Indiana is honoring the 1987 national championship team Sunday afternoon during the game against Stetson, reminding everyone that it has been 25 years since the Hoosiers have won a title.
Tom Crean is doing a remarkable job of turning the program around after the malaise of the Davis years and the scandal of the Sampson year(s). Before we look forward, however, let’s look back to the golden era of Indiana basketball.
As far as anybody knew, the 1980s were a great time to grow up in Indiana. Gary’s Michael Jackson was the biggest thing in the world. Lafayette’s Axl Rose fronted the greatest band in the world. We just knew David Letterman was the hippest guy in the world. The Indy 500 was still the Indy 500. Indianapolis hosted the Pan Am Games. The Colts moved to Indianapolis. We were proud Hoosiers.
But most of all there was Indiana basketball. And by God did we love Bob Knight and Indiana basketball.
Some of my earliest memories are of watching the great Indiana teams of the mid 1970s, with my parents in our family room with the red shag carpet. I shot baskets on the Nerf hoop on the wall each time Indiana scored – feeling some karmic obligation to match them basket for basket (a superstitious streak that remains to this day).
And, like countless others, I learned to sing “Indiana, Our Indiana” from Martha the Cleaning Lady:
The Hoosiers opened the decade with the 1981 title – and we all believed it would have been more if Isiah had stayed in school and Landon Turner hadn’t been in that horrible accident. The 1984 team stunned top-ranked North Carolina and Michael Jordan to advance to the Elite Eight (Dan Dakich is still eating free dinners off of that game). That summer, Knight coached the greatest amateur team ever assembled to the gold medal in the Olympics. The ’85 team disappointed everyone, and the Season on the Brink team of 1986 rebounded nicely before losing in the first round of the tournament.
But the ’87 Hoosiers were different – from start to finish. Few have been more invested in a team than I was with the 1987 Indiana Hoosiers. I was 16, a sophomore in high school, and spent 93 percent of my time and mental faculties thinking about girls and the Hoosiers (the proportion of which was directly related to the proximity of tipoff and/or girls to me).
It was Steve Alford’s senior year. The three-point line was new. Knight had brought in two JUCO transfers – Keith Smart and Dean Garrett – to fill gaps on a team of a star shooting guard and typical Indiana role players. Smart, Alford and Garrett were generally joined in the starting lineup by the enigmatic Ricky Calloway and the serviceable Daryl Thomas. The perfect Knight lineup – a mix of athletes and grinders, shooters and role players.
Indiana opened the season with early wins over Notre Dame and Kentucky in overtime, before a stunning loss to Vandy in Nashville – the only blemish on a 9-1 preseason that also included a win over Louisville and the lesser lights they played each year in the Hoosier and Indiana Classics.
Steve Alford was The Man. He was homegrown. He was handsome, in an ‘80s New Castle sort of way with the short shorts and feathered, parted-down-the middle hair. And sweet Jesus could he shoot. From three. The locker room. From the line.
Socks, shorts, swish!
From the opening game of the season, I kept a single lined paper in the inside pocket of my Trapper Keeper. On it, I kept a line-by-line, game-by-game log of Alford’s scoring – field goals made/field goals attempted/field goal percentage; free throws made/free throws attempted/free throw percentage; points; total points; and scoring average.
This was 1986-87, so this information was not available at your fingertips on the Internet. Short of the Indiana sports information department and a newspaper or two, this may have been the most thorough and up-to-the-minute accounting of Alford’s offensive output. And he was having an All-America year.
The Hoosiers started the Big Ten season 14-1 – the only blemish was a 101-88 loss in Iowa City (a score I remember to this day). It included an 86-85 three-overtime win in the old gym in Madison, a game no fewer than three Wisconsinites mentioned to me on our initial meeting when I moved to Madison 12 years after the game was played.
Then came back-to-back losses at Purdue and at Illinois. The Purdue loss was particularly galling, as Boilermaker fans in the ‘80s – and likely today – are happier with Indiana losses than they are with Purdue wins. And a win over Indiana … well, that just validates everything they believe to be holy.
The Hoosiers closed the Big Ten season with a win over Ohio State to complete the season 24-4 – and 15-3 in the conference, good for a tie with Purdue for the Big Ten title.
Midwest No. 1 seed Indiana opened the NCAA tournament with an easy 92-58 win over Fairfield at the Hoosier Dome. This was the first official Indiana basketball game I attended in my life, after watching hundreds on television and attending some exhibition games that just about anybody could get tickets to.
The Hoosiers advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 107-90 second-round thrashing of Auburn before beating Duke 88-82 just as the Blue Devils were ascending to national prominence.
Against LSU two days later, the game was frenetic and frantic. Knight was given a technical foul and then banged the scorer’s table, earning the scorn of the NCAA (and a $10,000 fine for Indiana). Indiana won 77-76 on a leaner by Calloway to earn a trip to its first Final Four since 1981 – a game in which the Hoosiers had trailed for a good chunk of the second half.
“I was worried about losing until I looked down the floor and saw Dale Brown,” Knight said. “Then I knew we had a chance.”
I miss Bob Knight.
As a family, we headed to the Jersey Shore for spring break and the Final Four – leaving Friday after school and driving all night. It was my job to keep my dad awake and navigate. I succeeded in the former and mostly in the latter. Our relationship was never quite the same.
We watched the national semifinal game between Indiana and UNLV at my uncle’s house. The squeaky clean Hoosiers against the less squeaky clean Runnin’ Rebels of Jerry Tarkanian, Armon Gilliam, Jarvis Basnight, Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio. Banks exploded for 10 3-pointers and 38 points for the Rebels, but Indiana shot 62 percent from the floor and outgunned and outran UNLV 97-93 as Knight beat Tarkanian at his own game:
The UNLV players said they were surprised by Knight’s decision to play an up-tempo game.
“That might be the most a Bobby Knight team has run since he has been the coach,” Gilliam said.
All part of the plan, according to Knight.
“We didn’t think that it would be the kind of game that we could play with all kind of patience and a lot of passing and a lot of dribbling, because we thought that their defensive pressure was too great,” Knight said.
For our part, the family watched the game with next to no sleep and much confusion by our younger hosts. My cousin Jill found our enthusiasm “weird.” Her dad – an Indiana alum – found reserve guard Joe Hillman “horrible.” Yes, and sorta. But they were playing for the national title.
We drove up to Rockport, Massachusetts for the national championship games as part of our cold-weather spring break tour that included a hobo telling my dad to buy me new shoes and me throwing up in the Charles River.
This is all you need to know about the national championship game (other than Alford hitting seven three-pointers):
I can still remember intently watching Alford coming off screens in a desperate attempt to get open, followed by the feeling of pure joy that shot caused – and the confusion as to why Syracuse wasn’t calling a timeout. It’s also creepy to know that Bernie Fine and the ball boy at the center of the allegations were on the floor that night.
My friend Jeff and I spent countless hours trying to reenact that shot in our driveway. We never succeeded, but we could tell you exactly who had the ball when and how much time there was to play from the time the possession began.
And here we are nearly 25 years later.
Indiana hasn’t won another title – despite having the best team in the nation in 1992 (friendly official calls benefited Duke in the national semifinal) and 1993 (Alan Henderson’s knee doomed them), and a fluky run to the national title game in 2002 under Mike Davis.
So, tomorrow, members of the ’87 team will walk out on that same Assembly Hall floor – sadly, minus Bob Knight – and we will all remember the greatness of the Hoosiers and look ahead to The Movement.