To be honest, I’m not sure how that’s possible. I mean, it all remains so fresh and real. The smells, the sights, the emotions. I am 19-years old, and my knees are shaking. I am 19-years old, and I believe the University of Delaware is about to shock Cincinnati in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. I am 19-years old, sitting courtside at Dayton Arena, awaiting the miracle.
It was March 20, 1992. I was an assistant sports editor at my college newspaper, The Review. For the entire season, I was one of two students assigned to cover the Blue Hens men’s basketball team. As anyone from that time period will tell you, it was a marvelous run. Beyond marvelous. For years and years, Newark, Del. had been a hoops shitbed. Losing season. Another losing season. Another losing season. The state of Delaware, first to ratify the Constitution, had never had a team qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Hens’ games were played in the awful, antiquated Delaware Field House, which basically featured a rubberized court inside the track. The lighting was dreadful, the surface fitting of a midwestern junior high school. A joke. Throughout the decades, a crowd of 500 was considered big.
Then, in 1991-92, something snapped. The Hens won. And won. And won. They were charismatic. And exciting. And breathtaking. Their star forward, a 6-8 senior named Alexander Coles, was one of the nation’s top high jumpers. In an era before everyone with springs was practicing new and inventive dunks, he was dazzling us with new and inventive dunks. Backward, windmill, odd angles. The center, a gangly 6-11 shot blocker named Spencer Dunkley, came from Wolverhampton, England. He was money for an oddball quote; wacky words; some goofy thought. Oh, and he could play. The team had a shooting guard, Anthony (Sweet) Wright, who always seemed to be surrounded by 20 females. The small forward, Mark Murray, was as smooth as polished glass. The first two guys off the bench were Rick Deadwyler and Kevin Blackhurst, a pair of skinny, 6-2-ish gunners who, at any moment, went on three-point explosions. And, of course, there was Brian Pearl, the freshman point guard from York, Pa. At the time, Pearl was the most hyped recruit in school history—an all-state player who had been recruited by big schools like LaSalle(!) and, word had it, even … Rutgers(!).
I digress. The Hens rolled through the season, compiling a 27-4 season that included wins over, well, no big-name opponents (literally, the best team they beat was probably Central Florida). But, to us, that didn’t matter. They played a flashy, up-tempo style; pushed the ball whenever possible; dunked and twisted and swirled and dazzled. They were fun guys; happy-go-lucky and peppy and engaging. Plus, they were accesible, times 1,000. Nowadays, too many colleges ward off their athletic stars, as if they were living in a gated community. Athletes have their own dorms, their own facilities, their own tutors and, sometimes, their own teachers and dining halls. At Delaware, there was none of that. It was one big community. And, as the team kept winning, the crowds swelled. Soon, all anyone was talking about was Blue Hen basketball. At a I-AA football powerhouse, this was no small accomplishment.
On March 11, 1992, 2,864 fans packed the Delaware Field House to watch Drexel and Delaware play in the North Atlantic Conference title game. The clash was to be broadcast live on ESPN, and before the game I secured an exclusive(!) interview with Tom Mees (RIP), the ex-Hen who would be calling the game. I remember sitting with him, all nervous and anxious. He was talking about how ludicrous it was … the idea of Delaware basketball being any, well, good. And yet, there we were.
That night, I sat courtside at my little media seat and watched the Hens crush Drexel, 92-68. It was a wedding and a Bar Mitzvah and a high school reunion and a New Year’s celebration rolled into one. When the final buzzer sounded, students rushed the court. Deadwyler, the most charismatic athlete I have ever covered, sat atop a basket, Cabbage Patching. The players gathered together, hugging, jumping up and down, swaying. A couple of days later, many of us gathered in the Scrounge for the selection show, anxious to see who the Hens would play (Steve Lubas, a seldon-used senior center, appeared in a tuxedo. “We’re going dancing,” he explained). When CINCINNATI-DELAWARE popped up, everyone screamed.
In the days leading up to the game, an irrational confidence overtook Newark. The local newspaper polled different experts, many of whom picked the Hens in an upset. I remember the governor, a nice man named Mike Castle, explaining why Delaware would win. The Hens had size. Speed. Toughness. They’d only lost three games (granted, those loses were to Delaware State, Bucknell and Rutgers—by, ahem, 23). They were on a roll. An incredible roll. A remarkable roll. Blue Hen fever, baby! Gooooooo Hens!
Man, it was bad. At tipoff, I was shaking. My hands. My knees. Reporters are taught to be impartial, and in the ensuing years I’ve never rooted for a team to win or lose. But, damn, I wanted Delaware to win.
For a couple of minutes, the game was close. Well, close-ish. Delaware trailed 18-12 with 10:02 left, but even a 19-year-old assistant sports editor of a student newspaper could tell this wasn’t working. Coles (who would be held to 2 points on 1-for-8 shooting) and Dunkley, two of the team’s most aggressive players, looked passive and timid. The Bearcats defense—which pressed and pressed and pressed—was as suffocating as anything I’d ever seen. Delaware had quick players. But the Bearcats were quick and fast. Their point guard, a runt named Nick Van Exel, was dashing left and right, up and down. A forward named Herb Jones was everywhere. The Bearcats talked shit and wore white and were, truth be told, in another league. By halftime it was 38-21, and hope was pretty much dead.
Even when the Hens cut the lead to 53-42, there wasn’t life. I still recall looking over at the bench and seeing Steve Steinwedel, the Delaware coach, holding his head in his hands. Years later, I was told that body language—beaten, defeated—changed the way the athletic department felt about the man. I don’t know, but his time in Newark was, ultimately, short lived. Which was sad, because for all his sullenness, the man could flat-out coach.
By the time the game ended and the Hens were wiped off the floor, I was crushed. And yet, here’s the beautiful thing: Delaware’s players were not. Oh, they were down, and sad, and hurt. But I’ll always recall Deadwyler—smiling, peppy—guaranteeing the media that the Hens would return the following year.
Which they did.