Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ordinary People Accomplishing Extraordinary Things: Moneymaker and NCSU

March Madness is here, with the this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket having rapidly consumed the attention of sports fans this week. I’ll be filling out my bracket soon, hoping to repeat my luckbox performance of last year when I somehow managed to nail six of the Elite Eight, all of the Final Four, and also predict the semis and finals correctly to win Pauly’s Pub pool.

I’d beg forgiveness for the self-aggrandizement, but last year was the first time in decades of filling out these suckers I’d realized any significant success, and the chances of my ever replicating such a performance are most certainly dim. So I’m taking advantage this week of telling the story of my win as many times as I can until my reign as Pauly’s Pub champ likely ends a little less than three weeks from now.

Speaking of NCAA hoops (and stories about winners), I was mesmerized Sunday night by the latest ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the incredible run of the 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack team all of the way to the NCAA title. With 10 losses entering the post-season, NCSU had to win the ACC tourney that year even to make the NCAAs, then as a No. 6 seed won six straight games -- several in thrilling, come-from-behind fashion -- to take the title.

The documentary is titled “Survive and Advance,” employing a mantra oft-used by State coach Jim Valvano to exhort his team through that magical, one-game-at-a-time run. The story of the strong friendship among the players and coaches is quite moving, with the too-soon deaths of Valvano (in 1993) and player Lorenzo Charles (in 2011) adding further poignancy as the surviving team members reminisce about their wondrous experience that spring 30 years ago. (Coincidentally, both Valvano and Charles were just 47 when they passed.)

I have a lot of personal memories of watching those games as a kid in North Carolina. Those were formative years for your humble scribbler, which perhaps made me even more vulnerable to be affected by the documentary and the way it invited me to think back and relive it all.

Two days later I am still thinking about “Survive and Advance,” and in fact yesterday was also considering how the Pack’s improbable championship also reminded me of another “Cinderella story,” namely Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event win.

Both were huge underdogs to win their respective titles, and in fact in both cases there were a lot of obstacles and other twists of fate that led to them even participating in the tournaments.

As the ESPN documentary reminds us, NCSU’s star guard Dereck Whittenburg suffered a broken foot in January of that year, which I well remember seemed at the time to be a career-ending injury for the sharpshooting senior as well as likely dashing the Wolfpack’s hopes for making it through the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season or tourney with a chance to play in the NCAA tournament at all.

But Whittenburg came back, and after State finished the ACC regular season fourth in the league, NCSU made comebacks in all three tourney games versus Wake Forest, a Michael Jordan-led UNC team, and top-seeded Virginia led by their Goliath, Ralph Sampson, to secure an NCAA tournament spot.

Meanwhile, we all remember Moneymaker’s story of having won his seat into the WSOP Main Event in 2003 via a $39 satellite on PokerStars. As he relates in the 2012 documentary All in: The Poker Movie, he had but $60 in his PokerStars account at the time he played in the satellite. He also explains how he didn’t even realize he was playing in what was essentially a “step” satellite (getting you into another satellite), having originally thought he was registering for a regular tourney with cash payouts.

He won that first satellite, “surviving and advancing” to the second satellite in which the top three finishers would win WSOP ME seats. There he reached the final table with the chip lead, but was in fact aiming for a fourth-place finish and a $8,000 cash prize, an amount that just happened to match his current credit card debt.

At six-handed, Moneymaker began to try to make a deal with other players and/or slowly bleed chips so as to ensure himself that fourth-place finish, but his plans were interrupted by a friend calling him to let him know he’d buy half his action ($5,000) if he were to win the ME seat. Moneymaker went on to win the seat, then his buddy backed out of the deal.

In other words, like NCSU and Dereck Whittenburg literally limping into the post-season in 1983, cash-poor Moneymaker having secured a spot to play in the $10,000 WSOP ME in 2003 was in and of itself an unlikely turn of events, too.

Then, of course, as we also well remember from the old ESPN shows that presented us the 2003 WSOP, Moneymaker’s journey to the final table included a number of heart-stopping moments that made his advancing that far also somewhat improbable seeming. And from that journey we might pull a few other parallels with NCSU’s run, too.

Like State toppling mighty Virginia (again) in the West Regional final, Moneymaker knocked out the great Johnny Chan, an occurrence compared by Norman Chad on the commentary to Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. In truth, that was what it seemed like when State beat Virginia for the second time in two weeks (this time without the three-point shot) to make the Final Four.

Like State coming from behind from six points down with 24 seconds left to beat Pepperdine in double-overtime to win their first-round game, Moneymaker hit a two-outer with pocket eights to crack Humberto Brenes’s A-A after the latter was all in on the flop.

Like State making more comebacks against UNLV and Virginia to reach the Final Four, Moneymaker would hit a seven-outer with one card to come to knock out Phil Ivey (another Goliath) just shy of the final table.

And like State toppling the seemingly unbeatable, hugely-favored Houston Cougars led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in the finals, Moneymaker’s ultimate victory versus Sammy Farha heads-up likewise defied expectations with the underdog gaining the victory. We might even compare the crazy final play in which State ironically won the game on a dunk versus “Phi Slamma Jamma” to Moneymaker’s big bluff versus Farha -- a pro-like play pulled off by the amateur.

Both victories also proved inspirational to many going forward, a theme that is likewise explored effectively in “Survive and Advance.” A clip that appears in the documentary of Valvano talking about how “every day in every walk of life, ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things” comes to mind here.

One could probably drill down further into both stories to find still more parallels, but I’ll leave it there for now. After all, I need to go study my bracket and decide if there will be any new underdogs primed to make a deep run this time around.

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