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Wine Online: Celebrating 1980, Iowa Hoops Style




Oct. 25, 2009

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    IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Members of Iowa's 1979-80 basketball team have a reunion scheduled for this weekend (Oct. 30-31) to celebrate one of the most memorable seasons in school history. They'll recall the 10 straight victories that opened the season and the injuries and adversity that followed. Finally, and most vividly, they'll remember their serious run at a national championship.

    Those Hawkeyes had shared the Big Ten title a year earlier, but previews of the 1979-80 team were mixed, probably because they had lost three of their top five scorers. But Coach Lute Olson, going into his sixth season at Iowa, had a solid group of veterans led by Ronnie Lester, who Olson called "the best point guard in college basketball."


    The quicksilver Lester, who had earned all-American honors as a junior, was a shy, modest youngster with a winning smile. As the only senior on the roster, he gave the Hawkeyes an exceptional leader. The team had good size and good shooters, and typical of Olson's teams, played solid defense.

    Steve Krafcisin and Steve Waite, both 6-10, lent a strong inside presence, and Vince Brookins had a deadly jump shot. All three were juniors. Kevin Boyle had started every game as a rookie, and Kenny Arnold was another promising sophomore. Key freshmen were Bob Hansen and Mark Gannon.

    The Hawkeyes opened the season by pounding their first two opponents at home, then went on the road and won decisively at Detroit, Wichita State and Iowa State. They were moving up fast in the national polls and after seven games had an average victory margin of 27 points.

    The season was altered dramatically with seven minutes remaining in the championship game of Dayton's holiday tournament. Driving hard to the basket, Lester was knocked to the floor by a Dayton defender and suffered ligament damage in his right knee. The Hawkeyes had suddenly lost their leader for an indefinite period.

    Iowa won that game and went home to beat Drake, then Illinois in the Big Ten opener. Arnold, playing with a broken right thumb, moved from shooting guard to the point. The Hawkeyes were still unbeaten after 10 games, but this was clearly not the same team without Lester.

    The winning streak ended with a three-point loss at Michigan, followed by a defeat at home to Ohio State. And adversity struck again when Gannon twisted his knee and was lost for the season. Injuries continued to plague the team when Hansen broke a bone in his left hand, but he never missed a game. Krafcisin's various ailments required so much gauze and tape his teammates nicknamed him "The Mummy."

    The Hawkeyes had a near-disaster off the court when assistant coach Tony McAndrews, on a recruiting trip, was seriously injured in a plane crash near Rock Island. He suffered broken bones, plus head and chest injuries that disabled him the rest of the season, leaving the coaching staff short-handed.

    Maury White, covering the Hawkeyes for the Des Moines Register, hung a nickname on the team, calling it "The Fabulous Few." In some games only five or six players saw action as Olson searched for able bodies.

    Lester got back on the court to help Iowa even its Big Ten record at 4-4, but his knee began bothering him again and he underwent minor surgery. But the gritty Hawkeyes somehow hobbled to a Big Ten record of 8-8, with two critical conference games remaining, both at home.

    Shooting a Fieldhouse record 65 percent, Iowa blitzed Michigan 83-67, then got an unexpected lift when Lester was cleared to play against Illinois in the final game of the regular season. After seeing his No. 12 jersey retired in a pre-game ceremony, Lester scored 15 points and controlled the ball in the late stages of a hard fought 75-71 victory.





    For 12 minutes Lester put on a brilliant performance as he scored 10 points and dished assists to his teammates. Then, suddenly, he was knocked to the floor in a collision that ended his Iowa career and his team's chances of winning a national championship. Hawkeye fans among the 16,637 sat in silence as their star player was helped to the sideline.

    Iowa played valiantly without its leader, but it had no answer to Darrell Griffith, Louisville's All-American , who pumped home 36 points. The final score was 80-72, and an unforgettable Iowa season was over.



    A 10-8 Big Ten record put the Hawkeyes in a fourth-place tie with Minnesota, a team it had beaten twice during the season. That must have impressed the NCAA selection committee, which gave Iowa a tournament berth while ignoring the Gophers.

    Although Lester was far from 100 percent, his presence energized the Hawkeyes, who opened the NCAA tourney at Greensboro, NC. They beat Virginia Commonwealth and North Carolina State, winning both games by double digits. Arnold scored 23 points the first game as Lester dished out eight assists. Brookins' 17 second-half points were critical in the next contest.

    Playing with renewed confidence, the Hawkeyes moved on to the Eastern Regional at Philadelphia to play Syracuse, the No. 1 seed. Iowa surged in the second half and won going away, 88-77, shooting better than 50 percent for the fifth straight game. Brookins had another big game with 21 points and Boyle added 18.

    "I'm not surprised we're still in this tournament, I think we can play with anybody," said Olson when a reporter pointed out that Iowa was the only unranked team left in the NCAA field. "We're looking forward to Sunday."

    At high noon Iowa faced Georgetown -- the winner advancing to the Final Four -- and the two teams played one of the great games in tournament history. Collectively, they made 64 of 106 shots (60 percent) and 33 of 36 free throws (92 percent). Lester had nine assists and no turnovers, and Brookins scored 22 points.

    But Waite was the hero when he made a driving lay-up with five seconds remaining, then added a free throw to give Iowa a three-point lead. Georgetown's basket at the buzzer made the final score 81-80, and the Hawkeyes cut down the nets.

    Unlikely as it might have seemed three weeks earlier, they were on their way to the Final Four. At Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, they were the Cinderella team that would face Louisville in the semifinals. UCLA and Purdue were in the other bracket.

    For 12 minutes Lester put on a brilliant performance as he scored 10 points and dished assists to his teammates. Then, suddenly, he was knocked to the floor in a collision that ended his Iowa career and his team's chances of winning a national championship. Hawkeye fans among the 16,637 sat in silence as their star player was helped to the sideline.

    Iowa played valiantly without its leader, but it had no answer to Darrell Griffith, Louisville's All-American , who pumped home 36 points. The final score was 80-72, and an unforgettable Iowa season was over.

    I had a good visit with Lute Olson after he had moved on to Arizona and won a national championship. He had fond memories of his 1979-80 Iowa team that started the season with great promise, fought through adversity and came tantalizingly close to reaching the top.

    Olson thinks that club had the ability to win the NCAA title with a healthy Lester. "We were an awfully good team when Ronnie was 100 percent," he said, somewhat wistfully. "Even when he was playing hurt we were very hard to beat."

    At their reunion this weekend, Lute and his 1979-80 Hawkeyes will reflect back 30 years and remember an unforgettable basketball season. They may also shake their heads a little sadly, and imagine what might have been.