By DAVE SKRETTA
ATLANTA — Jerry Reimond remembers the captain coming on over the speakers in the airplane cabin, asking a bunch of wide-eyed kids from Wichita State to gaze out the windows.
On one side, Mount Rainier climbed to the clouds. On the other, snow-capped Mount Hood.
They were on their way to the school’s first Final Four, played that year in Portland, Ore., and a date with John Wooden and his powerhouse program from UCLA. They’d made it without their two best players, and a team featuring five blacks in an era of segregation, oblivious to exactly what they had overcome — something that would take the Shockers nearly 50 years to repeat.
“We had a police escort to the airport, and I remember that was the first time we’d had a police escort,” said Reimond, a backup forward on the team. “It was a beautiful flight, and then Portland was so green. Everything about it opened our eyes.
“Then I remember stepping on the court that first night,” Reimond said, “and what struck me as a kid at that time was that it was sort of a rarified or electric feeling in the air. The sounds were louder, they were sharper, the colors were more vivid, brighter, more intense. It was just an atmosphere, and it’s a cliche and overused, but it was just indescribable.”
The surprising Shockers are finally back in the Final Four this year, facing Louisville on Saturday night in their first national semifinal since 1965, and you can bet they’ll be feeling many of the same sensations on the elevated floor of the Georgia Dome.
But while this year’s team has been a longshot from the start, the Shockers of yesteryear were title contenders from the beginning of the season, returning nearly everybody of consequence from a team that lost to Kansas State in the previous year’s regional finals.
Then, everything threatened to unravel in a few short weeks.
Their best player, two-time All-American Dave Stallworth, exhausted his eligibility at the semester, and senior center Nate Bowman was declared academically ineligible in late January.
The Shockers started five Kansans the rest of the season, none over 6-foot-5.
“We anticipated Dave was going to lose his eligibility, and when Nate had some personal problems, it was a shock,” said John Criss, who played guard. “We had to start all over again, but that last semester was probably the best team basketball we had ever played.’”
The Shockers managed to win their first outright Missouri Valley Conference championship, and that automatically qualified them for the NCAA tournament. But they were no longer the sure bet to make it to Portland, just one of 23 teams trying to survive and advance.
“We had the best team that year, if we had a complete team,” said Mohamed Sharif, a guard then known as Kelly Pete. “Others did step up real good, and we were able to accomplish more than most people thought we would. I still hear guys we played against back in that time, they’re still amazed that we were able to go that far with the kind of talent we lost.”
The Shockers began their tournament run by beating SMU, and then used the trademark press that they learned under former coach Ralph Miller and honed under Gary Thompson to baffle a team from Oklahoma State that was led by another icon of the game, Henry Iba.
“That,” Criss said, “was my greatest thrill of the tournament.”
The result was a trip to the Final Four, even back then a big deal, where they were to meet a Bruins team that featured Gail Goodrich and Edgar Lacy. The Bruins were well-respected by then, the defending national champions, but had yet to earn the mystique of Wooden’s later teams.
“They were very well-coached, and a wonderful unit,” said Dave Leach, would have 12 points and 10 rebounds in the game. “They certainly weren’t all that big. I think Lacy was their biggest player at 6-7, but they had a very good press and it ended up being a fast-paced game.”
Even without Stallworth and Bowman, the plucky Shockers held their own at first, their game at Portland’s old Memorial Coliseum tight until midway through the first half.
“That last 20 percent of the game, we broke the press but our shooting went stone-cold,” Reimond recalled. “We just fell off a cliff, and it demoralized the guys.”
Goodrich and Lacy were too much for the Shockers, who lost 108-89.
The Bruins would go on to beat Cazzie Russell and Michigan for the championship, while the Shockers were relegated to the third-place game. There, they watched helplessly as a future senator named Bill Bradley scored 58 points and the Shockers were routed by Princeton.
“It was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Sharif said of that Final Four odyssey. “For someone 21 years old, it’s something that you really cherish.”
Wichita State would go into a long period of morass during the 1970s, only to rebound behind guys like Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr in the early 1980s. But despite all their success, they never made it to the Final Four, losing to LSU in the 1981 regional finals.
It wasn’t until this year’s team, led by Gregg Marshall, that the Shockers have finally made it back to college basketball’s biggest stage. After stringing together upsets over the likes of Gonzaga and Ohio State, they’ll make their their long-awaited return Saturday night.
You can bet those players from that ‘65 team will be watching.
“This program has a great history. I mean, it’s not Duke, it’s not UCLA, but there’s been great players and a great program for a long time,” Marshall said. “Those guys built the program. I’m just the steward of the program. One day, I might not be the coach here, but they will always be Wichita State greats, former players who did something special.”