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UofI Basketball

NOTE: When the Iowa Hawkeye basketball team went to the Final Four for the second year in a row, fans in the Midwest found reason for hope in their lives. It was like the movie Seabiscuit, where a little horse beat the odds during the Great Depression. Iowa was in a recession, and the basketball team that kept getting off the mat captured everyone’s attention. That was the point of this story, which was reprinted in the hardbound book Olson Era at Iowa, edited by Gus Schrader, long-time sports editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Fred Thompson.

A Story of the Human Spirit

By Randy Heuston
Quad-City Times

As everybody around here knows by now, a big story is building with the University of Iowa basketball team. It is a story getting the attention of persons who aren’t sports fans. It is more than a sports story.

It was only a sports story about a year ago when another fine Hawkeye team finished in a tie for the Big Ten conference title. They were perhaps a bit over-confident going into the NCAA tournament in 1979. Hoping for glory, they lost to Toledo in the first post-season game.

At about the same time coach Lute Olson was tempted to leave for a job at Southern Cal. Any more, big-time college coaches shuffle around like disco dangers. Then came a promise of a new field house, and Olson stayed, but that, too, was just a sports story.

It was still only a sports story this season when the Hawks charged from the gate with 10 straight wins. They were smooth and poised, and they had Ronnie Lester, their All-American. Under the senior’s leadership the bunch of kids was mentioned in the same breath with the top teams in the country.

Then the roof fell in, right on Lester’s knee. A bum knee makes a college athlete try to recall what else he’s majoring in. Lester missed several games, returned, was hurt again. That was still a sports story. A sad one.

Even without him the team won important games. They kept winning when other players got hurt. The trainer could have written scripts for “Trapper John, MD.” They no longer expected much glory, but they refused to quit.

With a gimpy Lester back for his final home game, the Hawks finished in a tie for fourth in the Big Ten. They got an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Not bad, as a sports story.

They were given about as much chance as Carter has of stopping inflation. The teams at Greensboro, N.C., and Philadelphia would peer over at the Hawkeyes during the warm-ups and wonder where the rest of them were. Iowa didn’t have a bench, just six folding chairs and a cot.

The fancy-schmantzy sportswriters didn’t know what to think either. They half expected the Iowans to come out on the court wearing bib overalls, a cow for a mascot. When the excited Hawk fans changed “Lute, Lute, Lute,” the writers thought a burglary was in progress and reached for their wallets.

There WAS one, on the court. Kevin Boyle stealing the ball, again. Steve Waite blocking shots. Vince Brookins gunning from where former Iowan Freddy Brown used to shoot, the parking lot. And cool Ronnie Lester, hobbling down the court, a wobbling gyroscope that kept them on the game plan. While the other teams were reading scouting reports on their next opponents, Iowa stole their plane tickets.

And somewhere in there, it became more than a sports story. Most obviously, it became a story of the triumph despite adversity. Iowa’s story was best expressed in a welcome home banner after the last-second win over Georgetown, “The Morer We Hurt, The Gooder We Get.” Maybe they don’t teach grammar at the University of Iowa, but Spunk 101 must be a required course.

As the more than 13,000 fans at that rally testified, the Hawkeyes have given their followers something to believe in. After all, those fans face adversity, too. They wake up to newspapers saying the economy is in tatters, the politicians are crooks, the world in on the brink of holocaust. If this band of kids could work hard and get knocked down and get up again and somehow win, why, then, maybe those fans could hang in there, too.

Then people began to notice there was more to the story than young athletes overcoming injuries. Sportswriters, perceptive fellows they, figured out it must be something to do with the coach.

This Olson chap wasn’t behaving the way winning coaches are expected to act. Bobby Knight of Indiana is how many people expect coaches to act. They shout at referees, chew out players, throw towels on the court and punch security guards.

Along comes Lute Olson, low-key, modest, apparently unselfish. The last time he raised his voice to a ref the official was standing on his toe. He seems so wholesome Donny and Marie look wicked. Why did prep standout Vince Brookins decide to go from Cleveland all the way to Iowa?

“Coach Olson impressed me as a classy man,” Brookings said. “He has character.”

Maybe that explains why the team has some also. Olson’s wife, Bobbi, says her husband never complains, “not about the injuries the team has suffered, not about the adversities he’s suffered in his life. Lute was five when his father died; his brother died the next year in a tractor accident…. The hard times have made him strong.”

They’ve also made him a winner. And his players follow his lead—work hard, drink lots of milk, be kind to little old ladies and win ballgames. University of Iowa’s basketball brochures next year may be entitled, “Nice guys finish first.”

Finally, it’s more than a sports story because of all the people who are caught up in it. Many Iowans are getting so overwrought with Hawkeye fever the television stations may run something like, “the surgeon general has determined watching this game may be hazardous to your health.”

These include folks who used to think a man-for-man was the target of an Anita Bryant crusade, a pick-and-roll something you ordered at Donutland. Now, normally poised adults are driving all night across the country to cheer like wild kids for kids on a basketball court who act like poised adults. Something to believe in, indeed. Don’t these people have any religion?

So, Iowa is among the Final Four teams in the tournament. The team the Hawks play Saturday, Louisville, is ranked first, while Iowa is ranked last. Big deal.

The Hawks wouldn’t have it any other way. Earlier in the tournament, when they were tabbed a 1-point favorite, Olson was ready to play the game under protest.

The odds makers and sportswriters have done Iowa another favor. To be fair, they should have paid for the Louisville Cardinals to go see John Wayne in “True Grit.” Louisville writers, if they were smart, would have one-word columns this week—Ambush!

Those talented Cardinal look like the Biblical Goliath. See them come marching out all arrogant and awesome. See them spin around three times in mid-air and dunk the basketball from behind their backs. See them taunt puny little Iowa. See them run smack dab into a black and gold rock.

But whether Iowa finishes first, second, third or fourth—that’s only a sports story. The larger story has already been written. It’s not a story of who’s best but of what’s good. It’s a story of the human spirit, of excellence and unselfishness and endurance. The story already has a happy ending. Yes, many would say, downright inspiring. Even some who aren’t sports fans think so.



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