This year marks the 30th anniversary of Georgia Tech men’s basketball first-ever Final Four appearance. We take a look back at the Jackets’ march to Denver through this classic Atlanta Journal-Constitution article by Thomas M. Stinson.
- Georgia Tech’s 1990 Final Four team goes down memory lane – Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 2020
- More from Tech’s 1990 Final Four Team: Twinkies, Coming to America – Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 3, 2020
- Referee recalls Kenny Anderson’s shot at buzzer vs. Michigan State – Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 4, 2020
- PHOTOS: The Road to Denver
By Thomas M. Stinson | Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins is talking about chemistry. Not the kind found in the laboratory, but on the hardwood.
“You can’t really discuss it,” he said. “You can’t really dissect it. I’ve had teams with bad chemistry. Last year, we didn’t have it. It comes from the players.”
Cremins, creator of the chemistry that brought Tech and its “Lethal Weapon 3” to the Final Four, can only marvel at what inadvertently was wrought.
“I had no idea that Kenny would fit in as well as he has,” he said. “How could I know that?”
“Kenny” is, of course, Kenny Anderson, the splendid point guard who came out of Rego Park, N.Y., a working-class neighborhood in the borough of Queens, to become the trigger man for Tech’s offense. Anderson joined Brian Oliver, a senior, and a revitalized Dennis Scott, a junior, for a blitzkrieg of the ACC and the NCAA Tournament.
After a mid-season stumble in which they lost three straight ACC games and effectively took themselves out of competition for the regular-season title, the Yellow Jackets recovered and won 16 of 18 games to put them in the Final Four, the first ever in Tech history. It was during the middle of the slump, a 91-90 loss to Clemson, that a television graphic for the first time dubbed the Tech trio “Lethal Weapon 3.” The name stuck. Cremins and the Tech players now refer to “Lethal Weapon 3” as if it were a separate entity.
They also refer to the slump as a time when their chemistry was tested, but proved solid.
“Before, if we had gone through three losses, there would have been people pointing fingers, saying so-and-so wasn’t doing his job and stuff like that,” Scott said. “That didn’t happen. Nobody blamed anyone else. We knew we had to pull together and we did.”
Pulling together, Tech assembled its late-season run and capped it by defeating North Carolina, Duke and Virginia in the ACC Tournament to win the championship. Then came the four-game sweep of the NCAA Southeast Regional, giving the Yellow Jackets a 28-6 record, the best ever for a Tech team.
During the season, “Lethal Weapon 3” was Tech’s offense, averaging 78 percent of its points.
Anderson, Scott and Oliver each averaged more than 20 points a game, a combined 69.6 points. It was the first time in the 36-year history of the ACC that three players on one team averaged 20 or more per game.
In defeating Minnesota 93-91 for the Regional championship in New Orleans, “Lethal Weapon 3” reached its apex. With Scott scoring 40 points, Anderson 30 and Oliver 19, the three accounted for 89 of Tech’s 93 points and took 52 of 56 shots.
All season critics wondered when Tech’s three-on-five game was going to run out of steam. It never did, until “Lethal Weapon 3” and its supporting cast met Nevada-Las Vegas for a spot in the national championship game, a scenario few would have believed possible for Tech when the season began.
And those who wondered before the season about the possible clash of egos on the Tech team would never have envisioned the unlikely chorus which rang out over Bourbon Street that week. The day before the Regional final, Cremins ran into his players in the French Quarter. They were on stage at a joint called “The Cat’s Meow” offering delighted patrons their version of “Born to Be Wild.”
Oliver’s last year was ‘fun’
Brian Oliver smiles as he remembers how Cremins, who thought this would be a rebuilding year from the team which went 20-12 in 1989, came to him at the beginning of the season and told him he wanted this year to be different from Oliver’s other three at Tech.
“He told me he wanted to make this year fun,” Oliver said. “He said he didn’t want it to be stressful. He didn’t want practice to be a job.”
Oliver, who was elected team captain and seemed the eye of the emotional storm that is Tech basketball, spoke calmly, but swiftly. He talked of his frustrations with a stress fracture in his left ankle which slowed his game; about a team which he said had matured through adversity.
“It’s very frustrating for me to have this injury,” Oliver said. “I mean, this is the time when we are going for all the apples.”
In Oliver, a 6-4 off-guard who has the bulk at 211 pounds and the heart to play effectively inside, Tech found a talented catalyst largely devoid of ego. Oliver, who played point guard before Anderson’s arrival, was less flashy than either Scott or Anderson. He was solid, sometimes spectacular; the glue binding three years of distinct, sometimes seemingly conflicting talents.
“In the beginning of the season, Brian carried the team on his shoulders,” said Johnny McNeil, the senior center. “There is great chemistry on this team, but a lot of it is because of the leadership shown by Brian, and later Dennis. We trust each other and that helps a lot.”
Oliver’s injury, sustained in December and aggravated continually throughout the year, cut into his rebounding, hobbled his usually tenacious defense and took some offensive pop out of “Lethal Weapon 3.”
Against Minnesota, although Oliver scored 19, his shots often clanged off the front of the rim, a sign he was not getting his usual elevation. But he went fearlessly inside, drawing fouls and hitting nine-of-12 from the free throw line.
“We need Brian,” Cremins said time and time again. And there is no question Tech needed Oliver as much for his stability and knowledge, his calm assurance on the court, as anything.
But there were times when Oliver, for all his bravery, could not be there.
“I forget,” Cremins said. “In the Minnesota game, there was a point when his man went right by him and I got on him.”
Oliver, who played in constant pain––“I just try to block it out of my head”––responded, “Coach, I’m doing all I can.”
Cremins never doubted that, but he had forgotten about the ankle. “I just shut up,” Cremins said.
Cremins painted a picture of a Tech team which rarely ran the court as well since Oliver’s injury early in the season. The picture, which Cremins recalled almost as a dream, has Anderson leading the break with Scott on the right and Oliver on the left.
In Cremins’s version, the picture is completed by Anderson feeding to Scott, who pulls up and takes a three-point shot, while Oliver moves into position to rebound a rare miss.
“That’s when Georgia Tech is at its best,” he said. “What this injury has taken away from us most is Brian’s rebounding. He is a great, great rebounding guard.
Oliver used one word to describe his injury: “frustrating.” He was not the type to make excuses, addressing his injury in clinical tones.
“Yeah, I’ve been slowed,” he said. “But we still have great talent on this team. And we know what to do.”
At a news conference after the Minnesota win, Oliver, who is usually serious in such atmosphere, reached over and rubbed Cremins’ mop of white hair in an affectionate, playful manner. The gesture unleashed laughter and playful banter from Scott and Anderson, who shared the stage.
For a moment, they were more like brothers than coach and players.
“Coach is a lot looser and we feel that,” Oliver said. “He trusts us and we trust him. That’s where it all flows from.”
Anderson arrived in Atlanta riding a wave of hype as high as Stone Mountain. He had been all-everything in high school, a can’t miss prospect who was expected to step into the tough ACC and be a starting point guard.
That he did it and directed the Jackets to Denver may have amazed everyone but Anderson.
“Kenny is a bit of an introvert,” Cremins said, joking.
So introverted that he suggested early in the season he was the “only pure point guard” in the ACC, bringing down the wrath of the fans of Hurley, Virginia’s John Crotty and North Carolina State’s Chris Corchiani.
“When we played North Carolina State the first time, Corchiani tried to take Kenny’s head off,” Cremins said. “But Kenny didn’t back off.”
Anderson said his words were misinterpreted or he said he never made the remark, depending on who was talking to him. That is similar to his remembrance of the controversial shot at the buzzer against Michigan State during the regional semifinal game. The shot put the Jackets into overtime, where they won 81-80.
About the shot, Anderson had said at different times: “I’m pretty sure I got it off,” “I definitely got it off,” and “I was within a tenth of a second either way.”
He’s quiet, but he listens
But such was Anderson’s personality that the discrepancies could be attributed to youthful enthusiasm rather than calculating guile. After all, because of his talent on the court, talent so great that no less a player than former Louisville star Darrell Griffith said, “He can play in the NBA right now,” people forget Anderson was 19 years old.
Scott, his roommate, called Anderson “Hermit” because he spent so much time sleeping.
“When he got here, he was real quiet,” Scott said.
But Anderson listened, which Cremins liked.
“He listens to what I tell him,” he said. “He came in here with a lot of buildup, but he never let that stand in the way of him learning the game.”
Other players, used to freshmen being freshmen, kept an eye on Anderson.
“I’m glad he has ended up being here,” McNeil said. “I mean, I’m a senior and he’s a freshman, but I depend on him a lot.”
One thing McNeil and freshman forward Malcolm Mackey depend on Anderson for is to get the ball in any other way than rebounding. Although Anderson averaged 20.6 points, he handed out 285 assists, second best in a single season in ACC history. He also had 79 steals, a Tech record.
The hints were that Anderson was different away from the media limelight than in it. He seemed increasingly comfortable with media attention and he was a good interview, irreverent and funny. But some of that stems from Anderson’s New York City roots, from growing up on playgrounds where it is often necessary to be able to talk a good game as well as play one.
Scott, who played off Anderson as if they had been together for years instead of months, expressed quiet admiration for his roommate.
“He’s not like a lot of those New York guards you see who put it behind their backs and between their legs and never go anywhere,” he said.
Adding discipline to talent
Dennis Scott’s voice was quiet and soft, much softer than his muscular 6-8, 229-pound body.
For Scott, it was a time of glory. He was a basketball junkie. Unlike many athletes who admit to only being interested in playing the game, Scott had studied basketball.
After winning the regional, he talked about being a kid and watching Griffith lead Louisville to the Final Four. He talked about going to the playground and pretending to be Griffith hitting the winning shot at the buzzer.
“And now to get a chance to actually do that,” he marvelled.
Cremins’ voice took on a solemn tone when he talked about Scott.
“The maturity of Dennis Scott has been incredible,” he said. “He’s been a winner, a fighter.”
Before the season, Scott was a player with great talent and little discipline. He averaged 15.5 points his freshman year and 20.3 as a sophomore, but seemed to play passively.
“A year or two ago, Dennis would not look to go inside,” said Cremins. “Dennis liked to stand around outside and watch.”
But Scott came to school this season weighing 30 pounds less than the 259 he played at the year before. In the off-season, he had literally remolded himself and in doing so had made himself into the player his potential had always promised.
With Oliver ailing, the re-made Scott averaged 6.6 rebounds, second highest on the team. He averaged 27.7 points per game.
And then there were those games.
In the regional final against Minnesota, Tech’s biggest win ever, Scott played 40 minutes, scoring a point a minute.
“There’s no question we look to Dennis Scott,” Cremins said.
For the drive to the Final Four, the team looked to Scott more than ever and Scott responded. Following the Michigan State game, Scott walked to the blackboard in the Tech dressing room, wrote “3 More” and drew a circle around it. Three more wins to a national championship.
“Before, Dennis would have never done that,” Cremins said.
After the Minnesota win, Scott etched “2 More” on the board.
“Dennis is not selfish,” Cremins said. “He’s not thinking about himself and the NBA. Since Brian has been hurt, he’s really done a lot.”
Scott was obviously having fun in his dream-come-true season.
“I asked Dennis at the first of the season to place his game second to the goals of the team,” Cremins said.
Strange as it may seem for someone who set the ACC single-season scoring mark with 970 points, Scott played as if team goals were primary.
“How can you be upset with someone who wins games for the team,” said McNeil when asked about Scott’s scoring prowess, about the 25-footers he launched without hesitation.