Final Four Rewind: An Upset for the Ages – Albuquerque 1983

Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the legendary Final Four upset that put New Mexico’s largest city on the map

Photo courtesy of Flintco
An Upset for the Ages in Albuquerque

When you mention Albuquerque, New Mexico to most people only two things come to mind—their popular balloon festival and as the host city for the legendary 1983 Final Four championship game between the North Carolina State Wolf Pack and the Houston Cougars, who were led by future NBA Hall of Fame players Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

North Carolina State’s legendary 63-62 upset of Houston to win the championship on Lorenzo Charles’ slam dunk as time expired has been documented by countless movies, documentaries, sound bites, commercials and sports television shows. That endless media coverage has led to millions of dollars of free exposure and publicity for host city Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico Lobos and their famous basketball arena “The Pit.”

“It is amazing to see your hometown basketball arena featured in every March Madness highlight and commercial,” says Scott Tinagero, a native of Albuquerque, who was born and raised in the city. “The people who were there at the game still talk about it to this day.”

Passion at “The Pit”

As much as the 1983 Final Four showcased New Mexico’s largest city, it also gave college basketball fans nationwide a chance to see the sport’s biggest games at “The Pit.”

By 1983, “The Pit” had earned a regional reputation as perhaps the country’s most unique and unusual basketball destination, with an elevation over a mile high, and a downward seating trajectory that makes players feel the glaring eyes of the crowd more like gladiators in an ancient Roman Coliseum than basketball players in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

Further adding to the unique player experience is that players run downhill to the basketball court from the locker room, and uphill off the court as they exit. Once the Houston Cougars realized that they were not going to be able to blow out heavy underdog North Carolina State, they must have felt the entire world was gazing down on them.

“1983 put us on the map and the whole world got to see the love affair between the city of Albuquerque and college basketball,” says Tinagero. “College basketball is really all we have, anybody who is anybody in Albuquerque has season tickets to the Lobos, that is how it was, is and always will be.”

A Legendary Legacy – 35 Years Later

North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano is now known for the charity foundation that has bared his name for over a quarter-century and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research; but before Albuquerque he was not even one of the top three well-known coaches in his own Atlantic Coast Conference, well-behind popular coaches Dean Smith at North Carolina, Lefty Driesell at Maryland and Mike Kyseswski at Duke.

After the Wolf Pack’s impossible victory, beating Houston’s ‘Phi Slamma Jamma’ on a slam dunk, Valvano’s circling the court at The Pit looking for a player to hug vaulted him to perhaps the most memorable moment in the 80-year history of the NCAA tournament.

“It is cool to have your hometown affiliated with such a popular moment that is connected to optimism and joy,” says Tinagero. “With all the money involved in the Final Four now it will probably never come back to Albuquerque, but we will always have 1983 as our one shining moment.”