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March 2, 2012
No, Lee Raker won't recognize the place. Atlanta's Philips Arena is far flashier than The Omni aspired to be. But when Virginia's ACC Legend walks onto the floor to be recognized, he might feel some good vibes anyway.
The home of the 2012 ACC Tournament sits on the same spot where Raker and his Cavalier teammates earned one of the most significant victories in the program's history, a 74-60 win over BYU in the 1981 NCAA Tournament's East regional final. The result made UVa the first ACC team outside of North Carolina to make a Final Four, and it's a memory the forward carries with him.
"When you were a kid, that's what you were gonna do someday. No matter who you were," said Raker, who works for a hedge fund in Boston these days. "Then we finally got there and it was a surreal thing. You can't appreciate what it is in the moment. You're focused on trying to get done what needs to be done. But in looking back, I think it was pretty enormous."
Raker and his high school teammate Jeff Lamp were the first elements of a package that coach Terry Holland, not all that removed from his playing and coaching days at Davidson College, assembled in his early years in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers later added Terry Gates, a third alumnus of Ballard High School in Louisville, Ky., to provide bulk up front.
"And it didn't hurt to have Ralph come along," Raker said.
That would be Ralph Sampson, a 7-foot-4, once-in-a-lifetime prospect from Harrisonburg, Va., who became a three-time consensus national Player of the Year.
"That was the missing piece, and it propelled things at that point," Raker remembered.
It propelled a cultural revolution at an institution that only a few years earlier had debated whether to become a viable player in ACC sports or remain content with less than mediocrity. Soon, the Cavaliers were No. 1 in the land, bound for the cover of Sports Illustrated and feted around town. A local sandwich shop named its largest item for Sampson. Everybody was a rock star.
"One of the nicer things about my whole time there was that my parents could walk into town and everyone knew who they were," Raker said. "I just tried not to embarrass them. That was my goal in life."
He succeeded, averaging 13.3 points a game as a junior and helping the Cavs win the NIT championship in 1980, when the event still resonated fully with fans.
"That day, five or six busloads of people had come up from Charlottesville," he said. "They were all up in the cheap seats and making more noise than you can imagine."
The following year, the Cavaliers began 23-0 and occupied No. 1 before a one-point loss at Notre Dame on that rare (at that time) bird known as national television. A month later, fans and media anticipated a regional final rematch in Atlanta until BYU's Danny Ainge dribbled through the Fighting Irish defense and made a buzzer-beating layup to dispatch Notre Dame and pair the Cavs and Cougars for a trip to the Final Four.
In the regional final, Raker contributed his usual, steady 12 points and was one of four Cavs in double figures as the program moved on to Philadelphia. They mounted ladders and cut down the Omni's nets, snipping souvenirs for a second straight year. (They had done the same at Madison Square Garden after the NIT.)
An academic All-American as an economics major in 1981, Raker moved into the business world and has been in the high-pressure hedge-fund world for several years.
"Every day is exciting," Raker said. "It's a lot easier on my body these days. But it involves a lot of the same attributes. You try to focus, do things the right away and know the other things will take care of themselves."