For The Underdogs, Winning The NCAA Was Extra Sweet

Mar 22, 2015
Originally published on March 22, 2015 3:08 pm

Every March, the madness takes hold.

The NCAA college basketball tournament might be the most emotional event in college sports. Sixty-four teams in a single-elimination tournament. The regular season can be blown away in a single game.

After that one tournament, it's all gone. But we always remember those ultimate underdogs — George Mason, Butler, Richmond. This year, it was Georgia State — until Saturday, when the Panthers fell to the Xavier Musketeers.

In 1988, the team that came from behind and shocked the country was the University of Kansas Jayhawks, led by the inimitable Danny Manning. The team that won the championship that year became known as Danny and the Miracles.

In our For the Record segment this week, we look back at that team, that victory and what it meant to three former players: Jeff Gueldner, Clint Normore and Milt Newton.


Jeff Gueldner (Guard)

Jeff Gueldner was a starting guard for the KU Jayhawks. Today, he is a divorced father of two girls, an insurance salesman and a cancer survivor. He is also an avid KU basketball fan and makes an effort to wear some piece of KU paraphernalia every time he leaves the house.

He's got this advice for players in the tournament right now.

"Enjoy the ride, because it's over quickly," Gueldner told us. "You really don't realize the impact and how much people care. And you don't really recognize that until you get out of it and you become a fan, and you're sitting with other fans and you listen to them, how important I was to them 25 years ago. God, it's 25 years."

Clint Normore (Point Guard)

Clint Normore was a reserve point guard on the team. Today he heads up diversity programs at Oklahoma City University. He remembers a lot of things about that final game, but one sensation in particular.

"I do remember playing in the game and not really hearing the fans," Normore said. "I remember hearing the ball bounce, often. I remember hearing my teammates' voices, I remember hearing my coaches' voices. I don't really remember hearing how loud the crowd was. And that was really profound for me, because ... that is the point at which you are really playing beyond and within the game, and you're in that moment."

Milton Newton (Forward)

Milton Newton was a starting forward for KU in 1988. His dad told him that if he couldn't make it as a pro ball player, he should figure out a way to make some kind of career in basketball. And he did. Newton is general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He said KU Coach Larry Brown taught him lessons he using to this day.

"The one thing he always says is, 'Playing the game the right way,' " Newton said. "Being able to sacrifice for the good of the team, being a we player instead of a me player, seeing the vision and [being] willing to give up your individual agenda to win as a team."

My Three Takeaways

First, I learned that basketball was actually invented by this guy, who later brought the game to the University of Kansas.

Second, Manning, who was drafted by the LA Clippers and played 15 seasons in the NBA, seems like a great guy. Gueldner, Normore and Newton all talked about him — it's hard to tell the story of that championship game without invoking his name. For all the attention Manning got and the career he went on to have, you wouldn't be surprised if the guy had the kind of ego that put distance between himself and the rest of the guys on that team. But that didn't seem to be the case. In fact, Normore told us that a few years ago when some of the team got together for a reunion, Manning gave them each a replica of their KU jersey in a frame. Normore still has that hanging in his house.

Third, college basketball seems to move people at a different level than other sports. Gueldner told us about getting cancer and feeling really alone — his wife had recently left him. As soon as the folks at KU found out, he was overwhelmed with notes and care packages from people he'd never met before. But it didn't matter. Gueldner was part of that storied '88 Jayhawks team. They rooted for him then and they were doing so again when he needed it most.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record. Every March, the madness takes hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: At mid-court, launches the shot - oh, it almost went in.

MARTIN: The NCAA college basketball tournament might be the most emotional event in college sports - 64 teams in a single elimination tournament where the regular season can be blown away in a single game. And after that one tournament, it's all gone. But we do always remember those ultimate underdogs. This year it was Georgia State, until last night.

In 1988, the team that came from behind and shocked the country was the Kansas Jayhawks led by the inimitable Danny Manning. The team became known as Danny and the Miracles. For The Record today - the game, the victory and the life that follows.

We're going to hear from three men who were on that championship team - Clint Normore, Milt Newton and Jeff Gueldner. Each of them remembers that season clearly because, as Gueldner puts it...

JEFF GUELDNER: It was not all rainbows and buttercups. We had people kicked off the team. We had people arrested. We had people that were supposed to play that, you know, wound up not playing a role on the team.

MARTIN: They needed more players. So Milt Newton says they had to look elsewhere in the school's athletic department.

MILT NEWTON: We picked up two football players - Clint Normore and Marvin Mattox, and they really added some toughness that we needed on our team.

CLINT NORMORE: Basketball is my first love.

MARTIN: That's Clint Normore. He remembers the conversation he had with KU coach Larry Brown.

NORMORE: He brought me to his office and asked me why did I want to play basketball? And having played football for The University of Kansas - it wasn't a winning season - my response to him was coach, I just want to win.

MARTIN: But even with a full roster, it took a long time for the Jayhawks to hit their stride. At the end of the regular season they had 11 losses. So when they were invited to the NCAA tournament they were shocked.

NEWTON: You know, we're not even supposed to be here.

GUELDNER: We're not supposed to be here.

NORMORE: The only people that believed in us that, from our perspective, was our team.

MARTIN: That sentiment became a rallying cry of sorts. Since getting to the tournament was already a win, they had nothing to lose. And that's how they played. Early tournament wins gave them momentum, and then they beat Kansas State and Duke - teams they had lost to in the regular season. The Jayhawks were on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Jayhawks have done it.

MARTIN: They had made it to the championship game, but they had their work cut out for them. Here's Milt Newton.

NEWTON: Oklahoma was the best team in the country that year, hands down. They were beating teams by 30 points on a consistent basis. But we were very familiar with their style, and that year they had beaten us three times.

MARTIN: So the night before the final game, these guys were pretty Zen about the whole thing.

NEWTON: There was no fear there. So we just said that we were going to go out. We're not supposed to win because they are better than we are. So let's just go out, play free, have some fun and whatever happens, happens.

MARTIN: Clint Normore remembers it the same way.

NORMORE: What we focused on was really just playing as hard as we possibly could. And that's one thing that coach emphasized over and over again - play in the moment.

MARTIN: And of course they were playing on what felt like familiar ground - Kemper Arena, just a stone's throw from the KU campus. Here's Jeff Gueldner.

GUELDNER: We had all of our, you know, so many home fans there. Even if they weren't going to the game, they were in the neighborhood and around. And then the last thing was we were playing somebody that was familiar to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Right off the bat, the Sooners get it. They burn the pressure.

GUELDNER: Now once the game gets going and you see the media and all the special stuff, obviously you know that it's different. But as a player, you have your job to do. And you can't make it any bigger than what it really is.

MARTIN: But no doubt this was big, and both teams were playing hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Brent, this pace is Oklahoma's pace. And I would expect to see Kansas get a little tired here shortly.

GUELDNER: The biggest memories for me was how unbelievably tired I was in the first three, four minutes of that game. The pace was nuts. There were no timeouts. Everybody was just so exhausted on both teams. And you don't see games played to a 50-50 halftime score anymore. It was an unbelievable pace.

MARTIN: When I asked Milt Newton what he remembers most clearly about that game, he recounted one specific play.

NEWTON: I was on a fast break, went up for a shot. And I brought the ball back down and went underneath the basket and shot a reverse layup on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

NEWTON: And I just remember our fans going crazy, and then when I watched a replay of the game - I didn't notice at the time - Brent Musburger was yelling, wow, what a move, a wraparound move.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

BRENT MUSBURGER: A wraparound - beautiful shot by Newton.

MARTIN: Clint Normore was deep in the mental game.

NORMORE: I do remember playing in the game and not really hearing the fans. But I remember hearing the ball bounce often. I remember hearing my teammates voices. I remember hearing my coach's voices. I don't really remember hearing how loud the crowd was. And that was really profound for me because that is the point at which you are really playing beyond and within the game. You're in that moment.

MARTIN: And in that moment the Jayhawks started to see how they could come out on top.

GUELDNER: The way that we played, the whole idea was to - if you could keep the game close and get it to the last few minutes, you knew you had Danny, and you knew you had Coach Brown. And you could win it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: The Kansas Jayhawks have beaten all odds. They have lost more games than any champion in the history of the NCAA. And the Jayhawks beat the Sooners 83 to 79.

MARTIN: The game was over. They were heroes for a while, later they were college graduates and then husbands and fathers. But they were not professional basketball players.

GUELDNER: I don't want to say it was really ever a dream. It was more of, like, a fantasy that just I didn't really think would happen. So I just kind of planned the opposite.

MARTIN: Which for Jeff Gueldner meant trying on a lot of different careers.

GUELDNER: Did some minor things with rehabbing and, you know, buying and selling homes. And then got the - what turned out to be a horrible idea of getting into the car business.

MARTIN: When his business started to unravel, life got harder.

GUELDNER: Right in the middle of it, I was diagnosed with cancer and came out of that. And then my wife informed me she wanted to get a divorce.

MARTIN: But just when Gueldner felt most alone, his legacy as a member of that '88 KU championship team, a team that won the hearts of people across the state, that legacy became his lifeline.

GUELDNER: I was getting postcards and letters from church congregations in central Kansas that I had never even heard of the town, let alone the church. You know, you don't realize when you're playing how important you are to the Jayhawk fan base.

MARTIN: Clint Normore went on to work in higher education. He's now the diversity director at A.T. Still University.

NORMORE: I get to create opportunity and access. I get to be a catalyst for young people to realize and achieve their dreams. So I get to be, in many ways, a part of their story.

MARTIN: And while he loves his work, he admits it was hard to let basketball go.

NORMORE: It's very hard to come to grips with the fact that you can no longer go after a dream. But I think I reconciled that grief with the fact that I've accomplished as much as I had throughout my amateur experience.

MARTIN: After college, Milt Newton was determined to find a way to say in basketball.

NEWTON: My dad always told me that if you can't have a career on the court, at least have a career in the field.

MARTIN: And he does - a very successful one. He's the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. And he gives most of the credit for his career to his KU coach, Larry Brown.

NEWTON: He taught me about how to evaluate players. He taught me about how to put pieces together. The one thing that he always says is playing the game the right way - being able to sacrifice for the good of the team, being a we player instead of a me player, seeing the vision and willing to give up your individual agenda to win as a team.

MARTIN: Which the Kansas Jayhawks did on that day back in 1988. And what a sweet victory it was. Here's Clint Normore.

NORMORE: To this day I can't explain, articulate fully, the feeling, the emotions I had personally in winning. I felt gratitude for the opportunity. I felt as if this moment was unreal.

MARTIN: Jeff Gueldner has some advice for the players in this year's tournament.

GUELDNER: Enjoy the ride because it's over quickly. And you really don't realize the impact and how much people care. And you don't really recognize that until you get out of it, and you become a fan. And you're sitting with other fans, and you listen to them, how important I was to them, you know, 25 years ago. God, it's 25 years.

MARTIN: Twenty seven, actually, but who's counting? And who cares really because all that matters, says Milt Newton, is that one day, that one game that stays with you for a lifetime.

NEWTON: When you win the championship game, that means for that day and for that season, you were essentially the best team in college basketball. And that's what it meant to us as a team. We were the best. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.