Today in sports history: Indiana beats UNC after Ronald Reagan is shot
On March 30, 1981, basketball powerhouses Indiana and North Carolina met in the NCAA tournament championship game. The highly-anticipated matchup took on a much deeper significance when the NCAA decided to hold it hours after President Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington.
The day started like normal for the Hoosiers. They ate breakfast and went to a meeting with coach Bob Knight before a group of players gathered in a Philadelphia hotel room for their daily ritual watching the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” The news broke in to say Reagan had been shot in an assassination attempt. The country–and the teams–were stunned.
Around 2:30 p.m. ET, John Hinckley fired six shots at Reagan outside of the Washington Hilton Hotel in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. Immediately the NCAA Basketball Committee had a decision on its hands. Should the championship game be played? The committee weighed its options and considered everything from postponing the game up to 48 hours or naming the Tar Heels and Hoosiers co-champions.
Coaches Dean Smith and Knight weren’t asked by the committee for their input and neither was sure what to tell their players about the state of the game.
“My feeling was, if the president died, there was no way we could or should play,” Smith later admitted, according to The Washington Post. “What bothered me was that they appeared to be concerned with two things: not looking bad to the public and making TV happy.”
Both teams eventually headed to the Spectrum uncertain if they would play that night. After arriving, Smith, Knight and an NCAA official met in a tiny broom closet for roughly an hour before the 8:23 p.m. ET tipoff to discuss what to do. Players began warming up and a little less than 30 minutes before the scheduled start time the NCAA reached a decision–the game would be played.
Indiana and North Carolina tipped off only seven minutes late, and at 8:50 p.m. ET Reagan came out of surgery. The nation collectively sighed a breath of relief to learn the president would be okay.
According to The Indianapolis Star, Reagan had a little fun with his nurse and handed her a note saying, “All in all I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
After a close first half, Indiana went into the locker room ahead, 27–26, thanks to Randy Wittman’s jumper at the buzzer. Star point guard Isiah Thomas shined in the second half, especially with two impressive steals converted into baskets.
Thomas led the night in scoring with 23 points, and the Hoosiers beat UNC 63–50 to win their second national title in five years.