New Year's Day is here, and that means it's time to get crackin' on those New Year's resolutions. One of my resolutions is to finish boring you with the list of my 10 favorite Razorback basketball players of all time (here's actual footage of people reacting to the news that I'm resuming my countdown).
More than 30 years of following Hog hoops left me with no shortage of worthy candidates, and whittling down the list of potential honorees to just 10 hasn't been easy. Nevertheless, I bravely soldiered on. One quick note: I've limited the list to players that have played for the Razorbacks since I became a fan in the 1979-80 season, when I was seven years old. That was the year after Sidney Moncrief's senior season. With that bit of context, on to No. 7 (btw, here's nos 8, 9 and 10) ...
If Charles Balentine had literally done nothing else in his Razorback career besides hit that game-winning basket against North Carolina, he might still merit a place on my list of favorite Hog hoopsters, so thrilling was that moment. But those who followed Arkansas basketball in the early and mid-1980s know that Charles' contribution to the program extended well beyond that unforgettable shot.
For much of his career, he was a solid-as-a-rock role player who, together with Leroy Sutton, formed the perfect blue-collar, frontcourt complement to All-Americans such as Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson and Joe Kleine. In his senior year, however, Balentine took center stage and, together with Kleine, carried a team short on talent and even shorter on experience to the NCAA Tournament and within an eyelash of a second-round upset of No. 1-seeded and eventual Final Four entry St. John's.
Throughout it all, Charles conducted himself with class and good cheer. In short, he was the kind of player whom it was impossible to dislike.
Where It All Began
I became a Charles Balentine fan for a very kid-like reason. I was in the third grade when Charles was a freshman, and when I learned that he is from Newport - which my family passed through all the time on our way to and from my grandmother's Jonesboro home - he immediately become one of my favorites simply because I felt some connection to his hometown. As a nine-year-old, this made perfect sense.
When we would stop in Newport to get gas or buy some snacks, I would always keep my eye out for Charles, hoping to run into him. One summer day during his college career, we actually drove past him as he was bicycling on a two-lane highway just outside the city limits. I remember he was wearing practice shorts emblazoned with head coach Eddie Sutton's "Defense, Dedication, Discipline" mantra. I couldn't have been more thrilled.
Charles didn't have many opportunities to thrill his fans during his first season: Like many freshman in the Eddie Sutton-era, he rode some serious pine during his first year in Fayetteville. He made big strides as a sophomore, however, and was an important contributor to the 1982-83 squad, one of the best Razorback teams of all time (and perhaps the most underappreciated, too). As a junior, Charles improved further still, and it was this season that brought his defining moment as a Razorback: the eight-foot, last-second shot that stunned No. 1-ranked and undefeated North Carolina before a packed house at the Pine Bluff Convention Center and a national television audience.
A Hero's Effort
While most Hog fans probably remember Balentine for his last-second heroics against Michael Jordan & Co., his most admirable work came one year later. The 1984-85 season was a tumultuous one: Eddie Sutton's alcoholism was causing the coach to unravel, and a much-heralded but wildly overrated recruiting class struggled mightily to fill the void created by the departures of starters Alvin Robertson, Ricky Norton and Leroy Sutton.
Compared with preceding seasons, the losses came with rapid-fire frequency: When all was said and done, the team would lose 13 games. It was during one of these defeats - an ugly, nationally televised thrashing at the hands of defending national champion Georgetown - that Charles had perhaps his finest game as a Razorback. With the Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas shutting down Joe Kleine and all of the other Hogs struggling, Balentine played point guard and scored 22 of Arkansas' measly 39 points. It was an awfully gutty performance.
Despite all the obstacles, Charles and Kleine double-handedly kept the Hogs afloat for most of the season, and the team finally began to click late in the season. After snagging an at-large NCAA berth, the Hogs whipped Iowa (a team that had beaten them by 19 earlier in the year) before giving heavily favored St. John's - which had spent much of the season trading the No. 1 ranking with Georgetown - all it could handle before the then-Redmen eked out a three-point victory in Sutton's last game as the Razorbacks' coach.
I remember being heartbroken when the game was over, not only because the Hogs had come so close to so huge an upset, but because the contest marked the end of the career of Charles Balentine, a classy player who maximized his talent and, in the process, created so many wonderful memories for Razorback basketball fans.