Just figured I would give this it’s own thread. My dad wrote this a couple weeks ago…
Cedric Maxwell called it a magic carpet ride, UNC Charlotte’s trip to
the 1977 Final Four.
It was all so improbable; the university we know as Charlotte now was
UNC Charlotte then, a young commuter school that had only been playing major
college basketball for seven years, a school with no football team or
athletic reputation. A school still trying to escape the hyphen
(UNC-Charlotte) everyone insisted on placing in its name. A school invited
to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
But no more improbable than the basketball rise of Maxwell himself.
Maxwell is well-known now, his “Cornbread” nickname not a personal favorite
but familiar to basketball fans everywhere. He would leave Charlotte to star
in the NBA as a 6-foot-8 forward for 11 seasons, to twice lead the league in
field goal percentage and to be named MVP of the title series when his
Boston Celtics took the 1981 championship.
Today he still moves easily between Boston and Charlotte; he’s color
analyst for the Celtics’ broadcast team in season and heard often on
Charlotte sports talk radio when back at his nearby Concord, N.C., home.
But early in life, growing up “down east” in Kinston, Maxwell might
have felt invisible in a basketball sense. So much so that as a junior, he
was cut from his high school team.
He grew four inches over the following year, reaching 6-7½. He would
not be cut again.
Still, despite an all-star senior season, few colleges noticed Maxwell.
He would have liked to go to East Carolina, but the Pirates offered a
partial scholarship. He would have loved to go to North Carolina, but the
Tar Heels didn’t seem to know he existed.
He committed to UNCC, only to have friends ask him if that was a junior
varsity school that supplied players to the Tar Heels.
Then, the summer after his senior year, Maxwell played in the East-West
All-Star Game in Greensboro. The tallest player on the East squad, he was
expected to guard 7-foot, 300-pound Geoff Crompton, a prep all-American
bound for North Carolina.
“I remember being intimidated, here I was 6-7 and 172 pounds,” Maxwell
said. "I was thinking, ‘Aw man, how am I going to do this?’"
Maxwell leaped over and zipped around the less-mobile Crompton, scoring and
rebounding almost at will and leading the East to an upset victory.
Suddenly, scouts from other schools were everywhere.
“But I had already committed to UNCC,” Maxwell said. "And you know
what got me? They had a great meal program. I was thinking, ‘man, I’m going
to be eating on this thing for four years.’"
The 49ers would feed off of Cornbread during that same period, going
from a basketball nonentity to Cinderella before the term became a cliché.
One notable aftereffect; after missing on Maxwell, the Tar Heels
changed their recruiting strategy.
“I talked to (former North Carolina assistant) Phil Ford, and he said
after that there was what they called a ‘Cornbread run’ that they’d make to
see every possible recruit in the state,” Maxwell said. "There wasn’t going
to be anybody that slipped past them again."
Maxwell immediately became a star with the 49ers under coach Bill
"Cedric had the ability to just sort of ooze around his defenders,"
said Kevin King, who played power forward on that UNCC team. "He appeared
uncoordinated and awkward but he had the ability to figure out the person
guarding him, maneuver around him, and just outsmart his opponent."
Current 49ers coach Bobby Lutz was a Charlotte student then, and loved
watching Maxwell play.
“He was thin, but everybody was back then,” Lutz said. "He was so long
and fluid; he made it look effortless just scoring the ball. He had supreme
confidence; it didn’t matter if the guy he was going against was bigger,
quicker, stronger or whatever; Cedric knew when he touched the ball he was
going to score.
"He could contort and control his body and always seemed able to get
closer to the basket. If he was 12 feet away, he could get between defenders
and get an eight-footer. He had a knack and a feel for that. He could spin
one way and if blocked, he would spin the other and get the shot."
Maxwell could also bring the ball up the court against pressure, and
UNCC often had him do just that.
"I had uniqueness to my game, a lot like (North Carolina and NBA
star) Antawn Jamison, floating jump hooks and shooting off the wrong foot,"
Maxwell said. "If you fouled me, I would make my free throws. If guys were
6-10, 6-11 they had to catch me, and normally my wingspan dwarfed theirs. A
unique blend of long arms, quickness, all herky-jerky and on top of that a
good ball handler.
"I saw where Magic Johnson said, ‘I saw Cedric Maxwell bringing the
ball up when I was in high school.’ I think I had an influence on a lot of
But UNCC, hurt by a soft schedule and its own invisibility, spent
Maxwell’s first two seasons winning many games and losing out on postseason
After 1975, though, Foster left for Clemson and Lee Rose took over.
The 49ers received their first postseason berth in the '76 NIT and proved
they could play, staying eight days in the Big Apple and beating San
Francisco, Oregon and N.C. State in Madison Square Garden before finally
losing to Kentucky in the title game.
“That was such a fantasy ride, we thought we were going up to New York
for a game, maybe two,” Maxwell said. "Nobody packed enough clothes and the
school had to get more money to us to get us through. But the NIT propelled
us; we had confidence we could play with anybody in the nation.
"Our fear stage was playing San Francisco (with 7-foot center Bill
Cartwright) in the first game; after that we were fine. N.C. State had taken
us off their schedule after they beat us by three points in Raleigh the year
before. They said, 'we ain’t playing you guys no more.'
Uh, yes you are.
"If there was a true Cinderella it had to be UNC Charlotte at that
time. All mixed up in this wonderful stew, and people in Charlotte didn’t
even know where we were located. The closest McDonald’s to campus back then
was 10 miles away."
The city of Charlotte learned fast. When the team returned from the
NIT, 5,000 people stormed the airport to welcome them home.
And then came 1977.
Maxwell was now a senior and, after being named MVP of the NIT,
basketball fans knew about him, his nickname and the way he pantomimed his
free throw motion before actually shooting.
Rose had found the final piece of the puzzle, recruiting a long-armed,
6-4 shooting guard from New Jersey named Chad Kinch. He joined veteran point
guard Melvin Watkins, 6-3 and a mediocre shooter but a fine distributor with
an understanding of the game. Up front were King, at 6-7 a tough defender
with a soft jump shot, and 6-5 small forward Lew Massey, a Charlotte product
and a scoring machine. Guard Jeff Gruber and forward Phil Scott provided
depth off the bench, and the 49ers needed nothing more.
A regular-season record of 25-3 got little respect in the polls but
included victory in the initial Sun Belt Conference Tournament and was
followed by that first NCAA Tourney bid.
It almost ended immediately. The 49ers traveled to Bloomington, Ind.,
and battled first-round opponent Central Michigan into overtime before
winning the right to play No.6 Syracuse in the Mideast Regional semifinals
in Lexington, Ky.
This one was supposed to be easy for Syracuse, under first-year coach
“They had (6-11 center) Roosevelt Bouie, and Rick Pitino was an
assistant coach,” Maxwell said. "We beat them to death. It wasn’t even
close, and we started feeling better about ourselves. We felt like we could
compete. We thought we were good but we didn’t know we were THAT good."
Maxwell had 19 points and made all 11 of his free throws against the
Orangemen in the 81-59 decision. Michigan, ranked No.1 and featuring
all-American Phil Hubbard, was waiting.
Maxwell remembered walking onto the court and seeing Hubbard for the
"I hadn’t heard of him, and I was thinking, ‘hey he ain’t as big as
me.’ We hadn’t read much about other teams, we just knew they were No.1. I
was longer, more athletic and a better scorer than Phil Hubbard was."
UNCC smacked the Wolverines early and often, and then, late in the
first half, came The Play.
Kinch got the ball on the baseline and went up and over Hubbard for
the jam, a remarkable play that drew a foul. Kinch made the free throw, and
the 49ers led 40-27.
“The moment of truth, the greatest play in UNC Charlotte history, was
that dunk on the baseline,” Maxwell said. "Chad Kinch dunked on Phil
Hubbard, went right up over him. That play right there made us believe that
we were better than the No.1 team in the nation."
Michigan would fight back, even take the lead. But Maxwell fouled out
two Wolverines who were trying to take the ball from him, and UNCC wound up
a 75-68 winner. Maxwell had 25 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and a trip
to the Final Four.
“What I remember most was how disappointed I was we weren’t going a
long distance, to some exotic place to play,” he said, laughing. "Going to
Atlanta wasn’t much better than going down to (Charlotte’s) Independence
UNCC would face Marquette in the semifinals, but the 49ers were
already thinking about North Carolina, which would play UNLV in the other
“Carolina was the school that had been running from us, they refused
to play us,” Maxwell said. "They don’t acknowledge we are in the state. For
us not to have the opportunity to play in this game against Carolina, to a
degree we did look past Marquette."
The result was a poorly played contest by both teams, one that came
down to a final pass with 3 seconds left in a 49-all tie.
The length-of-the-court toss from Butch Lee somehow got through Maxwell’s
hands and into those of Marquette’s Jerome Whitehead, who managed to nudge
the ball into the basket. Maxwell said he lost the ball in part because he
was preparing to call a time out that UNCC didn’t have.
"Sometimes I would zone out in time outs, as we were returning to the
floor, one of the assistants said ‘don’t forget, we’re out of timeouts,’ and
I missed it. I would have been Chris Webber before Chris Webber.
"So Jerome Whitehead fouls me, gets the ball and he’s about to dunk
but he taps it on the rim. So the official could have called a foul, he
could have called goaltending. We all looked at him, and he just brought his
arm down, signaling the basket was good. It was like you were about to be
executed and saw the pendulum drop."
Just like that, UNCC’s remarkable run was over.
Now, three decades later, Maxwell remembers those days from time to time.
Particularly last season, when unheralded George Mason made a similar run to
the Final Four.
“I’m a little envious of all the hype George Mason got,” he said.
"UNC Charlotte accomplished a lot more than George Mason did."
Maxwell isn’t bitter, though. He never worked that way. He was the guy who
gave the other 49ers nicknames, and the guy who carried on a running
play-by-play through practice.
“I was Billy Packer while I was playing. If they were getting their
shot blocked, I was talking about it,” Maxwell said, and you could hear the
delight in his voice. "Everybody got tired of it; they wanted somebody to
dunk on me just to keep me quiet."
Kevin King remembered Maxwell occasionally tripping him as they ran
upcourt during games.
“But only when we were 'way ahead,” King said, laughing. "He was the
class clown of the team. But Cedric was also the glue of the team. He didn’t
like to practice that much, but when it came down to the games, he was
Look at him now, long and lean at 51, and he looks like he could be
again. But Maxwell never plays basketball anymore, preferring to live off
his voice and his wit.
But Cedric Bryan Maxwell remains the finest player in UNC Charlotte’s
history. And he has a deep understanding of what he and his mates
accomplished so long ago.
“When you start thinking about the reputation of the Final Four, for
UNCC to get there was unbelievable,” he said. "There were only 32 teams, and
most of those slots went to major teams. There weren’t a lot of Cinderella
teams, just us.
“It’s just a delightful memory.”