Life is filled with classic battles, pitting one man or team versus another. Ali versus Frazier. There are lessons to be learned from these conflicts — about the battle, about the opponent, about ourselves.
As Kentuckiana anxiously awaits another matchup between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville basketball programs, my mind can’t help but go back to the Kansas-Indiana game in the spring of 1993.
There were great expectations with the Indiana team of 1992-93. They were returning six of their top eight players from a very good 1991-92 team, including Damon Bailey, Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham, Chris Reynolds, Alan Henderson and Matt Nover. An indication of how good college basketball was that year is found in the fact that IU was ranked fourth in the preseason, behind the Fab Five at Michigan, a Greg Ostertag led Kansas team, and the devilish team from Duke.
Few IU regular season games have matched the interest and media coverage as the two meetings between Michigan that year. The two programs were being presented as the best the Big Ten had to offer — and exact opposites. The free spirited Wolverines had talent that was special and NBA written all over them. The disciplined Hoosiers were as tough as the General could make them and were squeezing more from their abilities than could be imagined.
After a win in Ann Arbor secured by an Alan Henderson rejection of a Chris Webber gimme, Indiana University sat atop the AP Poll for the first time in a decade with a 19-2 record overall and 8-0 in conference play. About two weeks later, they completed the sweep of Michigan with a one-point win in Bloomington.
And then disaster struck. Alan Henderson injured his knee in practice. Shadows of Scott May and 1975 seemed to loom over Assembly Hall like those low-hanging clouds just before the tornado strikes. Even without Alan, IU finished strong, losing only to Ohio State in the conference, and finished the regular season ranked No. 1. My mind was measuring another banner for the rafters at the Hall.
The main reason that this season was so special is that I was sharing it with an 8-year-old son. The tradition of Hoosier Hysteria that had been a fire in my grandfather and passed on to my father was now being handed to the next generation. We watched as many games as we could together — a more difficult task 20 years ago while living in Cincinnati.
The basketball wizards were watching over this IU team as their first round games were played at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. One of the highlights of any tournament was the open practice before the games began. The crowd to watch a practice was larger than any other opening night in NCAA history at the time. Bob Knight, showing a softer side usually kept hidden, helped the players lay down on the floor and spell out “Thank You!” with the General himself providing the exclamation point. My son and I exchanged high fives as we watched a great moment in Indiana basketball history.
The Hoosiers played well in their first three games of the tournament, knocking off Wright State, Xavier and Louisville. In many ways, this seemed to be a team of destiny. They were slated to play Kansas for an opportunity to advance to the Final Four. We had obligations for a dinner with a group of people from church, so I was going to have to miss watching the game live. Dressed in his crimson and cream, I left my son with the words, “Cheer hard so that we win tonight. Tell me all about it tomorrow!”
But it was not meant to be. The lack of front-court depth became a glaring weakness against the physical strength of the Kansas team, and the Hoosiers lost 83-77. I tried not to be rude, but I would ask waiters if they knew the score. Once I went out to the car, proposing to get some allergy medicine when in fact I was trying to tune in WOWO radio out of Ft. Wayne. I finally heard the score and the rest of the evening just had the wind sucked out of the sails. The ride home was long and quiet. Looking back, it was the end of an era.
My son was already in bed asleep when we got home, put to rest by sisters and a babysitter. In the darkness of the dining room, I spotted a folded piece of paper on the table. Unfolding a make-shift envelope flap, the lined school paper had a quarter, a dime and two pennies taped to the top.
In 8-year-old printing, no doubt made with a thick pencil and trying its best to stay within the lines, the note read, “I am sorry we lost. Maybe this will help.”
It always does.
— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org