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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

How ‘One Shining Moment’ became the NCAA tournament’s anthem

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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David Barrett (via David Barrett.com)

David Barrett's inspiration for the song that has since become the anthem for the NCAA tournament was a beautiful waitress, a clumsy pick-up attempt and the dominance of Larry Bird in his prime.

A few minutes after he'd performed at the Varsity Inn in East Lansing, Mich., in spring 1986, Barrett ordered a beer when the most attractive waitress in the now-defunct bar sat down on the stool beside him. Barrett, then 31, was so nervous that the only subject the soft-spoken folk singer could think to talk about with her were the Boston Celtics highlights airing on TV at the bar, a poor attempt at making conversation that predictably went nowhere.

"I was trying to explain to her how magnificent Larry Bird was, how he was at a unique moment in his life where he could do almost anything he wanted on a basketball court," Barrett said. "Eventually I turned around for a second and she just walked away without a word. She was so beautiful there wasn't a point in talking to her because you might as well have been talking to a Victoria's Secret model."

Barrett's stammering attempt to win over the waitress may not have landed him a date, but it did become the origin for one of the most enduring songs in sports today. The next morning Barrett was still inspired by Bird being at the pinnacle of his basketball career, so he scribbled the lyrics for "One Shining Moment" on a napkin in 20 minutes while waiting for a friend to meet him for brunch.

Although Barrett liked his new song enough to lay down music to go with it later that day, the Michigan resident had no inkling how popular it would one day become. For 25 years, CBS has made "One Shining Moment" synonymous with college basketball's championship game, playing it over a montage of highlights from the NCAA tournament as the winning team's players cut down the nets.

"I'm still amazed by the impact the song has had," Barrett said. "Every once in a while, I'll sit down and play it on the piano because I like the song. I would have liked the song even if none of this happened. It's a song that I wrote and I think it's pretty darn good."

The process of "One Shining Moment" getting from a napkin at an East Lansing cafe to a cassette in the hands of CBS Sports executives required some good fortune.

When Barrett bumped into high school friend and then-Sports Illustrated writer Armen Keteyian at a party in New York in June 1986, he happened to mention the song about basketball he'd just recorded. Barrett sent Keteyian a copy of the song a few months later and didn't think much of it again until CBS Sports' Doug Towey called Barrett's home phone later that winter.

"I didn't know Armen had passed the song to CBS, so at first I thought it was a prank,"  Barrett said. "It took about 10 minutes for Doug to say, 'No I really am Doug Towey, I do work for CBS and we really do want your song.'"

Towey's original plan was to play "One Shining Moment" over a highlight montage at the end of the Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and New York Giants in January 1987, but the song got scrapped after the broadcast ran long. A distraught Barrett figured he'd missed his chance at national exposure until Towey called a few weeks later and assured him CBS would air it during the Final Four instead.

Barrett still remembers the rush he felt hearing his voice and lyrics the first time CBS played the song following Keith Smart's game-winning jump shot to help Indiana beat Syracuse in the 1987 national title game. Even though it would take a few years for "One Shining Moment" to become an iconic staple of March Madness, Barrett remembers finding it fitting at the time that the NCAA tournament rather than the Super Bowl was how the song got its start.

"It was written for basketball and it was almost as if the song had a mind of its own," he said. "The way the song became what it became, it was a very unusual ride."

CBS aired Barrett's version of "One Shining Moment" from 1987 to 1993 and again from 2000 to 2002, but remakes by Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross have helped popularize the song as well. A version by Jennifer Hudson CBS used in 2010 received considerable backlash, however, because the network aired more footage of the R&B singer than it did highlights from that year's tournament.

Barrett has never written anything close to as popular as "One Shining Moment," but the success of that song has helped open doors for him. He has composed scores and theme songs for the Olympics, the PGA championship, tennis grand slam events and numerous documentaries.

It's still gratifying to Barrett whenever strangers tell him "One Shining Moment" has made an impact in their lives.

"Without this song, I'm sitting at the bar having a beer at the end of a performance," Barrett said. "But with the song, doors opened for me and opportunities began to arise. I'm very grateful for that."

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