A new ESPN series — co-produced by former Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg — explores the history of the ACC men's basketball tournament and highlights NC State's role in its creation.
For NC State coach Everett Case and his players, the tournament was the thing.
“The tournament is a banquet, and every game is a feast,” Case said of the end-of-season Atlantic Coast Conference event that originated on NC State’s campus at Reynolds Coliseum.
When NC State, North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and three other schools broke away from the Southern Conference in 1953 to form the ACC, Case strongly advocated for naming the winner of the tournament the league’s champion and sending that team to the NCAA Championship. Most other leagues did not have tournaments and determined their champions based on regular-season standings.
The first 13 tournaments were held at then-massive Reynolds, which established itself as an opulent college basketball venue when it opened in 1949 as the host of the Southern Conference Tournament and Dixie Classic, an eight-team holiday tournament featuring NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest playing nationally prominent teams from outside the state.
Case, whose early coaching days were in tournament-crazy Indiana high schools, was never fully sated, even though he won six consecutive Southern Conference titles and the first three ACC tournaments at Reynolds (1954-56) in his first 10 years as Wolfpack coach.
The Pack won five of the first 13 ACC tournaments, all played at smoke-filled Reynolds. The league then moved it to other larger venues through the years, including Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, Washington and Tampa. This year’s tournament will be March 8-12 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“It was all about the tournament for Everett,” says former Wolfpack All-America guard Vic Molodet, who played in the first ACC tournament in 1954 and was named the most valuable player of the event in 1956. “He took it seriously and was always preparing for it.”
How seriously? Case quarantined his players at the old Plantation Inn on U.S. Highway 1 for the duration of both the ACC Tournament and the holiday Dixie Classic, even though the games were only a few steps from their university dorm rooms. The now-demolished luxury motel was more than 15 miles away. They ran drills in the parking lot and had strict curfews. Classes and exams came to them, not the other way around.
“He wanted us focused on basketball,” Molodet says.
Beginning next week, ESPN Films will air “The Tournament: A History of ACC Men’s Basketball,” a 10-part series focused on the history of the 68-year-old ACC tournament. The first two episodes air at 9 and 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, on the ACC Network, with future episodes airing over the next four weeks.
Leading the marketing campaign for the month-long celebration of the tournament is Snow Hill native Rapsody, a twice Grammy-nominated rapper who began her singing career as an NC State student.
Former Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg is one of five producers of the series, reconnecting with executive producers Jonathan Hock and John Dahl, who produced the Emmy Award-winning “Survive and Advance,” the ESPN 30-for-30 special about NC State’s 1983 NCAA championship run. Larry Weitzman, a four-time Emmy winner, is the director of the project.
“The first two episodes are going to be heavy on NC State, especially about Everett Case, the Dixie Classic and the growth of the ACC tournament,” says Whittenburg, also an NC State associate athletics director. “We have used some never-before-seen footage that really tells the story of those early days.”
In addition to Molodet and Whittenburg, some of the Wolfpack legends who shared their stories and anecdotes for the series are Lou Pucillo, Charlie Bryant, Eddie Biedenbach, Bucky Waters, Phil Spence, Tom Burleson, Monte Towe, Thurl Bailey, Terry Gannon, Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe, among others.
Future episodes will chronicle NC State’s two NCAA championship seasons, in 1974 and ’83, as well as other highlights from the league’s first seven decades.
The series will appear first on the ACC Network over the next four weeks and then move to other broadcast and streaming platforms owned by Disney, such as ABC, ESPN2 and ESPNU.