When "Never Nervous Pervis" Led Louisville To The Promised Land
The Pervis Ellison Era didn't happen as planned, but thirty years ago he made history, and helped Louisville win a championship, with a historic performance.
This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
Wade Houston panicked. He had arrived late for Savannah High School's first boys basketball game of the 1984-85 season and was worried he might not be allowed inside the sold-out gym. Houston, a University of Louisville assistant coach, noticed the door was locked, so he knocked on a small window.
"The attendant there at the door kind of slid the door open, and he wouldn't let anybody else in," Houston told VICE Sports. "So I held up my business card that said 'University of Louisville.' When he saw that business card, he opened the door. There were other people trying to get in behind me, but he shut the door."
Houston, like everyone else, was there to see Savannah senior center Pervis Ellison, who didn't disappoint. Houston remembers Ellison scoring around 40 points and blocking at least 10 shots. He also recalls keeping his mouth shut about what he had witnessed.
"A lot of the coaches, particularly the assistant coaches, would kind of find out who we were recruiting and then they would try and get involved in those players," Houston said. "I just tried to downplay it as much as I could and not let a lot of people know that I was going to Savannah."
His strategy paid off, and Ellison signed with the Cardinals. Still, Houston could not have envisioned at the time how much of an impact Ellison would have on the program. Louisville supporters still talk about the night 30 years ago when Ellison helped Louisville win the 1986 NCAA tournament championship and became the first freshman since 1944 to be named the Final Four's most outstanding player.
Houston saw Ellison play for the first time in 1984 at the prestigious B/C All-Stars high school summer camp in Milledgeville, Georgia. He thought Ellison would be an ideal fit for Louisville's high-post offense, a system that Cardinals coach Denny Crum adopted after he first played for and then coached under John Wooden at UCLA. Ellison would also constitute the last line of defense in the Cardinals' 2-2-1 full-court press, a job he seemed eminently capable of holding down on his own.
At that time, college basketball was dominated by upperclassmen. Most players in the 1980s, including stars such as Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson and Chris Mullin, stayed in college for at least three years; freshman year was, even for stud players, a sort of modified apprenticeship. Ellison, though, didn't have much trouble adjusting to the higher level. He started from day one, alongside senior guards Jeff Hall and Milt Wagner, senior forward Billy Thompson, and sophomore Herbert Crook, who grew up in Louisville. During that 1985-86 season, those five players started each of the Cardinals' 39 games and all averaged between 10.3 and 14.9 points per game. Ellison became known as "Never Nervous Pervis" for his laid-back demeanor even in the most intensely high-pressure situations.
"He was the perfect fit for us," Wagner told VICE Sports. "He was 6-9, long, athletic, a shot blocker, really skilled around the basket. He didn't play like a freshman. He played like a senior out there. He got better and better as the season went on."
Louisville, which followed the 1980 national title with runs to the 1982 and 1983 Final Fours, was arguably the nation's best program at the time. The Cardinals had cachet across the country and even had three players—Wagner, Thompson, and freshman Kevin Walls—who came from the same high school in Camden, New Jersey. Each member of the the "Camden Connection" trio had been a McDonald's All-American in high school.
Wagner was the leading scorer as a junior on Louisville's 1984 team but had redshirted the next year after breaking his foot in the second game of the season. Thompson was also back and among the nation's most athletic and versatile players. And Walls, who averaged more than 40 points as a high school senior, stepped in as a reserve point guard who could give Wagner and Hall a rest when needed.
"I could've probably come back [in the 1984-85 season], but I decided to come back another year," Wagner told VICE Sports. "I saw what we had coming in from the previous year and the top recruiting class we had coming in. I felt like we had a chance to win a national championship."
Louisville entered the 1986 NCAA tournament with a 26-7 record, an 11-game winning streak, and the second seed in the West regional. The Cardinals won the Metro Conference tournament a few days earlier, and Ellison had been named the event's most valuable player.
"We pretty much felt we could play with anybody," Houston said.
After defeating Drexel, Bradley, North Carolina, and Auburn, the Cardinals faced 11th-seed LSU in the Final Four at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Louisville trailed 44-36 at halftime, then blitzed the Tigers in the second half, outscoring them by 19 points and running away with an 88-77 win. The victory set up a national championship game against Duke, the nation's top-ranked team. It was the first Final Four appearance for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Blue Devils had an NCAA-record 37 victories against only two losses, and was riding a 21-game winning streak. They were also experienced, with four senior starters—guard Johnny Dawkins, forward Dave Henderson, forward Mark Alarie and center Jay Bilas—as well as junior guard Tommy Amaker. The game against Louisville was the 103rd time Dawkins and Amaker had started together in the backcourt. That June, Dawkins and Alarie would become first-round NBA draft picks, while Henderson was selected in the third round and Bilas in the fifth.
Early in the game, after Ellison drew a foul on Bilas and made his first free throw, CBS analyst Billy Packer stepped out of character to offer some praise. "I don't think anybody ever anticipated that this fellow would be ready as a freshman with as great a court awareness and all that skill," Packer said. "He'll just have to get a little bit stronger and he'll be one of the great players in the college game."
Dawkins, though, was the star of the first half, hitting five of his first six field goal attempts; his 11 early points pushed Duke to a 15-8 lead. Well before halftime, Dawkins set an NCAA-record with 128 consecutive games of at least 10 points. Duke's guards outscored Louisville's 21-4 in the first half, and led the Blue Devils to a 37-33 lead.
Duke was 33-0 that season when leading at halftime, but Louisville did a much better job defending Dawkins in the second half. The Cardinals also kept going inside, which meant turning things over to Ellison. Early in second half, Ellison grabbed three offensive rebounds on one possession and scored on a putback to cut Duke's lead to 41-38. "So quick off the floor," Packer said. "He was able to get back up on his second leap faster than the Duke players could come down from their first one."
The game remained close the rest of the way. Wagner and Thompson each committed their fourth fouls midway through the second half, while Ellison was called for his fourth with around five minutes left. None of those three ended up fouling out.
After a Louisville timeout with 48 seconds remaining, Ellison grabbed another offensive rebound and converted a layup to give the Cardinals a 68-65 lead. On the other end, Alarie committed his fifth foul, sending Ellison to the free throw line. Ellison, never nervous as ever, made both attempts to give him 25 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Duke then cut the lead to 70-67 and made its first field goal in seven minutes on Bilas's putback with 19 seconds left. After a Blue Devils timeout, Thompson missed the front end of a one-and-one. Bilas grabbed the rebound, and freshman Danny Ferry scored with three seconds left to make it 70-69. Dawkins quickly fouled Wagner, who connected on both free throws to make it 72-69. That held up as the final score, and America was reminded why Wagner's teammates called him "Ice."
Afterward, CBS announcer Brent Musburger asked Crum how the 1986 national title compared with the 1980 championship. "I'm a lot happier, to be honest," Crum said. "Last time, there seemed to be so much more pressure that it was hard to relax and enjoy it. But I promise you. I will definitely enjoy this one."
CBS's Jim Nantz, in search of big moments even then, noted the similarity to 1982, when then-freshman Patrick Ewing played for Georgetown in the national title game. "Tonight in Dallas, in a winning effort, it was Pervis Ellison establishing the Ellison era in college basketball," Nantz said.
Nantz's prediction didn't quite come to fruition. Ellison stayed in school for four years, but the Cardinals didn't even make the 1987 NCAA tournament and lost in the Sweet 16 the next two years. In 1989, Ellison was a consensus first-team All-American and became the first pick in the NBA draft, but he was never fully healthy as a pro, and only averaged 43 games per season over his 11-year NBA career.
On February 20, Louisville honored the 1986 team at halftime of that afternoon's game against Duke, during which the Cardinals overcame a 13-point second half deficit to win 71-64. Ellison wasn't able to make it, but Wagner, Thompson, Hall, and others were there and were treated like homecoming heroes. For a program reeling from scandal and under a self-imposed postseason ban, the memories mattered even more than usual.
Wagner, who now lives in Louisville, says that the 1986 team is still treated like royalty, even 30 years later. Three decades on, the players share a bond not just with Louisville's fans, but with each other. "You become family," Wagner said. "We consider each other brothers. It's always good to see your brothers."