An African proverb says, "If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors." Isaac Newton, wittingly or unwittingly, pirated the phrase when he wrote, "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
On Thursday night, many fathers all of them old enough to be great grandfathers will take center court to be recognized upon the 60th anniversary of Ohio State’s 1960 NCAA basketball title. These men will be feted at halftime of the Ohio State-Illinois game at Value City Arena. The youngest among them will be Jerry Lucas, whose 80th birthday is later this month.
Twenty-two thousand days ago, Lucas averaged 26.3 points and 16.4 rebounds as the leader of the "Super Sophs" in 1960.
"It’s all about LeBron now," said Joe Roberts, who was a senior when he started next to Lucas at power forward. "Luke was LeBron back in that day. He’s one of the best players to come out of the Big Ten. All-time. He’s one of the top five or top six ever to play college ball."
They were giants. Their metaphorical sons should take heed on Senior Night. Illinois, too. The 1960 Buckeyes are, arguably, the greatest basketball team in the history of the Big Ten, which was founded in the 19th century. They are also among the most dominant NCAA championship teams of all time.
The players were, and remain, and will be buried, as brothers.
"Fate is an awesome part of life," said point guard Mel Nowell, who, like Roberts, came out of East High and started for the 1960 Buckeyes. "So many of us are here for our 60th. It’s a gift no one can take for granted. We’re extremely lucky, and I feel blessed."
Sixty years ago, basketball was in a notable ascent. Oscar Robertson, the Big O, and Jerry West, the Logo, went 1-2 in the NBA draft. They joined Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain in a big-league revolution. (By the way, I’ll take that starting five and you can take whoever you want Mike, Kobe, LeBron, Bird and Magic, whoever and let’s go.)
The 1960 Olympic team often referred to as "the greatest amateur basketball team ever assembled" tore through the competition in Rome. Team USA had 10 future NBA players, including the next four NBA rookies of the year. Three of those players the Big O, the Logo and Lucas landed on the NBA’s list of the 50 greatest players of the league’s first 50 years. And when they were in Rome, Lucas was the best player in the medal round. He was Caesar.
"That was the first famous Olympic team," said longtime Sports Illustrated basketball scribe Jack McCallum, who wrote the book on the 1992 Dream Team. "It came at a time when a lot of guys in the game were making an imprint on the era, coaches as well as players. They were famous."
In the middle of it all were the Ohio State Buckeyes, whose rampage through the NCAA Tournament remains the stuff of legend. Back then, freshmen weren’t eligible and only conference champions drew into the 16-team tournament. The 1960 Buckeyes averaged 90 points and allowed fewer than 70 during the regular season. During the tournament, they won by an average score of 84-64.
They played beautiful basketball. They subjugated their egos for the common cause of victory. It came natural to them, they were so close.
On Wednesday night, they gathered together for a private dinner. It was not their first reunion, forward Dick Furry said recently, "but it may be the last. We don’t know. Not at our age."
Although Furry lost his starting job after the first game of his senior season (to some Czech-Croat kid from some dinky Ohio River town), he was a captain and he remains a captain. He has handled the arrangements for the private affair at the Blackwell Inn on the OSU campus.
Athletic director Gene Smith agreed to pick up the dinner tab but didn’t pay for the rooms but the old Buckeyes didn’t put up much of a fuss. The Tradition! They were looking forward to busting on teammate Bobby Knight deep into the night, and they’ll gladly pay for that.
"It’s a very special event, for all of us," Lucas said. "I’m so much looking forward to it. These are very special guys. Unique guys."
Fifteen years ago, before Ohio State retired John Havlicek’s No. 5, I had a long conversation with Hondo (a nickname given to him by Nowell, by the way).
Havlicek who when he retired in 1978 was the third-leading scorer in NBA history said this right off the top: "One thing about that team: We had a 3.4 grade-point average one grade period. Everyone graduated. Seven went on to get Master’s, two PhDs, two MDs. All but one of us were from Ohio."
Hondo played more games and scored more points than anyone else in Boston Celtics history. Yet, the stats he kept at his fingertips had to do with his college teammates’ successes, right on down to the last man on the bench. Their "failures" they lost to Cincinnati in the 1961 and 1962 national title games only bound them more tightly.
"There’s a sense of pride of playing with those guys," Roberts said. "Look at the number of championships that came out of that group."
All five starters Roberts, shooting guard Larry Siegfried, Nowell, Havlicek and Lucas were drafted. They all played in the NBA.
Lucas and his fellow "Super Sophs" Nowell, Havlicek, Knight, Gary Gearhart, J.T. Landes and Nelson Miller were 78-6 (40-2 in the Big Ten) during their three years of eligibility. They won three conference titles.
"The only team better than Ohio State’s nonstarters was Indiana," Knight wrote in his 2003 autobiography. (He also wrote, "Dick Furry taught me to tie a tie.")
We can go on and on with this stuff. ... Among Lucas, Siegfried, Havlicek and Roberts there are 18 NBA championship rings. ... Lucas was the first of three players in basketball history to win a high school state title, an NCAA title, an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title. (The others are Quinn Buckner and Magic Johnson.) ... Knight, who came off the bench in 1960 (and was a hell of a shooter) gained lasting fame for coaching Indiana to three NCAA championships (and throwing a chair). ... Lucas and Havlicek were named to the NBA’s 50 greatest of the league’s first 50 years. ... Lucas, Havlicek, Knight and their OSU coach, Fred Taylor, are enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Springfield. ...
They’ve stayed in touch for six decades.
"It’s a regular thing," said guard Dave Barker, who fired up the second unit demanded it give the first unit all it could handle in practice every day. "It’s like a phone loop."
Barker remains a conduit. He has been on hand for all but eight or nine Ohio State home games since he first arrived on campus in 1956. And they still keep jacking up his parking. Tradition!
Save for reserve forward Richie Hoyt, who is recovering from hip surgery, every living member of the team is expected for the reunion. Four of them will meet the media; Knight will not be one of them. Knight is said to be in good physical shape but has of late shied away from public speaking. His teammates are circling the wagons around him. Bobby’s all theirs.
Toasts will be made.
Reserve center John Cedargren was 28 when he died after a brief illness in 1966. Coach Taylor died at age 77 in 2002. Siegfried, who won five rings with the Celtics, was 71 when he died of a heart attack in 2010. Havlicek, who won eight rings with the Celtics, died last April after battling Parkinson’s disease. He was 79. Another teammate, Miller, died later in the year.
"It’s the closest thing to losing a family member, as far as I’m concerned," Lucas said. "We’re a family. We lived and worked together, some of us for four years. We spent more time together than we did with our actual families. I love them all. I love them all."
Siegfried’s wife, Tina, and Havlicek’s wife, Beth, are expected to take part in the celebrations.
And so they meet again, maybe for the last time, giants all. Go ahead and stand on their shoulders. After 60 years, they can still handle it.