In the game of basketball, sometimes talent isn't everything.
Sometimes experience isn't determinative. Indeed, sometimes the combination of the two doesn't guarantee results. And in the case of one miraculous season, the Texas Tech Red Raiders actually fared much better with less talent and experience on the roster than with more.
Texas Tech opened the 1982 season with high hopes. The Red Raiders were coming off a 17-11 season, and welcomed a nice mixture of experience, youth and talent, including the likes of Charles Johnson, Bubba Jennings, Tony Ben Ford, Vince Taylor, Quentin Anderson and Joe Washington. Johnson and Washington were the team's seniors.
There was reason to believe the Red Raiders would make some noise, but the season got off to an inexplicably terrible start. Tech opened the season by losing to Arizona State by a deuce, and then falling to Davidson. The Red Raiders did scrape together a few underwhelming non-conference wins, but also dropped games to Alabama (by 21), UT-San Antonio, the University of San Diego (by 13), Pepperdine, North Carolina (by 32), Virginia Tech, and Arizona State again.
Tech finished its pre-conference slate 3-9 and was a disappointing wreck of a team. And head coach Gerald Myers was at his wits end.
"Going three and nine was about to drive me crazy," Myers declares vehemently.
"I was never a good loser—not in terms of conduct, but in terms of taking losses. I wasn't sleeping and I was trying to figure out what was going on with that team."
An improbable solution to his team's misery presented itself to Myers, although at the time he didn't recognize it. Myers thought he was simply enforcing team rules.
Up to this juncture in the season, team discipline had been sorely lacking. Chemistry, cohesion and leadership were entirely absent.
As Myers tells it, "The slow start had a lot to do with chemistry, lots of new guys on the team."
"Three guys [Tim Ford, Bob Evans, Travis Salem] left on their own. We were losing games to teams we had no business losing to, although we also played that North Carolina team that had Jordan, Perkins and Worthy. But we did not have the right attitude and chemistry. There was lots of dissension. Lots of finger pointing."
"It was a hard team to coach with all 14 of those players. I couldn't get them to play together. I was pretty hard on ‘em and three quit. They'd had enough."
The team's mental problems also manifested themselves through habitual tardiness and disregard for team rules. Players routinely showed up late for practice and team meetings, and curfew policies were violated as a matter of course.
Finally, Myers laid down the law. Three players--Joe Washington, Dwight Phillips and the aforementioned Johnson--violated curfew on a Sunday night in January 1983, and it would be their last violation.
And an act by Myers would change the course of the season.
"Everybody showed up to practice Monday morning and I told the three guys to wait for me in their rooms after practice because I wanted to talk to them."
The conversations consisted of Myers dismissing Washington, Johnson and Phillips from the team.
On paper, these dismissals looked like a recipe for disaster. All three players were starters; the three constituted Tech's front line; Washington and Johnson were the team's only seniors, and Johnson led the team in scoring with 17 points per game, and rebounds with nine per contest. He also led the team in assists and steals.
Personnel losses such as this have devastated very good teams. What would they do to a reeling 3-9 club that would then be composed of four freshmen, three sophomores and a junior? It would be a roster of eight players, one of which—Tobin Doda—was a walk-on.
According to Myers, the remaining players were unfazed by what confronted them. Perhaps they were too young to be afraid.
"I don't remember any real reaction from the rest of the team when I told them," Myers recounts.
"There was no panic. Everybody was probably relieved because they knew everybody left was gonna work hard and we were gonna have a good chemistry."
For his part, Myers was simply doing what he believed was right. It wasn't part of a grand plan to rejuvenate his club.
"I didn't look at that way [as a ploy to revive the team]. I never asked any more from my players than what I had put in when I was a player," Myers asserts.
"Breaking rules was important to me growing up. We trained hard and worked hard. The way I saw it, when those guys broke the rules, they didn't deserve to be on the team anymore."
Regardless of motives, positive results gradually appeared on the court. The Red Raiders lost their first two conference games, but then surprised the University of Texas 59-51. Tech would go 2-3 over their next five conference games before reeling off three straight wins over talented clubs from TCU, SMU and Texas. The Red Raiders stumbled a bit down the stretch, but still finished with a very respectable 7-9 mark in conference play.
Myers' assessment of that team's post-dismissal performance is an exercise in understatement.
"That was one of the most enjoyable teams I coached. All eight guys were gonna play and they played good together. To go seven and nine was pretty good for that bunch."
To say the very least. To reiterate, Myers had an eight-man roster, half of which were freshmen. Heck, he didn't have enough players to even hold a normal practice.
"We'd suit up managers for practice," Myers relates.
"One of them was a little guy named Alfred White. He was pretty unathletic. One time we had a game at Texas A&M and I asked White if he'd be in the walk-through. He said, ‘Coach, I don't know how to do this.' I said, ‘That's alright, you just stand there and act as a decoy.' Well somebody passed him the ball, it hit him in the face and smashed his glasses."
And yet this ragtag outfit gave supremely talented clubs fits. The Red Raiders lost by only three points to an Arkansas team that sported future NBA stars Joe Klein, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker.
Even more incredible, Tech fell by only nine points to arguably the most talented team in the history of college basketball—the Phi Slamma Jamma unit from the University of Houston. That's right, a callow Red Raider team that didn't possess a player who would dribble a ball in an NBA game, hung tough with Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Larry Micheaux. Never has a nine-point loss been such a marvelous accomplishment.
It just goes to show how much of the game of basketball is mental. As Myers notes, the proper attitude can overcome inexperience and a comparative lack of talent.
"Every game we played, we played as hard as we could, gave it everything we had, and always went in thinking we would win the game. Looking back on it, we probably didn't have a chance against some of them, but that was never how we looked at it. And we learned how to play against that caliber of team. We gained confidence by playing against them."
The scars and scrapes of that tumultuous and ultimately gratifying season would pay dividends down the road. Tech improved to 17-12 the next season, and in 1984-5, went 23-8, won the SWC championship and the SWC tournament. Myers ties that championship season to the lessons learned when those veterans were enrolled in the School of Hard Knocks two years before.
"That was the beginning of the foundation and groundwork of the '85 championship team."
The moral of the overachieving 1982-3 Red Raiders is clear—a lack of talent and experience may put a cap on what a team can accomplish, but it does not doom a team to a dismal outcome. Intangibles, hard work, a positive attitude and yes, superior coaching, can work miracles. They not only can, but they do.