Perfection is a cruel mistress to pursue. In 1975, Scottie May broke his arm and the Indiana Hoosiers went from perfect to perfunctory.
John Wooden may have been the best. That year he was more like the luckiest than the best. UCLA would have finished a distant second to a healthy Indiana team. Wooden escaped when Louisville couldn’t convert free throws. And the Wizard retired with one more national title than he should have .
Basketball doesn’t like “do overs." Indiana got one. The 1975-’76 season started in St. Louis with a “made for late night TV” match between the defending (but undermanned) champ, UCLA ... and the “what might have been” Hoosiers.
A 10:30 p.m. start in a Midwestern blizzard couldn’t stop me from being there. The new UCLA coach, Gene Bartow, looked a bit like John Wooden. His team looked more like the Washington Generals that night.
As I walked out of the Checkerdome, a makeshift kazoo band of Hoosier fans played the Manfred Mann tune “Mighty Quinn” to celebrate a 20 point win and the mastery of point guard Quinn Buckner. The pixie-like Indiana cheerleaders skipped out into the snowy night.
I wrapped tin foil around my “rabbit ears” antenna to pick up a weak UHF signal out of Chicago that carried all the Indiana games. (Tinfoil? Rabbit ears? UHF? Stop by the Happy Acres Rest Home someday and I’ll explain those terms.) Anyway, I became a fan.
Coach Bobby Knight hated the terms like “point guard” and “power forward." He never used the numerical position designation that Tom Davis created: 1 = point guard; 2 = shooting guard; 3 = small forward; 4 = power forward; and 5 = center. He hated it! But the 1975-’76 Indiana Hoosiers were the perfect template for such. They were the basketball equivalent of a straight flush.
There was never a more prototypical “one “ than Buckner. Best high school basketball player in Illinois in 1972. Earlier in his senior year, he had been the best high school football player in Illinois. For real. Mr. Basketball AND Mr. Football. He went to Indiana because they would let him play both sports. After a couple of seasons of Big 10 football, he made a wise choice.
The “two” was Bobby Wilkerson. A 6’6” shooting guard who jumped center. The next time you see an off guard lining up for the opening tip, give me a call.
Ted Abernathy was the new guy. Replaced the two-headed small forward from the year before ... Steve Green and John Laskowski. Good baseline 15 foot shooter.
Scottie May was the All-American. For good reason. A perfect college power forward who was probably an inch and a half too short for the NBA.
And the only junior ... Kent Benson ... brought size and a high basketball I.Q. (The next year he would be National Player of the Year. He wasn’t such. He was good, but not the best. Self fulfilling prophecy by basketball writers who were hungover from the vintage wine of 1976.)
A couple of superstars in Buckner and May. The other three were athletes and roll players, but they also became legend. John and Paul wrote the music, but George and Ringo were still the Beatles. And teen aged girls screamed their names.
The more I watched, the more I wanted the perfection. UCLA had run the table back in the 1960s, but this was different. More tangible. More likeable. And, about to become more personal.
A friend and I knew that Indiana would go to the Mid East Regional in Baton Rouge. In those days there was no seeding. The four NCAA regions were like time zones. (If your school was in Missouri, it was three o’clock and you were going to the Mid West regional. You couldn’t change it.)
The Mid East was loaded. Number 10 Western Michigan, number 7 Alabama, number 2 Marquette, and the number one team in the country.
We took a red eye to New Orleans and headed across Lake Pontchartrain, stopping at 3:00 a.m. for eggs and a beer. We stayed in the hotel with Al McGuire and his Marquette (dare I say it?) Warriors. Butch Lee (“BLT means Butch Lee Time”) and Jerome Whitehead (“The Secretariat of college forwards”) held court in the lobby daily. The Western Michigan Broncos were also checked in to that hotel.
We got invited to a Bronco party ... spent St. Patrick’s Day on Bourbon Street, played golf in Baton Rouge ... and saw some great basketball. We may have had a cocktail or two along the way. I forget.
After Indiana beat Marquette to advance to the Final Four in Philly, we walked out into a balmy Louisiana night and went looking for a watering hole. We found a place called The Square Peg. Inside was a table full of tall kids. They were easily recognizable to us, but less famous to the locals.
It was Bobby, Ted, Scottie and Quinn ... among others. We approached them and found them to be regular college kids hanging around a bar on a Saturday night. All friendly. All laughing and joking with us.
We went home to watch the Final Four. ndiana handled Michigan ... who was pretty good. Maybe not “Marquette good," but good. The year felt like “bookends to me." From Saint Louie to Baton Rouge. Sounds a bit like a Cole Porter song, but it was a page out of basketball history and a chapter in my basketball resume.
I mentioned Secretariat. He was perfect in 1973. Bob Beamon made a perfect jump that went 29 feet, 2 and half inches one night in Mexico City in 1968. Joe DiMaggio was perfection for 56 games in 1941, and Johnny Van Dermeer did back to back “no-no” games in 1938. 1976 was the last time college basketball saw an undefeated team.
Quinn Buckner won an Illinois State Championship. An NCAA National Championship. He won an Olympic Gold Medal and an NBA Championship. As far as I know, he’s the only guy ever to win all four. I shared a beer and a laugh with him during a remarkable season on a special night in Louisiana. And, Manfred Mann and I will always contend, “You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn.”