Charles Balentine became an Arkansas folk hero on a Sunday afternoon in February 1984. That's when, in front of a sold-out Pine Bluff Convention Center crowd and a national television audience, he hit a last-second, eight-foot baseline jumper to lead the Razorbacks to an upset victory over the No.1-ranked and undefeated North Carolina Tar Heels. Those Tar Heels, you may recall, featured college legends Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and another pretty good basketball player.
The Hogs, even though they weren't ranked, weren't too shabby either, featuring future Olympians and NBA players Alvin Robertson and Joe Kleine. But the star of the afternoon was Balentine. And although Razorback fans primarily remember him for his heroics that day, Balentine made many more contributions to Eddie Sutton's program. He was a vital member of perhaps Sutton's most complete Hog team, and he provided much-needed leadership during the coach's often tumultuous final season.
We recently spoke with the gracious and gregarious Newport native, who now lives in Farmington and is a district manager for Flying J, about his days in Fayetteville. We'll be publishing the interview in installments throughout the week. In today's segment, Charles talks about that magical Sunday more than 25 years ago, when the Hogs notched the biggest regular-season win in the program's history.
Walk us through the hours leading up to that Sunday game against North Carolina in Pine Bluff. You played SMU in Dallas the day before, and there was some bad weather during your flight to Pine Bluff. What was the team’s mindset going into the game because of all that?
We flew down to Dallas to play SMU. That was a major game for the conference. Winning that game placed us second in the conference behind Houston.
The plan was to fly after the game to Pine Bluff. But unfortunately, the weather turned bad in between Dallas and Pine Bluff, and we couldn’t fly out, so Coach [Sutton] put us up in a hotel in Dallas.
Meanwhile, North Carolina had been in Arkansas since Friday, if I’m not mistaken. I recall my relatives calling me about seeing all of the future NBA stars on the Carolina team. They got a lot of pub in Little Rock. That’s where they were staying and practicing at one of the local gyms before they went down to Pine Bluff.
We had an early-morning flight on Sunday, and Coach got us all up about 6 a.m. We were all downstairs for breakfast, and the pilots were there, and they said, "Guys, I gotta tell you all: The weather didn’t get any better. It’s going to be a bad flight."
I gotta tell you: that was the longest hour and 10 minute flight that I have ever been on. We’d go up, down — people were throwing up. The stewardesses couldn’t get up and serve us. The pilot and co-pilot, you could hear them talking. Everybody was pretty bad off. We arrived at the [Pine Bluff] airport around 9:30 or so.
Going into the game, we were all kind of weary. Many of us were still sick from the flight when we got to the arena. We immediately went out and did our warm-ups.
I recall coming back to the dressing room. Normally, we’d have like a little report, and we didn’t have that. It was such a quick deal. I remember that Coach said, "You guys have got nothing to lose. You’ve got nothing to prove. These guys are undefeated. They’re expected to be number one. You guys go out and play your game. We’ve played the tough game already. Let’s just go out and play this game and make Arkansas proud."
That was it.
Do you think all of those unusual circumstances contributed to you guys playing well, or were they more of an obstacle that you guys had to overcome?
I think it was a little bit of both. Normally before a game, you’re gonna have butterflies in your stomach. Especially for a nationally televised game.
I had always had butterflies, but that particular game, I didn’t. None of us did. We were trying to get ourselves together because it was a tough flight up. I think it kind of helped us a little bit and took our minds off the pressure on us to win.
When were you playing SMU the day before, did you find it hard to focus or concentrate on that game because you had Carolina a day later?
I’ve got to give Coach Sutton and his staff credit: We didn’t really think about North Carolina until the day of the game. Coach never looked ahead. He took every game one at a time. He didn’t think about other stuff. And that’s how we focused, how we prepared for those games.
He didn’t bring up North Carolina being number one. I don’t think anybody brought it up. I think we were more focused on wanting to be in the hunt for the SWC.
Regarding the famous shot – what was it like in the timeout beforehand? Was there a specific play drawn up? It looked like maybe there was a broken play that happened and you were in the right place at the right time.
The plan was to get the ball to Alvin, and he was to look inside to Joe. And then if Alvin couldn’t get the ball to Joe, he was to drive and then look for Ricky Norton or me.
I was in the right spot, and Ricky was in the right spot. But I think Alvin got a little tied up, and I think North Carolina read it to a tea. They knew where we were going with that ball.
I just saw Alvin getting tangled up. I thought he was shooting the ball. And then just by luck, I kind of looked at him and he just tossed that ball over there.
I just had to get to it. If you look at it, I had to knock it with my left hand and then bring it back in and then go up and shoot.
It was kind of a bad pass, but I reached out to get it. By that time, the guy that was on me, which was Jordan, had gone to double team Alvin.
Did it seem like that possession happened in a split second or did it seem it took an eternity to unfold and for you to get the shot?
It seems like when Alvin got the ball, that he held it for two minutes. If you notice me on the side, I was like, "OK, get this shot over." And I was kind of hopping towards the goal. He seemed like he was never going to release that ball.
He looked three or four different ways. He looked at all his options, looked at Ricky, looked at Joe, and he looked at me – and then he ran over Steve Hale and passed the ball to me!
You’ve probably heard this from a lot of people since then, but my friends and I – think I was 11 at that time - recreated that shot in our backyards probably about 500 times, even down to the point where you had to catch the ball with your left hand.
(Laughs.) It’s amazing – I met some guys up in Missouri, and they remembered that game, and they said the same thing. They said, "We practiced that shot all the time." I was like, "Come on!" They said, "Really!"
What are your memories of the rest of that day?
After the game, it was just mayhem. It was crazy.
The Pine Bluff Convention Center wasn’t that big, so there wasn’t that big of a crowd at the game, but they were still there when we came out to meet our families.
My family – my mom, my dad – they were really proud. My mom said the first thing I said to her was, "Man, we had a tough flight coming in!" I don’t remember that, but that’s what she said (laughs).
We ended up staying there for a little bit and then flying out. Our meal on the plane was Kentucky Fried Chicken. We had a little boxed lunch. We didn’t get a good meal.
Flying back, the weather was still bad. It was still bumpy.
When we looped around Fayetteville, the clouds broke, and the sun came out. We could see – I bet there were 10,000 fans at the airport.
We were like, "Oh my god. Look at this." When someone said that, everyone got up and ran to one side (laughs).
And the pilot was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re landing! We’re landing!" The plane tilted. We’re like, "Oh wait, get back over there!"
When we landed, Coach said, "Guys, you realize what we’ve done – we just knocked off the number one team in the nation, and you guys are heroes to the state of Arkansas."
People were everywhere. The police tried to get ‘em – they rushed the airplane. We were high-fiving people going into the airport. People were clapping. It was just one of those moments where you could feel that our team had done something special for the state.
We always had a ritual after we got off the plane. We would meet at one of two places to eat: Western Sizzlin or IHOP. We said, "Let’s go to Western Sizzlin."
It was the afternoon by this time, about four. We walk into Western Sizzlin, and the crowd goes crazy. We’re happy and thankful – and most of us were hungry. It was just an unbelievable day. It seems like it was a long, long day.
Were you able to sleep at all that night?
Oh yeah. I think we were so tired. The emotional drain really hit us. And then most of us had that Monday morning, 7:30 class.
I still remember my first class. It was a speech class. I walked in, and the class stood up. I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." The professor said, "We’re proud of you guys. Thank you very much."
(In tomorrow's installment, Charles discusses the best Hog team he played on, the most painful defeats of his career and which SWC gym he most hated to visit.)