There was no formal University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball reunion this past Saturday at McKenzie Arena. No commemorative T-shirts were handed out. No public recognition for all those guys who single-handedly put the Mocs on the NCAA Division I basketball map 36 years ago.
But there they sat on the top row of section 121, the conquerers of North Carolina State in the opening round of the 1982 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis. At least a few of them, that is. And Willie White, Nick Morken, Russ Schoene, Stanley Lawrence, Eric Smith, Calvin and Donel Cochran and company all looked as if they might still be able to win a game or two.
In fact, Lawrence was playing in Atlanta's police league a year ago, just before he retired after decades on the force.
"I just rebounded and played defense," said the man who still stands second in career blocked shots at UTC with 134. "I'd leave the scoring to other guys, just like when I played here."
Nor were those '82 Mocs whom the late Murray Arnold coached so brilliantly the only ones to return. Edsel Brooks, class of 1980, came back. So did James Hunter, class of 1987, who returned to accept an award from UTC's Black Alumni Council on behalf of his late teammate Cornelius "Boogie" Crank, who lost his life in a 1994 house fire.
"We'd talked on the phone earlier that day," Hunter said. "Boogie was always dancing and happy. That's how I'll always remember him."
The school and its fans need to always remember the 1982 team. Not five years removed from winning the Division II national championship, this was the squad that won the school's first NCAA tourney game against an N.C. State squad that would win it all a year later.
Despite reaching 11 tournaments total in its proud mid-major history — including in 1981 and 1983 — UTC didn't win another NCAA tourney game until 15 years later, when the 1997 team put the Madness into March by reaching the Sweet 16.
Said Schoene of what makes him most proud of that 1982 tourney: "Just building something that lasted long after that."
Hunter said Schoene and his teammates did more than build it. They nurtured it. They educated those who would follow on what it takes to be a champion.
"They would come back in the summers, and they taught us so much about what it takes to win," Hunter said. "Just how hard you have to work. The mindset you have to have in practice. Those guys made us all better."
Schoene said that wasn't necessarily by design.
"It's nice they looked at it that way, but it was really kind of selfish," said the Seattle resident who played professionally in the NBA and Europe and now owns a share of the Samurai Sam's Teriyaki Grill restaurant chain. "UTC was a great place to work out in the summer and play against good competition."
Thirty-six years later, it's more about camaraderie than competition.
"Just the love that we have for each other," said White, who still plays flag football and competitive softball in Memphis.
"I always look forward to these things," said Morken, who lives in the Florida Panhandle and sells tents to the military. "We don't do it often enough, but I always enjoy it. There's always a lot of lying to each other."
Their lasting impact on the program needs no embellishing, however. Nor does their lasting chemistry. As the current Mocs staged a furious second-half rally before falling late to Mercer, the whole group stood and clapped and cheered.
Later, first-year coach Lamont Paris thanked the Cochran brothers for coming and said, "We need to get you guys back more often. Maybe next time we can get up a game with the little round (golf) ball."
Whether Paris organizes it or not, the school needs to more strongly embrace its proud past with the 1982 team and others, if only to remind its present players how good UTC men's basketball has been and can be.
Besides, as the 57-year-old Schoene said, "We don't know how much more time we've got."
We just know that once upon a time, on a March Friday night in Indianapolis in 1982, they made the most of the time they had in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.