New Albany celebrates 1980 state runner-up team; Bulldogs lost their last game, but won love of teammates and town

A bunch of guys in their mid-50s who played basketball together at New Albany got today to celebrate their love, not mourn a loss.

You want to know how much people in New Albany (IN) love basketball?

New Albany High School’s boys basketball team that lost the state championship game almost 40 years ago was honored at halftime of today’s win over Columbus East.

They lost, and they were honored after 40 years.

Charlie Vass, one of the assistant coaches for that team, came all the way from El Paso, Texas, to participate.  Vass wasn’t sure he understood the invitation when he first got it, “We didn’t win, and they’re honoring the team?  I told my wife I would go if more than a couple of the guys were going to be here.”

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Not only did all the living players show, minus Dave Bennett, but the manager, statistician, trainer and radio broadcast team came from all over the Midwest.  It was a day to celebrate a basketball experience ingrained in the memories of a town that loves high school basketball at a level hard to explain.

I was a senior during that crazy ride of a season where sellouts were a given, not only at home but on the road too as fans caravanned to fill gyms in Bloomington, Madison, Jennings County, Evansville, and all points in between.

It wasn’t just the winning that drove adoration from fans; it was the love of the game and each other that was so obvious among the players through that season.

Basketball is quirky.  It can briefly tantalize by rewarding individual excellence, but team greatness is achieved only through selfless collaboration.  The 1980 New Albany team understood that, and they taught it to us every time they took the court.

Love for one another can get a team, department or company through a variety of challenges.  Basketball’s beauty is in the way it rewards those who understand that, and teaches it to those who pay attention to something other than dunks and crossovers.

It was easier to embrace a “love of the game” basketball ideology in 1980 than it is today.  Not only did Magic Johnson set a great example of how to play team basketball as NBA rookies that year, ESPN’s endless celebration of individual highlights was almost entirely unavailable then,  the NBA Finals were tape delayed, and theonly social media was passing handwritten notes in class.

Times weren’t just simpler – they were virtually distraction-free.

It’s disingenuous to say New Albany was a southern Indiana basketball machine powered only by love.  The Bulldogs were also huge.  The starters were 6’0″, 6’9″, 6’5″, 6’8″, and 6’8″.  The bench also had four guys 6’5″ or taller.  And they were good shooters – really good shooters.

The day after New Albany lost the Broad Ripple in the state championship game, thousands came to the high school gym to celebrate the season and thank the team.  Players and fans cried together, not because New Albany lost, but because the ride was over.

The ride that ended 40 years ago still binds the team and fans, and so they came together again today to celebrate.  This year’s New Albany team is 12-7 after beating Columbus East 78-40.  I hope they took the time to see their counterparts from 40 years ago and understand exactly what they have a chance to build.

If they win a state championship, that’s great.  But the true measure of this experience is not measured by trophies raised or nets cut down.  It comes on a day like this 40 years from now when they hug, joke and lock eyes in the way only teammates do.

Banners fade, even those that commemorate a season that ends in a loss.  Love, though, it lasts forever.

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