— In his mind, Ed Pinckney spent 12 memory-filled seasons playing ball in the NBA.
To start, there was the honor of being drafted in the top 10 of the 1985 NBA draft. Things only got better years later when the Boston Celtics called on Pinckney to do the dirty work inside for their "Big Three" — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Then there was the brief but equally impacting time Pinckney spent alongside Alonzo Mourning with the Miami Heat in the late '90s.
But the time, the moment that Pinckney is still best remembered came on April 1, 1985, when he led a 10-loss Villanova team to the most improbable win in NCAA Final Four history. The images remain clear of a young Pinckney, beaming, with a piece of the net around his neck after the eighth-seeded Wildcats upset top-seeded Georgetown that night.
“I’ve played with and against some Hall of Fame basketball players, so that ranks pretty high,” recalled Pinckney, whose alma mater returns to the Final Four 24 years later on Saturday. “But the pinnacle for me, obviously, was 1985."
That night the Wildcats put an exclamation point on their Final Four run. It was the night the 6-foot-9 Pinckney went from a pretty nice post player to a household name; it was the night he took home the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds against Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas.
“Ed Pinckney was the major catalyst in that run, because he loved to play against Patrick Ewing,” former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino said. “He was actually sick for that final game but responded extremely well.”
Pinckney joins a short line of players who delivered defining moments under college basketball’s brightest spotlight. You have freshman Michael Jordan hitting the winning jumper for North Carolina; Anderson Hunt leading an insanely talented UNLV team in back-to-back Final Fours in 1990 and '91; Keith Smart’s gutsy shot to propel Indiana over Syracuse in the '87 title game; and then Miles Simon's incredible performance that launched Arizona into the championship stratosphere a year ahead of time to just name a few.
“Reputations and careers have been made in the Final Four,” said Jay Bilas, the longtime college basketball analyst for CBS and ESPN. “When you think about it, you can’t ask for a greater stage.”
Once on that stage, it’s about seizing the moment. Pinckney and his Wildcats did in '85. Never had a team been so efficient in the big game. The Wildcats shot better than 70 percent to stymie the Hoyas, the defending national champions.
It’s a time that still brings a smile to Pinckney’s face and a rise in his voice.
“Individually, as a player, as a team and as a coach, you always want to be associated with a great game and/or great season,” said Pinckney, an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves who spent several years on the Villanova bench where he recruited several players on this year’s Final Four squad. “We were able to accomplish that in 1985.
"I think when you go back — it’s 24 years later now — but it’s always kind of fun to go back when you get together with your group of guys that played on that team and reminisce about the games, the experiences you had in the games and the final game. It’s fun."
The game changed his life, Pinckney said.
"I had a great experience in college basketball that no one can take away," he said. "I was able to share it with some great coaches and some great players.”
In 1997, Simon, who became Arizona’s poster boy, led the Wildcats to an 84-79 overtime win over Kentucky in the title game as a No. 4 seed. Arizona had a couple of future lottery picks on the floor in guards Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, but Simon was the player who seemed to nail every big shot in wins against North Carolina and Kentucky during the Final Four in Indianapolis.
The phrases Milestone Victory and Simon Says Championship were born.
“For a college basketball player, that was the ultimate,” Simon said. “It was the best time of my playing career. It was an unbelievable thing. It was so magnified, but you don’t really know at the time how many people are watching you. There were millions of people on TV.
"Especially this time of the year, it’s brought up to me all the time.”
Moments such as those have a way of affecting players for years to come. Sometimes for the better, and in some instances for the worst.
Smart said his 15-foot jumper in the final three seconds, a shot that lifted the Hoosiers to a 74-73 win over Syracuse in the 1987 championship game, has never ventured far from his thoughts even all these years later.
“I always say the shot is chasing me because anything that goes on in your life — good or bad — your name is going to be attached to that moment,” said Smart, an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. “People remember that shot, and a lot of kids look up to what I did.
"So I’ve always wanted to do things the right way ever since that moment, because I know that my name is tied to that moment."
While players like Simon and Hunt had well chronicled struggles after their much-hyped NCAA tournament exploits, players like Pinckney went on to achieve success as a pro. But only a select number of the Final Four participants either matched or elevated their success in the NBA.
Isiah Thomas (Indiana), Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Michigan State), Richard Hamilton (Connecticut), Jordan and Bird (Indiana State) come to mind.
The jury continues to deliberate on Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse) and Derrick Rose (Memphis), who are one-and-done phenoms that led their respective programs to the Final Four as freshmen before bolting to the NBA.
Longtime CBS analyst Billy Packer said this stage consists of superstar players who play big, good players who perform well in the spotlight and then those players like Hunt or North Carolina's Donald Williams, the 1993 tournament MOP, who have a great Final Four run only to never be heard again.
“The Anderson Hunts of the world become kind of a trivia situation,” Packer said. “Yet it’s a magical moment for any one of those three categories. It’s a magical part of their life.”
But how these players capitalized on their magical moments has varied over the years. Hunt, for instance, declared early for the NBA draft after the Runnin' Rebels' second Final Four appearance in 1991.
Hunt, a lights-out shooter and quality defender, soon found a market in the NBA didn't exist for a 6-1 shooting guard. He went undrafted in 1991, which led to a European tour mixed in with some legal trouble along the way.
In a recent interview with a Las Vegas newspaper, Hunt said he lives in his native Detroit where he sells real estate, but people close to him, including former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, are unsure of his whereabouts or how to get in touch with Hunt.
His fall from the spotlight seems to haunt Tarkanian, who had plans to make Hunt his point guard had he returned for his senior season. Tarkanian still believes one season proving himself as a ball-handler would have made a difference in Hunt’s NBA fortunes.
“He had an attorney in town that was really telling him things,” Tarkanian said. “They were putting words in his head that really didn’t exist. They were telling him 'The Celtics like you, this team likes you, they are going to draft you here and there.' That’s what he wanted to hear, and none of that was true."
But for Simon, it seems he might have stayed too long. He had the full attention of the NBA after leading the Wildcats to the national championship. As a fearless leader who dared take the toughest shot, the 6-3 Simon had been projected as a mid-to-late first-round selection in the '97 NBA draft.
Simon, however, decided to return to school for his senior season and a chance to repeat as a national champion with all the key players returning. The Wildcats were, indeed, the team to the beat as the No. 1 squad for most of the year, but they bowed out in the Elite Eight to Utah.
Even worse, Simon’s stock plummeted. The Orlando Magic drafted Simon in the second round (42nd overall) of the '98 draft. He stuck one season with the Magic before bouncing around in Europe and the CBA.
Simon had literally burst onto the scene and his performance in the Wildcats' Final Four run had him on the NBA's radar. His play had intrigued scouts and general managers. But given another year to dissect Simon’s game, they questioned his shooting technique and his lack of defensive quickness.
“He really kind of blew up in the Final Four, and probably in hindsight he should have declared for the NBA that year,” said former Arizona assistant John Rosborough, who was on the bench next to Lute Olson during the 1997 run. “I think there were some things the next year where people were really zeroing in on him that he became a little bit of a concern for the NBA player.”
But Simon doesn’t think about what his life might have been like had he declared when the spotlight was brightest.
"I don't think I should have (left early)," said Simon, who most recently was an assistant at his alma mater. "I really enjoyed my college time. To me, it’s the most special time of a young person’s life. I have no regrets about that at all.”