When Lute Olson accepted the head basketball job at Iowa six years ago after a stint at Long Beach State, he and his wife flew from California to Iowa City to look for a house. Upon arriving, Bobbi took one glance at the scenery and whimpered, "Lute, write to me." But he persuaded her to at least get off the plane and look around. Among the sights was the aging Iowa Field House, where the Hawkeyes play. Bobbi was truly panicky and said, "Now this isn't funny. Where do we really play?"
Anyway, Bobbi stayed in Iowa City in stead of insisting on matrimony by mail, loves it, and, while the Hawkeyes still play in the old field house, the difference is that they now really play—and the populace loves it. "We have the greatest fans in the world because they're not spoiled by winning," says Olson. Even this year the Hawks were able only to tie for fourth in the Big Ten with a 10-8 record (they were 23-8 overall). Says Olson, "People don't always make the connection that a fourth-place team can be very close to first."
But at the NCAA Eastern Regionals in Philadelphia last weekend, Iowa, the fifth-seeded team in the East, rose up and whacked No. 1-seeded Syracuse 88-77, then slam-dunked Georgetown, the team with the longest winning streak in the nation (15), 81-80. "I think we're a lot of fun to watch," chortled Olson.
Part of the fun was the Hawks shooting the lights out from the foul line. They hit 14 free throws in a row in their Syracuse win, 17 straight against Georgetown and 19 of 20 all told. In the second half of the championship game, Iowa was almost as hot from the floor, connecting on 17 of 24 field goal attempts, or 70.8%. Even so, the Hawkeyes had to survive an 11-for-14 shooting performance by Georgetown's Eric (Sleepy) Floyd, who wound up with 31 points.
The Iowans were down by 14 points early in the second half. They were dead, but Georgetown forgot to initial the certificate. Said Hoya Coach John Thompson, "We played as well as we could have." Indeed they did, especially in view of their emotionally draining semifinal 74-68 win over hated Washington-area rival, Maryland.
The Iowa defeat of Georgetown was a typical Hawkeye effort—adversity met head-on. Earlier in the season, so many players had been injured that there weren't enough to hold a full-scale practice until a football player and former varsity performers were enlisted. One starter, Mark Gannon, hurt his knee on Jan. 5 and missed most of the conference season. Two others, Kenny Arnold and Bob Hansen, broke bones in their hands but kept playing. An assistant coach, Tony McAndrews, was injured in a plane crash.
Worst of all, the foremost player, senior Guard Ronnie Lester, missed 15 games because of a severely damaged right knee, which was operated on in midseason. With Lester, Iowa was 15-1, without him, 8-7. "He's our security blanket," says Olson. "You can put pressure on a lot of people and it shows, but not on Ronnie."
So how's it feel to be a star, Ronnie?
"What's a star?"
Er, the best player?
"I'm just a player."
And gold is just a metal. It's Olson's view that Lester's knee (he came out of the operating room at 4 a.m.; by 10 a.m. he was doing rehabilitative leg lifts) limits him to playing at perhaps 75% of his ability. Truth be known, it may be closer to 60%. At that, he's still the man who means the most to Iowa.
But in Philadelphia, it took starry performances by Vince Brookins—the perfect hero for adversity-plagued Iowa—to keep the Hawks flying toward Indianapolis. At age 10, Brookins broke both of his legs when he dashed in front of a car driven by his Sunday school teacher. "That," says Brookins, "was when I learned to look before I leap." At 16, he was stabbed in the heart with a nine-inch knife and had open-heart surgery. He has broken his collarbone, shoulder, ankle and hand (twice). But he had no misfortune to speak of this year, unless you count a dislocated finger and 10 stitches in his lip.
Against Syracuse, with Iowa behind 57 to 55, he hit three free throws in a row to put the Hawkeyes ahead and on the high road for good. But his glory day was saved for the finals. He scored 16 points in the first half—exactly half Iowa's total—most of them on towering, look-before-leaping jumpers.
"If the shot is there," said Brookins, "you have to take it. I was ready to shoot and the shots were there." He was Iowa's leading scorer with 22 points.
While Brookins was the ongoing hero, 11th-hour stardom befell Kevin Boyle, who scored 14 points, and 6'10" Center Steve Waite. After a short jumper by the Hoyas' Craig Shelton tied the game at 78-all, the Hawkeyes froze the ball for two minutes, calling three time-outs in that span. With five seconds to go, Boyle rifled a pass to Waite. Waite tried the baseline and found it blocked. Then he whirled inside and put it in for what were, in effect, the winning points. He was fouled and made the free throw, the clincher. Said Waite, "I'm only a 60% free-throw shooter, but I was 100% on this one."