Time was ticking down to a precious few seconds in the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship game between Houston and North Carolina State..
Underdog N.C. State had the ball with the game tied at 52 and was racing up the court as the officiating crew of Hank Nichols, Joe Forte and Paul Housman kept an eye on the action. Almost 30 feet from the basket, N.C. State’s Dereck Whittenburg threw up a desperation shot that fell short of the rim only to have teammate Lorenzo Charles grab the ball and slam it into the hoop to give his team a 54-52 win. The unlikely ending set off a mad celebration, one that left us lasting footage of not only the winning dunk but also N.C. State coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug. Valvano wasn’t going to hug Nichols, Forte and Housman as they had quickly left the court.
“Truth was, it wasn’t that good of a game,” Nichols said, as indicated by the low final score. “Houston got a sizeable lead, N.C. State started fouling in the second half and Houston couldn’t make their free throws.” All of a sudden it was tied and N.C. State had a chance to win.
Nichols, now 84, recalled running with the teams down court for the winning shot. “I was watching Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon under the hoop because he was a great shot-blocker and I was thinking that I might have to be ready for a possible goaltending call,” Nichols said. But he wouldn’t have to make that call, or any, as the shot by Whittenburg clearly fell far short of the hoop and Charles was able to catch it and slam the ball in. “I remember feeling relief that it was a simple no-call,” he said.
His crewmate and buddy Forte also had a great view of the final shot. “I was to the side of the court and had a perfect view of the shot and it came nowhere near the hoop, which was good for us,” Forte said. “We didn’t stick around after the game ended but I do remember seeing Valvano running around. We checked with the scorer’s table and got into the locker room fast.”
The game was played at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. on April 4, 1983, and no one thought N.C. State had any chance of upsetting a team that was led by future NBA star and Hall of Famer Olajuwon. Houston, a heavy favorite, was top-ranked and the No. 1 seed while 10-loss N.C. State got into the tournament only by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and was a No. 6 seed. But the Wolfpack continued its string of upsets in the NCAA tournament, beating Georgia in one Final Four game, while Houston (nicknamed Phi Slama Jama) topped Louisville in the other.
Housman, who died in 2019, Nichols and Forte had a back story of their own, Forte said. The three were working at different sites in the initial rounds of the NCAA tournament. When it came time to assemble a crew for the Mideast Region finals in Knoxville, Tenn., the NCAA tabbed the three as a crew.
Forte, now 76, went on to work in the NBA for 22 years and lives in Eatonton, Ga. He now serves as a men’s basketball officials coordinator for Conference Carolinas. When he got the call to go to the regional final at the University of Tennessee with Nichols and Housman, he chuckled.“We were friends and had worked the ACC together,” he said. “I made a bold statement at the time that we should keep our bags packed after the regionals because we were going to Albuquerque.”
While Nichols and Housman had their doubts the NCAA would send what was basically an ACC crew to do the Final Four with N.C. State involved, Forte stuck to his prediction. Then, he got the call from the NCAA that the three men were indeed headed to Albuquerque for the Final Four. “Vic Bubus, the NCAA tournament committee chairman at the time, was a great man,” Forte said. “I think he probably told the other committee members, ‘Look, this is the best crew and I feel comfortable having them work together in the Final Four.’ I don’t know entirely what went into the selection process, but I really did think we were the best crew to send and had earned it after the regionals.”
Nichols also knew the crew earned the Final Four no matter what conference they were primarily aligned with during the regular season. “We had worked a number of games together and in many ways it was a very relaxed feeling that I had when I heard we were selected for the Final Four,” he said. “I told myself that there was nothing to worry about because I was working with two of the best refs in the country.”
Nichols recalled that while there was some chatter from Houston fans and on talk shows about the “ACC crew” working the championship game, the three just put their heads down and knew they were in the right place at the right time. “Guy Lewis (the Houston head coach) didn’t say a word about it,” Nichols said. “He knew we were the most competent crew the NCAA had at that time.”
Nichols later became the first NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. He officiated 10 Final Fours and was the first official to work both the NIT and NCAA championship game in a single year.
Like Nichols, Forte, who officiated four Finals Fours and one other championship game, recalled a smooth final contest, except for the number of fouls N.C. State committed to send Houston to the free-throw line. “People don’t understand that in championship games referees usually don’t get a lot of complaining about calls,” he said. “You will get some of that stuff during regular-season games, but the stakes are so high at the Final Four the teams and coaches are on their best behavior. And the NCAA makes a point of that to the coaches and players.”
The 1983 championship game gave N.C. State and Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993, a shining moment. It also gave buddies Nichols, Forte and Housman a lasting memory of their own part in the contest.
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