Ben and I started talking about this story in 2001, after I interviewed William Paterson University coach Jose Rebimbas for a story on D3 late-bloomer (and future Detroit Piston) Horace Jenkins — “this story” being an old-school feature on the 1989 NCAA title game between Michigan and Seton Hall. Rebimbas was the 12th man on that Seton Hall team, so I knew he had stories for days about that team. It helped that this was the first NCAA final that I really paid attention to. We talked about doing the 15th anniversary story in ‘04, but it didn’t work out; last year, we revisited the idea, and I agreed to knock it out on the 20th anniversary.
You can check the article in the current issue of SLAM, but, as lack of space always makes it tough to tell a story like this in mag form, I figured I’d run more extensive interview stuff here. Ideally, for a story like this, I’d talk to three or four key players and/or coaches from each team and really be able to re-tell the game story through their memories. As it happened, I talked to three or four key guys from Seton Hall, and virtually no one from Michigan. For whatever reason, the Wolverine alumni were next-to-impossible to track down ahead of time; they did a few interviews with Ann Arbor-area media in the days leading up to their reunion in January, but when I tried, through numerous channels — the Michigan sports information department, individual player agents, the NBA Retired Players Association — I got a string of responses that added up to “Good luck with that.”
Coach Steve Fisher, now at San Diego State? Neither he nor anyone else at SDSU returned my emails.
Strangely, considering that they lost the game, the folks at Seton Hall couldn’t have been more helpful. Rebimbas was easy enough to track down — he’s still coaching at William Paterson, one of the better D3 programs in the country. I got John Morton at St. Peter’s in New Jersey, where he’s an assistant coach. I got Andrew Gaze in Australia, where he coaches, does TV commentary, and generally remains a basketball icon. I thought I had PJ Carlesimo, but as he’d recently been fired by the Thunder, my timing wasn’t great. And I actually did get Gerald Greene, sort of; by the time I found him indirectly and he got my message and called me back, it was too late to make the story.
Why the disparity? I don’t really know, but based on my conversations with the Seton Hall guys and what I was told about the Michigan guys, it seems the Pirates got a lot more out of the loss than the Wolverines took from the win. I don’t want to oversimplify this: I know Morton, Greene and the rest of the Seton Hall kids would’ve given anything to lift that trophy 20 years ago, and I know the Rumeal Robinson, Glen Rice and Co. wouldn’t trade that success for anything. But I also know that, to a man, the Seton Hall players talked about how close that team was, and how important is was for them not to bitch and moan about the horrible controversial call at the end that helped decide the game.
On the flip, I know what I read about most of the Michigan players barely being in touch with each other or returning to campus since they graduated, and Robinson’s seemingly bitter quotes about the Fab Five getting more attention than his title-winning squad. All of which is too bad. People should — and hopefully most do — still remember those Wolverines for how they overcame the late-season departure of coach Bill Frieder, and for how Rice’s ridiculous shooting and Robinson’s toughness and clutch FTs overcame a resilient bunch of underdogs from Seton Hall in the final.
So, like I said, check SLAM 127 for the article, and keep reading for longer outtakes from my conversations with Seton Hall’s John Morton, Andrew Gaze and Jose Rebimbas and Michigan reserve Rob Pelinka…
John Morton, a senior guard from the Bronx, scored a game-high 35 points and keyed Seton Hall’s second-half rally in the title game. Without Morton, Michigan would’ve won going away.
MORTON: It was such a humble team. Basically, we were a veteran team that didn’t boast or get too excited, over-celebrating or anything. We just accepted the way things were and played to win. Our toughest competition sometimes came in practice. It was 12, 14 humble guys, including the walk-ons. I’ve never experienced another team like that in my career. It’s remarkable in today’s world, with people boasting about what they can do instead of just going out and playing. Most of the teams that came through Seton Hall were like that. There were teams in the Big East that had more flash, and then you had guys from Seton Hall who were more hard workers, more blue collar guys who came in, put their work into the game, and got the most out of it.
Jose Rebimbas hailed from nearby Newark. The stereotypical hardworking walk-on, he acted like a coach on the sidelines, a habit that predicted his future career.
REBIMBAS: We were extremely tight. We looked out for one another at all times. On the court, during practice,, we were at each other’s throats. We wanted playing time, we were deep at every position. Every practice was a challenge, but it was really important that whatever happened on this practice floor did not carry over. Guys had bloody noses, bruises, cuts, but everybody had that one common goal.
We’d all heard the stereotyping: inner-city kids, can’t read, can’t write. We were so far from that stereotype. The following we had, it wasn’t just the success we had, but we were well liked in the campus community. We had a good demeanor. I’m sure if they saw us on the court during practice, they might’ve had a different opinion — we weren’t going to take anything. That toughness played a huge part in our success. Once we got on the court, we weren’t intimidated by anyone. We always felt we were the most physical and mentally toughest team in the country.
MORTON: PJ and his staff did a good job of putting kids together that didn’t worry about individual accomplishments and stuff like that. We just were a good group of kids who played hard and hung out with each other off the court. Now that I’m in coaching — and it’s way different now — but I think we were a different mold of team. We were old school. PJ and them did a good job of keeping us humble, and preparing us for the great run we had.
REBIMBAS: PJ was great. He never let us get too high, and he never let us get too low.
MORTON: Yeah, PJ used to scream. He’d definitely stay on me a lot — he always chose the best players on the team to ride — but he was a great guy, especially off the court. I don’t know if people know that about him. I remember times he started yelling, and we would start laughing, and he would have to laugh, too, because he knew that we knew he was full of crap.
Forward Andrew Gaze had come to the attention of Carlesimo and Seton Hall assistant John Carroll a year earlier, when his Australian club team played exhibition matches against Big East schools. He was offered a scholarship and eventually joined fellow Olympian Ramon Ramos — both played for their countries in the ‘88 Olympics — in time for the ‘88-89 season.
GAZE: PJ is an interesting character, an amazing fella. I thought he was schizophrenic. Knowing him through the recruiting process, and then going through a situation where you actually play for him, it was like, Hold on, what’s going on here? It was completely different. I never knew a coach that could be so emotional, so into it, just riding guys, but be so caring of his players, so committed to looking after his group. Plus, he has this skill — I would die for this skill — where he just remembers everyone. Whether it’s the car parking attendent or the bloke selling tickets, he just remembers everyone’s name.
MORTON: It was a quiet team, but the guy who stands out was definitely Gerald Greene. He was the general — that was the nickname — and he was the mouthpiece who would get us going and keep us flowing. Pookie Wigington was a California guy who liked to talk, he’d kind of fire us up a little bit. But Gerald Greene really took control of the team after I moved to shooting guard my junior year. He would be the guy who’d really get after guys, that voice who spoke out, spoke his mind.
And then Jose was the greatest motivator we had for that team. A guy who put his heart into everything he did, every practice, from the walk-on position. My senior year, he grabbed me before practice and after practice every day to shoot. He definitely helped me. That was just the type of team we had, where Jose could get in your face and be like, “You m-fer’s!” and nobody would take offense.
But everybody was able to fit in. I think a perfect example was Ramon Ramos, who was unable to speak a word of English when he got there from Puerto Rico — not a word — and he was accepted without a problem. And then Andrew Gaze came in senior year, and he was accepted, no question. Would it have been easy to resent him? Easy. Oh, easy. But he’ll tell you there was not a cent of resentment.
GAZE: In all honesty, my first impressions of the environment at Seton Hall weren’t great. The venue on campus was being refurbished, and they actually played at this rickety old ice skating rink. And if you’re familiar with the area around there, it’s not the most inviting environment. And anyway, I was more committed to playing for Australia. But John Carroll was just amazingly persistent. Plus, in Australia, it was difficult for me to play and keep up with my studies. Quite ironically, the major reason I decided to go to Seton Hall was to get through my studies.
Probably the biggest reservation I had about the whole thing was an understanding of the environment I was going into. My experience going in was pretty limited, and driving around Newark in 1986, it doesn’t get your attention for its natural environmental beauty. But once you arrive on campus, get out and walk around the school, it’s beautiful. I remember certain areas off campus, where you’d time the red light so you didn’t have to stop the car. But those initial fears were quickly spelled. You get familiar with it, get to know the guys, and it’s just like anywhere else.
I have to be honest, though: For the first two weeks, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They were talking, trying to include me, and I was like, “Mate, you’re gonna have to slow down, I can’t understand you.” But once I got familiar with the accent and the slang, I was into it.
REBIMBAS: We would be upset with Gaze when he didn’t take shots. It was like, “You’re pretty good, it’s OK for you to shoot.” He was mature as a basketball player way beyond any of us at the time, with all his international experience. He really wanted to fit in, and we wanted him to play a larger role. Because of his maturity, he was able to sort of do both. He knew the team belonged to those seniors — Ramon, Gerald, Daryll, and John. He was terrific.
GAZE: My role with the team was a lot different than it had been internationally. I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. I knew there were a lot of seniors on the team, and understanding seniority, I didn’t want to be too intrusive. They were very welcoming, I guess because I wasn’t going in there thinking I was the man.
MORTON: On the court, Andrew fit in perfectly with the team that we had. Andrew brought that experience of being poised, being patient, making big shots throughout the year. You had myself, basically known as a slasher up until that senior year, but we were missing that other guy from the three position who could score, and Andrew definitely opened up things for me to penetrate, and for Ramon to get the ball inside. Then it became more of a headache for opponents, because I started making threes.
GAZE: I remember reading up on the team before the season, and expectations were extremely low. Then when I arrived and had the first few informal scrimmages, I’m like, Crikey, this league must be phenomenally good! I’m looking around thinking, We’re very, very good. The predictions and expectations were well off the mark.
REBIMBAS: I remember playing pickup games in September, and there was a sense of quiet confidence, like, Nobody knows about us, but this is our year.
MORTON: The start of the season was pretty impressive for us. I think we won something like 13 games in a row, but it was definitely a turning point when we went to the Alaska Shootout. We beat Utah, Kentucky and Kansas all in one tournament. You lump those names up, those were some pretty dominant teams. We realized right then, we might have a chance to do something here.
Seton Hall opened NCAA Tournament play with wins over Southwest Missouri State and Evansville. Then came a Sweet 16 date with Indiana. The Pirates won by 13.
MORTON: Just knowing that you’re going in and facing a Bobby Knight team was kind of intimidating in and of itself. But we knew they weren’t as dominant as the old Indiana teams. We were confident enough in our defense, and we knew we could stop those guys from scoring. Defense played a big part in our games that year. Everybody just knew, Buckle down, take pride and guard your man. We had a lot of city guys — me, Gerald, Daryll Walker — and whether it was that NYC street toughness or what, we got the job done. In that game, we put the lock down early.
In the Elite 8, Seton Hall beat UNLV by 23.
MORTON: That in itself was amazing. It was like, Now we’re dealing with the Runnin’ Rebels. You’re expecting trash talking, smackdown basketball. But it turned out we handled them pretty easily. There wasn’t much trash talking.
GAZE: Once we got to Denver for the regional, going up against schools like Indiana and UNLV, it was like, Now there’s a realistic chance we could lose. With Indiana, it’s big school, high profile, Bobby Knight, all that, but we did a number on them. We gave them a bit of a touch-up. After that game, given the way that we played, I think there was a level of confidence — expectations were pretty high. I think the margin of victory in both those games was more of a surprise to us than the actual victories.
Seton Hall met Duke in the Final Four. Down 26-8 midway through the first half, they pulled a Lazarus and came back to win — by 17.
REBIMBAS: That game was an awakening, one of the few times we went into a game a little more confident than we should have. They came out, and Danny Ferry had an unbelievable stretch. But PJ called back-to-back timeouts, and there wasn’t a panic. We had PJ, obviously, telling us, “Hey, relax, plenty of time to come back,” and we had vocal leaders like Daryll Walker and Gerald Greene, who refused to let the situation get any worse. There was this sense of, OK, we got knocked down, we’ve been here before, and now we’re back up again. This is our time. We felt every game we went into, at some point, we’d be able to physically and mentally wear down our opponent.
GAZE: Most people thought we’d overachieved to get this far. Then against Duke, we were dead and buried. We started the game and it was deer in the headlights. But Gerald Greene was the pivitol factor. When we were down and out, he really led from the front, had an outstanding game. That was one of the more remarkable wins of the whole season.
MORTON: The only thing I remember about that game, the turning point came when they started talking trash — the trash talking we thought would come from UNLV came from some of the Duke players. You got a couple city kids down, you should’ve let them lay. But that woke us up. Gerald Greene kept us in the first half, and in the second half we just came out with a mentality, like, Let’s punch them in the mouth. New York City players are used to talking trash, and here you are beating us down — let us go down quietly, don’t try to boast about it. We were quiet and humble, but we don’t take that.
REBIMBAS: You know, we all do superstitious things. Once we went down big to Duke, I’m like, What are we gonna do? What’s my contribution? I always sat next to PJ, so decided I’m gonna go to the far end of the bench, cheer us on, start coaching from down here. I stood up the whole time, and obviously we came back and won. So I stood up the whole game in the final, too. I actually had an AP photographer tell me he had a lot of good pictures of me — they were all of my ass.
The title game featured a pair of No. 3 seeds, neither of whom had ever cut down the nets. It was also the first NCAA final in 26 years to go to overtime.
GAZE: We were just riding the wave. I think there was an element of shock about it all — here we are, actually in the final. No one had even heard of Seton Hall. The amount of people that came up to us and had no idea of where the school was — because of that, we got the benefit of being that Cinderella story. We got the support of a lot of people because of that.
We went into that game reasonably confident — on the back of beating Duke, UNLV and Indiana, you start thinking to yourself, Why not? In hindsight, one of the great advantages we had was being away from campus so long, we didn’t get caught up in the hype of it all [playing in the West Regional, the Pirates spent three weeks out West, going from Tucson to Denver, then staying in L.A. before heading to Seattle for the Final Four.] Being on the other side of the country, we didn’t get caught up in the backslapping and hoopla that goes on. Plus, being in L.A., staying in Santa Monica, the weather was great. Being from Australia, snow was something very foreign to me, and the cold of a New Jersey winter took a little bit of getting used to. But that was just PJ’s approach, the way he ran the team, keeping us level-headed and shielding us from all the carrying on.
MORTON: We knew we had a challenge. Looking back at that team, they had six, seven NBA players. You have to start with Glen Rice, who had a great tournament overall, shooting the daylights out of the ball. Then you had Rumeal Robinson, built like a running back playing point guard. But Glen Rice was the man on that team. You had those big guys, [Loy] Vaught and [Terry] Mills, setting screens and getting him open. They knew Glen Rice was the man, and every thing else would trickle down. You have to be impressed with the way that team stuck together after the coaching change.
Rob Pelinka, now an NBA player agent who reps stars like Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer, was a freshman reserve for the ‘89 Wolverines.
PELINKA: Glen was the clear leader of that team. He was really tough and always worked really hard — and, obviously, he had an unbelievable stroke.
GAZE: It was a tough game for me. I’d come off a pretty decent run of games, and then I had the unenviable task of trying to get at Glen Rice for most of the game. I think I did a spectacular job of holding him to 30-something (laughs)
MORTON: I think my first half was pretty decent, but I missed some shots. I had maybe three games my senior year where struggled in first half but came out in a zone in the second half. But not like at that stage.
GAZE: Offensively, I wasn’t particularly involved, didn’t get too many good looks. But John Morton had one amazing game. He was on fire, took charge in the crisis. We did a good job identifying when John was on, and he delivered in spades. He had an incredible season, and an even more amazing game.
MORTON: An overtime game that came down to foul shots. How much more exciting can that be?
REBIMBAS: We heard the whistle, and it was hard to tell. We really weren’t sure what happened. Being in the coaching profession now, you always want players to decide the outcome. We had the opportunity to do that earlier in overtime. I have not watched the play. I watch the game until that point, and then I just shut it off. I figure one day I’ll sit down and see what really happened.
GAZE: It was an unfortunate situation for them to win with a dubious call.
MORTON: It took me probably 10 years before I watched the game — and another two or three before I could watch the end of it. Now when it comes on, everyone always calls up, “Hey, the game’s on.” I’m not turning it on, though. I have it on DVD.
I actually got a chance to play with Glen in Miami. He admitted there was no foul on the last play (laughs). I felt good about that. He finally admitted, “Yeah, we got lucky there.”
REBIMBAS: Obviously looking back, it was a great disappointment not to have been able to finish off what we started. But to sit back and watch one of the most incredible displays of scoring by John Morton, and then on the other side to watch Andrew Gaze sacrifice his offensive output to defend clearly the most outstanding player in the tournament in Glen Rice, those two things were pretty special.
GAZE: I learned a lot from the reaction of the team following the loss. People could be very bitter, point a finger, up in arms about a dubious call, but in all honesty, the way that PJ handled that situation, and the school and everyone involved, it was just incredible class. In PJ’s postgame speech, never was that call highlighted. I think that takes tremendous class and courage. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of being involved with that team.
REBIMBAS: On the court, after the loss, we sort of huddled one last time as a group, and we knew that was the last time that group of guys was going to huddle up that way. We just had Pookie and Gerald speak and say, “We did a great job, remember that, it was awesome, we love you.” I think once we left the floor, we left the game behind us. We sort of said, “We had our chance, it wasn’t meant to be.” I think for us to come out of that huddle and complain about a particular play or call would’ve defeated that specific moment, which was, let’s remember that we got here. PJ never came in and said anything. It was something that was understood. All year long, we never made any excuses. It was who we were.
MORTON: PJ always spoke to us about carrying ourselves correctly off the court. I think we did a good job of not blasting the refs in the papers or anything. We were definitely upset and angry, but at the same time, it was a blessing to have played in that game, it was a great feat. We took these guys to the brink of winning the national championship. So it felt great in that sense — along with the anger of how the game was decided. Then we got back to New Jersey and we had one of the biggest parades ever in South Orange. The next day, you weren’t sure that we lost. (laughs) People in New Jersey really did a great job bringing us home in style and making us forget we lost that game, that we were still champions in their mind. That felt pretty great.
REBIMBAS: We get on a plane, traveling home from the West Coast, feeling disappointed for our fans who had made the trip. We almost felt guilty, heads down at times. But man, when we walked through that corridor at the airport and had the opportunity to see people cheering for us, then to be escorted by state police, then get back on campus — we were just dumbfounded. There were thousands and thousands of people. We were just stunned. We had a pep rally, we had a parade — for like a two-week period, it seemed like the world had stopped to honor us. And we soaked up every minute of it.
MORTON: Back in those days, you didn’t really think about getting to the Final Four. It was rough going my first two years at Seton Hall, and we were just happy making it to the to the NCAAs my junior year. But I think that was a turning point, and a great experience. We wanted to get back to the NCAAs, but we didn’t really expect to get to the Final Four. The seniors on that team, we came in, took our lumps our freshman and sophomore years, then had the blessing of our senior year. We came to Seton Hall to help rebuild a program, and we went from cellar of the Big East to the national championship game in four years. It was a great way to go out, regardless of the outcome.