In the latter half of the 1970s and the early 1980s, few cities crackled with more basketball-based electricity than Philadelphia.
The 76ers made four NBA Finals from 1977 through 1983, powered by Dr. J — Julius Erving — after the death of the ABA and the exodus of the league’s high-end talent to the NBA. The battles the Sixers conducted with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics in those years became the stuff of basketball legend.
In college basketball, two seminal events unfolded in Philadelphia during that same period of time — one made iconic because of the achievement, the other rendered unforgettable because of the awful circumstances surrounding the moment.
In 1975, Indiana’s dream of a perfect season was ruined when star Scott May was injured. The team still reached a 31-0 mark, but without May, it narrowly lost to Kentucky (92-90) in the Elite Eight to finish at 31-1. That team is regarded by Bobby Knight as the best he ever coached… but it didn’t have a Final Four or a national title to show for it.
What did the Hoosiers do in 1976? They climbed up the mountainside again. As had been the case in 1975, Indiana reached the Elite Eight with an unbeaten record, but this time, IU won to reach the Final Four.
Philadelphia’s Spectrum became the endpoint for Indiana’s season. The question: Would this end become a bitter defeat or a soaring victory?
The Hoosiers knocked off defending national champion UCLA in the national semifinals, and when Michigan defeated previously unbeaten Rutgers (yes, that’s not a misprint) in the other semifinal, Indiana played a conference opponent for a shot at history.
It has to be said that at the time, the idea of a team running the table throughout the season was not a radical notion. UCLA had won national championships under John Wooden with multiple unbeaten seasons. It’s true that the size and scope of the NCAA tournament weren’t close to what they became in the 1980s, but UCLA had still made the unbeaten season a common feature of college basketball over the previous decade.
Indiana wanted to join the party.
After an 86-68 thumping of Michigan, the Hoosiers got to throw one.
The subsequent 40 seasons of college basketball have not been able to replicate what Indiana completed in 1976 in Philadelphia: the perfect season. The 2015 Kentucky team and 1991 UNLV both went to the national semifinals without a loss, and in 1979, Indiana State made the title game unbeaten, but none of those teams were able to go all the way.
Philadelphia remains the last NCAA tournament city to bear witness to a team completing an unblemished season.
Then came 1981.
Philadelphia would once again host Indiana… and a college basketball game whose existence ripples through the pages of time.
Earlier on the Monday of the 1981 national championship game, this happened:
The shooting of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley — on March 30, 1981 — horrified a nation which had been so deeply scarred by the assassinations of the 1960s. Reagan survived, but the full weight of the event was enough to postpone the Academy Awards, scheduled to be held that night in Hollywood. Would the NCAA and tournament chairman Wayne Duke follow suit?
Duke chose to play, as detailed in this story by J.A. Adande in the Los Angeles Times.
Indiana returned to The Spectrum five years after completing an unbeaten season, intent on winning Bobby Knight’s second national title and the Hoosiers’ fourth. Standing in the way was a North Carolina team with James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Al Wood, trying to win a first national title for head coach Dean Smith.
The task appeared daunting for Indiana against Carolina’s formidable array of premier players, but Isiah Thomas had a way of owning moments as a player. Before he blossomed into one of the NBA’s greatest players, he finished his college career with a championship. His mastery of North Carolina, the game, and all the attendant pressures of that evening enabled Indiana to win comfortably, 63-50.
The game was also a landmark moment in college basketball for reasons that had nothing to do with Indiana.
The great broadcasting team of Dick Enberg, Al McGuire, and Billy Packer called its last game for NBC, due to the acquisition of NCAA tournament television rights by CBS. Packer joined Gary Bender (later Brent Musburger and Jim Nantz) at the Final Four, beginning in 1982, while Enberg and McGuire stayed behind with NBC.
The fact that this was McGuire’s last national title game as a broadcaster lent an extra degree of irony to North Carolina’s loss. It was in 1977 that McGuire coached his last game. The victim? North Carolina and Dean Smith. The scene? The national championship game at the Final Four. Exactly four years later, another McGuire swan song and another Smith loss in a national title game would coexist.
Indiana faces North Carolina this Friday in Philadelphia. The game won’t be in The Spectrum, an arena which belongs to yesteryear. Yet, the awareness of Indiana’s history in Philadelphia — and of both schools’ participation in that controversial 1981 title game — will be deeply felt by fans of a certain age.
Indiana last made the Final Four as a 5 seed in 2002, under then-coach Mike Davis. Indiana beat a No. 1 seed from the ACC — Duke — in that year’s 1-versus-5 regional final. Indiana became the higher-seeded team for the 2002 Elite Eight and moved to the Final Four. Should Indiana and Tom Crean beat UNC on Friday, the Hoosiers — seeded fifth — will again be the higher-seeded team in a regional final. They’d be favored to return to the Final Four, in pursuit of the basketball renaissance everyone in Bloomington hungers for.
The echoes of the past reverberate in the present moment.
Indiana, a program drenched in history and achievement, tries to win the game that could catapult Tom Crean to a new level of prominence and stature in the college basketball world.
As the old-time comedian W.C. Fields would say, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
It’s the place where Indiana basketball has gained its greatest glories. Another moment in the sun awaits if the Hoosiers can play their best 40 minutes on Friday night.