The Drake basketball team from Des Moines, Iowa, which for decades has been alternately an also-ran and an embarrassment in the Missouri Valley Conference, has finally risen from the ashes. The long-suffering Bulldogs have finished last in the conference 11 times since 1971, the last time they played in the NCAA tournament -- until now.
A team that even those who can't pronounce "Des Moines" should find easy to like, Drake has two former walk-ons in the starting lineup and four starters with GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by senior guard Adam Emmenecker and his 3.97 and four majors: management, finance, business and entrepreneurial management.
Drake, which was picked to finish ninth in its 10-team league, faces Western Kentucky today in a West Regional first-round game at Tampa, Fla., and the team's improbable success recalls a similarly unlikely event that happened at Drake nearly 40 years ago.
It was the winter of 1969. As a skinny 8-year-old growing up just a jump shot from the Drake campus, I went with my dad to every Bulldogs home game that year.
The Bulldogs dominated most opponents in '69 and won the conference championship, and defeated Texas and Colorado State in the NCAA Eastern Regional in Manhattan, Kan., to make it to the Final Four.
In the semifinal game, during which NBC's Curt Gowdy repeatedly referred to Drake as "Duke," the Bulldogs were paired against UCLA, coached by John Wooden and led by Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). It was in the middle of the Bruins' epic reign of seven consecutive NCAA titles. Late in the game, UCLA led by three, but Drake had the ball and the momentum. Guard Willie McCarter put up a jumper from the left corner that ricocheted around the rim before falling into the hands of Drake forward Dolph Pulliam, who went straight back up with it.
On the way up, Pulliam was hammered by Alcindor and Curtis Rowe, but the ball somehow made it through the hoop. The basket counted, but no foul was called against the Bruins. Eight seconds remained, and Drake trailed by one. UCLA escaped the Bulldogs' full-court press and got a pass through to Lynn Shackelford. In desperation, Drake's Ron Gwin fouled him. Shackelford made both of his one-and-one attempts.
It was over. Final score: UCLA 85, Drake 82.
Just about everyone who saw it, including some UCLA fans and even Gowdy, said the Bulldogs outplayed UCLA but were victims of poor officiating. Sour grapes? No, just a fact that even an 8-year-old could recognize. The Bruins had blown out most opponents that year, but Drake shocked them and the world and should have won.
The '69 group was coached by the widely beloved Maury John, now deceased, who during that turbulent era was one of the first to hire a black assistant and put a black and white player in the same hotel room on trips, even in the deep South. John and his players were the heroes of my childhood right alongside Neil Armstrong, who walked on the moon just four months later. As an Iowa boy with big dreams, I was inspired to know that an unknown little college team from my neighborhood could go toe-to-toe against some of the greatest basketball teams in the land.
I left Iowa to attend college in Southern California and never moved back, but I never forgot those '69 Bulldogs. Sadly, though, the university did.
So in 1985, as a student at San Diego State, I decided to find the players on that '69 team. I spent more than a month tracking down each player, and they didn't disappoint.
I wrote a where-are-they-now story and pitched it to the Des Moines Register, which ran it as a full-pager in the newspaper's peach-colored sports section. As the story pointed out, the players on that team had never received any formal recognition by the university and had never even been invited back to the university, individually or as a group.
"Coach John deserves to be recognized, and so do all the players," McCarter told me in 1985. He was Drake's leading scorer that year and went on to play for the Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Bob Karnes, Drake's athletic director at the time, said, "The 1969 team was a great team, there's no denying that, but what is it that these players want? I really don't understand. They seem to want to keep telling us how great they were."
The reaction to the story in Des Moines was swift and unanimous. Letters poured in to the newspaper, and suddenly locals were talking about this team again. From that point on, everything changed in terms of the way the university viewed and treated that basketball team. The following season the team was brought back and honored by the university.
Now, McCarter and the rest of the guys -- a few of whom have sadly passed on since my story ran in the '80s -- are invited back to the campus frequently and treated with appropriate reverence. And they've even met and chatted with the members of the current Drake squad.
It took nearly four decades for Drake to return to glory on the basketball court, largely thanks to Tom Davis, the former Iowa coach who took over at Drake four years ago, and his son, Keno, who took over for his dad this season and inherited only one starter from last year's team. Drake's resurgence takes me back to that legendary team I loved as a kid, and reminds me why I love this sport and why I became a journalist in the first place.
Jamie Reno is the San Diego correspondent for Newsweek.