SPORTS: A basketball breakfast you won't soon forget

March 20, 2006

One of the reasons the NCAA chose Indianapolis to host this year's Final Four is that it coincides with the association's centennial celebration. What better way to bring attention to the NCAA's 100th year than by having its showcase event in its headquarters city.

But that won't be the only significant basketball anniversary to be feted during Final Four weekend. Three others have significance to Hoosiers. Call it a coincidence of greatness.

For starters, it will be the 50th anniversary of Oscar Robertson's leading the Crispus Attucks Tigers to their second straight Indiana high school championship, then being named Mr. Basketball.

That '56 team went unbeaten. So did the 1976 Hoosiers, and it is the 30th anniversary of that team's becoming the last unbeaten to win the NCAA championship.

And it is the 25th anniversary of IU's 1981 NCAA title team, which blew through the tournament with rare dominance.

The good news is that you will have to go to only one place to touch the legacy and legend of those teams.

On March 31, in Conseco Fieldhouse, Robertson and members of the '76 and '81 Hoosiers will be honored. The occasion is the annual U.S. Basketball Writers Association Awards Breakfast. It promises to be a special occasion.

Robertson will be there to give recognition and receive it. The USBWA's college player of the year-the oldest such award in college hoops and the only player of the year award to be named after a player (others are named for coaches John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and James Naismith)-receives the Oscar Robertson Trophy. The Big O will introduce the winner and pass out the hardware. Look for it to end up in the hands of either Gonzaga's Adam Morrison or Duke's J.J. Reddick.

Better still, after we Hoosiers lost Robertson to the University of Cincinnati and then a career in the NBA that never brought him home, we're finally going to get him back-symbolically at least.

The Oscar Robertson Trophy-a magnificent piece of sculpture based on a famous photograph of Robertson in mid-air with his legs spread-eagled pulling down a rebound during his days as a Bearcat-will become part of a permanent exhibit in Conseco Fieldhouse. The display will include Robertson artifacts as well as recognition of past Robertson Trophy winners, which include Larry Bird and Calbert Cheaney.

We're long overdue for something in Indianapolis that recognizes the Big O's career beyond high school. In my opinion, Oscar is the greatest to ever play the game. In addition to his exploits at Attucks and Cincinnati (where he led the nation in scoring three straight years), Oscar averaged-yes, averaged --a triple-double for an entire season with the NBA Cincinnati Royals in 1961-1962: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists. I still cannot fathom that.

Yet Robertson's greatest assist came off the court when he donated one of his kidneys to save the life of his daughter, Tia, who suffered from lupus. And that's another great reason to be at the breakfast, because some of the proceeds go to the National Kidney Foundation in Robertson's honor.

Then there's the tribute to those great Indiana teams. The unbeaten season of '76 accomplished by Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson and Tom Abernethy et al grows larger with each passing season. And I don't think there's ever been a tougher college team-mentally and physically-to play against.

And the '81 Hoosiers? That team struggled early, but no one could touch it down the stretch. With shooters Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel, the dominating inside duo of Ray Tolbert and Landon Turner, the incomparable Isiah Thomas as the straw who stirred the drink, and Jim Thomas as the sixth man, IU won its last 15 games that year and its five tournament games by an average of 23 points.

Among those who thus far have indicated they will attend: Buckner, Benson, Jim Crews, Wayne Radford, Scott Eells, Jim Roberson, Tolbert, Turner, Kitchel, Chuck Franz and Eric Kirchner.

So here's the pitch. Be there or be sorry you missed a special occasion on a special weekend. Tickets for the breakfast are $100, or $1,000 for a table of 10, and can be purchased at the Conseco Fieldhouse box office or through the Indiana University Alumni Association office at 274-8828.

The breakfast, which includes a VIP reception, will also have the presentation of the USBWA's Henry Iba Coach of the Year Award. Can't think of a better Indiana way to dive into the Final Four.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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