Gorman: Going to Carolina in my mind
Twenty one years later, their recollections of the national championship at North Carolina remain vivid, from plays Dean Smith designed to lessons learned.
Not that Kevin Salvadori or Dante Calabria can put into proper words what it was like to come from the WPIAL and win an NCAA basketball title.
“To this day, it's 21 years since we won the national championship, it's still hard to describe,” said Salvadori, 43, a pharmaceutical salesman in Charlotte, N.C. “Nothing has ever compared to it, really.”
What the duo didn't realize is how they helped turn Western Pennsylvania basketball fans like myself — I graduated two years after Salvadori, one before Calabria and saw both play in high school — into North Carolina followers.
“It's neat how Carolina was able to do that,” said Calabria, 40, now an assistant women's coach at Northwood (Fla.) University after a 16-year career in Europe. “When you win and do it in a correct way and the guy that's your coach is one of the best of all time, it's neat to see how when one or two guys go there, there is a following.”
It wasn't often that Dean Smith recruited Pittsburgh, but the legendary coach personally pursued both Salvadori, the shot-blocking 7-footer who led Seton-La Salle to a 1989 state title, and Calabria, the sharpshooting guard who led Blackhawk to one in '92.
Two decades earlier, three WPIAL stars led Smith's Tar Heels to the 1972 Final Four: Ambridge's Dennis Wuycik, Penn Hills' George Karl and Bethel Park's Steve Previs.
“There's no question all of those guys were very successful players for us,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, then a student at Chapel Hill. “Those guys were big-time players, tough mentally and tough physically.
“I think anybody would like to have those kind of tough-minded kids on their team. I would like to have five of them right now. If there's five up there that would consider coming all the way to North Carolina, I'd very interested in getting them because I think they added a great deal to our program during both of those time periods.”
Think about that when No. 25 Pitt (20-5, 8-4) visits North Carolina (16-7, 6-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Smith Center:
The Tar Heels have had multiple Final Four teams featuring multiple WPIAL products.
Not bad for a football town.
“Most of the fans that were around when they played appreciated that we were hard-nosed guys who didn't take any crap from anybody,” Calabria said of '72. “Those guys set the precedent for us.”
Calabria appreciates that Salvadori was there as a mentor, a fellow Western Pennsylvanian who could guide him through the culture shock.
“I wasn't the teenybopper heartthrob like Dante was,” Salvadori joked, poking fun at Calabria for wearing his lucky white suit at the Final Four, “but you grow up in Pittsburgh, and it was a lot of fun being the treated the way we were treated.
“It was nice getting all the accolades and attention at North Carolina, but it was nice to get away from it. Coming home, there was a real sense of anonymity.”
Carolina has changed since Salvadori and Calabria played there. Smith retired, and so has the support staff. The ACC is hardly recognizable, expanding from eight to 15 teams, from Boston to Miami.
But the tradition ties generations together, much the way the WPIAL stars on the '72 team did for those in '93.
Salvadori even recalls Smith telling his players during a timeout against Cincinnati in the Elite Eight that they were going to run a play that worked for the '72 team.
“The man, still to this day, is the most brilliant human being I've ever been around,” he said. “His mind was incredible, the way he processed and observed things and made the best out of them.”
What they respect the most about their Carolina experience is the lessons Smith and his staff taught them.
“They didn't just teach you about basketball,” Calabria said. “They taught you about life, and prepared for you for what was to come. ... I was part of a national championship team. It's something that is always part of you.”
Something that will always keep Salvadori and Calabria synonymous with Carolina.