For 50 years now, it’s been logical to consider a bunch of “what-ifs” concerning the 1964-65 Shocker basketball team that overcame long odds to reach the Final Four, the team’s first, in Portland, Ore.
What if 6-foot-10 center Nate Bowman, WSU’s most powerful rebounder and shot blocker, hadn’t been declared academically ineligible 14 games into the season?
What if freshmen had been eligible in those days – they weren’t – and the Shockers’ roster had included Warren Armstrong, who averaged nearly 30 points and 18 rebounds for the freshman team and went on to have a storied career?
And then there’s the “what if” that blows the rest out of the water.
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What if Dave Stallworth, the 6-7 All-American forward from Dallas, had not used up his NCAA eligibility at the semester break, just 16 games in?
Stallworth, now 72 and still living in Wichita, knows.
“That team would have won it all with Nate and I and the rest of those guys,” he said. “Losing Nate and myself .…”
Nothing else needed to be said.
The Shockers banded together after the departures of Stallworth and Bowman, though with no starter taller than 6-5. Sophomores Jamie Thompson and Melvin Reed were thrust into bigger roles and both experienced incredible success.
Wichita State was 13-3 when Stallworth stepped aside and started to play AAU ball with a team out of Arkansas City, awaiting the NBA draft. In his final two games – one at Loyola on a Friday night, the second the following night against Louisville at the Roundhouse – he scored 46 and 40 points.
Shocker fans and Stallworth lovers packed into the building for his final game. Legendary WSU coach Ralph Miller, who departed to coach at Iowa following the 1963-64 season when the Shockers came up one win short of a Final Four, returned for Stallworth’s farewell.
Stallworth received a long and loud standing ovation when his name was announced as a starter before the game and an even longer and louder one when he was taken out of the game with 35 seconds left to play.
Stallworth graduated early from Madison High in Dallas in 1960-61 and entered the University of Wichita in the spring of 1961. Rather than wait to start his sophomore season in 1962-63, he began playing during the spring semester of 1961-62. Miller was understandably eager to get Stallworth on the varsity team.
But there were consequences. Because athletes were allowed only six semesters of varsity competition in those days, and those semesters had to run concurrently, it was known from the beginning that Stallworth’s eligibility would run out in the middle of the 1964-65 season. What wasn’t know, of course, was that WSU would have a national championship-caliber team.
“Ralph gambled with Dave,” said John Criss, the point guard for the 1964-65 Shockers. “I’m not pointing a finger because he was there to win games. But it was a blow. The rest of us were pretty good ballplayers, but we weren’t anything fantastic. Dave was an All-American.”
The losses of Stallworth and Bowman caused Miller’s replacement, Gary Thompson, to slow things down. There was no shot clock in those days and the Shockers, without much of their offensive firepower, became a more methodical team.
Wichita State beat Missouri Valley conference rival Saint Louis in its first game without both Stallworth and Bowman, then lost to Duquesne. The Shockers were 5-4 in their first nine games without their former standouts, but won an overtime game against Drake to end the regular season.
Mohamed Sharif, then Kelly Pete, said the Shockers had to rely more on playing smart and together without Stallworth and Bowman.
“We went back to fundamentals,” said Sharif, an artist who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.. “We were obviously coached pretty well and we had a good team strategy. We started depending on each other and trusting each other. Without a shot clock, we could control the games.”
In the NCAA Midwest Regional, the Shockers knocked off SMU and then beat Oklahoma State, coached by Henry Iba, 54-46. All five starters – Criss, Pete, Jamie Thompson, Vernon Smith, Dave Leach – played 40 minutes and Pete, who had 31 points and 12 rebounds in the 86-81 win over SMU, had 19 points and nine rebounds against OSU.
“That was my biggest gratification in the whole NCAA Tournament,” Criss, who lives in Overland Park, said. “We kind of beat Mr. Iba at his own game. And in those games, there weren’t TV timeouts and all the commercials there are nowadays.”
If Las Vegas set Final Four odds, the Shockers had to be the longest of long shots. But they did it.
Stallworth said he kept track of Wichita State after his departure, and that he paid special attention to the Oklahoma State game. But he wasn’t able to watch the Shockers in the Final Four.
“Dave was a really good person who cared about other people,” said Leach, who is retired and lives in Oregon. “He was unselfish although he was good enough that he could have been a real bear with some of us other guys who weren’t as good.
“The wonderful thing that made the team better with him was that he always included everybody in the way he played. If a guy was open, he passed it to them. If a guy needed a little encouragement, he was there to do that.”
The Stallworth-led Shockers had played a classic game against Michigan at Cobo Hall in Detroit earlier in the season, losing 87-85. A key turnover by Stallworth and a miracle shot by the Wolverines’ Cazzie Russell doomed the Shockers.
“Nate Bowman was a very underrated part of our team,” Leach said. “He was one of those guys who didn’t look all that pretty when he was playing, but he got an awful lot done because he was such a big, strong guy.”
The 6-5 Leach, who loved shooting from the corner 15-18 feet out, was moved to the middle after the departures of Stallworth and Bowman. He didn’t jump well, but he made up for his lack of athleticism with basketball savvy.
The Shockers went against a 26-2 UCLA team in the national semifinals in Portland. The Bruins were a high-scoring team that had reached 100 points in West Regional wins over BYU and San Francisco.
Wichita State was able to hang with UCLA for the first 10 minutes or so, Sharif said, before the Bruins got on a roll to lead 65-38 at the half on the way to a 108-89 win. Thompson had 36 points to lead the Shockers, but six UCLA players scored in double figures led by Gail Goodrich’s 28.
WSU was steamrolled by Princeton, 118-82, in the third-place game as Bill Bradley scored 58 points.
It took a while, but the Shockers – without two such vital players – were exposed.
“We were a bunch of role players,” Criss said. “Kelly was a tremendous athlete; I always envisioned him being a defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys. The rest of us, though, couldn’t jump very high or run very fast. But somehow we got the job done.”
Wichita State will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Shockers’ 1965 Final Four appearance during halftime of the Missouri State game on Feb. 7 at Koch Arena.