The modern-day ascent of Notre Dame basketball began with the Austin Carr era in the late-1960s, early-1970s.
With the departure of Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer came the arrival of head coach Richard “Digger” Phelps, who dared to believe that Notre Dame could become a basketball power as well as a football icon.
By Season Three of the Phelps era -- 1973-74 – the Irish were 26-3 and had ascended to No. 1 in the nation with a 71-70 victory over UCLA, ending the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak.
The John Shumate-Gary Brokaw-Dwight Clay era overlapped the beginning of the Adrian Dantley era. Then along came a bevy of talented players, many of which went on to play in the NBA.
None was better during the late-1970s, early-1980s than Kelly Tripucka, a skilled, solidly-built 6-foot-7, 215-pounder from Essex Fells, N.J. Tripucka could beat you with a feathery-touch jumper or post you up down low and use his physicality to score in the paint or get to the free-throw line.
The Tripucka name at Notre Dame already was well known. His father, Frank, was a quarterback in the football program as Notre Dame, under head coach Frank Leahy, dominated the 1940s. Frank Tripucka would go on to be a first-round NFL draft choice in 1949.
Kelly Tripucka quickly established himself as a freshman force in 1977-78, averaging 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game as the Irish marched to the Final Four in St. Louis before falling to Duke. By his junior year, Tripucka was averaging 18.0 points per game.
Tripucka tacked on another 18.2 points per game in 1980-81 to finish his collegiate career ranked fourth on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list behind Carr, Dantley and Tom Hawkins. Tripucka currently sits 12th all-time at Notre Dame with 1,719 points while shooting 54.8 percent from the field.
In Tripucka’s four years at Notre Dame, the Irish compiled an impressive 92-26 record. The 12th overall pick in the 1981 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons, Tripucka would go on to score more than 12,000 points in a 10-year NBA career.
During Notre Dame’s recent run to the Elite Eight, Irish Illustrated caught up with Tripucka, 57, in Brooklyn where the Irish defeated Michigan and Stephen F. Austin to advance to the Sweet 16 with Tripucka offering commentary on the Westwood One radio broadcasts.
Tripucka reflected on his time at Notre Dame and in the NBA in a recent interview with Irish Illustrated.
TIM PRISTER: I know there’s the assumption that because your dad played football at Notre Dame, you were a slam dunk, so to speak, for Notre Dame. But you were one of the top high school players in the country coming out of New Jersey. How did you and your family come to the decision for you to play at Notre Dame?
KELLY TRIPUCKA: I grew up on Notre Dame with my father and his football background. People think I went there because of my father and his best friend and business partner, Angelo Bertelli, who was a Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner. They thought I had no choice because those guys were twisting my arm.
Of course they wanted me to go there. But my father always said, ‘Hey, it’s up to you. What good is it for me to tell you where to go? You’ve got to do what’s best for you.’ So he left it up to me. In the end, a lot of it had to do with Notre Dame being an independent, which is funny and hard to imagine today because that’s not how it goes now.
It wasn’t an easy choice. I could have gone anywhere. I was playing three sports in high school and didn’t have a lot of time to go to different places to visit. I think I went to two places in the fall and two places in the spring. I narrowed it down to Notre Dame, Duke, Maryland and South Carolina.
South Carolina was coached by Frank McGuire, a legendary coach. He had a lot of connections to the East Coast and the New York metropolitan area. That was intriguing because I knew a lot of those guys from the area and he was very successful. They were probably fourth on my list.
I enjoyed Duke a whole lot. That was pre-Mike Krzyzewski. That was Bill Foster, who just passed away recently. Jim Spanarkel was from Jersey. Mike Gminski was a year older than me. Gene Banks was from my class. My class was Magic, Albert King, Gene Banks and a kid named Wayne McKoy. Duke seemed very similar to Notre Dame.
Then there was Maryland. Lefty Driesell was a tremendous recruiter. I would say if I hadn’t gone to Notre Dame, I would have gone to Maryland. I liked Maryland a lot. Duke was a close third.
Notre Dame played all across the country. We went to UCLA. We came back East and played in the Palestra in Philadelphia, Madison Square Garden in New York, down South, DePaul and Marquette up North…We were on TV a lot. Notre Dame was on every weekend. So the publicity was there and I had an opportunity to make a mark on the basketball program.
Everybody knew about the football program, but Notre Dame basketball was starting to become successful, particularly after Austin Carr put them on the map. After that, it was (Adrian) Dantley, (John) Shumate and (Gary) Brokaw who were the guys that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. For me, I thought that would be the best place for me to fit in and to build something and to be part of something special.
TP: In your first year at Notre Dame, you went to the Final Four. In your second year at Notre Dame, you made it to the Elite Eight against Michigan State and Magic Johnson. What stands out about those glory days of Notre Dame basketball?
KT: Going to the Final Four happened so quickly my freshman year. You almost didn’t have time to enjoy it, at least from my perspective. Just coming out of high school, the next thing you know you’re in college. You’re fighting to figure out school and basketball…
I was a very confident guy as far as my abilities were concerned. You’re trying to have an impact, trying to figure out how to get some time on the floor, and I was starting by the third or fourth game. The next thing you know, you’re in the Final Four. So it was kind of a whirlwind. After that season ended, we figured we were going to go back.
TP: During your sophomore year, you guys spent about three weeks of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country. You entered the NCAA tournament ranked No. 2. You had to feel like you were on your way again.
KT: No doubt about it. We won our first two tournament games (vs. Tennessee and Toledo), and then we were beaten by a good Michigan State team. We could have changed the course of history because there wouldn’t have been any Magic vs. Larry Bird matchup, and we probably would have had a really good shot to win it all.
Michigan State played a Penn team in the Final Four. Every team that gets to that point is good, but I think we were better than Penn, and if we had beaten Michigan State, I think it would have been us against Bird and Indiana State.
The next year (1979-80), we got stunned by Missouri in Nebraska. We got beat in overtime. It wasn’t like we played poorly, but we got upset.
My last year was frustrating because we were beaten by BYU. You’ve seen the replay a thousand times. I’m sick of seeing it every March come tournament time. We blew that game. We were better than them. We were killing them, and Digger decided to hold the ball. That was the one evil of not having a shot clock back then. If there had been a shot clock, we would have run them out of the gym.
I hit a shot in the corner with five seconds to go to put us on top, but nobody remembers that because (Danny) Ainge drove the length of the floor and hit the game-winning shot.
After my shot put us ahead, the ensuing timeout was chaotic. We didn’t know what we were doing. Are we pressing? Are we not pressing? Ainge caught the ball on the run with five seconds and there’s not a lot you can do. You don’t want to foul and he’s coming at you. He got by us at half-court.
There was one guy left, Orlando Woolridge, and instead of coming out to meet him, he stayed under the basket and when he went up to block the shot, he got his hand caught in the net and Ainge scored. The rest is history. The college career is over and you move on.
It was frustrating. We were better than that. We were a team that had aspirations and we were probably good enough to get back to the Final Four again. But we didn’t get the job done.
TP: I’ve always thought one of your most impressive statistics at Notre Dame was your 54.8 percent field-goal percentage. It wasn’t as if you were shooting from point-blank range like Woolridge. You had an inside-outside game, which makes that shooting percentage all the more impressive.
KT: I considered myself a versatile guy. I was a big, strong guy. I could post up. I wasn’t afraid to go outside. I could beat you off the dribble. I could run the break and I tried to take you one-on-one.
A lot of guys were afraid of me posting up. I had a quick first step. If they came out on me, I’d drive by them; if they didn’t come out on me, I’d shoot over the top of them. We didn’t have the three-point line and we didn’t play as many games as they do today, so I’ve dropped in the all-time scoring. They’re playing 10 more games with the three-point shot. It’s a completely different era.
TP: Your difficulty playing for Digger has been well-documented. What made that such a difficult relationship?
KT: We had so much talent, but Digger didn’t play the guys who should have played. He tried to play everybody. If you look at my senior year, I played 28 minutes a game in a 40-minute college game. I was fourth on the team in playing time. Guys that are stars today don’t come out of games now unless they’re in foul trouble. They’re playing the entire 40 minutes. The fact I averaged 18 points a game in 28 minutes my senior year is mind boggling to me still to this day.
You can ask all the players from that time, and they’ll say the same thing. A.D. (Dantley) will tell you the same thing as well. During our four years, they could have had another chair at the scorer’s table, that’s how much of a rotation there was.
It was frustrating, especially when I saw the team after I left. David Rivers came in and he’s playing 40 minutes a game! Nothing against David Rivers, but that really irked us. Digger would never allow us to do the things he allowed David Rivers to do.
But we had great guys. We were all on the same page and I loved playing with them, from my first year to my last year
I loved the assistant coaches. They don’t get enough credit. Digger manhandled a lot of those guys. I felt bad for them. Danny Nee, Pete Gillen, Dick Kuchen…They could handle it. Scottie (Thompson)? Digger killed him. It was embarrassing to us. If we won, it was Digger; if we lost, it was the players.
TP: Yet you were back when Digger was inducted into the Ring of Honor…
KT: (Laughing) Yeah, they had to drag me back kicking and screaming.
TP: You were the 12th overall pick in the ’81 NBA draft, where you scored more than 12,000 points. You averaged 26.5 points per game in your second year with the Pistons, but you were sent to Utah a couple years later. Not sure how many Notre Dame fans realize that you were traded for Dantley.
KT: Yeah, I kind of got stuck in the middle of the Pistons thing with Dantley. Adrian was having a big problem with (head coach) Frank Layden in Utah. They were looking to dump him. So they traded all-star for all-star. It was absolutely devastating for my NBA career.
I found out in a locker room at a golf outing with Yogi Berra, who was a great friend of our family. I overheard a guy say, ‘Hey, did you hear that Tripucka got traded today?’ All of a sudden, I come around the corner and this guy looks like he’s seen a ghost when he saw me.
(The Pistons’) general manager called me at home and got one of my brothers. He told him, ‘When you see him, tell him he was traded.’
I didn’t want to be in Utah. Frank Layden was a clown. Frank would spend practices talking to the fans, making the same jokes over and over again… Jerry Sloan was an assistant coach and ended up taking over the team after I left.
(John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone were young players. They were both very good players, but I was a guy who had averaged 20-plus points per game, and I was setting screens for Malone at the three-point line. I don’t think they had any intention of using me the right way, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but it didn’t happen right away.
We had a meeting one day and Layden said, ‘We want guys who want to be here. So if you don’t want to be here, let us know.’ So I raised my hand and he got mad. But he asked and I answered him! They ended up trading two other guys that wanted to be there. Unfortunately, I had to spend two years there.
The following year was expansion in Charlotte. I was an original Hornet. The bad part is at the end of my career, we were losing. The Utah thing really killed me. The Pistons eventually became successful. They drafted (John) Salley and (Dennis) Rodman in June and I got traded in August. That put them over the top because they already had Isaiah Thomas, Vinny Johnson, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn.
I was hoping to get another two years out of it. Your body slows down. I could have helped somebody off the bench. I ended up going overseas for a year, which probably was a mistake. I got convinced to do that. I wanted to re-sign with Charlotte. I averaged like 22, 23 points my first year in Charlotte. I was going to hold out, not for a new contract, but just to get an extension. I was happy there. I just wanted them to add two years to my contract.
TP: You’ve been in broadcasting ever since?
KT: I’ve been doing that for about 25 years. It’s a rat race. It’s a very difficult lifestyle. I’m ready to move south to the warmer weather. I’m still looking at some radio shows. I’ve done Westwood One the last five or six years.
TP: I mentioned this to you in Brooklyn and you downplayed it. But when they’re considering which men’s basketball players go up next in Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor, you have to be on a very short list.
KT: I don’t give that much thought. I don’t know the logistics of it. I think it’s a great thing. Mike Brey deserves a lot of credit for it.
When you compare guys, I wasn’t playing very many minutes and we had no three-point line, but we were very successful. When you take in consideration the circumstances and look at the numbers, I don’t think there’s any argument.
We had a special team. We had a special four years. We were pretty darn good, that’s for sure. I’m proud of what we did. We were 92-26 in my four years at Notre Dame. We were like 60-5 or 61-4 at home. During those 65 home games in four years, we were sold out in like 61 of them, and nobody has come close to that since then.
That’s the type of atmosphere it was. It was a happening between football winning the national title in ’77 and basketball going to the Final Four in the spring of ’78. We made our mark. Notre Dame wasn’t known as just a football school after we had been there four years.