On December 12, 1998, I got to watch one of the best games of basketball I'd ever had the chance to see. The no. 1 ranked, undefeated UConn Huskies were visiting Pitt at the old Fitzgerald field House in North Oakland. Pitt was ranked 20, and we were really starting to get used to our game. We were a program with little respect on a national level, and our fans, new to the concept of having a decent team, were ruthless*. That we were playing Big East rivals only intensified things.
It was a hard-fought game, and as the second half wound down, we were still on top, having put the defensive stops on both star Richard Hamilton and rising PG Khalid El-Amin. There were nine seconds left, and we enjoyed a four point lead over the best ranked team in the country. Now, there are a few things I should clarify here. First, that El-Amin was more... rotund than your typical point guard and second, that the Fitzgerald Field House was roughly the size of a high school gym. It was an old and creaky building and everyone knew that in order to ever be taken seriously, Pitt would need a new home court.
Which isn't to say that we didn't take advantage of the accoustics of the small building. During game play, the slightest utterance from anyone in the stands could be heard quite clearly on the court. It was as opportune an environment a heckler has ever seen. Not only could you personally heckle opposing players, but you could probably get your commentary picked up by the national press who happened to be filming that game.
I've been to playoff games for the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Big 5. I've seen championships won and lost, and I've been used to obnoxious crowds for most of my life. I say this in no way to brag, or make myself sound like a bigger sports fan than I am, but to give you some perspective that the crowd attending that game was the most verbally abusive I have ever heard. Maybe it was because the players could hear everyone. Maybe it was because the Pitt student body had a bunch of dicks in it. I can only say it got bad.
Of course, it would get worse. Because in the last 9 seconds of that night, I watched what seemed like a rock solid lead just dissolve, starting with the worst inbounds pass I have ever seen. Luck was turned over completely, and at the game's final buzzer, we'd somehow blown the best chance I'd ever see of us knocking off a number 1 ranked team. El-Amin, instrumental in the win, jumped on top of the scoring table and taunted the crowd who responded with a barrage of soft drinks and profanity. It was a queasy moment for me, and it took me years to recover the confidence in our program lost in that game.
I never forgot that night. As depressing as it was, it also taught me that the game's never over. That night -and Reggie Miller- have encouraged me never to give up while there was even a little time left. Even if both of those instances resulted in my team losing, I knew that the favor could be repaid one day.
Last night, ten years and some change after that night, Pitt got back by defeating the No. 1 ranked UConn at their home stadium, the first time in history they've beaten the top team. It was a long time coming, and I'm just happy I got to watch it, especially after seeing that Pitt/'Nova game earlier this year.
So keep it up, guys, and don't get cocky. I want a second win on March 7.
*In retrospect, I should've been comparing Pitt fans to Philly fans a long, long time ago.