Team remembers championship run 25 years later

Tom Chapman still gets the itch this time of year.

The idea of watching a collection of young men coming together in hopes of cutting down the nets causes the former Gannon University men’s basketball coach to recall what he refers to as a “golden time.”

The seeds of which were planted in Springfield, Mass., a quarter-century ago when the Knights took Gannon and the city of Erie on a ride it hasn’t forgotten.

Chapman was the engineer operating the roller coaster that was the 1986-87 season that culminated with an appearance in the national championship game. That game marks its 25th anniversary Wednesday.

“It was almost like a Hoosier-like story,” said Chapman, who now lives in Reading, Pa. “The team became a family with each other and became a family with the city as well.”

The Knights provided plenty of thrills throughout the season, as they tallied a 28-6 record en route to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Division II tournament. The Knights made the often block-long line for tickets well worth the wait before eventually falling to Kentucky Wesleyan 92-74 in the title game.

The fans, in turn, reciprocated by giving the Knights one of the most distinct home-court advantages in the country.  With on-demand sports still several decades away, the 2,600 that regularly packed into the Hammermill Center harassed opponents to the point of assault all in the name of their beloved Knights.

“I remember people scalping tickets; they really made us feel like NBA players,” said David “Motown” Morris, a junior forward on the team. “It wasn’t really as much of a bandwagon following as it was a love Erie had for Gannon basketball.”

And these Knights gave the fans plenty to love.

Gannon featured some of the unlikeliest of heroes, including several players who would fit the criteria for non-traditional students.

“It was really intoxicating because each one had a different story,” Chapman said.

Center John “Shanghai” Matthews, 30, had spent the previous 10 years in a steel mill, the team’s leading scorer Mitch Smith saw his collegiate career interrupted by a stint in the military and Notre Dame transfer John Bowen among others gave the team its distinctive flavor.

“There was definitely an allure to this team,” said John Ruby, who along with Chuck Shramm, comprised Chapman’s coaching staff. “It was unique because it was an older, more veteran team that was willing to sacrifice for the team, when you think that the older you get, it becomes more about me, me, me.”

But the Knights were about much more than just a scrappy bunch—they knew how to win.

This was no more on display than when the Knights took down top-ranked Millersville in the Eastern Regional at the Hammermill Center. Gannon knocked down a pair of late free throws to ice the game with a pair of free throws.

“We had great games against Millersville, Mercyhurst, Edinboro, West Chester,” Chapman said. “Between games and the people, I probably don’t remember the games as much as I do the people who all had a part in our success.”

And the Knights managed to captivate many.

Gannon’s appeal even managed to transcend the hardwood and began to occupy the airwaves.

Local radio stations began playing “Let’s go Gannon, let’s go,” a parody of Wang Chung’s “Let’s go.”

On the court, Chapman also served as the team’s de facto mascot by often entering the stands drumming up support for the team.

“He came out and went in the stands to try to get everyone fired up and would raise his hands,” Morris said.

Gannon coach John Reilly, whose 2008-09 Elite Eight team broke the 1986-87 team’s school record for wins by going 30-4, joined Chapman’s staff as a graduate assistant the following year.

“They would have the applause meter, which was always rigged, and after the first basket, the whole student body would throw toilet paper on the court, and they’d have to take 10 minutes to clear it off,” Reilly said.

Then there was Gumby.

Played by a Gannon student, the Knights’ officially unofficial mascot would slide down the bleachers before each game before dislocating his shoulder.

All of it together made for an atmosphere that Reilly remembers as “nuts.”

“I had never been in an environment where I could feel sound,” Chapman said. “The noise there was an actual physical force like a jet engine. I remember seeing some of the players from the other team would cover their ears after we made a big play.”

But as Gannon forged its way through the tournament, the Hammermill circus wasn’t afraid to take their act with the Knights. Members of the Gannon University Travel Squad – GUTS— made sure they were with the Knights every step of the way.

“They were a group of adults who conducted themselves like students,” Chapman said of some 2,000 fans who made the trip to Springfield. “I can’t give any names because there might still be outstanding warrants.”

“We had a lot of players who could’ve played Division I basketball, and that’s what you need if you’re going to win a national championship,” Ruby said. “Unfortunately, Kentucky Wesleyan had more Division I-caliber players.

Gannon semifinal win over Montana State-Billings—then Eastern Montana— featured the Knights staging a double-digit rally to win 61-55.

“We had a different game the game before against Eastern Montana that went down to the wire. I think it may have taken a lot out of us, and if we had more energy, the championship could’ve been closer.”

Chapman remained coach until 1989, when he took over as head coach, but never forgot his days at Gannon, Ruby, said.

“When Tom and I left for St. Bonaventure, which was a very tough job, a lot of times we would think back and ask ourselves, ‘well, maybe it is better to be a big fish in a small pond,’” said Ruby, who lives in Harrisburg where he teaches at Central Dauphin High School.

The Knights’ run holds a special place in hearts of the players, who consider it among their favorite memories.

“That season had some of the most memorable times of my life,” said Morris, who serves as an assistant at Strong Vincent High School

“Somebody mentioned something recently, and I didn’t even realize it has been 25 years already. Time goes by so fast.”

Many of the Knights had the chance to reunite with their teammates when the Gannon athletic hall of fame inducted the team in January 2010.

With a little less hair albeit.

“The thing that struck me was that all these young boys had become mature men,” Chapman said.

While the 1986-87 season is a distant memory for those who lived it, Chapman sees it every time he turns on a game.

Chapman, who is retired and lives in Reading, Pa., still considers himself a fan.

“(Gannon) is probably in a bit more challenging conference now,” he said. “The great thing about basketball is that it’s emotionally draining, and the players are flawed just like everybody else, so you are able to really connect with them when they’re on the floor.”



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