I, like most people, got my first true introduction to Valparaiso when Bryce Drew hit "The Shot" in the 1998 NCAA tournament. I was a senior in high school and a group of my friends skipped school to watch the first round games.
We all know the story. Drew hits the shot. Valpo beats Florida State. Chaos ensues. Sweetness surrounds Valparaiso. One of the ramifications of Drew's 3-pointer was that a high school senior in Milwaukee who was torn between his love of history and love of sports suddenly felt an urge to give Valparaiso University a look for his studies. I passed it off as indigestion from too many chicken wings at first, but almost a year to the day of Drew's shot, I made the decision to transfer schools and attend Valparaiso.
Within days of arriving in Northwest Indiana in the fall of 1999, I met Karl Berner. We immediately connected through a common love of radio and basketball. One night I remember the topic turned to the Sweet Sixteen run. I sat on the edge of the couch eager to listen to whatever interesting details Karl could tell me about this magical moment in time for my new college.
"The Sweet Sixteen was cool, but what was really awesome was the Miracle on Union Street. That was the best."
I dismissed this as crazy talk. How could any moment in Valparaiso Basketball history be greater than the Sweet Sixteen run?
It would take me years to find out.
Earlier this season I sat down with Valparaiso Public Address Announcer John Bowker for a story on Valparaiso's link to the Evansville plane crash in 1977. While it was a tragic story, I very much enjoyed researching Valparaiso's connection to the events. I've often been a believer that today's newspaper becomes tomorrow's history book and that there is never anything wrong with doing some historical context stories between every couple ACL-rehab stories we write on the high school side.
While talking to Bowker, the topic of the Lutheran Miracle game came up and I realized that this year marked the 25th anniversary of the game. I didn't think much of it until I covered the Champions Classic at the United Center on Tuesday, Nov. 12. While waiting for the games to start, ESPN made several of the top analysts available for interviews. After talking to the usual suspects (Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale, Jalen Rose), I got the idea that I'd talk to Digger Phelps about the Valpo game and maybe get some good tweets out of it.
An ESPN media relations official (someone who has helped me in the past) approached Phelps in a dressing room while I stood outside. I don't know everything that was said, but I know she included the word "Valpo" and I know the answer was an absolute "No." She came outside and calmly said "Digger is a little busy right now, let me grab you Andy Katz for a one-on-one."
Again, I didn't think anything of it until my drive home that night. I'd heard the stories about Digger not wanting to talk about Valpo during the Sweet Sixteen run, but I figured that was more urban legend than anything else. I mean, really, what could possess somebody to not want to talk about a game 25 years after it happened? That game must have been something special.
It was time for me to find out.
I pitched the story to my editors at The Times early on to see what kind of space I could get. If I was going to research/write about this game, I was going to go all-out and that meant getting space in the Sunday Sports section. Once I got the go-ahead, now it was time to figure out what story I wanted to tell. I started making phone calls.
Bowker was a great resource as was former Times Sports Editor Paul Jankowski. Both had been at the game and enjoyed reminiscing about that night in our brief conversations. I knew then that if these two guys were feeling nostalgia, that the story had the chance to be something special if I could do it right.
There was only one problem: I was an eight-year-old kid when the game was played. Other than Homer Drew and former Wheeler boys basketball coach Mike Jones, I didn't know any of the participants. This brought me back to Karl Berner. He was the one who originally told me the Miracle on Union Street was superior to The Shot. I made a phone call and three days later I was sitting on his couch watching the game for the first time.
I knew very little of that night before Karl hit play on his extremely worn copy of the game. For whatever reason I thought Homer Drew was in his second year coaching the Crusaders. While I knew there were some lean years when Drew first started, I also thought the team that beat Notre Dame was one of his better teams. I had no clue that the son of the old coach was on the team. I certainly had no clue that three of the players came from Valpo High and that two others came from Michigan City. I barely moved from the edge of my seat the entire game and I found myself cheering as a fan, especially when Jones ("the blond") would make any plays. Jones was one of the first coaches I covered when I started with The Times in 2005 and he was always decent to me. I enjoyed seeing him play basketball, especially during 2-on-1 breaks with five seconds left in regulation.
Once the game was complete, I knew what story I was going to tell: everything. I wanted to talk to the players. I wanted to talk to the coaches. I wanted to talk to the media who covered the game, the Valpo staffers who worked the game. I even wanted to talk to Karl Berner, who was an 11-year-old ball boy that night. I wanted every detail of the night. It was all I could do to keep from calling people at 1 in the morning on my drive home.
Mike Jones was my first phone call. We hadn't spoke in several years after he left Wheeler. He answered the phone and after we exchanged pleasantries, I told him that I was going to make him feel old. "I always feel old" was his response. I then mentioned that the 25th anniversary of Valpo beating Notre Dame was coming up and I wanted to commemorate it with a story. There was at least five seconds of silence on the other end of the line, although it felt like five minutes. Finally: "Yep Paul, you've officially made me feel old." Mike then not only agreed to talk with me, but he agreed to meet in person so we could shoot video. Fred Villarruel of Valparaiso's Intergrated Marketing & Communication Division liked the idea of creating a highlight video with interviews to put on the ValpoAthletics website. I setup interviews with Jones and Scott Anselm. Later we would get Homer Drew.
With three of the key sources in place, it was time to find some layers. Former Valparaiso sports information director Bill Rogers provided great anecdotes about the night, including confirmation that one of his student assistants told Digger Phelps that the media only "wanted to talk to the winning coach." It would take me three weeks until I could confirm who the actual individual was and Bill Wilharms as the final interview I conducted for the story.
Being a journalist myself, I was interested in hearing what my fellow media brethren had to say about the game. A Google search here and a few clicks there and I was able to find Scott Cottos (Vidette-Messenger) and Andrew Bagnato (Chicago Tribune). I tracked both down on Twitter and made my first public pleas for help with the story. Cottos lives in Fostoria, Ohio now and thoroughly enjoyed talking about the game. Bagnato is now the Communications Director for the Fiesta Bowl and we played phone tag for two days before he finally caught me while I was getting my oil changed on a snowy night. There I was standing outside on Lincolnway and Garfield scribbling notes on wet Post-It Notes while Bagnato was talking about how he and Phelps had several run-ins concerning the Valpo game.
The rest of the interviews started to come together like clockwork. Anselm was a great help and put me in touch with Todd Smith. Smith gave me two of the best anecdotes when he talked about his conversation with Rob Towery on the walk to the game and the parties that were still going on on his walk home from the game at 4:30 in the morning.
Curtiss Stevens was out of the country when I first attempted to track him down. Stevens teaches at the University of Texas, but once we connected, it was one of the best interviews of the whole experience. Once I got the questions I had out of the way, most of the former players had questions of their own. They wanted to know about Homer and Janet's health, the likelihood Bryce would stay at Valpo and the prospects for this season's team. It was as if these guys were 22 again and members of the team in the way they were talking.
While finding a guy with the name Curtiss Stevens is pretty easy on the internet, a name like Jim Ford isn't. Given that he hit the game-winning basket, I needed to speak to Jim. No one on the team had any information, including Homer. Finally it was a search on LinkedIN that provided the clue and I called Ford Home Construction in Libertyville at 8 p.m. one night expecting to get a voicemail. A secretary answered and minutes later I had Jim Ford on the phone. Ford reported that he didn't think much on the game and that he didn't stay in contact with many of the guys. One part of our interview that didn't make it into any of the stories was that while Ford enjoyed the Notre Dame win, he felt that win was "for the fans." What really excited Ford that year was a win at AMCU conference leader Southwest Missouri State. "It was a 10-hour bus trip back and it was just us to be able to celebrate the win. We earned that win and it was great to share it with the guys on the ride back."
With Ford in the fold, I searched for other players on LinkedIN and found John Becher. I left several messages for Scott Blum, but the Grace women's basketball coach was on the road and I never heard back from him. I'm disappointed I didn't hear from Scott, especially given the big plays he made in overtime. I don't know much about Scott, only that he transferred from Valpo and has been incredibly successful at Grace ever since.
Towery is the one other player that I never got in touch with that I regret now, especially after finding him on Facebook and seeing several posts about the 25th anniversary on Tuesday. That moment with him and Smith is such a great anecdote.
There were several other interviews. I wanted the Notre Dame administration side of things, so I got in touch with John Heisler, the sports information director. Understandably, he didn't have a lot of memories about a game the Irish lost 25 years ago. A unique Heisler tie-in to the Valpo story is that he was working at Missouri in 1977 when the Evansville plane crash occurred and he was the one who handed the note to WVUR play-by-play announcer Rex Trautmann saying the Valpo team had perished on the plane, even though the team was right in front of both of them.
Valparaiso's director of athletics at the time was Bill Steinbrecher and he provided great insight as did official scorer Dot Nuechterlein. All of these interviews were conducted before I set out for my "big three."
The Big Ones
I'd met LaPhonso Ellis once before when I covered his son several years back. Valparaiso High played at South Bend Clay and LaPhonso Jr. was on Clay's team at the time. LaPhonso Sr. was in the stands and I made it a point to say hello. I had no clue there was a Valpo connection back then.
LaPhonso is now a broadcaster at ESPN and he regularly works with one of my former students, Adam Amin. I contacted Adam and got a number for LaPhonso. I left a message and then several nights later watched him call the IU/Oakland game. Imagine my surprise when the game ends and 30 minutes later LaPhonso is calling me.
He didn't remember very much about the game, but spoke very highly of his relationship with the Drew family. The story about how he and Bryce came to know each other is fascinating. Two Christians playing in the NBA bonding over Christian hip-hop in a weight room.
The next interview I was looking for was a bit out of left field. I'd heard about the Dodger Blue jacket from Jankowski early on in my research. Janks was a college student back for Christmas break and trying to get published. After Valpo won the game, Homer (as he did many times throughout his coaching career) pitched a seemingly silly story about a Los Angeles Dodger jacket that the players touched in the locker room before the game. Homer thought it would make for a good story and no one at the paper seemed to want to write it, so Jankowski was assigned his first story for the paper.
Homer talked a lot about the jacket during his video interview and I knew that I needed to try and get Tommy Lasorda to talk about the impact of the jacket. Lasorda has a long relationship with Valpo and I interview him several years back at the Crusader Baseball Bash.
I called former Valparaiso baseball coach (and former Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Champion) Tracy Woodson and got a number for Lasorda. The number came with the caveat that maybe Lasorda would pick up, maybe someone else would, maybe the call would never get returned. I told myself I had one chance to get in touch with Lasorda and that I wasn't going to keep pestering him. I was going to drop as many names as I could in the message I would leave him if I got the chance and the rest would be in his hands.
"Hi, this is Tommy Lasorda to remind you that if you don't love the Los Angeles Dodgers, you're probably not getting into heaven."
That was the voicemail greeting I heard when I called the 86-year-old former manager. I crossed my fingers, left a message and went on with my day. More than a week passed and I hadn't heard from Lasorda. I figured it wasn't meant to be. I didn't want to count myself out yet, so I went looking for a sign. I went to Google and punched Lasorda's name in, not quite knowing what I was looking for. Then I found it.
The top link on Lasorda was a story about former Valparaiso baseball player Tanner Vavra and his journey in the Twins organization. Lasorda is a family friend and is quoted in the story. That was a sign if there ever was one. Lasorda quoted about a Valpo kid. I picked up the phone...
"Hello?," Lasorda yelled into the phone. "Um, hi Tommy, I mean, Coach Lasorda. My name is Paul Oren and I'm a reporter for The Times. I know Homer Drew and Tracy Woodson," I replied.
"Well, you can't be that bad of a guy now can you? What can I help you with?"
He immediately remembered the Dodger jacket and had great things to say about Drew, Valpo, Woodson, the Dodgers, the weather in Florida, and even Ryan Braun a little bit. It got to the point where I was done with the interview and it was difficult to get him off the phone. I mean, who really hangs up on Tommy Lasorda? I just let him keep talking for a while and we had a great talk about baseball. Definitely a thrill in the whole process.
The final interview I wanted was Phelps. I knew it wasn't going to happen. I went through multiple avenues to get Digger, but everywhere I turned I got statements about a voicemail box that wasn't setup, his lack of an email address or crickets. I never thought I'd get him, but I never stopped trying. I made a few final phone calls right before I hit send and it was never to be.
I'm a big history nut and I've always been obsessed with the JFK assassination. I watched at least half a dozen documentaries during the 50th anniversary this year, but the thing that I enjoyed more than any other was the History Channel's Twitter account. The account wound the clocks back 50 years and tweeted about the events like they were happening in real-time. For four days straight I constantly hit refresh on my phone because I wanted to see how the news of 1963 would've looked in 2013.
This is what led me to the idea of live-tweeting the Valpo/Notre Dame game. I explained the process to some friends and I got one of two responses. The first was my from my technologically-advanced friends and they loved the idea. The second was from friends who just didn't understand the draw. I thought the idea would either be a huge hit or it would generate silence. Actually I was thinking the truth was somewhere in the middle.
The problem I encountered was that I was scheduled to work on Tuesday night covering a boys basketball game between Portage and Lowell. How was I going to explain to my bosses that I wanted off work so I could tweet about a game that happened 25 years earlier? This is where Hillary Smith came in and taught me how to schedule tweets. Problem solved.
I sat down on Tuesday morning and watched the game again, this time logging all of my thoughts on Tweetdeck. By scheduling the tweets, I had to assign a minute to each update, so I had to keep a stopwatch going to try and gauge how far apart each tweet should be. This was actually a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. When there were multiple tweets in the same minute, I couldn't be sure which would fire off first since I couldn't assign seconds to the time. Certainly people would realize I was auto-live-tweeting a game from 25 years ago if they put in their copy of the game and tried to watch "with me."
In the end I decided that was just the risk I was going to have to take. Hillary and the IT staff did a great job promoting the live tweets in the paper and online. When the first tweet fired off that gave "Greetings from the Athletics-Recreation Center," I was actually turning onto U.S. 6 from 149.
Because God has a silly sense of humor, I witnessed one of the best high school games I've ever seen on Tuesday night. Portage and Lowell went to overtime and the game featured a buzzer-beating shot at the end of each quarter and the overtime session. Normally I'd be tweeting like mad during the game, but my account was reserved for #VUND25.
I went out of my way to let my followers on Twitter know that from 7-to-9 p.m., I'd be back in 1988 tweeting about the Valpo game. That stopped mattering the second the Region Sports Network retweeted "Valparaiso 35, Notre Dame 32, halftime. #VUND25." Suddenly I was getting favorites and retweets from all over the place and people were genuinely thinking that Valpo was beating Notre Dame in 2013. By the time the game "was over," I was getting feedback from students, alums and even former Butler basketball player Chase Stigall. Many thought that the Crusaders won on Tuesday night. A current member of the Valparaiso women's team tweeted that she was trying to figure out what I was talking about. Alec Peters retweeted some mentions after someone thought Valpo won. It was all very funny to me and I apologized for letting anyone down.
I heard from many people when these stories first got announced about how excited they were to relive the memories. I was shocked and somewhat flattered when people told me they were going to dust off their VHS tapes and watch the game along with the tweets on Tuesday night.
Plenty of staffers at Valpo went out of their way to help me, including Judy Miller, Dot Nuechterlein and several others that sit on press row on a nightly basis.
My favorite reactions came from the players and Homer Drew. The questions they would ask about each other, the greetings they asked me to send along to whoever I was interviewing next. I came out of the month-long journey almost feeling like I was part of the group.
I love living in the Twitterverse that we're in today, but sometimes stories can be told in more than 140 characters. I've never had more fun writing anything in my life than I did the oral history for a game that I was merely a child for when it occurred. The story was more than 6,000 words and hardly any of them were mine. I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.
So now what? Well, I've always wanted to learn about The World's Tallest Team...maybe next year.