OF CHAMPIONS AND CHILDREN
Part One - Hoop memories
Time travel is possible.
In the spring, and, in the fall, especially.
As you drive north in the spring, as I do annually the first weekend in May, you go back in time. The foliage retreats into hibernation, the leaves disappear into buds into nothingness and the snow reappears, at first, in the sheltered areas, the northern exposed sides of the trees under the eternal canopy of pine branches.
It is six a. m. Monday April 7, 2013, and I am on the road south from Detroit to Kentucky to pick up my second oldest daughter, Erin, on the way to Atlanta to watch my school compete for the NCAA basketball championship.
As Erin works six days a week managing a horse barn for a large farm outside Lexington, we have a compressed timetable. Fortunately, Monday is her day off. When the game ends, we will have 5.5 hours of driving time to get back to Lexington, where she starts work at 7 a.m.. Pillows and sleeping bags are strewn across the back of the now back and middle seats removed mini-van for purposes of slumber.
Being self-employed, the boss gave me the OK to take the time off.
It has been 21 years since we were in the title game; if it takes another 21 years, I will be 80, and, perhaps, too, well, mature, for a road trip like this.
Erin is in her first year out of UK, which she attended over U of M because she loves, horses. But is still a huge Wolverine fan, having returned home for the Big Chill and the Under The Lights football game with Notre Dame, among other sporting events.
I have not seen her since Christmas, and am not sure when the next time will be, as she just started this job in February, so it may be awhile before she accrues any vacation time.
As I travel through the Worst State Ever, the flora turns greener, first buds, then leaves, then flowers, appear until we are a month and a half into the future, into the full bloom of spring in Atlanta.
The first four hours are shared with Sam on WTKA radio from Ann Arbor, via I Heart Radio on my iPhone sitting on the empty seat next to me. He is in Atlanta, and all the talk is about The Game to come. Well, and whether the Fab Five will re-unite in the stands. Sam has an interesting live interview with Jimmy King. Ahh, the memories flow.
I am becoming concerned with how many callers are on their way to Atlanta, like me, without tickets. I see Michigan plates with Wolverine insignia displayed, others with Michigan hats at gas stations and fast food places along the way. I did work my way through college hustling football tickets, so I figure I can come up with something. Friends are keeping their eyes peeled for me as well.
One suggested Craig's list, whose ads were cheaper than Stub Hub, so I posted my request on the Atlanta list.
I don't care where we sit; if I wanted the best view of the game, I would watch on TV at home. I did set the DVR.
Getting more fired up, and knowing the call lines to WTKA are usually not exactly backed up, I called in with my tale of travel to the title tilt.
In response to Sam's query: "how are you doing?" I answer: "If I were doing any better, I would have to sit on my hands to keep from clapping." Not hearing the chuckling reaction I expected, I asked if I were on the air, and assured, yes, I was. Well, I will cut him some slack; he must have been tired from all the Final Four festivities.
Sam's show ends at ten, so I flip around the car radio dial for another sports show. I stop at Dan Patrick's.
Today's poll question: “Should Chris Webber attend the game tonight?”
Geez, enough already! It seems this is a national issue? Somehow.
Weather was great, made good time into Lexington, found my daughter's residence without making a wrong turn. Which, for me, is good. Well, remarkable, actually.
Of course, she has wireless, so I check my email on my laptop, and find a response to my Craig's list ad, would I be interested in a pair? Wherever? You bet, I reply.
Ooops, just sold them, comes the response. Ahh, well.
Erin gets to drive to Atlanta, I rest some in the middle seat, but am just getting too damned excited, immersed in Michigan basketball.
Hey, Erin, what do you know about the Fab Five?
"Just that they were a bunch of really good players who came in and did not with the title and then there was some scandal."
Well, how do you feel about being stuck in a vehicle being subjected for hours to my memories of Michigan men's basketball?
She hesitates. "Well, if it is about sports, I don't mind."
. . . . . . . . . . .
I remember when only 16 teams played in the NCAA basketball tournament, with regional games on the MizLou network, or something. Not all the way back to Cazzie, but not too long after.
Back in the early 70s, lots of good teams went to the NIT, when ALL the games were in Madison Square Garden, so there was a definite New York tilt to the invites, and, most of the games were not televised in those benighted days before cable and ESPN.
One year, Al McGuire did not like the region assigned by the NCAA , and Marquette rejected the NCAA invite in order to play in the NIT.
They changed the rules after that one.
A bunch of us freshmen in Wenley House, West Quad, bought season basketball tickets for the 1972-73 season. They were so cheap I do not remember the price, for comparison, student season football tickets were $18 for 7 games. Yeah, I know, I am older than dirt.
I remember listening, no TV, of course, to Ohio at Michigan basektball the year before, but we lost the game, finished second in the conference. Unranked. We did get to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
The schedule was crowded with December games, around finals, it was a long, cold walk to Crisler, and I did not get student season tickets again.
We were supposed to be good that next year, but did not live up to expectations, tying for third at 9-5 and no post-season bid.
I was more of a hockey fan, though I only went to one game as a freshman, the last season at the Coliseum, which featured cyclone fencing instead of plexiglass. And an abysmal team.
I remember the 1973-74 hoop season, we were one game behind Indiana but looking like we had no chance, given the schedule as the season wound down.
Bobby Knight's Indiana had to play at Ohio, which was having a down year, though still coached by Eldon Miller, who had a national championship, which were yet in the future for Mr. Knight.
Lo and behold, Ohio pulled the upset, both Michigan and Indiana won the rest of their games, and finished in a first place tie.
Only the champ could go to the NCAAs, so a playoff ensued.
Guess where that game was played?
Showing that puzzling moves by the conference are nothing new, the Big Ten held the game on Monday night in Champaign, Illinois. I think there were over 10,000 there, but, not a sellout. Tough trip on a weeknight.
Another upset, Michigan wins!
I had to Wikipedia this, but there were 25 teams in the NCAA that year. Don't ask me how they worked it, but we got a bye, then upset Notre Dame before losing to Marquette in the regional final.
1975 - Big news! The tournament expands, and, for the first time, two teams from the same conference get bids. As with the 1975 football season, we finished second, but still got a post-season bid.
And were rewarded by getting to go to the West region in: Idaho? For what was called the UCLA regional, what with the NCAA still following (roughly) geographical lines in assigning teams to regions. Ergo, UCLA was always in the West. And this was still in the days when UCLA won everything. All the titles, and, it seemed, more often than not, all their regular season games as well.
We got them in the first game and were big underdogs. Nevertheless, we battled to the wire, and, with the game tied, C. J. Kupec launched a long jumper that, clanged off the rim as time expired.
We were smoked in OT, 12-2. UCLA went on to beat Louisville by one in the semis, and Kentucky by 7 in the final, for its tenth title in 12 seasons.
Knight had a great team, won every game, but lost to Kentucky in the regional final 92-90 after Scott May broke his arm.
1976 - Indiana wins all their regular season games, though eyewitnesses (again, no TV) to the Michigan game at Indiana swear the officials bad calls on the game ending play stole victory from Michigan.
I was announcing some hockey games for the student radio station WCBN, so I had a nice little blue card press pass for Yost. I wanted to check out the Hoosiers live, and, mirable dictu, I flashed the pass and they let me into the sold out game. (full disclosure: I have made up for this transgression with many athletic department donations since, and do not condone this sort of theft. anymore.)
I stood and watched Kent Benson go 14 for 17 in an easy Indiana victory. The Pistons thought he was a great player and made him a high draft choice. Turns out he was one of many players that Knight's system made look better than they were.
Michigan finished second in the conference, again, got a bid and made it to the Final Four. The only Final Four with two unbeaten teams. We pinned the first loss on undefeated Big Ten rival Rutgers to reach the title game against Indiana. Ahead at the half, tied with about ten minutes left, but lost by double digits to a clearly superior team.
It is improbable bordering on impossible for another team to go undefeated, so that 76 Indiana team will likely be the last.
Knight's comment? "It should have been two." meaning the 75 team should have won first.
Back in the day, all Big Ten hoop games were Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, maybe one or two a week Saturday night. Our traveling partner was MSU, so we would travel to Purdue and Illinois, the same weekend, and Purdue and Illinois would travel to Ann Arbor and East Lansing the same weekend.
Hockey was always Friday and Saturday night. Yost was as Canham found it; seating over 8,000 for hockey, though you could not see the entire rink from the top corners of the North end zone, and some other seats were obstructed.
We were the conference powerhouse in 76-77, beating Marquette at home in the last game, ranked firts in the final poll ahead of Georgetown and St. John's, the Big East powers who had been #1 most of the year.
On the Saturday when we hosted Northwestern hoop in the afternoon, the hockey team sold out for Michigan Tech Saturday night, and outdrew the basketball team.
We beat Holy Cross and Dick Vitale coached U of D, before being upset by Cornbread Maxwell of UNC Charlotte in the regional final.
In 1980-81, I was back to living in Ann Arbor, and got season tickets with a friend, in the blues, about 7 rows up in the corner.
We lost 7 of our last 8 to finish 7th, still won two preliminary NIT games, which were now being played outside New York.
The next year? Not a good team, not hard to get good seats. We trounced Northern Michigan to go 1-10 in the non-conference, upset a ranked Iowa team late in the year. Bill Frieder was just getting started.
We kept our tickets a few more years, had an NIT bid or two in there, until winning the NIT title over Notre Dame in 1984, the first tournament Michigan won outside the state borders. We used to host our own tournament in early December.
Then the 1985 Big Ten title, with a disappointing second game tournament loss, and the 1986 title, reminiscences of which I previously shared.
The 1988-89 title season is well remembered by all.
Steve Fisher and the miracle run.
Next year, again, we were supposed to be good, with most of the champs returning,
The big recruit nationally that year was Montross, who had U of M ties. He ended up at North Carolina, and the knock on Fisher was sure, he can coach, but he can't recruit. Yeah, right.
He let his players talk him into running with Loyola Marymount, coached by Paul Westhead, whose philosophy was, every seven seconds, shoot.
Their star player, Hank Gaithers, had died of a heart attack the week before, and we gave up a still record 137 points in losing.
Well, turns out ole Fisher could recruit after all.
TO BE CONTINUED