North Carolina State University’s “Cardiac Pack” proved once again this week that better-late-than-never is a winning strategy – making it to the White House for a visit with President Barack Obama to celebrate the Wolfpack’s 1983 NCAA title, 33 years late.
“Although it took a little while, we are very gracious,” Dereck Whittenburg said to reporters outside the White House Monday. Whittenburg was a senior on the 1983 squad and the top scorer in the title game against the University of Houston Cougars.
The game, played at The Pit in Albuquerque, is regarded as one of the best in collegiate basketball tournament history.
It was a shot from Whittenburg about 30 feet out – with just a few seconds left on the clock – that sealed the game. The shot came up short at the basket, but set up Lorenzo Charles’ game-winning dunk, giving N.C. State the 54-52 victory, just as the buzzer sounded.
Charles died in 2011 in a bus accident.
Several teammates mentioned Charles on Monday, as well as former coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. Two other players also weren’t present Monday: Quinton Leonard, who died in 2006, and Walter “Dinky” Proctor, who was unable to make the trip.
Of the players who were there Monday, Obama asked why it took the team so long.
One former player explained that the university in 1983 was “frugal” and wouldn’t pay for the whole team to travel to Washington, D.C. Head coach Valvano and some of the team’s older players met with President Ronald Reagan after N.C. State’s 1983 win but the younger players were left out. Monday completed a goal.
“I’m tickled pink,” said Cozell McQueen, the 1983 team’s #45 – recognizable as the sophomore center who pulled himself up to stand on top of the hoop at The Pit, following the team’s win. “I’ve got a chapter that’s closed – I made it to the White House.”
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was instrumental in helping the team land the visit. Former N.C. State standout and Utah Jazz power forward/center Thurl Bailey wrote to Obama earlier this year, asking if the team could arrange a meeting. Hatch helped seal the deal.
Inside, the team toured parts of the White House and met briefly in the East Room with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Some family members were included and took photos with Obama afterward. Valvano’s widow, Pam, stood in for her husband in the team photo.
When greeting the team, Obama said, “I’m sorry; I’m not wearing red” – N.C. State’s team color.
Bailey responded, “We can fix that,” and handed the president a N.C. State basketball jersey, emblazoned with No. 1 and “Obama.”
“It was just a surreal moment,” Bailey said afterward.
Outside the White House, McQueen held a special edition Sports Illustrated book featuring a photo of him standing on top of the basket holding a “Pack Power” sign. Obama signed the book for McQueen.
The president’s signature and being able to share the moment with his daughter, Chyna, and his wife, Mischella, made the wait worthwhile, McQueen said.
Sidney Lowe, who was a senior in 1983, said “nobody . . . could go to sleep because everybody was so excited” Sunday night.
“It was like playing in a ball game. But a bigger ball game,” Lowe said.
After college, Lowe was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. He played four seasons in the NBA before becoming in 2006 the first black head coach of N.C. State’s men’s basketball team. Lowe is now an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The visit, like the game itself, is something he’ll never forget. “Just like the game, it goes on forever,” he said.
Some said there was a benefit to waiting three decades to visit the White House.
“I think we appreciate it more – I know I do,” Lowe said. “Because . . . you’re a college kid. And, of course you know it’s a big deal. But now, you get a chance to experience it in a different phase of your life, with family, with your wife, with the people you love.”