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It was a quiet spring night in northern Alabama at the SEC Tournament in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center 30 years ago this week.
LSU All-American junior center Shaquille O’Neal was dominating sixth-seed Tennessee and had just put his team up 73-51 with 10:39 to play on a dunk over forward Carlus Groves for his 16th point. He already had 16 rebounds too.
“It’ll be LSU and Kentucky in the first game tomorrow,” Jefferson-Pilot play-by-play announcer Tom Hammonds said, already previewing one semifinal of the 1992 SEC Tournament.
“We ought to be able to get out of here at a decent hour tonight and go to a restaurant,” one writer told another as each of their stories now only needed a top.
What happened next would be written about through the late hours that night and for the rest of the weekend.
The 2022 SEC Tournament opens in Tampa, Florida, Wednesday with a handful of teams capable of winning the title. No. 4 Auburn and No. 5 Kentucky could each earn No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament. No. 9 Tennessee, No. 15 Arkansas, Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M could get hot and win it. Seven or eight SEC teams could make the NCAA Tournament field in all.
But it will still have to go a long way to equal the SEC Tournament of 1992 – aka “The Brawl In Birmingham.”
O’Neal was about to go up again for another easy dunk when a frustrated Groves grabbed both sides of O’Neal’s waist and held on, similar to a beaten boxer wrapping up an opponent. O’Neal started to fall and swung his left arm back and hit Groves in the face with his elbow, but not that hard. Groves was fine. The two wrestled a bit with O’Neal taking another swipe at him before teammates separated them.
It could have ended there with an intentional foul on Groves, but LSU coach Dale Brown had already stormed the court in pursuit of Groves. He pushed Groves and took a swing at him, but missed. Groves then slapped at Brown’s face with an open hand as Groves was being pushed away by teammates. A referee and others restrained Brown and pushed him back toward his bench just as Tennessee coach Wade Houston went after Brown and had to be held back.
All hell had broken loose.
LSU point guard Jamie Brandon bobbed and weaved near center court and landed a punch to the face of Tennessee guard Jay Price.
“I’ve never done boxing before,” Hammonds said.
LSU forward Vernell Singleton slapped at Groves’ face twice and pushed him away. Tennessee All-SEC guard Allan Houston, the coach’s son, and LSU guard Maurice Williamson squared off amid a mosh pit of players from both teams that pushed toward the scorer’s table across court from Brown’s initial charge.
Finally, order was restored, and game officials began reviewing tape to see who should be ejected.
“You sure they’re not going to cuff anybody?” Hammonds said.
In all, 10 players were ejected. O’Neal and Groves were both ejected and suspended for their next game. Eight other players were ejected but not suspended for the next game – Brandon, Singleton, Williamson and Harold Boudreaux of LSU and Chris Brand, Steve Rivers, Alonzo Johnson and Price of Tennessee.
Brown, whose actions kept the brawl going, was not ejected, and the media wanted to know why.
After a 20-minute delay, LSU went on to beat the Vols, 99-89, to advance to a semifinal game against No. 9 Kentucky, but the Tigers would not have O’Neal, the Associated Press player of the year in 1991 and SEC player of the year and NCAA blocked shots leader in 1992 with 157.
A capacity crowd gathered in the interview area for Brown’s postgame press conference that was delayed as Brown met with SEC officials, including John Guthrie, who was associate commissioner of the league in charge of officials.
Soon, members of the media who originally planned to cover the next game – No. 17 Alabama vs. Florida – made their way in for the Brown press conference.
Unbeknownst to Brown and Guthrie, several media members watched replays of the fight on the cameras of television crews while waiting for Brown. And replay clearly showed that Brown took a swing at Groves. But Guthrie and Brown didn’t know that the media knew as they sat at the podium.
“I did not see Dale Brown do anything to warrant ejection,” Guthrie said as people could be heard giggling. “Don’t make Dale Brown the villain in this. I felt like at the time he was trying to get it under control.”
With a haymaker? There was more laughter from the chorus.
“Dale, did you try to hit Groves? It looked like you took a swing at him,” Brown was asked.
“I cannot believe that you would ask me that,” Brown said incredulously. “I saw that it was going to be a potential fight, so I grabbed the guy that I thought was the instigator of the whole thing (Groves). But it’s my legacy in the league. I guess I’ll be the fall guy. It all started from an intentional, flagrant foul. The league should be embarrassed for kicking Shaquille out of the game.”
Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi, who was covering the Gators at the time, wrote that Brown “lied, cried and denied.”
Brown was reprimanded for charging the court by SEC commissioner Roy Kramer the next day. Kramer said Brown “clearly violated the SEC Code of Ethics, and any further violation of these policies will result in more severe action, including the suspension of all coaching duties for one or more games, which may extend into next season.”
Apparently, it went on Brown’s “permanent record,” but he was not suspended or fined. Interestingly, Michigan coach Juwan Howard was just suspended for five games for taking a swing at Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft after a 77-63 loss on Feb. 20. But Howard’s swing did not miss.
The Florida and Alabama writers covering the LSU-Tennessee post-bout presser missed a great game. Alabama guard James “Hollywood” Robinson hit a jumper with seven seconds left for a 62-60 win over the Gators.
Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, a good friend of Brown’s, was asked what he thought of Brown going after Groves.
“I don’t know. I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Sanderson said as the place exploded in laughter.
SEC coaches at this time had personality. The press conferences with legends Sanderson, Brown and Georgia’s Hugh Durham were often pure theater. But there was also new blood as Rick Pitino was in his third year at Kentucky, which was fresh off probation after missing the previous two years of the SEC Tournament because of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Eddie Sutton era.
There were also two brand new teams in the 1991-92 season after SEC expansion, South Carolina and Arkansas, which flat came in and took over. The Razorbacks won the 1991-92 SEC regular season title under coach Nolan Richardson and hit Birmingham ranked No. 6 in the nation and ready to let Kentucky know who would be running this league.
All appeared set for a Kentucky-Arkansas SEC Tournament title game, but they forgot Alabama owned this tournament. Sanderson’s Tide had won the league tournament the previous three years and four of the last five, and his team wasn’t going to let a newbie reach the finals in Birmingham – just 57 miles northeast of the Alabama campus.
Todd Day scored 39 for the Razorbacks while Robinson put in 26 in a thrilling track meet that was 40 minutes of hell for both defenses. Sanderson wanted Robinson to take the game-winning shot, but he was covered and passed to Elliot Washington, who hit a 3-pointer with two seconds left for a 90-89 semifinal victory.
LSU played valiantly without O’Neal in the other semifinal against Kentucky and even led 50-46 in the second half before succumbing 80-74 in front of 17,689 – the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in the state of Alabama at the time. With Shaq, LSU had dispatched Kentucky easily in the regular season, 74-53, in Baton Rouge on Feb. 2. The Tigers also had a rare sweep over Alabama with O’Neal – 89-81 in Tuscaloosa and 73-65 at home.
But Dale Brown still had a hand in the final, sort of. Alabama had little energy left for the final and fell to Kentucky 80-54, as a Kentucky guard named Dale Brown held Robinson to five second-half points after he scored 17 in the first half.
Kentucky forward Jamal Mashburn scored 28 and finished with 64 in three games to take the MVP award.
“That victory over Arkansas took a lot out of us,” Sanderson said. “The kids were so hyper, they were on cloud nine. I tried to get them down a little bit, but they wouldn’t let it happen.”
With Shaq, it is not a reach to say LSU would have won the 1992 SEC Tournament and received a better seed than its No. 7, which would have meant a better pairing. After a 94-83 win over Brigham Young in Boise, Idaho, the Tigers had to play No. 2 seed and fifth-ranked Indiana with coach Bobby Knight and fell 89-79. And Shaq’s LSU career was over.
The entire 1992 SEC Tournament had a cloud nine feel to it. No fewer than 10 players from that four-day affair were drafted in the first round of the next two NBA drafts.
O’Neal was the first player picked in the 1992 draft, followed by Arkansas’ Day with the eighth pick, Alabama’s Robert Horry at No. 11, Arkansas’ Oliver Miller at No. 22, Arkansas’ Lee Mayberry at No. 23 and Alabama’s Latrell Sprewell at No. 24.
In 1993, Kentucky’s Mashburn was the fourth pick of the first round, followed by Tennessee’s Houston at No. 11, Alabama’s Robinson at No. 21 and LSU’s Geert Hammink at No. 26.
There was talent everywhere. But perhaps no athlete on the court throughout the four days rose to the occasion with more game awareness than the Tennessee pep band.
Just as the fight broke out between LSU and the Vols, the band played “Swing, Swing, Swing.”