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Results erased, but memories remain for ‘97 Gophers

We are part of The Trust Project.

By Jerry Zgoda

McClatchey Newspapers

MEN’S BASKETBALL

MINNEAPOLIS — Ten years ago, joyous noise rattled Williams Arena’s old rafters as midnight approached and the Gophers men’s basketball team triumphantly returned from San Antonio with the school’s first NCAA tournament Final Four appearance assured.

The first reveler claimed his place atop a snowbank near the building’s front doors seven hours earlier, shortly after the Gophers defeated UCLA in the Midwest Regional final. By 7 p.m., two hours before those doors opened, 15,000 best friends had joined him in line in the cold.

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When the Gophers’ impending arrival finally was announced at about 11 p.m., those early arrivers erupted inside while more than a thousand latecomers who were turned away outside welcomed the team’s bus on a night of celebration not seen around here since the Twins’ two World Series victories.

"I won’t forget how that bus shook," Trevor Winter said recently from his Lakeville home.

Today, the 1997 Big Ten championship trophy and Final Four banner — symbols of the most exhilarating season in Gophers’ basketball history — are locked inside a Mariucci Arena closet next door.

Erased by the NCAA following a 1999 academic-fraud scandal that also voided five other men’s basketball seasons, they are stored away with boxes of T-shirts and other promotional materials.

"Really?" Quincy Lewis asked by cell phone from Spain. "No kidding."

Expunged from the record are the 31 victories (and four losses) that season. So, too, are that Big Ten title, Bobby Jackson’s conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards as well as Clem Haskins’ Big Ten Coach of the Year award.

The Final Four that year now is the Final Three, with an asterisk next to Minnesota’s name explained by a single word:

Vacated.

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‘Was it real?’

Juxtaposed against a championship season ripe with images that remain so vivid in the minds of long-suffering Gophers basketball fans is the systematic academic cheating during Haskins’ final six seasons as coach and ensuing NCAA sanctions that initiated a downfall from which the program, with Thursday’s hiring of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, still is attempting to recover.

"Was it real?" John Thomas said, repeating a question about that Final Four season. "Of course it was real. It’s not like living in a movie. We were there. We accomplished those things together."

Winter — the 7-foot senior center from Slayton, Minn., who came off the bench to provide size and shooting — now is the world’s tallest pharmaceutical salesman.

Lewis, a lanky sophomore reserve scorer from Arkansas, plays professionally in Spain, the latest stop for a former NBA first-round draft pick who played for the Utah Jazz and Timberwolves and in Israel and Greece as well.

Thomas, the physical starting center from Minneapolis, and his wife own an advertising agency with former NBA superagent David Falk. He is hopeful a knee injury won’t finish his 10-year pro playing career.

They are three of five players from that team — a collection of athletes Haskins recruited from nine states that Jackson, a 10-year NBA veteran, still calls the "best team I’ve ever been on" — who played at least one NBA game. Jackson, Thomas, Lewis and Sam Jacobson all were NBA first-round draft picks.

From a modest 19-13 record and NIT season the year before, the Gophers arrived for their first practice in autumn 1996 with Haskins convinced he had assembled all the pieces for his first serious run at a Big Ten championship, in his 11th season as coach. Until then, he had spent his career at Minnesota downplaying every expectation.

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Tempered expectations

Hired from Western Kentucky in 1986 following a scandalous Gophers season the year before, Haskins got two Big Ten victories out of his first Minnesota team. Three seasons later, with Willie Burton leading the way, they came within a basket of reaching the Final Four.

That team had finished only fourth in the Big Ten. The team Haskins welcomed the fall of ‘96 promised size, athleticism, toughness, experience and youth. Big Ten coaches didn’t predict a top-three conference finish. Preseason magazines picked the Gophers anywhere from first to seventh.

Jackson, a former junior-college star, and talented, formidable sophomore forward Courtney James both had returned to good health after being limited by foot injuries the previous season. Jacobson, the most highly recruited player in Minnesota prep history, was breathing better after surgery to fix a deviated septum. Nine players were back from the team that finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten in 1996.

The Gophers went to Puerto Rico for a Thanksgiving weekend tournament that year. The toilets in the little, dingy arena high in the hills above San Juan stopped working the first night of the three-day tournament. By the final day, the hallways stunk to high heaven. The Gophers didn’t.

One night before the Gophers beat Clemson to claim the San Juan Shootout title, former Timberwolves General Manager Jack McCloskey, scouting for another NBA team, grabbed a Minnesota reporter by the arm and suggested the Gophers could reach the Final Four.

A loss at Alabama — the first of the season after five opening victories — followed. A 10-game winning streak followed that. It was punctuated by a night at Indiana’s Assembly Hall when the Gophers trailed by seven points with 58 seconds left and beat Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers 96-91 after Jackson, Jacobson and junior guard Eric Harris each hit a three-pointer, forcing overtime.

"That night, you felt something special was happening," Harris says now.

Big Ten title secured

By the second week of January, the Gophers busted into the AP poll’s top 10, at No. 7. By Groundhog Day, they were 18-2 and atop the Big Ten. Before February was out, they won at Purdue for the first time since the school’s 1982 Big Ten title team did and then secured Minnesota’s first Big Ten title in those 15 years with a dramatic comeback victory at Michigan.

That night in Ann Arbor, the Gophers cut down the net in celebration. Haskins snipped a small piece for himself and said he intended to carry it in his billfold for the rest of his life.

"That was the essence of a team, in every sense," said Aaron Stauber, a senior walk-on transfer from Michigan Tech who now is a chiropractor in Sudbury, Ontario. "There were some pretty great players on that team, and everybody was able to let their egos go for that ride. No one player stood out. That’s what it took. That’s the difference between great teams and great individuals."

Greatness didn’t fully arrive on the court until the third round of the NCAA tournament. After opening weekend conquests of Southwest Texas State and Temple in Kansas City, Mo., the Gophers met Clemson for the second time that season, this time in the Sweet 16 at the Alamodome.

It took two overtimes for the Gophers to emerge winners in a game that John Thomas called "sheer brutality, just meat flying around inside there." They played the final minutes of regulation and bgth overtimes with Harris sidelined by an injured shoulder and three other starters — Jackson, Jacobson and Thomas — playing with four fouls each. Jackson scored a career-high 36 points, Jacobson tied his career high with 29.

"One of the best college games I’ve ever played in," said Jackson, now playing for the New Orleans Hornets. "Maybe the best game I ever played in, period."

They beat UCLA — which had won 11 national championships compared to the Gophers’ zero — by eight points two days later with their will and depth. That remains the school’s last men’s NCAA tournament victory. The midnight party at the Barn followed late that same night.

As each weekend of the tournament progressed, national media outlets publicized Haskins’ old-school discipline and his throwback team on which no tattoos or facial hair were allowed.

On the final weekend, the Gophers met defending national champion Kentucky at Indianapolis’ RCA Dome in a Final Four semifinal. Their season ended with a 78-69 loss, victim to Kentucky’s Rick Pitino-designed press and perhaps Harris’ hurting shoulder.

Less than two weeks later, James was arrested on domestic-abuse charges.

"Everything seemed to crumble down as soon as we got back," Stauber said.

Players go separate ways

Jackson and John Thomas became first-round NBA draft picks that June. Jacobson left in July with a U.S. junior national team for Australia. When he returned, James had quit the team after being suspended and left to play professionally in Greece. Key reserve guard Charles Thomas and redshirt freshman Kevin Loge both had transferred elsewhere.

The academic scandal hit the morning another Gophers team opened 1999 NCAA tournament play, exposed by a St. Paul Pioneer Press story. Within months, Haskins took a $1.5 million buyout, quit and returned to his Kentucky farm. A year later — after a lengthy NCAA investigation and a 2,500-page report that detailed what then-school president Mark Yudof termed "shame and embarrassment" brought upon the university — the Big Ten and the NCAA rewrote Gophers history.

Ten years later, the Big Ten trophy and the Final Four banner are in storage. The players and coaches from that team have gone their separate ways, spread across the country and around the world.

Winter this winter celebrated with his wife — former Gophers volleyball player Heidi Olhausen — her five-year anniversary of being free from a rare form of cancer that once had spread to her lung, bladder and eye. Jacobson launched a playing career in Europe last fall after five years away from the game, partly because of a serious condition for which one of his twin daughters, Mackenzie, born in 2003, underwent successful open-heart surgery.

"Hard to believe that 10 years has gone by," Jacobson said in an e-mail from France, where he plays after beginning the season in Italy. "Just shows you how short life is."

Workers this winter plastered a photographic timeline of Gophers basketball history, beginning in 1902, along a Williams Arena corridor. The only references to that 1997 team: individual photographs of Quincy Lewis and Sam Jacobson.

Lewis, Jacobson and Winter are the only regulars from that ‘97 team whose career statistics haven’t been truncated in the school’s record books. Haskins’ career record at Minnesota listed in the team’s media guide is 111-100; every game from 1993 to 1999 is a zero.

‘More proud than embarrassed’

"You can take away the banners and take away the victories, but what no one can have is the memories," Haskins told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. "Those are what I’m holding on to from Minnesota."

Jackson shrugged when asked about his vacated awards and the team’s vanished accomplishments.

"It doesn’t diminish anything," he said. "It had nothing to do with the way we performed on the court. Everybody did the right things to stay eligible. It’s just sad that it took place."

Harris talks with Jackson when the Hornets play the New York Knicks or the New Jersey Nets, but he says he hasn’t seen most of the players from that 1997 team much since he returned to New York City from Minnesota in 1998.

That’s why Harris would like to organize a reunion for players and coaches this summer. Last summer, he visited the Twin Cities and says he is considering relocating his basketball training business from Manhattan to Minnesota because of the experience.

"People treated me like a celebrity," he said from New York City. "Here or there, people still bring up the ‘97 Final Four: ‘Did you play with Bobby Jackson?’ People remember all those guys. People don’t forget."

Nurses and doctors still approach Winter occasionally on his rounds as a salesman for Pfizer and want to talk — "Everybody’s got a story about where they were when we were playing," he said — about that Final Four team. He said the ratio of people who want to talk about the team’s glories rather than the academic scandal is 10-1.

"Banners and trophies are symbols of what you accomplish, that’s all they are," John Thomas said. "When you die, what are you going to remember? Not the material things. You’re going to remember the good things, the people, the great memories. You can’t tell us that we were not out there on the floor together sacrificing for each other. The camaraderie we had on that team, that’s what separated us from a lot of other teams."

The university held a reunion celebration for the 1982 Big Ten title team at a Gophers game last month. Someone asked Winter recently if he thought there would ever be one at the Barn for that 1997 team.

"I had to think about it," he said. "I sure hope so because what we accomplished is worth celebrating. I’ll feel way more proud than I’ll ever feel embarrassed about that team."

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