Wilkerson wants 1976 IU team remembered for more than winning games

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Five years ago, former Indiana University basketball player and Anderson native Bobby Wilkerson had a vision.

He wanted to launch a business capitalizing on the 1976 IU basketball team he started on.

Wilkerson wanted to license a line of products—retro jerseys, etched glassware, T-shirts and more—commemorating the national championship team, the last undefeated NCAA men’s Division I team.

It would be a business opportunity for Wilkerson and his teammates to be sure. But he wanted it to be something more.

Wilkerson, who owns a Maryland-based drinking water bottling company, wanted to use the business venture to do something his coach, Bob Knight, had taught him.

“The one thing we all learned from Coach Knight was to give back to the community and never forget those less fortunate,” Wilkerson said. “Bob Knight did a lot for people and for charities. He did a lot people don’t know about, and will probably never know about. His example left a lasting impression on me.”

It was such an impression that in 2008, Wilkerson sat down with IU alums Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Mike Woodson at May’s Bloomington house. Over lunch, he explained his idea. May, Benson and Buckner were also on the 1976 team. Woodson, now coach of the New York Knicks, starred for IU in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“They immediately embraced the idea,” Wilkerson said. “They told me to go for it.”

When the economy tanked, Wilkerson put his plans on hold. But last year, when Wilkerson’s older brother, John, died of a terminal illness, he said his vision returned—along with a message from God.

“God put it in my heart and in my spirit,” Wilkerson explained. “I knew it was time. It was time to start this venture. It was time to pull this team together again. It was time to pull them together to help others.”

Dana Curish, executive director of Susan G. Komen Central Indiana, calls Wilkerson’s initiative “a blessing.”

“He just called us out of the blue and volunteered to help, to make us part of this. He said he wanted to help and to give something back to this community,” Curish said. “Those are rare phone calls. Those are the types of phone calls we like. We feel very fortunate to be a part of this.”

Wilkerson and Benson held a press conference Wednesday on the IUPUI campus to unveil the initiative. Wilkerson and Benson were flanked by several of their former Hoosier teammates, including Wayne Radford, Tom Abernathy and Scott Eells.

Wilkerson has no doubt his new venture will pay off—and not just for himself and his 12 teammates.

“I learned a long time ago that this team can do anything it puts its mind to if it works together,” Wilkerson said. “We know from 1976, there’s nothing we can’t achieve together.”

Wilkerson got the blessing of all his teammates—and Knight—for the project. Wilkerson even included the family of former teammate Mark Haymore, who died in 2004, in the initiative. This year, Wilkerson officially formed the 32 and 0 Undefeated College Basketball Champions Foundation Inc.

Benson, along with Wilkerson, agreed to co-chair the organization, which will be based in central Indiana. Wilkerson also secured a license from IU to make and sell the products.

In addition to Susan G. Komen Central Indiana, part of the proceeds will benefit the Hoosier Oncology Group, Macon Mentor Academy and Help Indiana Vets. Wilkerson said a percentage of each sale will go to the four charities, depending on the price of the item. He declined to give specific percentages that will be awarded to the charities.

Wilkerson insists the monetary donations are just the beginning to his—and his teammates’—community involvement.

“It’s not just about raising money; it’s about being active in the community,” Wilkerson said. “It’s also about an initiative where this team and its supporters can come together to do something great, do something that really matters to others. And you know, we’re all just one step away from needing help.”

Part of the plan is to partner with more not-for-profits in central Indiana and also charities in the hometowns of each of the former players on that 1976 team.

In many ways, Wilkerson’s timing couldn’t be better—and not just because there are more charitable causes than ever that need help. The resurgence of the IU program in the last two years under Coach Tom Crean has rekindled the fire of the Hoosier fan base.

On top of that, the 1976 Hoosiers in April at the Final Four were honored as the greatest college basketball team ever. Many area fans still fondly remember that magical run and will be willing to fuel Wilkerson’s dream by purchasing commemorative items.

The 32 and 0 items are scheduled to go on sale Thursday at 32and0.com.

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