This makes up for 1975

This makes up for 1975

By Bob Hammel, Tuesday Herald-Telephone

March 31, 1981

From the March 31, 1981 Bloomington Herald-Telephone

PHILADELPHIA- The nets were still affixed to the bright orange rims and photographers, fans and intrepid reporters were knotting around each available personage when Indiana coach Bob Knight, architect of a national champion for the second time in six seasons, slipped away to the team dressing room.

He was there for just a few brief moments with a quiet, weary group: President John Ryan; athletic director Ralph Floyd; assistant coach Jim Crews; two of the early planks in the program 30-year-old Bob Knight came to Bloominton to build, Joby Wright and Steve Downing, and the first really big-name recruit he attracted to his program, Quinn Buckner.

Knight was reminded that five years agoon a similar night, he left The Spectrum long after the cheering and, in a morose moment, stopprd on the steps outside the building to accept congratulations one more time but respond in unexpected somberness: “Thanks, but it should have been two.” Not then, not ever will he concede to UCLA nor to the genius of John Wooden and the special aura of coaching exit that the 1975 national championship really belonged to anyone but the team he had built and then had shattered by Scott May’s broken arm.

“This one,” it was suggested, “makes up for the one that got away.”

“No,” Knight said, grinning widely and feigning gruffness, “it should have been three.”

He raised his voice to make sure all targets heard. “And we’d have won one in ’73, too, Steve, if we had any guards.” The starting guards on the 1973 Indiana team that started IU down the road to tournament triumph were two freshmen, named Crews and Buckner.

Bucknerhad come in from Milwaukee, where he captains the Bucks team that won its division and thus got a pass through the opening round of NBA playoffs. He arrived in Philadelphia Sunday and lived with the Hoosiers in their homestretch hours. He spoke to the team before the game, following John Havilicek as a lecturer.

It was the third time in such a role for Havlicek, who soared to triumph in NCAA with Knight at Ohio State and went on to many more victories and champions hips as a Boston Celtic. He was still an active player when he went to St. Louis to speak to Knight’s first Final Four team in 1973 and when he was at Philadelphia in ’76, priming Buckner and friends for their for their last grab at victory.

“Flashes of all that came back when I heard him speak,” Buckner said. “I got all excited.” The kids heard from the pros Monday, consummate pros.

“It’s just absolutely great for you to be here,” Knight said to Buckner, several times.

Eventually, the players who had fooled the country trickled in, among the last Ray Tolbert and Isiah Thomas, each wearing a net as a necklace as Buckner and Scott May had when the others Finals Night in Philly reached a similar point.

There were new rounds of hugs and shouts as privacy settled on the group, the huggees of moments before in the midst of excited fand becoming mutual huggers.

Buckner and Thomas embraced for a lon moment. Theirs is a special link. They are the two most celebrated guards to come out of Chicago. Ever. The pressure was on them not to do well but to do great, immediately. Together, they have given back-court direction to six Indiana teams now. All six won Big Ten championships, five went on to the NCAA, three made it to the Final Four, and now two – one apiece – have won national championships.

“When we were recruiting Isiah,” said Buckner, who already was three years out of school and into his pro career by the time mentioned, “I just talked to him about what I enjoyed at Indiana.”

That didn’t specifically include memories of a championship night in Philadelphia or promises of any for Thomas. “I don’t think I could do that,” Buckner said. “I just told him there’s no question if he goes to Indiana he’ll be the best player he can be.”

Buckner knows all about leadership. Chances are he was waving the babies at some Chicago hospital into a balanced formation an hour or so after he was born. He saw the signs of it in the sub-par fist half Thomas had Monday night. “He may have been trying to do a little too much,” Buckner said. “But he’s such a great player. You know he’ll straighten that out.”

He had no special messages, QB to QB, for Thomas before the game. “The last thing I wanted to do was put any pressure on him,” Buckner said” “He knew what he had to do. He just had to play his game.”

Pete Newell, who defensive theories are the heart of Knight’s Hoosier planning, was located in the crowd and brought to the still-private dressing room. “No one has had more to do with the way we play basketball at Indiana than this man,” Knight told his team. “Come on up and let him know how you feel about him.” Newell was engulfed.

“It’s a little different than it was in Hawaii, isn’t it?” Newell said later, laughing. “They just hadn’t put it together then. I don’t know what it was; they were playing tight. But Bobby’s teams are always late-comers.”

No Knight team, no team put together by anyone, ever came farther than the current national champions, whose largest strides came after nine defeats. In the record book, they’ll look mediocre – in that category.

In another, it will show that their match to the 1981 national championship was the most crushing since teams hava had to play five games to win. This 26-9 Hoosier team whipped its five NCAA opponents by 35, 15, 32, 18, and 13 points – 113 in all, 22.6 per game. They topped the team they most resemble, Michigan State’s 1979 champions, whose 20.8 average margin was the previous five-game record.

That MSU team lost six times and almost got itself eliminated from the Big Ten race before shifting into gear. This IU team was always in the Big Ten race but nearly sank into mediocrity when it lost five of its first 12 games.

For a time, it had a problem winning close games. It solved the problem beautifully, especially in tournament play.

“I don’t think these kids ever lost sight of the fact that they had a chance to win the whole thing,” Knight said.

“I remember even in December, Isiah was quoted several times that we knew we could be a good basketball team but we had to keep working at it.

“I’ve never seen a group of kids who work harder to get a goal than these kids have.”

It is a championship totally different from the first one won by a Knight-coached team.

“I talked with Quinn on theis Sunday,” “and we both agreed that had we not won in 1976, we would have felt like we had failed. I have always believed we would have won the national championship in 1975 if Scott hadn’t been hurt. After that, we gelt almost like we had to win in 1976. It was our ultimate objective When we did win, it was almost a relief.

“Our ultimate objectiove this year was to be as competitive as possible in the Big Ten and then in the tournament. That’s why this is such a joyous feeling for all of us.”

That was when he was in public. In private, he simply smiled and hugged a lot, while voices shouted from all around.

Tolbert convened the players in the middle of the room. “I just want to say one thing,” he said. “We worked hard four years for this, and it’s worth it.”

“Mike only worked one,” chirped Mike LaFave, the only freshman on the championship squad.

Knight turned the group loose on Philadelphia for their own celebrations.

“Just remember you’re representing Indiana University,” he said.

“And you’re national champions.

“And you’re going to get up at 7 tomorrow morning to fly back home.”