Three College Hoops Players in the '80s Put Villanova on the Road to History

By Frank Fitzpatrick
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Deriving fortitude from each other, they marched into Massimino’s office one day and told him they all thought they should be starters. The coach would have a strange relationship with the trio. Their collective spirit, and McLain’s outspokenness in particular, sometimes drove him crazy. But personally he would like them as well as any players he ever had. “They’ve made my hair stand on end,” he would say. “And they’ve made me love and hug them.” Surprisingly, the coach was receptive to their complaint and Pinckney and McClain soon found themselves in the lineup. McLain, stuck behind the talented Granger, had to bide his time, one talent he surely didn’t possess. “Stewart knew Gary was right behind him,” Pinckney said. “Gary really wanted that job. He was determined to push him in every way. The two of them competed in everything.” Their freshman season ended just shy of the Final Four, with a loss to Michael Jordan’s North Carolina in the East Region final. 

The following season, a team Massimino would later call his most talented, was practically a mirror image of the 1981–82 squad. Another 24–8 record, a 12–4 mark and second-place in the Big East, and two tournament wins. It ended the same as well, again on the precipice of a Final Four, with a loss to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston in the Midwest Region final. It should have been pretty heady stuff. Two twenty-four win seasons, four NCAA victories, two regional finals against future legends. But it wasn’t near enough for the ambitious Expansion Crew. “We were like costars,” said McLain of their roles on those teams. “We were part of it but not really part of it.” 

They were all key contributors their junior season. But though it ended with another NCAA trip—the school’s fifth straight—Massimino’s club slipped a bit, finishing 19–12 and advancing only to the NCAA’s second round. 

By the time they were seniors, they weren’t sure their Final Four vow would ever be fulfilled. And while each had improved tremendously at Villanova, Pinckney in particular wondered if his last season there was going to be the end of the basketball line for him. Was he good enough for the NBA? He just wasn’t certain. For all his talent and success, he still had considerable self-doubt. “[He used to say] he didn’t want to be a pro,” Massimino recalled. “That was his out. It took the monkey off his back. He was always ‘Easy Ed.’ I’ve always tried to talk to him about the future, about what he wants. Does he want to drive a Volkswagen or a Mercedes? Does he want to struggle or does he want real comfort? If you want that kind of thing, you have to extend yourself, you can’t hold back. You can’t say, ‘Later, it will come later.’” Pinckney would absorb the lesson at just the right time. 

Not long after McLain got to Villanova, he graduated from marijuana to cocaine. This was the 1980s, and the drug was ubiquitous. He did it alone in his dorm room, in bathrooms at nearby bars, and sometimes—as he would later write in an infamous 1987 Sports Illustrated article—in basketball arenas just before games. 

From The Perfect Game by Frank Fitzpatrick. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Frank Fitzpatrick has been a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 30 years. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and his numerous awards include first place from the Associated Press Sports editors in the Best News Story category. He is also the author of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky,Texas Western, and the Game That Changed American Sports. He lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Villanova men’s basketball plays Syracuse at home this week: Sat., Jan. 26, 11am.

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