Thank you Nashville, SEC basketball, and Dad

The league’s first conference tournament in Music City took place 35 years ago, and those of us who attended can tell you it was one of the best

The comforting aroma of buttery popcorn hit my kid nostrils each time my dad and I walked through the doors of the grand, old arena on the western end of Vanderbilt University’s campus.

The smells of yummy goodness, the sounds of college pep bands playing. Vivid memories. And making our daily trek from our car to those theatre-style, balcony seats inside Memorial Gymnasium, we passed a handful—well, maybe 10,000 or so—Kentucky fans. That, I remember, too.

“Go Big Blue!”

“Go Big Blue”

Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall | Courtesy Kentucky Athletics

The year was 1984, which for many of you is an early, foreign setting for something as modern as the SEC Basketball Tournament. There were only 10 SEC teams, no shot clock or 3-point line, and much shorter shorts on the players. But some things never change. Wildcat fans were out in force at the first-ever SEC tourney held in Nashville, Tennessee—just like they are this week in a nearby arena—and by the time the weekend was over, they would be dancing on Honky Tonk Row.

It was, in the biased opinion of a kid who lived out his hoop dreams that week, the best SEC Tournament ever held. There were nine games—six of which were decided by three points or less. The championship game and semifinals were all two-point outcomes that came down to the final possession.

And that Sunday finale was the most classic of all, with Kentucky star Kenny “Sky” Walker nailing a 14-footer that hit the rim, bounced up and finally fell through to give the Wildcats a 51-49 championship game victory over the first Auburn team that would earn an NCAA Tournament bid. A lasting image of that game was the tournament MVP, a Tiger named Charles Barkley (you’ve probably heard of him) slumped over and crying on the floor in dejection and exhaustion at the end.

Barkley called it “the most disappointing athletic moment in my life,” after it ended.

Walker told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest shot in the world, but it went in.”

Charles Barkley | Courtesy Auburn Athletics

To legions of Big Blue Nation, Walker was the hero. To me, it was Tom Kirk—like his kid, once an amateur basketball player himself—for driving his son 2 hours up the road from our home in Huntsville, Alabama, to experience and fall in love with a game that inflicts us with this annual condition known as March Madness.

Men and women of a certain age can remember when ESPN first began in 1979. College basketball was a huge part of its early programming (still is, of course) and I can remember how exciting and passionate the traditional ACC Tournament looked from my square box in the living room. So, when my beloved SEC decided to renew its postseason tournament that same year after a 27-year hiatus, it was like the world began properly spinning on its axis. And to attend the actual event five years later? Pure heaven.

The SEC Tournament has returned to Nashville this week for the 10th time—the past eight have been held at 501 Broadway at the glorious, modern Bridgestone Arena—but in 1984, more than a decade before that facility existed, the league set up shop inside Vandy’s eclectic hoops cathedral where the team benches were behind the baskets and front row fans’ legs rested below court level.

The SEC was a good league that year, as it was many years in an era that probably doesn’t get enough attention. Four teams reached the NCAA Tournament. But Kentucky, not surprisingly, was the class. A few weeks later, in fact, it would reach the Final Four. Led by guys like Walker and twin towers Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin, it won the regular season title and finished the season with 29 wins.

Not only did Auburn push the Wildcats in the title game, but Wimp Sanderson’s Alabama squad did the same the day before in the semifinals, losing 48-46. The Crimson Tide had a talented, balanced squad with four players averaging double figures: Buck Johnson, Bobby Lee Hurt, Terry Williams and Eric Richardson.

Typically, I would have been home in front of the TV watching the syndicated TV broadcast and hearing legendary SEC basketball analyst Joe Dean scream “String music!” every time a Jim Master jump shot swished through the nets, but seeing the Kentucky shooting guard do it with my own eyes was just the game-changer that set me up as a lifetime hoops fanatic.

Just consider that week’s drama:

—First Round, Wednesday, March 7: Despite being a first-round, bottom-4 game, Georgia’s 52-49 win over Mississippi State was a thrilling, nerve-racking way to tip off the entire event.

—Second Round, Thursday, March 8: Alabama’s 72-70 overtime win over LSU was made possible, in part, by Richardson’s late backcourt steal and subsequent layup.

Alabama was always a threat to win the tournament as long as Wimp Sanderson was the coach

—Second Round, Thursday, March 8: Auburn’s 59-58 win over heartbroken host Vanderbilt knocked out the home supporters shouting “Show your gold!” but unknowingly set up the grand finale two days later between the tourney’s top two seeds.

—Semifinals, Friday, March 9: The most exciting day of all. Kentucky’s two-point victory over Alabama preceded Auburn’s 60-58 win over Tennessee. Coach Don DeVoe’s Volunteers, led by the old (senior forward Willie Burton) and new (freshman guard Tony White) lost a nail-biter.

And the finals, March 10, will forever be immortalized in SEC history. Not just for the talent on the floor like Barkley, Chuck Person, etc., but for the back-and-forth nature of the game. It stood tied at 49 with 14 seconds remaining. Kentucky had a timeout. Auburn’s Paul Daniels denied Kentucky point guard Dicky Beal the inbounds pass by overplaying him. The Wildcats were “smart enough to improvise,” Auburn coach Sonny Smith said, and by the time Master fed Walker the ball with 3 seconds left, it took him just one more second to shoot the ball toward the rim.

“It bounced off the front of the rim, rose about a foot over the basket and softly fell through the hoop as the buzzer sounded,” Jerry Tipton wrote in the Herald-Leader.”

Funny thing is, even though Kentucky was the class of SEC basketball, its tournament results hadn’t been so good. The previous season, 1983, Alabama knocked out Kentucky 69-64 in the second round in Birmingham; in 1982, Alabama upset Kentucky 48-46 in the championship game held at the Wildcats’ home court of Rupp Arena.

That’s another reason the 1984 title was big for the Wildcats: “Maybe now folks will stop saying the tournament isn’t important to us,” Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall said.

UK’s Kenny Walker | Courtesy Kentucky Athletics

The tournament was important to me, too. I was hooked. Through the years, I would be blessed to follow my heart into the sports writing world and cover many SEC tournaments, from Nashville to Memphis to Orlando to the now-defunct Georgia Dome.

And I loved ‘em all. The one that came closest to topping 1984, for me, was the 1992 event in Birmingham. It was Arkansas’ first year in the league, right in the middle of coach Nolan Richardson’s magical run, and those in attendance will never forget the Hog fans giving Big Blue Nation a run for its money in enthusiasm and numbers.

But all those March memories never topped the first. Never came close to those goose bumps.

Thanks, Dad. H&A


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Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

A sports writer and editor for 25-plus years, Steve’s career includes stints at The Birmingham News, Florida Times-Union, The (Columbia, S.C.) State and Birmingham Post-Herald. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he lives in the Atlanta area.
Steve Kirk

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