sawed-off point guard was the heart of our team,” Sloan remarked.
The N.C. State basketball media guide lauded Towe’s ability to “pass or dribble opponents dizzy on occasions.”
“Stoddard, a 6-foot-7 forward, was a big man with soft hands and a solid, all-around game,” Jacobs wrote. “Moe Rivers, a transfer to N.C. State, was a smooth combo guard, and Raleigh’s Phil Spence offered rebounding and defensive help off the bench.”
Two days after toppling UCLA, the Wolfpack took on Marquette University in the final game and cruised to a 76-64 victory and the tournament crown.