By NEIL H. DEVLIN
Special to woodypaige.com
It was perfectly titled. “Perfect in ’76.” Perfect season. Perfect setting. And players who understood the term and embraced it.
The Showtime documentary on Indiana’s Hoosiers, the 1975-76 team that is the last men’s basketball group to go undefeated, is relevant with the release of the NCAA Bracket, an interesting way to spend an hour and must-see viewing for prep players.
The perspective here is everlasting. And if it isn’t, it should be.
This film had it all. Black players and white players who didn’t see skin color while co-existing and in search of a common goal. Bobby Knight at perhaps the height of his coaching career (the Hoosiers finished 32-0). Music man and big Hoosiers fan John Mellencamp lovingly handled the narration. And do I really have to underline how much Indiana folks love their hoops?
Consider the roster. It had Kent Benson, a center who would later become the first choice in the NBA Draft. Quinn Buckner, a strong guard who was one of the greatest schoolboy athletes on record while in Illinois, also started in the Hoosiers football secondary for a year and a half and was the No. 7 pick in the NBA Draft. Scott May, who was the national player of the year and later was drafted No. 2. And Bobby Wilkerson, a 6-foot-7 guard who jumped center and was a physical freak before they were widespread.
Knight screamed, yelled and belittled – he remains legendary in those areas — at will and these guys took it … willingly. Basically, the coach coached and the players played. In mobspeak, that was it.
The Hoosiers were 31-1 and had lost to Kentucky 92-90 in the Elite Eight the season before as Scott May only played 7 minutes because he was still recovering from a broken arm. If they had advanced to the finale, they would have met UCLA in coach John Wooden’s final game.
To begin the ’75-76 season, they whipped the Soviet National Team, which won the Gold Medal after the fiasco against the U.S. in Munich in 1972. As for the first regular-season game, the Hoosiers waxed Wooden-less UCLA by 20 points.
The season had bumps and quirks, including when the Indianapolis Star printed front-page shots of Knight grabbing at and berating one of his players. Knight protested on his own Sunday show. In response, the Star printed Knight’s private phone number. As well, McDonald’s got the idea to offer a free hamburger, fries and soft drink to ticket holders if Indiana held an opponent under 50 points. The team whipped Iowa 102-49 and an estimated 7,000 folks descended on the local Mickey D’s.
After crushing Big 10 Conference competition, Indiana breezed through early postseason rounds, then ran into some trouble in the final against Michigan, a team it had beaten twice. At The Spectrum in Philadelphia, the Hoosiers trailed by six at the half. Players said Knight didn’t rant or point fingers in the locker room. But he told them their run at perfection had 20 minutes to go. All the Hoosiers did was score 57 points – a mark that still stands in the final for either half – to win 86-68. Keep in mind there was no 3-pointer.
These guys weren’t unpolished or unsophisticated like so many of today’s players who are more concerned about looking good dunking or performing inconsequential cross-overs. Every one of the Hoosiers could shoot, handle the ball, defend and use either hand. And that’s why they probably could match up with any team in history.
Near the end of the film, at, of course, a well-known Indiana watering hole – the Workingman’s Friend Restaurant and Bar in Indianapolis – complete with old tables and chairs, and exceptional food, members of the team and others got together a year ago to reminisce and celebrate a birthday for Knight.
It was sweet to watch. Indiana’s old guard was together again, the 1975-76 team and Hoosiers coach that have a reserved spot at any sports table in history.
Their story was about college basketball and the things that count. Actually going to class and learning. Team. Defense. Leadership. Commitment. Working hard. Humbly dealing with celebrity. And taking their shot at being perfect. It wasn’t about my minutes, My shots. My attention. Staring down an opponent. Or getting the crowd into the game.
No, this was refreshing. And necessary.
It was one of the ultimate dreams that happened.
Maybe lots of prep players across the country can squeeze it in while watching the Tournament.
(Neil Devlin is the premier high school writer and editor in Colorado, and one of the best prep reporters in the country. He has covered all high school sports and state championships for The Denver Post for the past 37 interrupted years. He became the most prominent and popular, and longest-haired and longest-tenured, prep sports editor in Colorado history because he is an exceptional writer and an award-winning reporter, and he cares deeply about the students and the athletes. Devlin is the father of two — a Special Olympian, and a deputy district attorney, and he’s a dutiful husband. He was raised in the Philadelphia area and still loves his Philly steaks and pro teams — way too much. Neil recently departed The Post and joined woodypaige.com, and is contributing opinion pieces, polls and features on state and national high school sports regularly.)