By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Paul Westphal knew all along it could happen.
His players at Grand Canyon University (then Grand Canyon College) certainly weren’t afraid to talk about it.
They even posed for a photo on the cover of the preseason men’s basketball media guide, staring upward into a thought bubble that depicted Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., site of the NAIA national tournament.
But none of them envisioned winning an NAIA championship quite the way it came about during an improbable 1987-88 season.
“That was one of the most unlikely successful seasons I have ever been a part of,” said Westphal, who will be inducted into the GCU Hall of Fame on Saturday, when that team also will be honored 25 years after bringing home the third men’s basketball national title in the school’s history.
“They were talented, they were wild and ultimately they were a real team in every way,” Westphal added. “But the road was very rocky to get there.”
Westphal was in his second – and last – season as GCU’s coach following an All-Star NBA career spent mostly with the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns.
At the time, there were only a handful of sports at the University. All of the basketball home games were shown on TV and road games could be heard on the radio. Keith Baker, now the school’s athletic director, was the sports information director at the time and did play-by-play for all the broadcasts.
In other words, even though there was no state-of-the-art GCU Arena or impending NCAA Division I status, basketball was a big deal.
Westphal said he knew in his first season, with a team that went 26-12 but fell one game short of reaching the NAIA national tournament, that the 1987-88 squad had the potential to go all the way.
He had a prolific group of athletic and flamboyant players who could score at will (more on that in a minute). But sometimes that flamboyance carried over off the court, leading to disciplinary measures throughout the season and ultimately the dismissal of the team’s top two scorers, Gary Ware and Danl Williams, for team rules violations with just two games left in the regular season.
Ware and Williams averaged 18.9 and 16.7 points per game, respectively. Coupled with a season-ending foot injury to Emilio Kovacic (9.6 points per game), that left the Antelopes with just nine players – only seven of whom saw much playing time.
Faced with two regular-season games, two more in the District 7 Tournament and the potential of five games during a six-day stretch at the NAIA national tournament, that kind of turmoil and lack of depth isn’t exactly the recipe for postseason success.
“When it became apparent we were going to lose those two players … we had every reason to believe the season would go down the tubes,” Westphal said. “But exactly the opposite happened. It was a pretty profound experience.”
Unlikely tournament run
Ultimately, the Antelopes won all nine games after the roster shakeup, including the national championship game when Rodney Johns hit a jump shot with 2 seconds left in overtime to give Grand Canyon an 88-86 victory over Auburn-Montgomery. (For footage of that title game, check out this youtube video).
“The national title was still our goal because we had a deep team,” said Ron Akre, a guard/forward who went from being a bench player to a starter after the suspensions. “We all just took on different roles. Rodney suddenly became the first option, and Michael (Ledbetter) was the second option. Other people were now playing more and shooting more and playing more minutes. In some odd way, we ended up being a better team, and that’s taking nothing away from Gary and Danl because they were Division I-level players.”
Johns went from being a player who averaged 12.9 points per game prior to the national tournament to an amazing 30.2 during the five-game title run. He had 41 points in the championship game and 39 in a 108-106 win over Waynesburg College in the semifinals, when he made another game-winning, last-second shot. He was an easy choice for tournament MVP.
Ledbetter, who is now the fleet manager at GCU (read his story here), was averaging 10.5 points per game before exploding for 21.0 per game at nationals.
Bob Gallagher became a full-time starter, averaging 15.2 points per game.
And point guard Craig Johnson also played significant minutes. He came through with a breathtaking blocked shot in the final minute of the title game after an Auburn-Montgomery player stole the ball and was going in for a breakaway layup (see youtube footage above). That play set up Johns’ last-second heroics.
“Craig was 5-foot-9 but he was one of the best jumpers ever,” Baker said. “That was an unbelievable blocked shot. … There were a lot of unsung guys at the end of the bench who stepped up at the end of the year.
“The personality of that team was: Whatever it took, somebody was going to step forward and take care of it.”
The 1987-88 team went 37-6 and set school records for most points, field goals, free throws, rebounds, assists, steals and wins in a season. Part of that was due to the fact they played 43 games (the NCAA had not yet put a limit on the number of games schools could play). But they also averaged 95.2 points per game (a mark eclipsed only by the ’88-89 team that averaged 96.8) and set a GCU record by shooting 52.2 percent from the field, a mark that still stands today.
“We had so many guys who could catch the ball and put it in the basket, my job was easy,” said Johnson, who is the all-time assists leader at GCU (455 from 1987-89) and at age 47 still plays professional club-level basketball in Australia, where he has lived for the last 16 years. “I attribute that to Paul Westphal and his NBA style of play. We pressed full-court and said we were going to get the ball out and run and run and run.
“Paul was the kind of coach who could get players to play for him. If he said we needed to set a pick on a brick wall, we would do it. With him coaching, we thought we could do anything. And we did.”
Westphal, who made the jump to NBA coaching after that championship season, will be enshrined in the Grand Canyon Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Players from that team who have confirmed they will attend the homecoming game reunion are Ledbetter, Kovacic, Akre, Gallagher, Henige, Ron DaLessio, Mark Dyer and Chad Olson. Assistant coaches Garrick Barr, Scott Mossman (who later became a head coach at GCU) and Walt Rock, and trainer Rudy Sanchez also plan to attend.
Two players from that team are deceased. Johns died in a car accident in the early 1990s, and Blair Oliphant died of brain cancer in his early 30s.
On Saturday, they’ll all be remembered as players and coaches reminisce and tell stories and probably shake their heads at what they were able to accomplish in some pretty strange circumstances.
“You couldn’t write a screenplay and make it a movie,” Akre said, “because nobody would believe it.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or [email protected].