Coming home again
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Like all good fish stories, this one has gotten better with time.
No, the 1986-87 Iowa basketball team didn’t beat every opponent by 30 points. They didn’t go undefeated. They didn’t win the Big Ten championship, a national championship, or even reach the Final Four.
What Tom Davis’ Hawkeyes did do was run off a school record 18 straight wins to start the season, rising to No. 1 in the national polls. They became the first team ever to score 100 points against a Bobby Knight–coached team, handling an Indiana squad that would go on to win the national championship. The group, eight of which eventually were drafted into the NBA, took Hawkeye Nation on a high-flying, high-scoring ride that peaked with a dramatic Sweet 16 win over Oklahoma and came to a screeching, seemingly premature halt two days later with a heartbreaking loss to UNLV.
Former Hawkeyes coach Tom Davis received a long ovation from the 13,500 fans in attendance Feb. 4. Davis won 269 games in 13 seasons and took Iowa to nine NCAA Tournaments. Photo by Bill Adams.
This was, without question, the greatest collection of basketball talent ever to grace the parquet floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, or any other court at the University of Iowa. And for one afternoon, Feb. 4, they came home again to celebrate the silver anniversary of their historic run.
“This has been fun,” says Kevin Gamble, the Hawks’ third-leading scorer that year who went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA. “I hadn’t seen most of the guys in years. It’s always fun to reminisce and talk about old times — the stories get bigger and better. To see these guys has been special.”
Almost the entire team made it back to Iowa City for the reunion, including fan favorites B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble. Gerry Wright flew in from California, where he is a high school social studies teacher and basketball coach. Gamble came from Boston, where he works in the public school system. Gary Close, an assistant coach under Davis in ’86-87, is now on the staff at the University of Wisconsin. He drove seven hours round trip through a snowstorm to spend just a couple of hours strolling down memory lane at an informal gathering Friday evening.
By the time they got to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday afternoon to meet with the media and sign autographs in advance of Iowa’s game against Penn State, the former Hawkeyes were downright giddy. They received a rousing ovation from the more than 13,500 in attendance before tipoff and then sat as a group and talked and laughed like teenagers as the Hawkeyes cruised to a victory. It was clear that this wasn’t just a collection of superior basketball talent. It was a group of extraordinary people who long ago formed an uncommon bond that has stood the test of time.
“Everybody focuses on the talent of that team, but it was also very much a team,” says Al Lorenzen, a reserve forward then who now is the CEO of Wildwood Hills Ranch, a facility outside of Des Moines that serves at-risk youths.
“It was like a high school team; it really was,” added Brad Lohaus, who enjoyed an 11-year NBA career and recently became the first former student-athlete to endow a full athletic scholarship at Iowa. “Everyone kind of checked their egos at the door. We got along so well.”
There definitely was something magical about this group, an aura that carried it to such an incredible level of achievement that resonates still today. It was built on trust. The players believed in and respected Davis, who was in his first year at Iowa, and they trusted each other. In fact, Davis had so much faith in his players that he allowed them to substitute themselves in and out of games.
“These guys were so coachable,” Davis says. “Certainly they were talented, but they were so coachable. Going to practice I didn’t have to worry about motivation. They would give you all that they had, and they played that way, too.”
And that, really, was the lesson, which extended from the court to the classroom and into the lives of these men as they left Iowa and eventually left the game. Look right down the list, and it’s pretty amazing what these men have become.
- Al Lorenzen is a CEO.
- Gerry Wright is a teacher and coach.
- Kevin Gamble was an assistant coach at Providence under Davis’ son, Keno, before moving on to work in the Boston Public Schools.
- Jeff Moe is a real estate executive in Indiana.
- Michael Morgan is an associate director of development at the UI Foundation.
- Les Jepsen is a financial planner who owns a business in St. Paul, Minn.
- B.J. Armstrong won three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and now is a sports agent representing reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose.
- Bart Casey is a principal partner at Mercer Health and Benefits in Iowa City.
- Mark Jewell is a sales director in Indiana.
- Kent Hill is a deputy sheriff in Palm Coast, Fla.
- Ed Horton works for the city of Springfield, Ill.
- Bill Jones owns a bank security company in Michigan.
- Brad Lohaus is a broker for commercial airplanes and lives in North Liberty.
- Roy Marble is an account executive for Experian Automotive in Eastern Iowa, and his son, Devyn, is a sophomore guard on the Iowa basketball team.
- Michael Reaves works in the transportation industry in Georgia.
“To see what they have become, the things they’ve gone on to do in their lives beyond basketball, is really gratifying as a coach,” says Jerry Strom, Iowa’s director of basketball operations since the early ’80s who was instrumental in planning the reunion.
Lorenzen isn’t surprised by any of it. Seeing his old friends only served as confirmation of what he already knew. This group was bound for success, and that trajectory was only more focused after surrendering a 16-point halftime lead in that crushing loss to UNLV that left them one step short of the Final Four.
“You’ve got guys who aren’t afraid to work hard, guys who understand the team concept, and understand that on every team there are roles,” he says. “You think about organizational dynamics, and those are important things.
“That’s the real value of sports. It’s never about wins or losses. It’s about challenging yourself to be your best and learning from your experiences. That’s what carries you through life — that and the relationships. That’s what lasts.”
Read the Des Moines Register series remembering the '86-87 Hawkeyes.
Watch this video of the '86-87 Hawkeyes being honored before the Feb. 4 game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, courtesy of Hawkeye Insider.