From the Dispatch archives: Men's basketball | Ohio State's 1960 national champions reunite for 50th anniversary

Bill Rabinowitz

This story was originally published on Jan. 31, 2010.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." — William Faulkner

Fifty years. It is hard for them to comprehend.

The players who were not far removed from adolescence when they gave Ohio State its only basketball national championship in 1960 are now in their 70s, or close to it.

One by one, they say they can't believe five decades have elapsed, even if the mirror indicates otherwise.

They've had careers and marriages, children and grandchildren.

Yet all of them remain at least partly defined by 1960.

For them, 1960 is not just a year from the past. Their accomplishment isn't just a collection of yellowed newspaper clippings no longer relevant to their daily lives.

That championship remains alive for these men. It is alive when Jerry Lucas walks past the large picture of the '60 team in his family room in California and speaks to Bob Knight and John Havlicek as if they were there.

"I actually greet them many times as I walk by them," Lucas said. 'Hey, Bobby. How are you doing? Hey, Hondo. What's going on?' I really do. It was a unique group, and so meaningful."

It is alive for all of them, really. Not the championship, necessarily, or the ring. But being a part of it — the sacrifice, the camaraderie, the pride in knowing they reached the pinnacle — that feeling has never left them.

It has sustained them. It has inspired them.

"It made me want to do exceptional things," Mel Nowell said.

And they have. They have lived full lives, accomplished lives.

All five starters — Lucas, Havlicek, Nowell, Larry Siegfried and Joe Roberts — played in the NBA. Lucas and Havlicek are Hall of Famers.

But the 1960 team's success ranges far beyond the court. Every player on that team graduated. Many of them have advanced degrees. Two — Howard Nourse and J.T. Landes — have a Ph.D. James Allen is a medical doctor.

Some became coaches. The most notable, of course, is Knight, a reserve forward on the '60 team who has the record for most Division I men's victories and led Indiana to three national championships. Others became successful businessmen.

Other than reserve John Cedargren, who died in 1966, the players from the 1960 team remain healthy and vibrant. Coach Fred Taylor died in 2002 and assistant coach Jack Graf passed away last year.

"It has been fun to watch this team be so successful as adults," said Frank Truitt, an assistant coach in 1960.

This weekend, the group has returned to Columbus from around the country to celebrate the golden anniversary of their championship. Last night, they attended a "Cocktails and Hightops" gathering in St. John Arena. This afternoon, they will be introduced at halftime of the OSU-Minnesota game in Value City Arena.

Every player on the team was from Ohio. Nowell and David Barker are the only players who still live in Columbus. So this is a rare chance to get everyone together. Only Landes declined to come.

"We'll reflect on being comrades again and talking to each other and seeing how they've done in life," Havlicek said. "We had a 35th anniversary, and that's probably the last time we were all together."

The first time they were all together, none of them expected a national championship.

The 1958-59 team went 11-11 in Taylor's first season.

Though a national title seemed far-fetched, expectations were much higher for 1959-60 because of a sophomore class led by Lucas.

It's hard to overstate how much of a phenom Lucas was. Only LeBron James rivals him as an Ohio high school player.

The 6-foot-8 center combined unerring timing, anticipation and strong hands with an innate unselfishness that proved vital to team chemistry.

"When I was a senior in high school, Lucas was a sophomore at Middletown," said Barker, who played at St. Mary's High School in Columbus. "We played in the state championship in Cleveland (in different divisions). We played in the afternoon and they played in the evening.

"The guy was fabulous. He was very smooth, the most natural player in control of his mind and body and temperament I'd ever seen."

Lucas would have been the most highly recruited player in the country if not for one thing — he refused to be recruited.

He made it clear to colleges that he wanted to enjoy his high school experience without the distraction of fielding pitches from schools. When legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp figured that rule didn't apply to him and showed up at Middletown High School, Lucas crossed the Wildcats off his list.

"I never wanted to be a star," Lucas said. "I wanted to live a normal life."

It's telling that Lucas decided to attend Ohio State on an academic scholarship. He was joined by a stellar recruiting class that included Havlicek, Nowell, Knight and Gary Gearhart.

Freshmen didn't become eligible to play varsity until 1972, but that class showed a glimpse of the future when it beat the upperclassmen the last two times they played. Still, the players weren't thinking national title when the 1959-60 season started.

"I don't ever recall talking about, 'Hey, we've got to win the national championship,' " Lucas said. "It didn't come up in our normal conversation."

The coaching staff thought otherwise.

"We knew we had the potential to do it all," Truitt said.

From his varsity first game, when he grabbed 28 rebounds and scored 16 points in a victory over Wake Forest, Lucas was the clear star of the team. Others had to establish their role or adjust to a new one.

Siegfried had been the standout of the '58-59 team as a sophomore. When Lucas moved up to varsity, Siegfried knew he'd no longer be the focal point of the offense. What he understood intellectually was much harder to accept psychologically.

"It was not a tension between players," Siegfried said. "It was a tension within. I think it was absolutely insane for me.

"I had to change. You're either in or out. The question was: Was I going to be a part of a team or was I going to isolate myself?"

He did adapt, with help from Taylor and the lack of ego of Lucas.

"That was the greatest thing Fred was able to do," Siegfried said. "You take Richie Hoyt and all those guys who were great individual players in high school. Now you bring them into a team and (have to instill) a cohesiveness. That's tough. There's not many people today who can do that, who can take superior talent and blend it."

The Buckeyes had an abundance of offensive talent. Nowell and Siegfried were superb shooters. Co-captain Roberts also could score, sometimes on spectacular plays lost to history in a pre-ESPN world. The Buckeyes averaged more than 90 points that season, and this was long before the three-point line or shot clock. All five starters averaged in double figures, led by Lucas' 26.3 points (on .637 shooting from the field, which remains an OSU record).

With so much offense around him, Havlicek figured he'd have to make his mark on the other side of the court.

"Fred Taylor was preaching defense, and I said to myself that if I became the best defensive player on the team, that might give me a chance to play a lot more minutes," Havlicek recalled.

Senior co-captain Dick Furry started the Wake Forest game, but Havlicek played so well off the bench that he started every game after that.

"John had that engine that just kept running," Gearhart said. "I don't know how he did it. If there was a loose ball, John always had it. He was just a machine in motion."

The scoring prowess that developed in the NBA surfaced only occasionally, mostly on loose balls and fast breaks. Not surprisingly, Lucas was the catalyst for Havlicek's biggest offensive game. Havlicek mentioned to Lucas before one game that a lot of family and friends would be coming from his hometown of Martins Ferry.

"He said, 'You'd really like to do well tonight, don't you?' " Havlicek said. "I said, 'Well, I've got all these people here, so yeah, I'd like to do well.' He made sure I did well because I scored 30 that night, and that was my all-time high in college."

The Buckeyes lost only three regular-season games, at Utah and Kentucky, and at Indiana after they'd clinched the Big Ten championship.

In those days, only one team per conference qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes had a first-round bye before playing Western Kentucky in the Mideast Regional semifinals in Louisville, Ky.

The Hilltoppers led 43-37 at halftime before Ohio State dominated the second half for a 98-79 victory. The Buckeyes then whipped Georgia Tech by 17 points to advance to the Final Four in San Francisco.

Before leaving for California, Havlicek created some drama when he accidentally cut the fingers on his shooting hand on a paper-towel dispenser in the bathroom of his dorm. He required 10 stitches.

Even with Havlicek hampered, third-ranked Ohio State handled New York University 76-54 in a national semifinal at the Cow Palace.

In the final against defending champion California in front of a partisan Bears crowd, the Buckeyes were considered the underdog. The game started at midnight Eastern time.

"They weren't even going to televise that game," Furry said. "It was a last-minute decision."

Taylor devised a game plan that called for Ohio State to neutralize Cal's shot-blocking All-America center Darrall Imhoff by going right at him. On defense, he instructed Nowell to sag off poor-shooting guard Bobby Wendell.

The strategy worked to perfection. The Buckeyes took Imhoff out of his game by driving the ball and passing to the open man, and they made 16 of 19 shots in the first half.

Wendell was 0 of 6 from the field, and Nowell was able to get in the passing lanes to disrupt the Cal offense.

"There were very few people from Ohio State and it was quiet at times," Hoyt remembered of the crowd. "Nobody could believe how well Ohio State was playing."

The game was essentially over at halftime. The Buckeyes led 37-19 and coasted to a 75-55 victory in front of a stunned crowd.

"I felt elation as the clock ran down,'" Nowell said. "It was the only time in my sports life that I felt elation."

Dave Barker remembers the speech that Jack Graf gave at the postseason banquet after the championship.

"Jack Graf said, 'Hey guys, enjoy this championship because it may not happen again,' " Barker recalled. "I don't know how many guys remember Jack saying that, but it hasn't happened again."

The Buckeyes advanced to the title game the next two seasons, only to lose to Cincinnati. UC spoiled Ohio State's undefeated season in 1961 with an overtime victory. The Bearcats beat Ohio State again in 1962 after Lucas suffered a knee injury in the semifinal. Lucas played against UC but made only 5 of 17 shots in a 71-59 loss.

"Those were no doubt some of the biggest disappointments of all our lives," Lucas said.

"A lot of people like to make excuses, but they beat us. On those two particular nights, they were a better team. You have to give them credit. A lot of people know how to win but don't know how to lose. It's important to acknowledge the fact you played an opponent that played better than you have, and give them the respect and accolades they deserve."

The team scattered after that. The starters went on to the NBA, the others with their post-basketball lives.

But 1960 forever changed the arc of their lives. Havlicek believes being part of that championship helped persuade Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach to draft him.

"If there was a question of people having equal ability, he would go further and figure out who was on a championship team," Havlicek said. "I think that's one of the things that went into his mind when he drafted me."

Havlicek won eight titles with the Celtics, including five with Siegfried as a teammate.

For Siegfried, the difficult lesson of sacrifice he learned in 1960 remains a driving force in his life.

"It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said. "From that experience, what it really did was deepen my conviction and commitment to the team concept. My entire life, everything I did, is about that concept."

Roberts played four seasons in the pros before becoming a real estate broker. He said being part of that championship gave him a more positive attitude.

"You've been to the mountaintop and you know what it was like to be successful," he said.

That's the same lesson Nowell drew from his experience. He became state budget director under Gov. James Rhodes and later built apartment and condominium complexes around central Ohio.

"That experience of achieving such a high level in basketball — a national championship, two more trips to the national championship game and all those wins — it made you feel the need to excel, and that you could.

"I felt like if someone else could do it, I could do it. I'm not saying I'm the best businessman in the world. No, not at all. I've had a lot to learn in that regard. But the things I've accomplished, I'm proud of."

That goes for his teammates, as well. Fifty years have passed, but they never became the past.

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