The second time they met was in 1984 in a Sweet 16 game in Atlanta. On that night, Michael Jordan was held to 13 points in his final college game, and the Hoosiers stunned the top-seeded Tar Heels .
The first time was in 1981 in the national championship game in a building across the parking lot in South Philadelphia from where they will meet Friday night in an East Region semifinal. On that night, they played on one of the most memorable days in college basketball history.
“I guess we all have a few days where we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when something happened that stunned us,” Isiah Thomas said Thursday. “That was one of those days. We’d just had team meal, and we were watching a soap opera when they broke in with the news.”
The news was that President Reagan had been shot outside a hotel in Northwest Washington.
“It was ‘Days of Our Lives,’ ” said Ted Kitchel, one of Indiana’s starting forwards that night. “I grew up on a farm. I’d never seen a soap opera in my life. But when I got to IU, [Randy] Wittman had turned me on to it, and we all watched it. We’d have classes in the morning, watch the show, then get ready for practice.
“On the road, Coach [Bob] Knight always had lots of meetings on a game day. It was ritual. So we’d had a meeting, had breakfast, and we were watching ‘Days’ before our next meeting when they broke in with the news. It was stunning.”
During that afternoon, when no one knew how serious the president’s wounds were, the NCAA basketball committee debated whether to play the national championship as scheduled. There were several options: play, postpone the game 24 or 48 hours, or cancel the game and declare Indiana and North Carolina co-champions.
Although both coaches, Knight and Dean Smith, were told what the options were, neither was given any input into the decision.
“They never asked us what we thought,” Smith said years later. “My feeling was, if the president died, there was no way we could or should play. What bothered me was that they appeared to be concerned with two things: not looking bad to the public and making TV happy.”
Still uncertain about whether the championship game would be played, the committee decided to start the consolation game between Virginia and LSU (it was the last year there was a consolation game at the Final Four) on time. There weren’t more than a thousand people watching, and to this day, those involved wonder why the game was played.
“The game meant nothing, and no one really wanted to play in the first place,” Virginia Coach Terry Holland said. “With what was going on with the president, none of us could see any reason at all to play. But they told us to go out and play, so we did.”
During the consolation game, word came from Washington that the president was out of surgery and apparently out of danger. At that point, about 30 minutes before tip-off, the committee decided to go ahead and play the game.
“We had no idea what was going on,” Thomas said. “We never knew that there was any thought given to not playing. In fact, Coach Knight never said a word about President Reagan. He knew we were aware of what was going on — you couldn’t avoid the television. But the only names we heard from him that afternoon were [James] Worthy, [Sam] Perkins and [Al] Wood. He was going to be sure we didn’t lose our focus.”
Knight knew the game’s site, the now-demolished Spectrum, well. In 1976, Indiana had won his first national title — and finished up an undefeated season — by beating Michigan in the building. Two days before the 1981 title game, after the Hoosiers had beaten LSU, Knight had been stopped by a security guard walking into the postgame interview room.
“You can’t go in there without a credential,” the guard told Knight.
“It’s okay, pal,” Knight said. “You’re doing a good job.”
The guard blocked his path. Remarkably, Knight didn’t get angry.
“Listen buddy, I’m happy to not go in there,” he said. “But if I don’t go in, you’re going to have to explain to a lot of people why I didn’t show up.”
At that moment an NCAA official arrived to let the guard know it was okay to let Knight pass — even without a credential.
None of the Indiana players remember being specifically told that the president was out of surgery, but they remember being aware that he wasn’t in danger before they took the court. Perhaps an NCAA official had come into the locker room to inform them?
“Are you kidding?” Thomas said, laughing. “An NCAA official in our locker room? Don’t think so.”
The first half was tight and tense. At one point Carolina took an early six-point lead, and Kitchel remembers worrying briefly about getting blown out. “I’d picked up three fouls trying to keep Sam Perkins off the boards with those octopus arms of his,” he said. “I didn’t want to get embarrassed. But then I remembered the Maryland game, and I relaxed a little.”
In Indiana’s first game of the tournament, in the second round, Maryland — led by Albert King, Buck Williams , Greg Manning and Ernest Graham — had bolted to an 8-0 lead. The final was 99-64, Indiana.
In the title game, the Hoosiers finally took the lead on the last play of the half. Leading 26-25, Smith switched to a zone with Worthy on the bench with two fouls and Indiana’s big men, Ray Tolbert and Landon Turner, starting to become a handful.
“They let me run the clock down,” Thomas remembered. “I knew Wittman was going to come open in the corner. I found him, he drilled the shot, we took the lead and we went into the locker room with all sorts of momentum.”
Wittman, now the Washington Wizards coach, was half of the outside duo along with Kitchel that balanced Tolbert and Turner inside. Thomas, of course, was the piece that no one else had.
“I remember Isiah made a couple of steals early in the second half that put us in control,” Kitchel said. “They didn’t have an answer for him.”
The Hoosiers won the game by 13. Two days after Wood scored 39 points in the semifinals against Virginia, the entire Carolina team scored 50 against Indiana.
“By then we’d become a really good defensive team,” Thomas said. “This Indiana team reminds me of our team: We struggled early, especially on defense, then found ourselves late and became a very good team.”
That Indiana team was 7-5 after losing two games in Hawaii. Knight was so angry he made the team fly home on a red eye and gave them exactly one day off as their Christmas break.
Several years later, Kitchel and Wittman were in the IU locker room one night listening to Knight tell his team that there was no way Kitchel or Wittman would have tolerated the lackluster play he was witnessing.
Wittman turned to Kitchel. “Weren’t we the worst Indiana team in history after the Hawaii trip?” he said.
“And many other times,” Kitchel answered.
This year’s Indiana team was 5-3 in early December after an embarrassing 20-point loss at Duke. Since then, led by point guard Yogi Ferrell — who has some of Thomas’s strengths — and two maturing big men (freshmen Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby), the Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season title and have reached the Sweet 16 largely because of an improved defense.
When they take the court late Friday night at Wells Fargo Center, those who played across the parking lot 35 years ago will be watching as the memories flood back to them.
“I’m really happy to see them playing this way,” Kitchel said. “Last year they were giving up 20 to 25 layups a game. Coach [Tom] Crean has stopped that.” He paused. “I’ll be nervous. It’s a different kind of nervous, but it’s good to feel nervous.
“It means we’re good again.”