Oct. 1, 2013
WEST POINT, N.Y. -
Part of today's halftime festivities will bring together two generations of Army basketball. In conjunction with the program's alumni weekend, members of the 1977-78 team that earned a berth in the National Invitational Tournament will be recognized on the Michie Stadium turf.
The timing of today's honor is especially appropriate. In addition to marking the 35th anniversary of Army's last postseason appearance, the excitement surrounding the 2013-14 edition of Black Knights basketball is reaching levels not seen on the hardwood in years. Last season, the Black Knights posted their first winning season (16-15) since 1984-85 and return several key pieces.
"Everyone was happy to reach a milestone that we all wanted to accomplish, but we don't live and work to have winning records," head coach Zach Spiker said. "We're trying to do something greater than that. In perspective, it (the winning season) was a really big accomplishment. We want to do it again, and get even more done this year."
Today's recognition of the 1977-78 squad also comes on the heels of the program's renewed commitment to connecting all Army basketball players, past and present. One of Spiker's program "pillars" is family, a definition that includes everyone that has ever donned the black, gold and gray.
"We are excited to have them back for our alumni weekend," Spiker said. "Army basketball is a family. There is a connection between every person that has worn a uniform and played here. To have them back and be around our team is a tremendous honor."
Spiker's enthusiasm for embracing the past has been well received by the alumni base.
"I think he has a great idea about how there needs to be a common string between all Army basketball players, and how we can bring them back together and say we're all a part of the tradition," said Pat Harris, a junior on the NIT squad and current Director of Business Operations for the West Point Association of Graduates. "For some of those individuals on the team now to be able to talk to guys who graduated in the 1990s, `80s, `70s, `60s is great. Army basketball has a great tradition, and I think it's in a position where we can all gain some momentum and push it forward."
The former players on the field this afternoon can relate to the feeling of expectations the current roster may be having. After posting only 31 wins in the four seasons after the departure of Bob Knight, the program took its first step back toward greatness with the arrival of 1969 graduate and former Knight point guard Mike Krzyzewski as the team's head coach. After an 11-14 record in his first season, Krzyzewski led the team to a 20-8 record in 1976-77. Every player returned to the roster in 1977-78, including Gary Winton who remains the only Black Knight to ever record 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.
"We knew that we could be good," said Harris, whose son Patrick played for Spiker and graduated from West Point in 2012. "We had confidence coming into the year, and we had great chemistry. When we took the court we knew each other very well. If we were going to get into a fight, those were the guys you wanted to be surrounded with."
The optimism proved well founded in the early going. The Black Knights started with seven victories in their first eight games, including a 57-55 win over 19th-ranked Kansas State at the Sun Bowl Classic. That game started a stretch of contests versus national powers that, while competitive, slowed the team's momentum in the win-loss column.
A one-point loss to Memphis State was followed by defeat at the hands of Maryland. Another one-point loss, this time to Texas, and an eight-point setback against Eastern Kentucky put Army's record at 7-5 heading into the 1978 portion of it schedule.
The second half of the season tipped off with a 68-50 victory over Lycoming on Jan. 4. The win ignited an 11-game winning streak that included triumphs over Seton Hall, Penn State and Navy.
"Coach pulled us in and told us exactly what he thought," Harris recalled. We had a team meeting after that and went on a winning streak. We were playing great Army basketball. I don't think we ever lost faith in each other, and I don't think the coaching staff ever lost faith in us. We just needed to regroup and hear the message that maybe we needed to pay a little more attention to detail."
The Black Knights defeated Seton Hall for the second time during the streak in the first game of the Metropolitan ECAC Playoffs on March 2, but lost a two-point decision to St. John's two nights later. Army earned a spot in the NIT, its eighth appearance overall and first since 1970. The team lost in the first round, 72-70, versus Rutgers.
This weekend's reunion is not just a chance to celebrate the success on the court 35 years ago. It's a chance for the current cadets to catch a glimpse of the possibilities for their future.
"I'd like our guys to continue to see what a West Point graduate looks like 35 years later," Spiker said. "I think they'll be able to look at this group and see that they can accomplish the same things with their lives. This program is a family, and we want everyone to see how successful these guys have been and what they've accomplished."
While the young Black Knights will have the chance to see the possibilities that await them after graduation, the returning graduates have the opportunity to express their support and share in future success.
"I think that everyone who has ever worn an Army basketball uniform wants the team to be successful, getting back to winning championships and going to the postseason," Harris said. "We all represent Army basketball. The more they do now, the better off we are puffing our chest and saying, `I played Army basketball.'"