When the Big Tenseason began two months ago he was on the bench in street clothes watching hisIndiana teammates scratch and scramble and ultimately fall to Ohio State. Whenthe season ended last Sunday afternoon he was on hand again. Only this timesenior Mike Woodson—Marvelous Mike, Miracle Mike, Mr. Mike to all thoseBuckeyes through whose monster of a zone defense he had just finished cutting aswath as wide as all the snowy outdoors—had come dressed for the dance.
What Woodson haddone was score 21 points and, even more important, wear down Ohio State withpatience and penetration. What his classmate, Butch Carter, had done wascontribute two game-saving free throws in regulation, then a steal and twogame-winning free throws in overtime. What the Hoosiers had done was win thegame 76-73, the cherished Big Ten championship and an automatic bid to the NCAAtournament. Welcome home, Mr. Mike.
In truth, Woodsonhad made an improbable recovery from back surgery and returned to the Hoosierlineup five games earlier, scoring 102 points in an Indiana streak that broughtthe Hoosiers to this long-anticipated showdown with their archrival. But ittook a pressure-cooker of a conference finale involving two teams tied with12-5 league records for Woodson's versatility and value to become fullyapparent.
The 6'5"guard-forward-anything-else-you-want is Arthur Ashe on a basketball court:smart, subtle, stylish. When Ohio State appeared to be pulling away—it had a59-51 lead with 7:38 to go—Woodson slithered into a seam in the defense, madetwo baskets, missed a shot but then made another, at which point the entireBuckeye team started gathering in his vicinity. That freed Indiana'squicksilver freshman guard, Isiah Thomas, who ultimately contributed 21 points,as well as 10 rebounds and seven assists. So Thomas drove the lane and wasfouled. When he converted his free throws the score was tied, 63-63.
Clark Kellogg'sunreal triple-pump basket through heavy traffic—which would have seemed moreunreal had the precocious freshman not been providing 18 points and 16 reboundsworth of similar stuff that afternoon—gave the lead back to the Buckeyes with47 seconds to go. Now Indiana patiently set up for the tying goal. The Hoosiersnearly waited too long.
Center RayTolbert plunged inside but the Buckeyes' Herb Williams blocked the shot. It wasthe longshoremen's, uh, Buckeyes' eighth such intimidating rejection of thegame, and they were ready for another when Carter came up with the ball in thekey amid vast confusion. Instead, Williams committed his fifth anddisqualifying foul before Carter could attempt the shot.
Seven secondswere left when Carter went to the line for his free throws. Ohio State's guardscame over to say hello. Kelvin Ransey even reached out to shake Carter's handand then patted him on the fanny.
"I wasthinking of all the loose-ball drills and all the running I did lastsummer," Carter said. It would have been a long spring if he hadn't madeboth ends and saved the game. For the moment.
Ransey, who had17 points and seven assists, and Kellogg both had chances to win it for OhioState, but Ransey's attempt bounced off the rim while Kellogg's never reachedit. Which left only the overtime, or what Indiana Coach Bobby Knight called"situation fun time."
It was a barrelof laughs for the Hoosiers, mainly because Tolbert hit from 10 feet and becauseCarter stripped Ransey and fed Thomas for a breakaway to push Indiana ahead69-65. Kellogg countered with a pair of free throws with 4:06 remaining, butthe Hoosiers then held the ball for more than three minutes and the desperateBuckeyes now had to start fouling.
Woodson,stationed at the point, skillfully used the clock, positioned his teammates andmoved the ball to the right people. After Ransey's baseline jumper brought OSUto 72-71 with 25 seconds to go, the right person was again Carter, who placidlyconverted two more free throws to put the game and the championship out ofreach.
"I reallyworried that I'd never play again," Woodson said at the emotional post-gamecelebrations on the Assembly Hall court. "I sure didn't think I'd make itthis far."
On Feb. 14Woodson made his astonishing return, a night that proved to be hearts andflowers—but not valentines—for the rest of the Big Ten. It was right there inRiver City—make that Iowa City—that it happened. Barely a minute into the game.Right side, breaking at an angle off a screen. Woodson jumped and shot. Good.He jumped in the air again, clapped his hands and thought, joyfully, "I'vestill got the touch."
And he surelydid. After being written off for the season because of back surgery; afterspending weeks in intensive rehabilitation, including many hours strapped inflotation gear that allowed him to "run" in the deep end of theuniversity's Royer Pool; after missing 15 games, six of which the Hoosierslost, Woodson was back. Starting at guard in that season-turning game at Iowa,Woodson played 39 minutes, made seven of 18 from the field, added four freethrows and got five rebounds as Indiana won 66-55. Starting at forward againstMinnesota at home, Woodson scored 24 points and had five assists in a 67-54victory as his mother, Odessa, sat in the stands and wept. "I've prayedenough," she said. "I prayed until my knees wore out. Mike's a miracleman."
Actually, beforehis brave comeback Woodson's back ailment had taken the measure of more thanthe player himself. The pains began in early November after Woodson fell on hisback in practice. He kept icing the injured area and was able to open theseason and play the first six games. But, says Woodson, "when I'd sit downand cool off, it got stiff. I had trouble bending over."
Dr. MerrillRitter, an Indianapolis orthopedist, put himself in Knight's doghouse—whichannually appears to grow into a veritable pound—by at first diagnosing theinjury as back spasms. Dr. John Miller, the Indiana team doctor, was replacedbecause Knight felt he was slow to grasp the severity of the injury.
A thirdphysician, Dr. Henry Feuer, a neurosurgeon, was consulted after Woodson felt"a tingle" in his left calf before the Dec. 18 game against Toledo.When Feuer prescribed rest, Woodson took to bed at Knight's house for four daysduring the week before Christmas. That didn't do the trick, and on Dec. 27 heunderwent surgery for a herniated disc.
"We were ableto make a one-inch incision instead of the normal three or four inches,"says Feuer. "We had Mike walking and exercising and running in the waterthe first week. When we brought him along twice as fast as normal, we realizedwe were doing something that hadn't been done before."
Normal recoverytime is three to six months. Woodson was playing basketball again within sixweeks. Knight even had his Lazarus suit up against Illinois on Jan. 31. "Iwanted to see someone on the floor in our uniform who could shoot," Knightsaid, only half-jokingly.
But the masterpsychologist had not been idle while waiting for Woodson. Using as many as adozen different lineups, shuttling Carter between forward and guard,"tigering up" his big men, Landon Turner and Tolbert, to play clawingdefense, Knight manipulated his troops into striking position. Even whenIndiana's charismatic leader, Thomas, cracked open his face in a game and thenhad it cracked open again during a fight in his dormitory (total damage: 24stitches and eyes so puffed he resembled a black Carmen Basilio), the Hoosierskept plugging away.
Last week, withonly one game remaining before his team's day of destiny with Ohio State,Knight committed a blunder: he over-practiced the Hoosiers. Against Wisconsinlast Thursday night Indiana was flat and fell behind 44-41 with 7:20 left inthe game. "We were three strokes ahead of the shark and the shark almostgot us," Knight said.
But one afteranother, the Badger starters fouled out, until Wisconsin had nobody left tocombat the Hoosiers. Indiana scored only six baskets in the second half butmade 25 of 28 from the line (16 by Woodson and Thomas). The Hoosiers won 61-52,setting up the Ohio State showdown.
It was notexactly astonishing that Indiana and Ohio State should be meeting for thetitle, the Hoosiers and Buckeyes being the Steelers and Oilers of collegebasketball in a league that is reminiscent of the AFC Central. The two schoolshave won four of the Big Ten's six NCAA championships, and they have accountedfor 12 of the conference's 24 appearances in the NCAA final four.
Respect ismutual, of course, as is the long-standing, frenzied desire of each to whompthe other. Ohio State Coach El-don Miller has the added incentive of wanting tocrush the mystique of Knight, the sport's most feared tactician. To Indiana'svolatile genius the rivalry means even more; surely it is burned deep withinhis soul.
Knight was bornin Ohio. He played for Ohio State. One of Knight's greatest non-military,father-figure heroes is Fred Taylor, who was the coach at Ohio State for 18years. In 1977, when Taylor was shoved into the physical education departmentwithout so much as a ceremonial farewell, an angry Knight produced his ownTaylor tribute at Indiana. When some of OSU's influential boosters arranged ameeting with Knight to talk about the Buckeye coaching position and the OhioState athletic director didn't even bother to show up, a steaming Knight goteven angrier. Thus he likes nothing better than to beat Ohio State, which hehad done in six of the last seven games, including the 1979 NIT semifinals.
And so he didagain, thanks to Woodson. Of course, this whole thing may be preordained.Woodson's hometown is Indianapolis. The last game he played before his injurywas in Market Square Arena, site of the NCAA finals. And his birthday is March24, the date of the NCAA championship game. Welcome home again, Mr. Mike.