Andrew Riche counts down the ten most shocking regular season upsets in basketball history
Even under the heightened senses of opening tip off, when NBA teams are breaking in their first pairs of sneakers for the long, arduous regular season ahead of them and home fans can cheer on once again, it is very difficult to find too many standout debuts. Sure, there are eye-popping performances at times like James Harden’s Rockets debut last year or when the Chicago Bulls decimated the defending champion Miami Heat on opening night in 2006. Rookies sometimes jump right in and make a quick splash when most analysts predict first-year players to have slow starts. And then, there is what happened last Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat had just removed themselves from a convincing beat down of the Bulls right after receiving their championship rings and ruining Derrick Rose’s long-awaited return in the process. A trip to Brooklyn and the loaded Nets was on the horizon on Friday night on ESPN, but they had to make a pit stop at Philly the night after their opener to play a 76ers team that looked lowly to say the least. They had not hired their coach, Spurs assistant Brett Brown, until mid August. The wise guys in Vegas had already set the line that the Sixers would win no more than 17 games, a sign of epic futility. Their top draft pick, Nerlens Noel, is likely to not play at all this season, and there is already suspicion that GM Sam Hinkle is tanking this season to get Kansas’ freshman stud Andrew Wiggins in next year’s draft. I myself predicted doom and gloom in my team preview last month. It seemed like easy money to be a naysayer early on for a franchise that had had so many proud seasons of yesteryear.
So going into the game, it was almost a forgotten scratch off the sheet for reporters that Miami had this made in the shade, even without Dwyane Wade, who was sitting out the second half of back-to-backs. What wound up going down was a box score and highlight reel that knocked experts out of their chairs. The Sixers, in their season debut at home, went up 19-0 to start the game and fought through Miami’s many runs to get a spirited and shocking 114-110 win over the champs. The stunning defeat was piggybacked by a debut performance from Sixers point guard Michael Carter Williams, who put in a line that would make fantasy owners drool with envy: 27 points, 7 rebounds, 12 assists, 9 steals, and only one turnover. He did not just outplay Miami vet Mario Chalmers, he destroyed him from beginning to end. For a sophomore out of Syracuse to jump right in and rain on LeBron James’ victory parade from the get-go seems almost impossible, but that is exactly what happened at the Wells Fargo Center on a topsy-turvy opening night.
In this case, I highly doubt that the emperor has no clothes, or, in this case, King James. The Miami Heat, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be just fine and compile an elite win-loss record once the season ends. But the seemingly hapless Sixers are now the great unknown, especially after following their victory over Miami with two more wins over John Wall’s Wizards and Rose’s Bulls thanks to the splendid Carter Williams. A team predicted to win 16 games is already one-sixth of the way there. You would expect M.C.W. (as he is being dubbed lately) to hit a rookie wall and the losses for such a talent-depleted team to mount in the dog days of the regular season. But what if it turns out that the Sixers are… actually good?! It is far too early too tell, obviously, but what the Sixers accomplished this past week speaks to a quickly forgotten and fascinating phenomena in basketball lore: Stunning upsets in the regular season.
Upsets in basketball are populated in history by the plentiful number of surprises in the NCAA basketball tournament that has made March a month for Madness, or NBA playoff head-scratchers in which a much lower seed knocks off a team that had compiled 50 to 60 wins in the regular season. That list has been constantly re-explored and written about from N.C. State shocking the Houston Cougars in 1983 to the Denver Nuggets taking down the Seattle Supersonics in the first round in 1994. I still cannot believe that the Nate Robinson-led Bulls took down the Heat at Miami in Game 1 of the second round last season, even though the Bulls lost the next four games. But regular season losses are even more mysterious and buried deep in the archives of basketball tall tales not only because they are not prevalent to the all-important postseason, but because teams are more likely to play a far more inferior opponent and get upended on a bad day. It is like Lou Holtz famously said: You don’t have to be the best team, you just have to be the best team on that given day.
With that said, I am going to list the most shocking non-postseason upsets imaginable in the annals of college and pro basketball. I might even throw in an international contest just for kicks, but no playoff games or NCAA Tournament highlights will be featured on this list, so if you are wondering why Florida Gulf Coast or the Sleepy Floyd Game is not present on this list, that is why.
#10- Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 (January 19. 1974)
Okay, so this one would not be put in the “long forgotten” category of upsets like some of these others, but the circumstances definitely warrant a place on this list. John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, led by a slew of pros including Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, were on an historic 88-game winning streak. That winning streak began back in 1971 after losing to Austin Carr and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 89-82 at South Bend. Since that loss, UCLA would motor on to win three straight national titles during that winning streak, which has still yet to be matched in men’s college hoops since then. The Bruins would play the Irish four more times afterwards and beat them soundly after that, winning by at least 19 points each time. Head coach Digger Phelps, who was slowly building a great program at Notre Dame, was tired of getting hammered by Wooden’s guys year after year and was confident that this would be the one, so confident that he had his players practice cutting down the nets before the game.
Things did not look good early, though, as Walton (with an injured back from two weeks earlier) made 12 of his first 13 shots and the Bruins were up 70-59 with just under four minutes to go. Then Digger dug in and applied a stingy man-to-man press that forced four turnovers and prevented UCLA from making another basket. Clearly, Notre Dame was a formidable opponent thanks to future NBA stars like John Shumate and Adrian Dantley, but it was a guard named Dwight Clay who became hero for the day, hitting a tough jumper off the baseline to give Notre Dame the lead with 29 seconds to go. Last second tries in the paint by Walton failed and the streak was over. Despite Notre Dame’s high standing at the time, it still considered one of the most surprising wins in regular season history. Walton has said in interviews that it was one of the worst days of his blessed life.
#9- Cavaliers 95, Celtics 87 (October 27, 2010)
It is funny how two years before LeBron’s trap game against the Sixers, his rivals in Boston ran into the same exact trap. After surviving a late scare against the Heat and the LeBron’s Miami debut on opening night in Boston, the Celtics went over to Cleveland play a Cavaliers team that was left bare by LeBron’s infamous Decision to leave earlier that summer. If LeBron could not take down the Celts in his new digs, how could the worthless, talentless Cavs, with new head coach Byron Scott, even think of doing it? But somehow, some way, they did it. In their first game without LeBron James since they had drafted him in 2003, Cleveland hung tight at the Quicken Loans Arena with the older Celtics and went into halftime only down by one.
The Celtics tallied a run in the third quarter to go up by double digits and seemingly put the sad Cavs away. But it didn’t. Led by the inside game of J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao, the Cavs started the fourth quarter only down five and managed to lead 86-84 with just over two minutes to go. The recently retired Anthony Parker threw up a three-pointer late in the shot clock that sank in, and after some free throws and a charge by Glen Davis, the Cavs won their first game of the LeBron-less era against the defending Eastern Conference champs. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett only managed three points in the final quarter. Sure, the Cavs would go on to lose a record 26 games in a row later on and would wind up with the worst record in the NBA that season, but for one brief shining moment, Cleveland was 1-0 and took down the big bullies without LeBron James.
#8- Wizards 109, Lakers 102 (March 16, 2000)
On a recent episode of “Open Court” on NBATV, Shaquille O’Neal gave a surprising answer to a question about teams he did not look forward to playing. He replied that he hated playing against awful teams, specifically ones on losing streaks, not because he deemed the games below his stature but because he knew that the lesser team was going to bring their best against the top teams and make their season. Since Shaq was always on one of the best teams in the league, this was a constant fear for him, and I would bet that this game was the first one he thought about when he answered that question.
As we turned over to the new millennium, Phil Jackson was turning Shaq and Kobe into the next dynastic duo in the NBA after his and Jordan’s Bulls broke up. Under the newly opened lights of the Staples Center, the Lakers would mount a 67-15 record and survive one playoff opponent after the next in the postseason to give O’Neal and Bryant their first ever NBA titles. Shaq was the clear-cut choice for MVP, and was really flexing his muscles in February and March when the Lakers went on a 19-game winning streak, still one of the longest winning streaks in NBA history. Then on an early March evening, they visited a Washington Wizards team that had already fired Gar Heard (replacing him with Darrell Walker), and brought in Michael Jordan as a co-owner to help run the team. They still had former stars like Mitch Richmond, Juwan Howard, and Rod Strickland, but the wins were not coming and they were 20-45 going into a home game against the Lake Show. But it was on this night in the MCI Center, with Jordan watching on, that Richmond turned back the clock and gave what may have been his last great performance in a distinguished career.
Richmond put up 32 points while Strickland gave 16 assists and Howard cleaned up inside. They were ahead most of the game thanks to a blistering first quarter in which they scored 36 points, by far the most they had made in a quarter all season. Kobe was awful, shooting 2 for 10 before fouling out, while Shaq was nursing a sore hamstring while still putting up 40 points and 12 rebounds. In the locker room afterwards, Shaq claimed the Wizards ending the Lakers’ streak was “luck,” but 12 years later, when Ernie Johnson asked the Diesel about his least favorite games on “Open Court,” I know that was the one he was thinking about. To show how much of an aberration that game was, the Lakers went on to win 11 games in a row after that. Had they won that game, the Lakers would have won 31 games in a row, four more than what the Heat did in their amazing run last season.
(As an aside, if I had to pick another stunner during the Shaq/Kobe three-peat, I would have to pick their overtime loss at the United Center against the awful Bulls where O’Neal got ejected for throwing a punch that could have given Kermit Washington a run for his money had it actually hit Brad Miller’s face. Maybe a young Ron Artest took inspiration from it.)
#7- Texas Christian 62, Kansas 55 (February 6, 2013)
Maybe you can call me a “prisoner of the moment” for bringing up a fairly recent game from what was otherwise a forgettable season in the Big XII, but this is one of the weirdest game I have ever seen in my history of watching college hoops. After playing in the national title game the year before and only losing one out-of-conference game early on to Michigan State in the Champions Classic, Kansas looked like they were on their way to another Big XII title under Bill Self. However, they lost to Oklahoma State, led by Marcus Smart, at Allen Fieldhouse on a Saturday, and Big XII newcomers TCU were sure to be made an example of four days later.
Coming out of the Mountain West Conference in a football-influenced move, TCU, a school that was devoid of any pro talent for the last two decades and had not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, was rudely introduced to the big boys. Newly hired head coach Trent Johnson had quickly lost his first eight conference games, some to schools who were not even remotely tournament-caliber. Their closest loss up to that point was nine points against Texas Tech. The Horned Frogs finished 11-21 and went 2-16 in conference play, beyond awful by any definition. But that first conference win came from the most unlikely of places. When the first half ended and the Jayhawks only had 13 points, you knew that something was amiss, and most of it was Kansas’ shots, of which only 18 went through the basket through 40 minutes. That was out of 61 shots, which gave Kansas a whopping 29.5 % field goal percentage, which seems almost impossible for a top five team to do against an opponent as bad as TCU was.
The one thing TCU did well outside of playing defense (or waiting for Kansas to miss shots, depending on how you look at it) was drawing fouls and shooting 38 free throws, fairly high for a college team that year. When the final buzzer went off and TCU took home a seven-point win at Fort Worth, fans, coaches, and players alike were so surprised that they did not even know what to do for a few minutes. Bill Self in his press conference hilariously said that his team’s first half performance was the worst he had ever seen in his career, and that they would have probably lost to the local Y.M.C.A. that night. When I heard that, I was almost ready to see the Topeka Y.M.C.A. against the Horned Frogs. Now, that would have been something.
#6- Royals 108, Lakers 107 (January 12, 1972)
No, the Kansas City Royals did not play basketball. That would be the Cincinnati Royals, whose best days with Oscar Robertson at the lead were long gone at this point. When they played their final season in Cincy in the 1971-72 season, the Royals had not had a winning record since 1966. Their third-year coach was Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, and their star player was Nate “Tiny” Archibald. They had just broken a 14-game losing streak by beating the Buffalo Braves when they faced a home stand against one of the greatest teams in NBA history: The 1971-72 Lakers.
Led by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, and the late great Bill Sharman (R.I.P.), the Lakers had just finished a streak of their own, but of the more memorable variety. After starting the season 6-3, L.A. went on a tear the likes of which the NBA has still yet to see, accumulating 33 wins in a row. That record would be accompanied by another milestone at the time, a 69-13 regular season record, and the only titles for Wilt and West in a Laker uniform. They had just had their streak broken three nights earlier against Kareem and Oscar’s Milwaukee Bucks in a game that is still replayed today on NBATV. We were quickly reminded of how awe-inspiring this feat was when the Heat, after their epically winning streak, still fell six wins short of the record.
After an easy victory over the Detroit Pistons, they continued their Midwest road trip over to Cincinnati to play the 10-win Royals, where a win seemed well within reach. But the Royals (particularly Archibald, Tom Van Arsdale, and Sam Lacey) played like mad men and squeezed out a 108-107 victory to give the Lakers just their fifth loss of the season. The story was so unbelievable that when Cincy native Dan Patrick, who was at the game, told his radio crew about it, they thought he was joking. Good luck finding footage, though. The only proof of the win is this box score. The following season, the Royals relocated to where else but Kansas City.
#5- Raptors 109, Bulls 108 (March 24, 1996) & Raptors 97, Bulls 89 (December 8, 1996)
I went ahead and coupled together these two games from back-to-back seasons because they were essentially the same teams each year. I was tempted to mention when the Bulls went on an 18-game winning streak during the ’96 season and lost to the Denver Nuggets, but the Nuggets finished that season with 35 wins and still had an All-Star center in Dikembe Mutombo. The Raptors, on the other hand, were an expansion team to launch the NBA’s entry into Canada (the other expansion team was the even more dreadful Vancouver Grizzlies). Toronto drafted mighty mite Damon Stoudamire as their first ever pick and surrounded him with former stars (Alvin Robertson, Walt Williams), a lot of marginal talent (Tracy Murray, Doug Christie) and the worst of the worst (Sharone Wright, Zan Tabak). Before drafting Vince Carter in 1998 and saving the franchise, the Raptors never won more than 30 games.
But in their first two seasons of existence, the Raptors pulled off not one but two upsets over the Chicago Bulls. And these weren’t just any Bulls teams. These were the 1996 and 1997 squads led by a returning Michael Jordan that won 72 games in one regular season and 69 games the other season! You knew something weird was in the air when the Bulls would visit the spacious Sky Dome for the first time. Jordan needed 38 points of his own to beat Toronto by 3 earlier that season. The second go-around was not as fortunate for the Bulls, who were an unreal 60-7 going into the game. Stoudamire had a fantastic night, going for 30 points and 11 assists while Murray poured in 23 points and 12 boards. Some guy named Carlos Rogers, who doesn’t play for the 49ers, scored 15 points, too. Steve Kerr missed a late three-pointer and another shot off the rebound by Jordan went in… but only after the buzzer sounded. Raptors head coach Brendan Malone after the game was almost beyond words. He still got fired after going 21-61.
Toronto’s victory at the Sky Dome eight months later over Chicago’s 69-13 team the following season was just as random as the previous one. Stoudamire was at it again, getting 31 points and 13 assists while the basketball Shrek himself Popeye Jones mounted 18 rebounds against Dennis Rodman. Ironically, the head coach for this upset was the same one who coached the Wizards to their upset over the Lakers in 2000, Darrell Walker. Rodman, after a dispute with one of the officials, was ejected from the game at a critical moment and Jordan surprisingly went scoreless in the second half. Toronto still needed a 34-point explosion in the fourth quarter to take the mighty Bulls down a second time. Unfortunately, a second upset couldn’t turn things around for Toronto that year, either. They still lost 52 games before really bottoming out in 1998 and losing 66 games. That was also Jordan’s last season with the Bulls, and on a March night, the eventual champions, wearing their black road unis, played at Sky Dome one more time. Jordan hit a jumper over Christie in the final seconds and the Bulls beat the Raptors 102-100. How fitting?
#4- Sixers 106, Bucks 104 (February 14, 1973)
It was the NBA’s version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I cannot even pretend to know anything about the actual game itself outside of what this box score tells me. All I can tell you is this straight fact: The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers were and remain to this day the worst regular season team in the history of the NBA. With Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, LeRoy Ellis, and (once again!) Tom Van Arsdale at the forefront, the Sixers won nine games, the only NBA team to have single digit wins in a full season (The Charlotte Bobcats won just seven games in 2012, but that was a lockout-shortened season).
The first head coach that season was Roy Rubin, who started out 0-15. Then came a six-game losing streak, followed up by a 14-game one. Then while in the midst of a 20-game losing streak during the New Year, Rubin was fired and replaced by Kevin Loughery, who would later become the last coach to win an ABA Title with Dr. J’s New York Nets. Loughery did no better, having lost his first 11 games as the head coach when they hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Bucks had won 56 games or more each of the previous three seasons and were well on their way for another 60-win campaign. Two seasons earlier, the Bucks had won the NBA title easily while breaking the Lakers’ historic winning streak in ’72 and going seven games with the Celtics in the NBA Finals in ’74. But on a Valentine’s Day night in the city of Brotherly Love, the worst team in NBA history gave the Spectrum crowd something to finally hold dear.
I have no clue how it actually went down, but the Sixers pulled out their 5th win of the season against Abdul-Jabbar and basketball royalty to end a 20-game losing streak. Ellis led the team with 36 while Bob Dandridge led the Bucks with 38. The Sixers were so inspired by that win that they actually went on to win four of their next 6 contests. Then they finished the season losing 13 games in a row. Imagine if the Sixers lost that incredible upset against the Bucks and they never got that shot of adrenaline during the season. Could they have won just five or six games instead of nine? The Sixers can thank the Bucks for that much, at least.
#3- Celtics 92, Bulls 85 (October 31, 1997)
Okay, this one is personal in some ways for me. It was on Halloween night in 1997, and the scariest thing I saw all night was not a scary movie or a wild costume or even a high school exam. The true horror was this opening night game, which aired on TNT, at the Fleet Center five months before the Austin Era began there at Wrestle Mania XIV. As a diehard Michael Jordan fan, I took a somber specialty in watching as much of the Bulls’ 1997-98 season as I could knowing that it was likely to be the last dance for Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson. But with Pippen out two months with a foot injury (and perhaps some hurt feelings over his contract dispute with GM Jerry Krause), Toni Kukoc nursing injuries of his own, and Dennis being, well, Dennis, it was up to His Airness to carry the Bulls in the first two months of the season until Scottie got back.
The Bulls’ first opponent that season was the Boston Celtics, and while the Celts would not be often considered heavy underdogs, you have to consider the times. For the previous season under M.L. Carr, the Celtics were at the bottom of the NBA standings, finishing with only 15 wins and the best chance at getting the #1 overall pick to take Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan. The Celtics lost the lottery to the Spurs and the rest was history for San Antonio. Boston then took a great risk by hiring as their new head man and GM one of my favorite college coaches ever, Kentucky’s Rick Pitino. Pitino was a great self-promoter and an embracer of unorthodox tactics like switching defenses throughout the game and relying on three-pointers. As a Kentucky fan, it was a double whammy as Pitino left his college throne behind temporarily for a job that many predicted would be too much for him to handle.
It turned out the doubters were right after all. Pitino’s Celtics teams are the red letter definition in today’s NBA on how to not assemble a franchise, punctuated by a sad verbal tirade that has become the stuff of legend. But on this night, it was Pitino’s squad that got the better end of the defending champs. Jordan’s Bulls roared out to a 32-12 lead at the end of the first quarter and Michael was doing it all. But thanks to a virtuoso performance (32 points, 8 boards, 5 steals, 2 blocks) from Antoine Walker, who played for Pitino at Kentucky along with teammates Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty, Boston started the second half with a 34-point third quarter, taking a sizeable lead against Chicago that they would never surrender. The Bulls would stumble to an 8-7 record to start the season before eventually righting the ship and collecting a 62-20 record by season’s end. The next three times Chicago played Boston that year, the Bulls beat them worse than previously, finishing it off with a 111-88 blow out in Chicago in March. But on an opening night when spooks and ghouls reign supreme, it was Rick Pitino’s Celtics who pulled off the biggest scare of all against a living dynasty.
#2- Greece 101, United States 95 (September 1, 2006)
This one is a slight stretching of the rules because it was not an NBA or college regular season game, but in terms of international play, this game holds tons of reverence. How odd it is that my second biggest non-playoff upset in basketball history happened during the pits of the basketball offseason in the U.S.? Not only that, it took place in Saitama, Japan and if you only follow NBA stats, you probably have never heard of it happening. It was the F.I.B.A. World Championships in 2006 and Team U.S.A. had just hired Jerry Colangelo to fix what could be considered a mess in the wake of the 2004 Athens Olympics. Not only did USA Basketball team (labeled by many as the Nightmare Team) lose three times before scratching out a bronze medal, but they lacked professionalism and class on the court in the process. Don’t even mention the abysmal 2002 World Championships team coached by George Karl which finished in sixth place.
So in came Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a former assistant on the ’92 Dream Team, to establish stability and forward thinking to USA Basketball for burgeoning talents like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Along with the three future Hall of Famers came talents like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Kirk Hinrich, Elton Brand, Joe Johnson, and Shane Battier. Nothing to sneeze at, for sure, and Team USA looked strong from the outset. Going into the semi-finals, the Americans only had one game in which they won by single digits, a 9-point win over Italy. But it was in the final four match-up with an experienced and finesse Greece team that things took a very sudden turn. The Greeks tortured Team USA with pick-and-roll, an old school NBA scheme, and high ball screens to clear space for their guards, which is now a go-to offense stateside.
Greece’s pick-and-roll game, fueled by point guard Theodoros Papaloukas, opened up a variety of three-point shots and layups under the basket, leading to an eye-popping 63% field goal percentage. Even the Americans at a cool 50% were no match for that kind of marksmanship that day. On the defensive end, Greece lulled the US into taking long shots by playing a 2-3 zone and preventing penetration with help defense on the interior. It stymied the Americans long enough for the Greeks to put up 63 points in just the second and third quarter alone. By the time the Americans started gaining ground in the fourth quarter, Greece had already mounted a double-digit lead and finished with a six-point stunner. The United States would make some good by beating Argentina in the bronze medal game, but the disappointment was well-worn on their faces when they fell to Greece.
Citizens and delegates in Greece were riotously overjoyed by the upset win over the dominant Americans, but like almost all of the games on this list, lightning did not strike twice for the Greeks. They would lose to Spain in the gold medal game and in a rematch in the Beijing Olympics two years later, Wade and Kobe Bryant turned Greece into the disgruntled recipients of the tournament’s most dazzling highlight. With most members of the ’06 squad gone, Greece did not even qualify to compete in the 2012 Olympics. But on that night in Japan, Greece exhibited to basketball fans everywhere, especially the United States, that to underestimate the European game as an unfit, lower class style of play is not only foolish but the seeds for an upset. Since that lesson-learning loss against Greece, the men’s national team has not lost a single game. They will never forget 9/1/06.
#1 Chaminade 77, Virginia 72 (December 23, 1982)
I started off the countdown with a college game and I top it off with one that might not meet the nodding approval of fans not as familiar with this game. But believe me when I write that this will probably go down at the end of the day as the greatest upset in the history of the sport, let alone college or even the NCAA Tournament. Imagine your intramural team beating the Duke Blue Devils, then you get the idea. As we were reaching Christmas Day in 1982, the Virginia Cavaliers, coached by Terry Holland, were 8-0 and the easy pick for #1 in the country. Led by a two-time National Player of the Year in 7’4” Ralph Sampson along with a slew of others, the Cavaliers were so good that they beat the “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston Cougars in Tokyo without Sampson, who was ill with pneumonia. In the much-hyped battle of the big men on December 11, Sampson downed Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team with a 68-63 win. They clinched a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and only lost to three schools all season long: Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels, Jim Valvano’s legendary N.C. State team that won the national title… and the Chaminade Silverswords.
These guys weren’t just underdogs but more like sea dogs. I would say that it’s a story so unthinkable that it could only happen in a movie, but most movies today demand decent budgets. Chaminade’s recruiting budget for their basketball program that year was 34 dollars. The head coach, Merv Lopes, was a part-timer on a $2,000 salary. Even coaches back then would laugh at that sum. The Catholic school, which had only 800 students, was formed in Honolulu in 1955. They played in the N.A.I.A., which is Division II level, and still shares a gym with a local high school in order to practice. Their facility was a shack, literally. The school was so obscure than officials were about to rename it the University of Honolulu in the coming weeks. Leading up to the Virginia game, the players practiced playing against the gigantic Sampson by having someone stand on a chair and wave a broom around the basket. It all sounds like something straight out of “The Sandlot.” The Silverswords felt pretty good after defeating the University of Hawaii, a Division I team, but had lost to Wayland Baptist the game before the Cavaliers touched down on the island.
In a strange twist of fate, it was a 6’7” player named Tony Randolph who took on the center spot and turned out to be Chaminade’s secret weapon. Randolph was not only a hard worker but had played plenty of ball against Sampson during his high school days in Virginia. He knew him so well back then that he reportedly at one time dated Sampson’s sister. This was the man who would be primarily guarding Sampson, but it truly was a team effort. A good three months before Jim Valvano made tournament magic by taking down Goliath, Chaminade implemented a similar defensive strategy to surround Sampson at nearly every point during the game and dare his teammates to make shots. Fortunately for the small school, the shots rarely fell, and as the game remained tight in the second half, the Blaisdell Arena crowd of 3500 fans became more and more inspired.
Virginia still outrebounded Chaminade by 20 in the game, but the shots continued to clank, Tim Dunham put in a thunderous alley oop over Sampson’s reach, and Terry Holland knew that a win had escaped them. Lopes was so stunned by the turn of events that he was convinced, even with a lead in the final minute, that they were still going to lose. Then the game ended and the 7’4” dragon had been slain by the valiant Silverswords. After the horn finally sounded and the local fans cheered in disbelief, Lopes called the win not an upset but “a miracle.” Virginia may have been the undisputed #1 team in the country, but not in Hawaii that night. What makes the game even more legendary is the fact that it is nearly impossible to find actual footage from the game outside of this dusted off news report from Tom Brokaw.
After the onrush of publicity from the shocking victory, Chaminade officials decided to keep the school name, which it remains to this day. The popularity from that game also helped create one of the most popular out-of-conference tournaments in college basketball for the past few decades, the Maui Invitational. Chaminade, as the host school, always gets a token spot in the tournament and will pull out a surprising win like the one they had over the University of Texas last season. When Rick Barnes’ team lost to the Silverswords, many young fans quickly claimed it was the biggest win in the school’s history. But the older fans know better than that. That is what makes regular season upsets so special in its own unique and mystifying way. Sometimes it is the game that does not really matter that much in the long run that turns out the most surprising of results. Most of these games I just listed are easily forgotten and can easily be dismissed as aberrations. But the great thing about aberrations is that they never have to share the spotlight and they always stand out from the crowd, no matter how big or how small. Just ask Ralph Sampson.