Column: A walk in my father’s size-17 shoes

By Jeff LaFave, Herald-Times sports writer

Indiana’s 1980-81 men’s basketball championship team was studded with legendary players.

My father, a backup freshman forward, was not necessarily one of them.

Take a look at Mike LaFave’s single-season resume, and the bashful man I called “Dad” would undoubtedly agree: 11 points across 15 games played — during a whopping 33 minutes of total court time — is nothing special by Indiana standards.

Heck, it’s almost nothing at all.

Nevertheless, the experience of playing Big Ten basketball for two seasons, as well as reporting to coach Bobby Knight, brought him one shiny championship ring and a lifetime of memories.

And when his peers take the court tonight at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to cherish their victory over North Carolina in the 1981 NCAA Championship game, I will be awash with pride for the intangible lessons my father passed on to me and my family — each moral chapter coming from his experiences on and off the court for Indiana.

Mike LaFave’s narrative is one of constant support for his team: Watch the NBC broadcast of IU’s 1981 title game, and you’ll see why the gaunt 6-foot-9 geek with mop-top hair was nicknamed “IU’s tallest cheerleader,” visibly leaping on the sideline after every Hoosier basket.

Because hey — if your career-best game for IU involved a mere five rebounds, you may as well stomp and yell where you can.

My father spoke more to me of appearing at the bedside of teammate Landon Turner, who suffered paralysis in a July 1981 roll-over car accident, and the importance of being a devoted friend first, than any athletic glory or sports conquest. Those latter things are secondary.

He waxed poetic about the life experiences a scoreboard could never detail: Practicing twice on Christmas Day. Running drills up the stairs of Assembly Hall for each point the Hoosiers lost by. Signing autographs for countless children, many of whom did not know his name. The woes of contracting a stomach virus just hours after losing to Pan-American during an unfathomably grisly exhibition showing in Hawaii.

My father recorded more turnovers during IU’s championship season (2) than blocks (1), but I’d dare anyone to tell me he didn’t embrace life as a Hoosier.

During the entire NCAA postseason, he recorded one field goal and one personal foul. He didn’t even see the court in IU’s championship game against North Carolina. But that certainly didn’t stop him from reveling in the victory.

Postgame, the freshman quipped to reporters that he was undefeated in national championships, and thus better than teammate and friend Ray Tolbert, who took four seasons to reach that apex.

Formally, Mike LaFave’s days at Indiana concluded when he opted to play his junior and senior seasons at Ball State with fellow IU departee Rick Rowray. A Louisville Courier-Journal article from Dec. 28, 1983, indicated that Dad’s playing opportunities under coach Knight were “slim,” hence his transfer to the Cardinals.

Lo and behold, his time in Muncie wasn’t a legendary one either, as he averaged 4.6 points per game. He has one entry in the Ball State record book: averaging 0.9 blocked shots per game across 23 contests in 1983-84, which ties him for 26th best in the program all-time.

That’s not to say Mike LaFave was a pedestrian player. He was an Indiana All-Star at Scecina Memorial, where he amassed virtually every scoring record to that point. An Indianapolis Star article from 1979 praised his “quick foot forward” for the Crusaders, and his jersey still hangs in Scecina’s halls. He was inducted as part of the IHSAA’s Silver Anniversary team in 2005. And being a participant of the United States’ fifth-place finish in the 1979 “Sparkatiade” games played against the Soviet Union merited him an official biography spot on USA Basketball’s roster webpage.

(The alphabetical format places him immediately after Christian Laettner.)

His last memory of Indiana basketball was one we shared together, when current IU head coach Tom Crean invited my family to his inaugural Hoosier Hysteria in 2008, commencing a 6-26 rebuilding season that most Hoosier fans would prefer not to speak about.

It was my father’s first time in Assembly Hall since 1982.

Picture, if you will, a gangly 18-year-old and his mustachioed father, humbly eating pork brisket as an enthusiastic basketball coach from Marquette made the rounds between tables of special guests before the evening’s tip. There was a sense of pride in what my father had done — even if that resume only included 11 points some three decades ago for a program that had just been shackled by NCAA disciplinary sanctions.
My father, normally a terse and dry-humored man, said he joked with Crean in private: “I can put on a jersey again, if that helps.”

He left Bloomington with a beaming smile, some closure in his pocket that what he had done was not forgotten or unappreciated. Students greeted him outside the hall en route to his truck. Together, we pledged to watch the new-look Hoosiers play together and hoped Crean could revive the program.

It would be Dad’s last time in Bloomington. He died just three months later.

A sudden heart attack claimed him at age 46, leaving behind his most cherished teammates: wife Sherry, daughter Tara, youngest son Joe, and yours truly.

There’s not a lot I can mention in this column that isn’t a fuzzy-at-best childhood memory with the big man, or a final conversation blurred by the passage of time.

But what I absorbed from my father’s basketball career — a constantly shuffled, bench-riding four years met with missed expectations and a bittersweet championship run — is that sports don’t matter.

People do.

What matters most is how you treat those around you, the mettle with which you approach a daunting situation and how you act in the face of adversity. His two years at IU instilled that in him. Character is what matters most, and no championship ring was built to contain that legacy.

Tonight, his former teammates — some of which will go down as legendary NBA players and coaches — will take Branch McCracken court to revisit their historic victory over UNC more than 35 years later. My father won’t be there to join some of those he called his very best friends.
But I will be there in a way that suits my father’s legacy — jumping up and down, clapping my hands, and offering support from the sideline.

Jeff LaFave is a copy editor and page designer for the Herald-Times. You can contact him at jlafave@heraldt.com or 812-331-4356.

4 comments

  1. I’m sure your dad is reading your wonderful words…..and undoubtedly proud of you too.

  2. I’m pretty sure that’s Ray Tolbert standing next to your dad. Tolbert was also a great mentor to Landon Turner…I’m not sure Bobby had a ton to do with the fine character of these men. I think he inherited some exceptional people the products of some very loving and decent homes.

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