"The smoothest con artist in the world" (April, 1985)

The greatest upset in NCAA history, revisited

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A preface for this week’s newsletter:

I wrote the original version of this essay over a decade ago, both for my book about the 1980s and for a package of stories about NCAA tournament antiheroes that was meant to run on ESPN.com, at a moment when it felt like we had freedom to take wild chances and big swings under brilliant editors like the late Jay Lovinger. For some reason, however, this idea was a bridge too far, and the entire package was killed. (For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that’s the only time I saw it happen my time at ESPN.)

Because this has already proven one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments since 1985, and because I’ve been watching The Reagans documentary on Showtime—which re-evaluates Reagan’s overarching legacy and mythology, particularly when it comes to matters of race—and because the death of John Thompson last year amid the Black Lives Matter protests coincided with an ongoing reappraisal of his cultural legacy, I’ve decided to re-print a slightly rewritten version here.


I.

In the spring of 1985, days after leading his team to the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, the point guard for Villanova University stood in the Rose Garden of the White House, marveling at the copious amount of dandruff on the back of Ronald Reagan’s head. Gary McLain would later admit he found this moment exceedingly weird, and not just for the obvious reasons. He was paranoid and confused. He thought, What if I pushed this dude’s head? Just a little? Would I cause an international incident? He watched as Reagan read from the notes he’d been given, and from McLain’s muddled synapses, a rather provocative sentiment emerged.

He thought, “This guy is the smoothest con artist in the world.”

At the time, McLain was a pretty wise grifter himself. On the bus ride from Philadelphia to D.C., he had managed to snort half a gram of cocaine in the bathroom, a remarkable feat of deception (not to mention balance). He had been doing drugs for years, before practice and during games and after games, and despite repeated “warnings” from his coach (“If I hear it again...”), he had gotten away with it each and every time. He had done cocaine before the first game of his freshman year. He had smoked an obese joint before a game against North Carolina, scoring 10 points in 34 minutes in a 56-53 win. And the primary reason he hadn’t snorted anything before that iconic 66-64 NCAA championship victory over Georgetown (where he scored eight points) was because he used it all before and after the semifinal victory over Memphis State (where he scored nine points).

We know all of this because McLain, the MVP of the title game, laid out his story two years later, in the March 16, 1987, issue of Sports Illustrated. By then, we had embraced the mythology: Top-seeded Georgetown, with its 7-foot center and 6-foot-10 coach and its cadre of scowling angry young black men, played the thuggish bully. And No. 8 seed Villanova, with its rumpled Italian dumpling of a coach, swept through the tournament as the peppy underdog.

But what else could we expect? This was the eighties, after all, and the smooth-talking commander-in-chief in need of Selsun Blue was a celluloid cowboy who rode into office on the power of his own mythology. And there is no better exemplar of the what myth can accomplish than the War on Drugs, which, between the time McLain sniffed lines at the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky, and when he emerged from rehab to share his story (reportedly for $40,000), became a political tool for both Reagan and Congressional Democrats. Here was a distinct brand of American fear-mongering, with policies that demonized drug users and generally scared the hell out of white America. By the end of 1985, according to Dan Baum’s* excellent book Smoke and Mirrors, “the depiction of white cocaine users fell by as much as two-thirds while that of black users rose by the same amount.” The death of Len Bias in 1986 and the subsequent adoption of mandatory-minimum sentences only heightened the paranoia. And while Congress has finally begun to unravel those policies, their effects on a generation of people of color still linger.

(*Baum passed away in 2020. His obituary focused in large part on his invention of the Twitter thread.)


II.

So, given three decades of perspective, and given what we now know, let us re-examine the two coaches in that seminal game, at a moment when drugs were plentiful and the NCAA was in its wild-west period (in the same ‘87 SI in which McLain spilled his guts, the magazine reported that the Governor of Texas, while head of Southern Methodist University’s board of regents, had approved payments to football players from a secret slush fund).

First, there is Villanova’s huggable little Cabbage-Patch doll, Rollie Massimino, who declared that a lack of “solid evidence” against McLain prevented him from taking action. This, despite the fact that McLain took to dealing small amounts of coke in his junior year. Perhaps Rollie was merely ignorant, “not as up on drugs and the drug culture as he was on Xs and Os,” according to Rev. John P. Stack, then Villanova’s dean of students; perhaps, as Massimino claimed, these decisions were made by the institution, and not by him. Yet it is worth noting that Rollie, increasingly irascible with the media, eventually moved on to UNLV, where he was fired after cutting a side deal with the university president to raise his salary by $375,000, and Cleveland State, where he was let go after a series of questionable recruiting decisions and off-court issues, and then coached several years in Division II before his death in 2017.

And then there is John Thompson. Often derided for his militance and an intimidating overprotectiveness of the athletes in his Georgetown program, Thompson, once referred to as the “Idi Amin” of sports by a Utah columnist, appears to have been far more prescient than most of us realized. In 1989, according to a story by Mike Wise of The Washington Post, Thompson heard that his star center, Alonzo Mourning, had befriended a notorious drug kingpin, Rayful Edmond III. Thompson called Edmond into his office, tore into him, and told him to stay away from his players. Before Edmond was sentenced to life in prison without parole, he apparently did as he was told.

Meanwhile, these days, Gary McLain is a motivational speaker. It is a second act that feels uniquely American, an example of a man both embracing and rejecting his own mythology.


This newsletter is very much a work in progress. Thoughts? Ideas for future editions? Contact me via twitter or at michaeliweinreb at gmail, or leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please subscribe and/or share it with others.

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