PEMBROKE — Through North Carolina State basketball’s miracle run to the national championship in 1983, many of the Wolfpack’s games came down to the final shot, including several through both the ACC and NCAA tournaments where they trailed down the stretch, only to pull out an improbable victory.
But according to one of the team’s stars, Dereck Whittenburg, no matter how dire the situation looked the Wolfpack never thought about the possibility their run could be over, and never lost the confidence that they would succeed.
Whittenburg discussed the 1983 championship in an interview Saturday as part of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s virtual Cash Bash fundraiser.
“Once you start to win four or five in a row, you just expect to win,” Whittenburg said. “So it’s not even a thought. Even the first game (of the NCAA Tournament against) Pepperdine, overtime, down six, no 3-pointer, no shot clock, you’d think the game was over and Pepperdine was going to win. We never thought about it, we executed the game plan … we ended up winning that game in double-overtime. I don’t think we ever thought that we were going to lose a game once we got on that roll.”
The Wolfpack showed plenty of resilience, overcoming 10 regular-season losses to win their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the ACC, then winning the national tournament as well. But Whittenburg in particular had to overcome some adversity during the championship season, recovering from a broken foot in January to come back and lead the Wolfpack through the postseason.
The lesser-known backstory is that Whittenburg had experienced the same injury, a broken fifth metatarsal, on the opposite foot in high school, coming back to lead DeMatha Catholic to a Washington, D.C. city championship.
“(It was) déjà vu, he said. “I’d been through it before. Having that experience, and being confident about dealing with adversity, mentally I was prepared to go through it. Hung in there, kept the right attitude.”
The team was coached by Jim Valvano, who became legendary after the Wolfpack’s run. While Valvano is now part of the heritage of N.C. State basketball, Whittenburg said it was the existing tradition and culture, built under previous coaches Everett Case and Norm Sloan, that brought Valvano to the Raleigh campus in 1980.
“Two ideas that Jim came in right away: he embraced the culture and he embraced the history of N.C. State,” Whittenburg said. “That’s one of the reasons why he was so passionate, he wanted to win, and that was why he wanted to coach at N.C. State, he wanted to be a part of that great history at N.C. State.”
The ‘83 team added to that history, doing so by beating Houston in a classic championship game. While Houston was heavily favored, the Wolfpack were far from awestruck by the Cougars after playing just as strong of competition constantly in the ACC.
“We respected them, they were a good team, but we wasn’t in awe,” Whittenburg said. “We’d played against Ralph Sampson for four years, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, all these great players of the ACC. We were prepared, we were mentally tough and we were ready.”
In the iconic final play of the game, Whittenburg attempted a 30-foot shot — which 37 years later he says, with a wink, was a pass — which came up short, before Lorenzo Charles caught the descending ball and dunked it at the buzzer for a 54-52 victory.
“We practiced all the time about time and score situations for the end of the game, so we were prepared mentally,” Whittenburg said. “We knew we had to take the last shot. When it gets down to about 10 seconds, you’ve got a clock in your head, you know you’ve got to make a play.
“When I received the ball, Benny Anderson almost stole it, but that clock in my head, I didn’t see the clock, but I knew there was time. I lofted that beautiful ‘pass’ to Lorenzo Charles and he dunks it in, and we just shocked the world.”
Whittenburg was executive producer for the popular ESPN film “Survive and Advance,” which chronicled the Wolfpack’s run and it’s cultural impact since, including Jim Valvano’s cancer battle and legacy.
“It’s not just about the (Houston) game, but the journey, all the things that happened that season,” Whittenburg said. “Our leader and the guy with the vision and dream from day one, Jim Valvano, he was the leader and we believed in him. We went through so many ups and downs during that season, and he held us together.”
Whittenburg is now using the “survive and advance” montra as a positive message during the national adversities of 2020.
“It’s a time to stay together, persevere, and like my film, ‘Survive and Advance,’ and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” he said.
Whittenburg reminded viewers about the importance of college scholarships, which the fundraiser was for, using his own experience as an example.
“I’m a first-generation (college) graduate, and having that opportunity to earn a scholarship and come to N.C. State is a dream come true,” he said. “What an opportunity, and people don’t talk about this: the education and the connections I received from N.C. State, with all the great relationships and the professors and the administration I had relationships with, is priceless.”
The program featuring Whittenburg’s interview concluded the five-day virtual Cash Bash event, and also included a message from UNCP athletic director Dick Christy, who said afterward that over $50,000 was raised during the event.
“What a week it’s been,” Christy said. “We cannot thank you enough for your participation this week, and for your tremendous financial support of our students. We thank you, but more importantly they thank you, and I hope you’ll get to see that look of appreciation when we get back to the field this spring.”
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.