The night David Barrett’s life would change forever, he was sitting on a stool at the Nightcap, an old tavern in Lansing, Mich.
The year was 1987, the game was Indiana-Syracuse for the national championship, and the beer was ... well, Barrett can’t really remember, only that it would have been cheap. He was 31, an aspiring musician, playing his guitar at dives and clubs, just hoping to make a living.
The game was a true classic, everything about it. The teams, the coaches, the finish. Indiana’s Keith Smart hit a baseline jumper with 4 seconds left that gave Indiana a thrilling 74-73 victory. Soon, it would be time for CBS to experiment with a new ending to its NCAA Tournament coverage. Barrett knew it was coming, but he didn’t know how the producers were going to use the song he wrote.
Sure enough, as the first credits rolled and Indiana players cut down the nets, a piano started to play. When the credits stopped, a montage began, and that’s when Barrett heard it: His voice, his song, broadcast for millions.
The ball is tipped
and there you are
you’re running for your life
you’re a shooting star
As "One Shining Moment" blared through the Nightcap, Barrett nearly fell out of his stool. The song was heavenly.
"One Shining Moment was a unique convergence of opportunity," Barrett says. "I wrote the song without career designs. It was one of 10 that I’d written that month. I just happened to send it to a buddy."
Barrett’s is a March story. People "just happen to" do a lot of things in March, kind of like how Smart just happened to make his shot. Call it destiny, call it fate, but mostly, call it big.
If the NCAA Tournament has one defining characteristic, it is size. The tourney is so big that, somewhere along the way, it was nicknamed "The Big Dance," and it would be wrong to assume that former Utah coach Rick Majerus had anything to do with that.
The name fits because, since that magical evening 20 years ago, the tournament has ballooned into one of the most important events in America. Nothing is bigger or madder or more iconic than March in America.
You can find the first rendition of Barrett’s masterpiece on YouTube if you search for "1987 One Shining Moment." The montage is telling. In the video, you’ll see more images of former Indiana coach Bob Knight than any other.
First, Knight pounds a telephone on the scorers table with his fist. Next, the General shows happiness, pumping that same fist. In the last shot, Knight is riled up and swings his arm in frustration.
You could say that Knight is featured more only because his team won the national title, but that would be ignoring the truth. We love March Madness because of the big personalities. Knight’s antics would have been in the montage, win or lose.
If "One Shining Moment" were around in 1983, it would have shown former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano after his Wolfpack improbably won the national championship, running around the court, looking for somebody to hug. Valvano may have been the ultimate March coach, motivating his North Carolina State teams to a 14-6 record in the tournament.
If the song were around in ’85, former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino would have been the star. Massimino was famous for yelling more at his own assistants and players than at the refs, but somehow, he got his eighth-seeded Wildcats to believe. They knocked off No. 1 Georgetown in the title game for one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
"Jimmy V and Rollie were Italians," ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale says. "They would pour their emotion out. You could feel that electricity and that energy. It really created quite an interest level for many a fan. It’s the enthusiasm, acting like the kid that many of us are."
Speaking of kids, remember that baggy-shorts-wearing and big-talking crew from Michigan in the early ’90s? Of course, you do. When it comes to big personalities, the Fab Five were rock stars. And they never even won a national title.
Now, how many members of Michigan’s 1989 team -- you know, the not-so-brash group that actually won the national championship -- do you remember? Thought so.
There have been plenty of big personalities over the years, none bigger than Knight’s. But if Knight weren’t a successful March coach, his act would have grown pretty tired. Smart says that Knight was a different coach in March.
"Sometimes," Smart says, "you can overcoach. We got into the tournament, and coach Knight stepped back. He wasn’t the same guy who was driving you hard. We were a good basketball team. He stepped back and allowed us to play."
In the national title game, it wasn’t that easy for Smart. But luckily, in the second half, Knight allowed him a chance to seize that one shining moment.
Smart’s shot was the final image of the ’87 montage, and rightfully so. The kid had hit the biggest shot of his life, a shot every boy or girl who’s picked up a basketball has practiced in the backyard or in their head.
Smart had practiced "the countdown" many times growing up in Baton Rouge, La. He’d shoot a tennis ball at a milk-carton basket in his bedroom, and he’d usually make it. The only problem was, Smart was a shrimp. His high school coaches gave up on him his junior year, cutting Smart, who was only 5 feet 3.
Smart grew to 5-6 and made the team his senior year, but he played only three games because of injury. His basketball career appeared to be over. But that summer, after graduating, Smart began to sprout. He noticed that his shorts kept moving higher and higher up his legs, and it wasn’t that they were shrinking in the laundry. By the end of that summer, he was 6-1.
Still, he didn’t think much of it. His first year out of school, he worked at a McDonald’s while playing ball on the side at a local gym. The man who ran the gym noticed Smart’s improving game and had some connections at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He asked Smart whether he would like to play college basketball, and Smart, of course, decided he had better stop flipping burgers.
Smart played two years at Garden City before Knight got wind of him and signed him. Smart would become a vital part of Indiana’s run to the national title game against Syracuse.
That night, playing at the Superdome -- right down the road from his hometown -- Smart struggled mightily in the first half, scoring just four points. At one point in the second half, Knight pulled Smart from the game after a turnover. Then, Knight approached Smart and said, "I’m giving you a couple of minutes to go in and play. If I take you out, I can’t use you the rest of the game."
Knight didn’t remove Smart again. Smart sliced through the defense time and again for baskets. Smart pulled the Hoosiers within 73-72, and then they got a stop. Indiana had one possession to win it all, and here’s the crazy thing: The Hoosiers didn’t draw up a play. Knight instructed them to simply run their motion offense. Indiana’s Darryl Thomas saw Smart open and passed the ball. Then, Smart’s instincts took over.
"I don’t remember seeing the fans, I don’t remember hearing anything, I remember playing as if I was by myself and had all the time in the world to make the right decision," Smart says. "The shot went in, I heard all the noise, and things started to come back in color."
Smart finished the game with 21 points, 17 in the second half, and he was chosen the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But, most important, he made what would forever be called "the shot."
We just might love big shots in March more than big personalities. Even Smart has his favorites from the last 20 years -- Christian Laettner’s fadeaway jumper for Duke that downed Kentucky in ’92, Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast layup for UCLA that stunned Missouri in ’95 and Bryce Drew’s three-pointer at the buzzer for Valparaiso that upset Ole Miss in 1998.
Those kinds of shots live on forever. Just ask Smart.
"Not a day goes by that I don’t hear about it," says Smart, now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. "It comes up every day in my travels. When I check into my hotel, someone will say, ‘I remember that shot. This is what I was doing.’ "
Has Smart ever thought about life had he missed?
"We joke about that all the time," Smart says. "Had that shot not gone down, we wouldn’t be having this interview right now."
The ’87 montage wouldn’t be complete without an image of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim falling off the bench in agony.
Let’s revisit that question from before: What if Smart had missed? Well, for starters, Boeheim and his program wouldn’t have ever been labeled a March flop. That Syracuse roster was packed with NBA talents such as Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly. The thought was, they should have beaten a much more pedestrian Indiana team.
Boeheim got the blame. Four years went by, and on the morning the tournament began in 1991, Boeheim was selected the nation’s worst tournament coach by The National, a now-defunct sports newspaper. That night, Boeheim’s Orangemen, led by star Billy Owens, became the first No. 2 seed to fall to a No. 15 seed when they lost to the little-known Richmond Spiders, 73-69.
The sky was falling, but if Boeheim had a ring from ’87, the fallout would have been easier to handle. Being a flop isn’t easy. Part of that is because, truthfully, we as fans love a big flopper. And March is all about seeing the next giant fall. Nothing is more fun than ribbing a team that can’t get it done at the end of the season. Syracuse and Arizona were known as the biggest flops for years until they won titles in 2003 and 1997, respectively.
Owens, who scored 22 points in the Richmond debacle, said he felt, in a way, as if he had won the national championship along with Carmelo Anthony.
"I was so relieved for Boeheim," says Owens, who lives in Philadelphia and wants to get into coaching. "All the players he had there, and he only got one. It’s mind-boggling. We can only blame ourselves for not making noise in the NCAA Tournament. Point the finger at me. I was the No. 1 high school player in the country. I just couldn’t get the job done when I was at Syracuse."
Plenty of people, even family members, have pointed the finger at Owens. They still do.
"I got into some fistfights and wrestling matches with the family," Owens says. "It really, really, really bothers me. It’s still with me today because they always mention it around tournament time.
"Honestly, I wish I could do it all over again."
Today’s Kansas’ players should listen to Owens. After being upset in the first round two straight years, Kansas is becoming the new Arizona, the new Syracuse. Another quick exit, and the Jayhawks are headed to the Flop Hall of Fame.
"We lost some games we shouldn’t have lost," KU guard Russell Robinson says. "We can’t do anything about it now other than not let it happen again."
David Barrett believes that he and Keith Smart will be forever linked.
Just one year before, Barrett watched the 1986 Duke-Louisville final at another bar, drinking the same cheap beer, wondering where his life was headed. Smart watched that game from his dorm in Garden City. He still hadn’t committed to Indiana. Barrett and Smart took separate journeys over the next year, but both would claim their one shining moment.
Was that really Barrett’s song accompanying so many big moments? Months earlier, Barrett wrote the song on a napkin, inspired by watching Larry Bird highlights on TV. He recorded it and sent it off to his longtime friend, Armen Keteyian, who was then writing for Sports Illustrated.
He didn’t actually expect Keteyian to do anything with the song, but Keteyian got it in the hands of CBS Sports creative director Doug Towey, who was also getting songs from name-brand acts. But when Towey heard Barrett’s song, he knew it was perfect. They tried to turn it into a Super Bowl song, but in the end, "the ball is kicked, and there you are" just didn’t feel right.
How big is the Big Dance? Barrett can tell you. After the song played for the first time, the inquiries started to come in, and his career took off. Now, he composes scores full time from his studio in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"There’s a whole universe of people out there doing what I was doing, making a living, not getting rich, not getting poor," Barrett says. "Literally it was like I was walking around in a dark room stubbing my toe, and somebody turned the light on."
Now, 20 years later, Barrett takes his daughters to the Final Four every year. He watches "One Shining Moment" on the Jumbotron, a living testament to just how big March can make you.