Forgive and forget. In this case—never!
Let me explain: Of the thousands of attempts two legendary Purdue basketball players shot, two misses in two historic games against Indiana University pain me still to this day and have given me cause to never forgive Bruce Parkinson and Jerry Sichting.
I was a sophomore at Purdue in 1976, watching Indiana beat everyone and run the table that season. From my Boilermaker perspective, this was not fun. Undefeated and ranked No. 1 both by the Associated Press and United Press International, IU was an unbelievable team, a juggernaut without equal then—or perhaps now.
On February 16, 1976, the Hoosiers came to West Lafayette for a nationally televised game. Back then, it was a big deal to be on national television, which added to the electric atmosphere surging throughout campus. Purdue was enjoying a good season, but a win against Indiana, knocking them from the ranks of the undefeated and off that No. 1 perch—well, you can imagine how attractive that prospect was to the Boilers and their fans.
Mackey Arena was filled with 98 percent Purdue fans looking for an upset. It was a boisterous crowd dressed in the look of the day (painter pants and black-and-gold striped shirts), and when the public-address announcer counted down the final seconds to going live on national television, the stadium was as loud as I had ever heard it. The pep band was playing the Purdue fight song, and fans were yelling “POTFH” (the clean version is Pounce On The Fighting Hoosiers, but the student version differed slightly) as IU trotted onto the court. Finally we were live. Finally, it was game time.
Throughout the contest, Purdue had Indiana in an uncomfortable place it hadn’t seen very much that season, a close game. Indiana held a 72-71 advantage late, but Purdue had the ball with one last shot. That’s when the miss came. That’s when the Earth imploded. That’s when the air was sucked from my body and I was left sitting head in hands muttering four-letter words to myself.
As the clock wound down with less than five seconds to play, Parkinson found himself all alone in the key and driving with the ball. As he went up for the winning shot, everyone was fixated on the ball. We fully expected it to drop through the basket with about three seconds remaining in the game, giving Purdue the lead by 1 with hardly enough time to get the ball in bounds for a desperation shot from IU.
But Parkinson’s attempt was short. The ball hit the front of the rim and was immediately collected by Indiana, which forced a Purdue foul. Indiana went on to make both free throws, putting the game away with a three-point lead in a time there was no three-point shot. The fans screamed, the Purdue players collapsed on the court, and the IU team jumped and skipped all the way to their locker room.
The second unforgivable errant shot came years later, 1979, in Madison Square Garden during the finals of that year’s National Invitational Tournament (NIT), back when it was a big deal to go to the NIT. I was a sports reporter then, covering the tournament, and was inches away on the sidelines when disaster struck again.
While Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Magic Johnson battled it out for the NCAA title in Salt Lake City, Purdue and Indiana met in the NIT championship game that year, giving the state of Indiana three of the four teams involved in the postseason tournament championship games—a pretty amazing stat.
Armed with a photographer’s pass, I staked my post on the left corner of the court to shoot the game. Another close contest ensued as Indiana’s defense stalled a powerful Purdue offense that was averaging 84 points per game during the tournament. The resulting low-scoring game was to IU’s favor. As the clock wound down, the Boilers found themselves down by a point, but with the ball. (Sound familiar?) Working to get an open shot, Sichting’s signature corner shot came open with mere ticks remaining on the clock. He caught the ball, was ready to shoot, fired, and missed. Long. Buzzzzzzzzzzz. Game over: IU 53, Purdue 52.
Again, reduced to sitting with head in hands uttering words only I could hear, I sat on my corner of the Garden and watched my defeated Boilers walk off the court. How could Sichting miss that shot right in front of me? That was HIS shot. He made that shot 99.9 percent of the time. Again, I thought, Purdue had snatched defeat from the hands of victory.
Every year when Purdue and Indiana square off, I think of those games. I think of how much those games meant to me and, I thought, to the rest of the world. But as time marches on, memories fade. People age, and so do their feelings to a certain extent, making forgiveness easier. But for me, even today, I can’t forgive those guys for those misses. Sorry, Bruce and Jerry. Loved you as players, but you should have made those shots.
As fate would have it, years later I met Sichting in a bar on the outskirts of Bloomington where I felt compelled to share my disappointment about that shot. Let’s just say he and his companions were good sports about the whole thing.
Notes: In 1980, Purdue made the Final Four in the NCAA finals, which was hosted here in Market Square Arena (don’t get me started on Kiki Vandeweghe and UCLA). In 1981, Indiana won it all in Philadelphia over Michigan. Sichting served as an assistant coach for Marquette University under Tom Crean for three years before moving to coach with the Golden State Warriors under former IU standout Keith Smart.
Mike Botkin is a lifelong Purdue Boilermakers fan and occasionally offers a dissenting opinion on IU hoopla.