If the memory has faded a little with time, the pain of loss persists for the University of Evansville and its basketball-crazed community.
The plane crash in December 1977 that killed the entire team stunned the Indiana city and destroyed the beginnings of Division I competition for the Purple Aces.
Bobby Watson, the school's first-year coach, and 14 of his players died en route to a game in Tennessee when their chartered DC3 crashed just after takeoff on the rain-slicked, foggy runway at Evansville's airport. At the time, school officials wondered if basketball at Evansville could even continue; the university had neither a freshman nor junior varsity squad.
Now, less than five years later, the Purple Aces have won their first-ever Division I berth in the NCAA playoffs. Tonight in Tulsa, in a first-round regional game, Evansville will face Marquette. If the Purple Aces win, they will play Missouri. Although regarded as underdogs, the Aces are sentimental favorites of many.
Coach Dick Walters, hired shortly after the accident, has spent four seasons plotting the course for a new basketball tradition, a task that has involved much more than simply recruiting fresh talent.
"Although I wasn't here when it happened, I understand fully how the tragedy made our situation unique," he said. "We had made the jump from success in Division II to some uncertainty in Division I, and simultaneously had to recover from the worst disaster in the history of basketball. Our real rebuilding isn't just playing games well; it's dealing with the hurt, the absolute devastation of loss. This is a small town, and the people who died in that accident weren't just names in a newspaper. They were close, personal friends."
Walters, who previously coached in Illinois community colleges, knew Bobby Watson, and was familiar with his plans to build a successful program at Evansville. In the last three seasons, the Aces have gone 18-10, 19-9 and 23-5. And Walters anticipates even more success.
"Sure, we're recovering from a bad situation, but our future is so very bright, I refuse to dwell in the past," he said. "I wanted to come here to help a very proud group of basketball people get through a horrible time. While we don't even want to consider forgetting what happened, this team does have a personality of its own. And we're moving ahead."
Theren Bullock was a high school senior in Blue Island, Ill., at the time of the crash. He didn't know any of the players, but Bullock, now a senior cocaptain of Evansville's team, thinks about them often.
"There's a memorial on campus, a plaza near a wooded area, and during my freshman and sophomore years, I had to pass it every day on my way to classes," he said. "I nearly always stopped, even for a minute, to say I know they're there. It's something that's always in the back of my mind."
Bullock is one of four seniors who were among Walters' first recruits, along with several transfer students. His 1,092 points place him 17th on the school's all-time scoring list. Of his decision to attend Evansville, he said: "All the publicity after the accident was bad, yes, but I think it brought the school both attention and sympathy. I know it had a lot to do with my choice, because I wanted to work toward a reputation for great basketball."
Bullock said it bothers him that when he tells people he plays for Evansville, their first response is a comment on the plane crash. "No way do I want to forget," he said. "But we do want to get past it, in a way. I'd like for us to be known as the 23-5 team that went on to the NCAA finals."
When Bullock and fellow seniors Brad Leaf, Eric Harris and Steve Sherwood arrived in Evansville, they were able to play in Division I immediately. Because of the crash, the NCAA had waived its rule forbidding transfer students to play without sitting out a season first. That was Walters' most convincing pitch to recruits as he tried to put a team together.
"We appealed to many student athletes because they saw an opportunity to begin playing," he said. "Many were not capable of competing on the Division I level, but they wanted to get in right away. At the time, I signed 15 players in three weeks."
The city of Evansville, meanwhile, has remained intensely involved with the team. Last Sunday, a day after the Midwestern City Conference winners had won the conference tournament at Tulsa by beating Tulsa and Oklahoma City, some 5,000 residents were waiting at the airport to greet the team.
"We knew there might be some people wanting to see us, but this was something else," Bullock said. Because of the crowd, players had to be escorted back to the university in vans. Walters called the turnout "the most gratifying thing I've ever seen." And Bullock, obviously touched, added, "So many people were just crying and crying. That says something about how much they loved the team that died."
Like Bullock and the other players, Walters frequently passes the memorial to the deceased team. "I go by, and, like everyone else, I ask myself why?" he said. "So many unanswered questions. People may not realize it, but there was a player who did not make that plane trip, and he died in an automobile accident just a few weeks later. Why?"
The student, David L. Furr, had indeed tried out for the team, but an ankle injury prevented his surviving the cut. Instead, he served as team statistician for home games. On Dec. 27, 1977, he was killed when his car skidded on an icy highway.
Walters refuses to let thoughts of the tragedy plague him. "We all know who we're representing," he said. "But I ask myself other things too, like why this year we were suddenly 23-5. If--when--we beat Marquette, I know some people will be asking why we're still there."