Evin Demirel – Can Underdog Hogs Face Tar Heels, Snag Miracle Win Again?


Visit Evin's Author PageWith a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line, taking out the North Carolina Tar Heels will be a tall task. But it won’t be as tall as the challenge Arkansas faced when Michael Jordan and his No. 1 Tar Heels came to Pine Bluff more than 31 years ago. Don’t expect it to be as hilarious, either…

Jim Rasco is, without question, a Razorback superfan. 

The Little Rock accountant has been friends with the likes of Sidney Moncrief and Eddie Sutton since the late 1970s. Few people know the history of the Razorback basketball or football program better. He’s spent hours discussing our state’s sports legacies with the legends who actually made the magic happen. And, every once in a while, he steps into that tradition as a player, too. 

That’s exactly what happened in 1984, on the weekend of the greatest Arkansas-North Carolina basketball game to date.

 * * *

Rasco and his friend Jay Dickey, a former UA tennis coach, were ready to be Razorback coach Eddie Sutton’s chauffeurs. It was Saturday, February 11, and the plan was to pick up the Hogs basketball team at the Pine Bluff airport on the eve of the team’s biggest game of the year at that town’s convention center arena. The Tar Heels, led by junior Michael Jordan, senior Sam Perkins and sophomore Brad Daugherty, were undefeated and steamrolling all comers.

The Hogs, then No. 15 in the nation, knew the game would be far from a cakewalk. But that didn’t mean sweets were out of the question. Dickey, later a U.S. representative from Arkansas’ 4th district,  owned a Baskin-Robbins in Pine Bluff, Rasco recalled. After picking up the team Saturday afternoon, they were going to host them a bit at Dickey’s home and before heading out for ice cream.

Unfortunately, the Hogs didn’t show up at all that day.

The team had played a Saturday game against SMU in Dallas, and rough, rainy weather kept their plane grounded until Sunday morning. Game time was at 11:10 a.m.  “Coach got us all up about 6 a.m.,” former Razorback player Charles Balentine recalled in an interview with Arkansas Fight. “We were all downstairs for breakfast, and the pilots were there, and they said, “Guys, I gotta tell you all: The weather didn’t get any better. It’s going to be a bad flight.’”

He wasn’t kidding.

“That was the longest hour and 10 minute flight that I have ever been on. We’d go up, down — people were throwing up. The stewardesses couldn’t get up and serve us. The pilot and co-pilot, you could hear them talking. Everybody was pretty bad off. We arrived at the [Pine Bluff] airport around 9:30 or so.”

Rasco and Dickey picked them up and drove them to the arena. They got in about 40 minutes before tip-off.  “Going into the game, we were all kind of weary,” Balentine said.  “Many of us were still sick from the flight when we got to the arena. We immediately went out and did our warm-ups.” Then back to the locker room.

Balentine told the Pine Bluff Commercial he recalls Sutton scribbling on the chalkboard, barking out assignments. “‘Charles you got this guy, Joe you got this guy.’ We didn’t have time to prepare.”

Neither, apparently, did the nation’s top college basketball color commentator.

NBC Sports had sent its best broadcasting duo, Dick Enberg and former Marquette coach Al McGuire, to call the game for a national audience. They had just flown in from calling another game and McGuire appeared a bit disorganized in trying to locate the Arkansas scouting report in his Blue Ribbon Yearbook.

Rasco recalled seeing McGuire “sitting on this little table, up against press row and he’s got a little bitty spiral notebook.” McGuire pulled out what he thought was a Razorback report, but found out he’d lost it. Instead, he had info on the game he’d called the day before. “He looks at it a moment, says ‘Virginia? Shit!’ real loud, and throws his piece of paper up in the air,” Rasco recalled.

“Well, about that time he realizes he doesn’t have the Arkansas page, this little cameraman chest bumps me and says ‘Can I help you?’ I said ‘No, you can’t help me, but if Coach McGuire needs to know anything about the Arkansas team, I can tell him.’”

“McGuire just looks up, grabs me by the wrist and pulls me down. So we’re sitting on the floor, right before he’s going to be on the air. He saysAl mcguire calling tarheels something like ‘OK, I need to know about the Arkansas players. He says ‘Tell me about Alvin Robinson.’ I say ‘Well first, coach, his name is Alvin Robertson. You know, like Oscar Robertson.’”

I tell him whatever pops into my head about Alvin.  And then he asks ‘Well, how about Joe Kleine?’ And I say, ‘Well he’s a great free throw shooter. That’s what popped into my mind. And, sure enough, that day Joe goes 10 for 10 at the foul line.’

[Kleine recalls he didn’t feel much pressure at all. Mainly because this was the Hogs’ third game in four days, and they had just sewn up more important wins – in terms of conference standing – at Texas A&M and SMU. Ballentine adds, “I had always had butterflies, but that particular game, I didn’t. None of us did,” he told Arkansas Fight. “We were trying to get ourselves together because it was a tough flight up. I think it kind of helped us a little bit and took our minds off the pressure on us to win.”]

Back on the floor, Rasco and McGuire were going through Arkansas’ rotation players – guys like LeRoy Sutton and Balentine. At some point, McGuire asked about the guards, specifically Ricky Norton.

Rasco recalled telling him “‘Norton is Arkansas’ best outside shooter since Delph.’ He looks at me and says ‘Who?’ I said ‘Marvin Delph, coach, you know, you named them – the Triplets. Ron Brewer, Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph.’”

“He stares at me, gives me a very blank look and then says ‘Oh yeah’ before writing ‘Delf’ on his notepad.” The phrase had meant the world to Arkansans in 1978, but apparently had been just a throwaway line to the mad genius who’d coined it.

Later, Rasco told legendary Arkansas sportswriter Orville Henry (one of his few sports clients) this story. Henry said, “‘Oh [McGuire] was just kidding you. And I said ‘No, he was as serious as can be.’”

Not long into Rasco’s relaying of Razorback recon, Rick Schaeffer, then Arkansas’ sports information director, walked by. “He says ‘Rasco, I sure hope you’re telling him the right thing.’ And he kind of shakes his head like ‘What are you doing down on the floor?’”

* * *

Considering the talent and height the Tar Heels had at their disposal, the game went just about as well as Arkansas could have hoped. 

North Carolina led 64-63 with 29 seconds left in the game. Arkansas ball. No timeouts. The Hogs were going to their All-American guard. “The plan was to clear out and let Alvin take Steve Hale one-on-one,” Ballentine told the Pine Bluff Commercial. “When Alvin got the ball, they immediately double-teamed him.”

Hale was in the game because of an injured Kenny Smith.

Robertson got the ball back just outside the key with nine seconds left, with Hale heavily on him. “Undefeated team,” McGuire said on the call. “It can all end right here. There hasn’t been an undefeated team since 1976, Indiana.”

It appeared as if Robertson was going to shoot a leaner, but at the last second he passed the ball to Ballentine cutting down the baseline.

Balentine gathered it with his left hand and a dribble later was flicking in an eight-footer over the outstretched arms of 6’9” Sam Perkins. A few seconds remained. The Tar Heels still had one more shot.

That came from Hale, a freshman guard,  in the form of a twisting, turn-around 18-foot jumper over the outstretched arms of a soaring Joe Kleine. It clanged off the side of the rim, triggering a court flooding from a not-insignificant portion of the 7,529 fans in attendance.

“Pandemonium in Pine Bluff!,” Enberg yelled. North Carolina head coach Dean Smith and his players wanted no part of the celebratory mosh pit. They rushed off the court, not shaking hands but preserving limbs. Michael Jordan never forgot the loss.

Kleine, who played 15 years in the NBA, recalled MJ bringing it up every now and then in later years “because it pissed him off.”

“I got great joy out of that,” Kleine said, chuckling.

Jordan made sure to mention it on the court in the spring of 1993, soon after North Carolina beat Arkansas in that NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. The Bulls were playing in Boston and Kleine, then a Celtic, knew Jordan would let him know. “I knew at some point we were gonna cross paths, and he was gonna fire off.”

Sure enough, “when I was out there on the floor, I got to hear about that crap.”

“I just looked at him and said ‘Yeah, that kind of reminds me of ‘84.’ We just kind of looked at each other and smiled.”

The ‘84 UNC win is now a beloved part of Razorback lore, and it remains the most memorable part of the program’s Pine Bluff glory years.

The court there was rocking long after the final buzzer and so, unfortunately, was the plane on the ride back to Fayetteville, Balentine told Arkansas Fight. But this time people were far less queasy.

“When we looped around Fayetteville, the clouds broke, and the sun came out. We could see – I bet there were 10,000 fans at the airport.

When we landed, Coach said, “Guys, you realize what we’ve done – we just knocked off the number one team in the nation, and you guys are heroes to the state of Arkansas.”

People were everywhere. The police tried to get ‘em – they rushed the airplane. We were high-fiving people going into the airport. People were clapping. It was just one of those moments where you could feel that our team had done something special for the state.’”

This weekend, the Razorbacks can make similar memories for a new generation.

* * *

Follow Evin Demirel on Twitter and through his blog, where Joe Kleine shares thoughts on this year’s UA-UNC game, Bobby Portis’ post game and his future as a UALR coach.

Also, if you want to have a Flashback Friday ‘80s party in your head, watch this vintage UNC highlights video]

Tags: , , , ,