Book details university’s rebound after 1977 plane crash tragedy

Like so many, Steve Beaven remembers exactly where he was on the evening of Dec. 13, 1977.

He was at a high school basketball game inside Roberts Stadium as a 10-year-old. People in the crowd rumbled about there being a plane crash near the airport, but the game continued like usual. Beaven didn’t learn the severity until he got home and turned on the news.

The entire Evansville Purple Aces men’s basketball team and coaching staff died after the plane carrying them crashed on takeoff. It was a seminal moment for the city and the University of Evansville.

“For most of us, the crash is a historical moment we remember once a year,” said Beaven, who covered the business of sports for IBJ in the 1990s. “But for the families and the moms and siblings of the people who were on that plane, they still feel that loss.”

Because Beaven was only in fifth grade at the time, he decided in graduate school decades later to explore the events leading up to and following the crash. The result is the true story behind the tragic loss and the extraordinary rebirth of the Purple Aces in his debut book, “We Will Rise.”

Physical copies of “We Will Rise” are now available in both hardcover and paperback, as well as a Kindle ebook option. It’s for sale on Amazon.

The plane crash is just one part of the story–the one everyone remembers, Beaven said. The other part details how the program was resurrected by coach Dick Walters, who assembled a team of castoffs, walk-ons and overachievers to make history seemingly against all odds.

Four years after the crash, the Aces earned a bid into the NCAA tournament. Beaven lived through it all as a teenager.

“It just reminded me how big of a deal it was in Evansville that they were going to the NCAA tournament,” Beaven said. “There were billboards all up and down Highway 41, students were packed at the dining center to watch the game. It was a big moment in Evansville, and I think that gets lost sometimes.”

This is a story of community resilience and a tribute not only to those who were lost but those who carried on.

On the back cover of the book are a handful of reviews. One is by Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, an Indiana native familiar with the story. He calls “We Will Rise” the best of what sports can mean to a community.

“This story exemplifies the resilience of the American heartland, where God-fearing people bear unspeakable pain and tragedy with grace and depth most of us cannot comprehend,” wrote best-selling author Steve Eubanks in another review. “The heart of Evansville beats like a basketball on hardwood with every word. You can almost hear the squeaking of high-top sneakers on the floor, the ear-splitting chirp of whistles and the quiet, gut-wrenching sobs of those who grieve.”

Beaven is an Evansville native and a former staff writer at the Oregonian. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two sons.

He said he started writing the book in late 2015 and finished it last spring. He noted he had conducted most of his interviews before he found an agent, so he had a head start. He’s also grateful for his editors–a pair of UE grads–Barry Harbaugh and Erin Calligan Mooney.

Here’s one anecdote from early in the book that carries some symbolism for the current state of the program. Legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford came to town in the 1978 season for a magazine feature about the city overcoming its collective grief.

His words capture the essence of Beaven’s book.

“The fact is, nobody really had to rebuild anything at Evansville,” Deford wrote. “Not before the tragedy occurred, and not after it. Teams play and programs carry on, but the tradition that Evansville possesses is the greater thing, because it has a life all its own.”

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