Ernie Moore picked up the phone and, once he knew who was calling, he spoke the words so many have spoken this basketball season: “How ’bout them Shocks?”
Yes, indeed. How ’bout them?
Moore played on some legendary Shocker basketball teams in the early 1960s. He played alongside legends Dave Stallworth, Nate Bowman, Leonard Kelley and Kelly Pete, teams I watched with eyes wide open as a grade-school kid. I remember my father telling me not to become so excited at Shocker games in those days, so as not to bother the many university professors who were seated around us.
I couldn’t help myself.
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As an impressionable kid, those Wichita State teams that included Moore, Stallworth, Bowman, Pete and others were magical. More than 50 years later, I still get chills.
I’m sure it was the same way for kids in the early 1980s who watched Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, Xavier McDaniel and that bunch achieve greatness.
Can this season’s team, or the one that went to the Final Four last season, possibly be in that class? Logic tells you yes, but there’s something about the passing of time that enhances the accomplishments of teams from previous eras.
So, Ernie Moore, what about it?
“I think this team ranks right up there,” he said. “Right up there at the top.”
And Moore isn’t speaking out of line with what some of the other Shocker greats from yesteryear say.
To a man, the former players I talked to are not only impressed by this Wichita State team, they’re mesmerized.
“They should be No. 1 in the country,” Stallworth said. “They haven’t lost any games. I think they’re the best team out there with their speed, size and quickness.”
Interesting, since so many are adamant about protecting their legacies, that former WSU players from such golden eras are so excited about this year’s team and so willing to acknowledge its greatness.
“They’re in the discussion as the greatest WSU team ever just because of the fact of how well they play together,” said Carr, a Shocker great from 1979-83. “I don’t know if they have the individual talent that some of our teams have, but as a unit they really pull it together. I’d put them up there as one of the greatest teams.”
Thanks to ESPN and the Internet, Moore, Stallworth and Carr are able to keep up with the team. Moore said he tries not to miss a game on television. Stallworth doesn’t make it out to many games now, but he’s glued to his TV, too.
Gene Smithson, who built a powerhouse program in the early 1980s and is now retired in Florida, also watches when he can.
“It’s about more than just having great players,” Smithson said. “The chemistry makes all the difference. This year’s team is really good defensively. They can go full-court, three-quarter court. They drop back into man defense and can play some zone. Hey, listen, this team has tremendous chemistry. They believe in themselves. That (Ron) Baker and (Fred) VanVleet, they’re incredible. And (Cleanthony) Early, too. They work so well as a unit. I’m very high on them.”
But it is so hard to compare teams from different eras. The pace of the game has changed. The athletes are bigger and stronger.
“The thing that makes us so good now is that we play so well together,” said Kelley, a guard on some great early-1960s teams who has worked as a Koch Arena usher during Shocker games for many years. “I watch tons of basketball and there are teams with a lot better athletic talent than we have, but a lot of it is just wild basketball.”
The Shockers are tame. They protect the basketball and they defend.
The defense, especially, has caught Levingston’s eye.
“They’re better balanced as a team than we were,” he said. “Their defensive rotations are really good. I got to see them in person here in Chicago against Loyola and that was a real good challenge because Loyola runs a lot of pick and rolls. And Wichita State handled that. They’re more impressive in person than they are when you’re watching them play on TV.”
Levingston, who has done a lot of coaching since leaving the NBA in 1995, said he sees the same confidence in these Shockers as he felt when he played for Smithson.
“Gregg Marshall makes these guys buy in and believe they can do whatever he wants them to do,” Levingston said. “Just like Coach Smithson. Gregg has these guys so in tune with what he wants them to believe in, and they believe in him. That’s really a coach’s biggest challenge — to get his team to buy in.”
Lanny Van Eman, a Shocker guard from 1958-62, made one of the biggest shots in WSU history to end Cincinnati’s 27-game winning streak in 1961. Those were incredible times for the Shockers and the Missouri Valley Conference, then nicknamed “The Valley of Death” because of all of its powerhouse teams.
“The teams I played on started good and got better the longer I was there,” said Van Eman, a former college assistant coach who is retired in Arizona. “As for the team this year, it could well be better than last year’s team. I think they are that good.”
But those early 1960s teams had Stallworth, arguably the greatest Shocker. Not to mention Pete, Bowman, Gene Wiley — too many outstanding players to name.
And the teams from the early 1980s were stacked with Carr, Levingston, Aubrey Sherrod, Randy Smithson and McDaniel.
“Dave could get 20 rebounds if he had to, 40 points if he had to, seven or eight assists if he had to,” Van Eman said. “And Nate Bowman was an impressive big guy. Kelly Pete was really good. But most of the rest of us in that time were blend players. We knew our roles.”
Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton. They are the future Shocker legends, already with one Final Four experience in the bank and in the mix for another.
“I’ve seen this team once live and watched another 10 or so on TV,” Van Eman said. “There is a toughness to these guys, a mental toughness. To a man, they’re physical. And I don’t mean dirty or anything like that. They get to more than their share of loose balls. They contest virtually every rebound. They have three or four good shooters. And I think it’s their defense that will carry them. My opinion is that they are as good as any other team. I think Gregg has a team — T-E-A-M — where others haven’t been as consistent.”
High praise from high places.
“They’re doing exactly what we talked about when I was there last year and we gave that speech about playing angry,” Carr said. “They’re finding a reason to have a chip on their shoulders. They don’t care about who their leading scorer is or any of that stuff. They come to play. Their attitude is, ‘You’re going to have to beat me, you’re going to have to respect me.’ ”
OK, I’m convinced. If the greatest players from the two greatest eras in Wichita State basketball history believe so strongly in this team, then everyone else should, too.
Add the early 2010s to the list of great Shocker eras. Put it in bold print.
“It might upset some old fogies like me if you said this was the best Shocker team ever,” Van Eman said. “But I don’t think you’d be wrong.”