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March 8, 2013

It’s been 40 years since NA’s magical run

1973 team full of talent, heart

NEW ALBANY — To this day I still think about the old New Albany gymnasium when I visit the school, and the balcony where my family always sat during basketball games. I still remember the band, the radio booths in one end of the gym, and the large emblem of a Bulldog on one of the walls.

But most of all I think about watching Julius Norman leap out of the gym to grab a rebound or shoot a jumper. And I can only imagine the highlights he would have created if high school players would have been allowed to dunk 40 years ago.

I think about the silky smooth guards the 1972-73 Bulldogs had — Bill Finley and Dale Slaughter. I was only 11 at the time, but I always tried to emulate those two guys on the playground. I failed miserably.

I remember 6-foot-10 Charlie Mitchell patrolling the middle, and Norman Mukes, a 6-5 forward who was a triple threat — he could shoot, handle the ball and play great defense.

There was so much talent in that starting unit. Those guys seemed larger than life to this Green Valley sixth grader. They were quite a group.

That team accomplished something that no other New Albany boys’ basketball team had ever done — win a state championship. This city went crazy after the Bulldogs beat South Bend Adams, 84-79, to win the title. There was a parade through town and a huge rally at the school to welcome home the champs. I remember how packed the old gym was that Sunday afternoon following the title game as the team walked in, holding the championship trophy high in the air.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since that magical run through the state tournament. And while times have changed — and the tournament has been watered down thanks to class basketball — no one who lived in this area at the time will ever forget the 1973 Bulldogs and that talented starting five  which included Norman, Finley, Slaughter, Mukes and Mitchell. And we will never forget Coach Kirby Overman, reserves Mike Carter, Rick Haws, Bob Grant, Dave Townsend, Marty Yeager, Don Perry and Howard McLean, or assistant coaches Louis Jensen or Alan Buck.

While the team was loaded with talent, it was not favored to win the state championship that season, or even the sectional. Jeffersonville seemed to be the team to beat on its home floor with junior All-Stater Wayne Walls. However, these New Albany players went into William S. Johnson arena on a roll and with a chip on their shoulders. They upset Jeff and rolled by Clarksville to win the sectional title.

The Seymour Regional was the real test for this team. The Bulldogs had lost to Seymour during the year, but before the Bulldogs  had a chance at revenge, they had to get past arch-rival Floyd Central and its superstar, Jerry Schellenberg.

It didn’t look good for New Albany. The Highlanders led by 16 points at halftime and maintained their advantage until the end of the game. With less than a minute to play, Finley’s jumper gave the Bulldogs a lead and a steal and layup by Norman preserved the victory. Carter came off the bench that game to give New Albany a lift scoring 14 points.

“They were probably underrated all year,” said Joe Hinton, the legendary former Floyd Central coach during an interview for the 25th anniversary story of the 1973 team. “They had two outstanding guards. The Mukes kid was underrated and Charlie Mitchell gave them good size in the middle. Then they had a couple of kids to go to off the bench. Carter really hurt us off the bench.”

The Bulldogs got their revenge against Seymour in the regional final, beating the Owls by 18.

New Albany defeated Jasper and slipped past Tell City 63-62 in the semistate final led by Slaughter’s 18. If the one-point win over Tell City didn’t give New Albany backers an ulcer, the game the following week against Franklin surely did.

Next to the Floyd Central comeback, the toughest test on the journey may have been the state semifinal against Franklin, a game the Bulldogs won 77-76 in overtime. Finley was the man in that game scoring 36 points to lead the way.

In the final against Adams, New Albany trailed 22-14 at the end of the first quarter but went on a 28-8 run in the second quarter to take a lead, a lead it would not relinquish winning 84-79. Norman led the Bulldogs with 25 points, Mukes added 21 and Slaughter 17.

Hopefully the brief synopsis of the tournament run brought back a few good memories. While New Albany has knocked on the tournament door a few times since, the Bulldogs have never been able to repeat what the 1973 squad accomplished by winning a state championship. They were runner-up in both 1980 and 1996.

When I used to visit numerous high schools during my days as a sports writer or a club volleyball dad, I always found the trophy cases and football fields. Strange maybe, but you can just hear the cheers or feel the excitement when you walk on the gridiron or stare at a trophy. You know what it took for that team to win that piece of hardware and the excitement it brought to the fan base.

I still get a charge every time I look at the 1973 championship trophy, which is really nice and much more eye catching than the piece of wood the IHSAA hands out today. My mind goes back to that magical year when, finally, the state’s oldest public school won a state championship.

There is no way we will ever be able to repeat the magic the 1973 team accomplished. That era of a single-class champion is long behind us. While the 1980 or 1996 New Albany teams arguably may have been the school’s most talented on paper, this 1973 team had intangibles that you can’t measure.

The team was hungry, entered the sectional on a five-game winning streak and refused to lose. And like all champions, had a few bounces go their way during the tourney run.

The calendar doesn’t lie, it’s been 40 years since the Bulldogs won the state championship. But during this month of basketball tournaments, close your eyes for a few minutes and let your mind go back to 1973. Picture a Norman steal and layup or a Finley jumper.

It was a magical season at New Albany that year. One that will never be forgotten.

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