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Charlotte Was The First George Mason

Cedric Maxwell has some advice for all those mid-majors beginning conference tournaments this week and looking to copy George Mason's magical run to last year's Final Four. Be like his school. Be like Charlotte.

"Everybody was saying, 'George Mason is the greatest story of all-time in college,'" Maxwell said. "Well, we did that 30 years before, and it was our first year we were even in a conference."

It was 1977 when Charlotte, in just its seventh Division I season, rode the eccentric Maxwell, nicknamed "Cornbread" for his rural eastern North Carolina roots, to an unlikely berth in the Final Four. Then came a heartbreaking _ and disputed _ loss to a Marquette team coached by Al McGuire.

"It was a wonderful, fantastic fantasy," coach Lee Rose said.

Rose faced several obstacles when he was hired as coach and athletic director in 1975. The school played in a tiny gym and had only five full-time athletic employees. And his star player, Maxwell, was about to follow former coach Bill Foster to Clemson.

"Lee Rose chewed me out," Maxwell recalled. "Lee told me he was going to have me investigated. That intimidated a rising junior, so I decided to stay with this man."

Rose then beefed up the 49ers' schedule, and they went 21-5 in 1975-76, only to upset San Francisco, Oregon and North Carolina State in the National Invitation Tournament before losing to Kentucky in the final.

"That got our name on the map," Rose said.

With Maxwell, point guard Melvin Watkins and forwards Kevin King and Lew Massey returning, the 49ers were confident going into the 1976-77 season, their first in the newly formed Sun Belt Conference. The emergence of freshman Chad Kinch helped Charlotte go 25-3 and it beat New Orleans for the league title to earn a bid to the 32-team NCAA tournament.

Maxwell, 6-foot-9 and adept with the ball, averaged more than 22 points. He was also the class clown.

"No one was like Max," King said. "I remember we were running down the court and he tripped me _ during the game."

Maxwell helped Charlotte stay loose in their first NCAA tournament. The 49ers beat Central Michigan in overtime, then knocked off No. 5 Syracuse 81-59, setting up a matchup with top-ranked Michigan in the regional final.

The 49ers stunned Ricky Green and the Wolverines 75-68 in a game best remembered for Kinch's high-flying dunk.

"He took off from so far away and dunked on Phil Hubbard," Maxwell said. "It made a statement that we were as good as any team in the nation."

The 49ers then headed to Atlanta to face Marquette in one national semifinal. North Carolina, which refused to play Charlotte in the regular season, faced UNLV.

Charlotte fell behind early, then rallied. Tied in the closing seconds, Marquette wanted to get the ball to star Jerome Whitehead. Maxwell intercepted the long pass, then nearly called a timeout the 49ers didn't have.

"As usual, my mind was spacey," Maxwell said.

Just then, Whitehead reached over and without being called for a foul took the ball away underneath the basket. Maxwell then appeared to get a piece of Whitehead's shot.

"The ball was hanging on the rim," Maxwell said. "He tapped the ball in while it was on the rim. It's goaltending."

Goaltending wasn't called. The officials ruled the basket came before the buzzer, and Marquette won 51-49.

"A school a lot of people didn't even know existed was so close to playing a team that wouldn't even allow us to play them _ the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill," Maxwell said.

The Tar Heels lost to Marquette in the final and Charlotte returned home to a downtown parade.

Rose left a year later for Purdue and led the Boilermakers to the Final Four in 1980 before becoming an NBA assistant. He is 70 now and lives in Charlotte, supervising coaches in the NBA's developmental league.

Maxwell won two league titles with the Boston Cetics during an 11-year NBA career and is now a radio analyst for the team. Watkins became the coach at Charlotte and Texas A&M and is now an assistant at Missouri. King and Massey work and live in North Carolina.

Tragedy struck the team when Kinch, the Cleveland Cavaliers' first-round pick in 1980, died of complications from AIDS in 1994 after battling drug addiction. King still keeps in touch with Kinch's son and his grandchildren.

The team's success was credited with spiking enrollment and approval for financing a nursing school. But even though the 49ers, now in the Atlantic 10, have made the NCAA tournament seven of the past 10 years, they've never made it past the second round since the 1977 dream season.

"I won two rings with the Celtics, but I would gladly have traded one of them to win the championship in college," Maxwell said. "We were deserving."