1988 National Title Run Brought Gamut of Emotions for Ledbetter
By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Michael Ledbetter played out the scenario in his head hundreds of times as a kid.
Clock ticking down.
He spots up his defender.
He cocks the ball above his head.
The shot leaves his hand.
And, as the buzzer sounds, the ball hits nothing but net. The crowd goes wild, Ledbetter is a hero and life is good.
Life, as Ledbetter learned, doesn’t always follow the script of boyhood fantasies. But it’s how you react and learn from the experience that really defines who you are.
Playing for Grand Canyon College (now Grand Canyon University) in the championship game of the 1988 NAIA men’s basketball championship against Auburn-Montgomery, that exact scenario unfolded for Ledbetter.
The game was tied 82-82 near the end of regulation, and Grand Canyon had the ball with a chance to win.
Coach Paul Westphal drew up a play that would use star Rodney Johns (later named the tournament MVP) as a decoy. Instead, Ron Akre got the ball and drove to the basket. Ledbetter’s defender helped out on defense, so Akre passed off to Ledbetter along the baseline. With the clock ticking down, Ledbetter raised the ball above his head, let loose a 15-foot jump shot and, as the buzzer sounded, watched it bounce off the front of the rim — just inches away from fulfilling that boyhood fantasy.
The crowd didn’t go wild and there was no hero this time.
“I was just crushed,” Ledbetter said of that shot. “The emotions of that and having to play (in overtime) … But that set the stage for the rest of my life and opened me up to, ‘You know what, it doesn’t always go the way you want it. It doesn’t always go in.’
“But good things do come out of it and you learn that sometimes you have to rely on others. Sometimes someone else can be the man.”
Ledbetter, now the fleet manager at Grand Canyon, didn’t make that shot. But he made plenty of others that season.
- In the District 7 finale that sent the Antelopes to the national tournament, Ledbetter scored a game-high 27 points in a 113-79 victory over Colorado Mines.
- In the opening game of nationals, he scored 26 in a 103-75 win over Hastings College.
- He finished the five-game run at the national tournament averaging 21 points per game.
- And in the championship game against Auburn-Montgomery, even after that fateful missed shot, he was still celebrating after Grand Canyon won in overtime, 88-86, on a last-second shot by Johns.
Ledbetter and his teammates will be honored at GCU’s homecoming game against Hawai’i Pacific on Saturday night, celebrating the 25th anniversary of that national title.
“February and March of that year, that was the best two months of basketball in my career,” Ledbetter said. “The tournament was amazing, particularly the last two games. The confidence, the right timing … When you’re playing really well, the basket gets big sometimes, and it was really big for us.”
Like many of his teammates, Ledbetter had to step up after the team’s top two scorers were suspended from the team near the end of the regular season.
With only nine players left on the roster, Ledbetter said his playing time increased from about 28 minutes a game to 38.
“Early in that season, we were just loaded,” Ledbetter said. “We had so much talent it was ridiculous. By the end of the year we were down to nine guys and felt a little snakebit. … But our goal never changed when we lost people. It took some luck and some good bounces, but we had players who stepped up.”
Beyond the run to a national title, Ledbetter has many fond memories from that season.
Early on, because of Westphal’s connection to the Phoenix Suns, many of the Suns players worked out at Grand Canyon with the Antelopes.
“Guys like Larry Nance were there; he was at the top of his game then and was unbelievable,” Ledbetter said. “I guarded ‘Sweet D’ (Walter Davis). There was Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, James Edwards … It was an incredible experience.
“I remember Larry Nance walking in and saying, ‘Ledbetter, you’re on my team.’ And I knew why, because he knew I would pass him the ball. I would just say, ‘All right, whatever you say, Mr. Nance.'”
|In this GCU Today story, players and coaches from the
1987-88 national championship team share their recollections of an improbable run to the NAIA title.
Ledbetter also remembers a game against Western Washington fondly for two reasons.
First, the team van broke down on the way and the players were stranded on the side of the road. Ledbetter decided to have some fun and took out the team’s video camera to film Johns and teammate Robert Enge having a playful dissing contest.
“Rodney never backed down from a verbal contest,” Ledbetter said. “He
could talk. … We had a bunch of characters on that team.”
Ledbetter, who is a bit of a free spirit himself, said they also passed the time by filming other things such as an interview with a Department of Public Safety officer who came to their aid.
When they finally got to the game, “the camera ran out of juice by halftime,” Ledbetter said.
That didn’t set too well with the coaching staff, and they were practicing at 6 a.m. the next day.
At the game against Western Washington, Ledbetter said he was surprised to find out he was the “bounce guy” — when fans pick out an opposing player and chant “bounce, bounce, bounce” every time he dribbles the ball.
“Those guys bounce-bounced me!” Ledbetter said. “But it backfired on them. I was feeding off it and scored 26 on them (at the time, a career high).”
Grand Canyon lost the game in overtime, its only defeat in eight OT contests that season.
Playing for Westphal was also a memorable experience for Ledbetter because he was a players’ coach who let players push the tempo.
“His in-game cool was phenomenal,” Ledbetter said, describing Westphal’s demeanor as that of a coach who sat back with arms folded, allowing players to play. “There was no need to bark at us for putting up a quick shot or micromanage in games because we were that prepared (from practice).”
After leaving GCU, Ledbetter got involved athletically in extreme sports such as wind surfing, wakeboarding and snowboarding. A knee injury ended that and led him to become a commercial truck driver. That eventually brought him back to GCU five years ago to spearhead the fleet department, where he coordinates all the transportation involving the University’s vans, sedans, pickups and buses.
“It’s funny, I had to walk on when I played basketball here (redshirting his initial season). But I got recruited for this job,” said Ledbetter, now a regular at GCU basketball games. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of the coaches and players just from driving them around, so it’s cool to have that interaction and live vicariously through them.
“It was the right place and right time to come back. I feel blessed.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.