Chemistry: (kem/is tre) noun. a: a strong mutual attraction, attachment, or sympathy . b: interaction between people working together; specifically: such interaction when harmonious or effective.
The 1988-89 men’s basketball team at Northeastern A&M definitely had a special chemistry — a chemistry that helped drive the Golden Norsemen to the school’s only NJCAA national championship.
Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the event.
“We had a really good chemistry — it was really remarkable,” said Larry Gipson, who just completed his 12th season as men’s coach at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
“That group of guys played so well together,” said center Marty Dow, now living in Bakersfield, Calif. “We had some great individual players but we just melded so well together. Everything just clicked.”
The Norsemen (36-4) broke the school record for victories, eclipsing the old mark of 31-4 established during the 1973-74 season, when NEO finished fifth in the national tournament.
NEO finished the season with 14 straight wins, including four in the national tournament at Hutchinson, Kan., when it became the first team from Oklahoma to ever win a junior college basketball title.
“It was just an incredibly enjoyable year,” said Lonnie Spencer, who assisted Gipson then served a stint as head coach of the Norse.
“We could have lived with whatever happened, but the kids bought in. They were fun to coach. Every day was fun. Their work ethic was incredible. I had some good teams with great work ethic but that team was special. We knew if could get all parts to come together … they eventually did.”
Just when did the players realize NEO had a chance to run the table?
“I think we thought we could play with anybody night in and night out,” Dow said. “I am not sure it was really until the semifinal game that we thought ‘you know, we’ve got a good shot at winning this.’ We clicked at the right time.”
Ed Affolter, now a supervisor with the Chicago Parks District, was confident the Norse could do it as early as two games into the season.
“I said it after the second game, ‘we’ll win the national championship,’” he said. “It was a deep team. It was a great group of guys. There was a lot of talent there.”
“I really didn’t think about winning it all until we got there and won the first game,” Darin Plautz said. “It was in sight. We saw some of the other teams played who are called the top junior college teams in the country and they was not much different from us. Then we thought we had a shot at it.”
Seven of the players went on to play with NCAA Division I schools: Plautz at Creighton, Dow at San Diego State, Affolter at Illinois-Chicago, Terry Brown at Kansas, Kenny Banks at Eastern New Mexico, Bobby Reddish at Virginia Commonwealth and Larry Heath at Western Illinois.
And two of them — manager Rusty Mercer and reserve guard Tony Roach, who were roommates here — would eventually wind up coaching against each other this past season, Mercer at Miami and Roach at Verdigris Valley Conference rival Vinita.
“We were a close knit group,” Roach said. “In my coaching career, that is what I have tried to emulate as much as anything: getting a team to be as close and together as that team was. I think this year at Vinita was as close of a team getting to its full potential as I have been a part of since that championship team. We played better towards the end of the year.”
NEO’s starting five was Plautz, Affolter and Reddish at forward and Heath and Forcine at guard.
However, Gipson usually wasted little time in going to the bench. He would usually bring on Brown and Terry Jackson after the first four or five minutes to replace Heath and Forcine. Dow also was usually in the game after a matter of minutes.
“I had no problem with coming off the bench,” Dow said. “Neither Terry or I were on the bench for very long, anyway.”
“I’m getting as much playing time as if I were starting,” Brown said in a News-Record story after the championship victory. “Coach and I talked about it before the season and decided this would be better. This way I can get the feeling of things.
“Really, I prefer it this way.”
“The real ace the hole for us was when we subbed, especially with those three guys, we just got better and better,” Gipson said. “We kept coming at you in waves.”
Plautz was NEO’s second-leading scorer at 13.4 ppg while the 7-1 Dow and 6-8 Banks averaged 8.2 each.
“Everybody could score,” said Plautz, living in Omaha, Neb., where he works for Waitt Outdoor Advertising. “That’s what helped. Terry Brown was always there, then everybody else sprinkled some in here and there. That’s why we were so difficult to guard, we had so many options on who could score.”
Brown led the Norse in scoring at 22.1 points per game. He went on to play in the 1991 NCAA Final Four with the Jayhawks and is in the KU record books for nailing 11 treys in one game.
“We had an unknown in Terry,” said Mercer, who became a footnote in the championship drive when he won a new truck in a halftime shootout at the Muskogee Civic Center during a game against Bacone. “He was a playground legend and had been there a year and a half or so trying to get eligible. He was in and out of the doghouse and Coach Gipson finally kicked him off.”
Mercer befriended the introverted Brown, who had a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings documenting his performances at Clyde (N.Y.) Savannah High School.
Brown was the second leading scorer in New York prep history behind Lew Alcindor.
“I was in awe and showed it to Coach Gipson,” Mercer said. “I told him I would leave it on his desk. A little later, I was getting equipment ready for practice and he sticks his head into the locker room and says ‘I am leaving on a recruiting trip and if Terry wants to come see me, he will to come before then.’”
Brown and Gipson met that next morning and Brown was reinstated.
Brown scored 20 points in the second half of a early-season victory over Seminole at home.
“From that point forward, he was just unbelievable,” Mercer said. “He had 47 against Westark (setting the school record) and 40 against Eastern.”
“You see a lot of chance or luck involved,” Gipson said. “The very best player I coached here (at Northeastern State) was a walk-on. Terry Brown we got because of a guy back east who was coaching at George Mason was coming through and was impressed with our campus. His best friend in coaching was Terry Brown’s high school coach (Tony Patanzo).
“They called me at the semester (break) and wondered if I wanted to a kid that had been one of the leading scorers in New York,” Gipson said. “He had to sit for a year before he could play. He didn’t handle the year very well.”
The emergence of Heath at point guard may have been the key for the Norsemen.
“The strength of the team obviously was on the perimeter,” Spencer said. “We needed our post play to get better, and it did. The final step was our point guard play.
“Larry kept getting better and better and better. He was such a surprise in the national tournament. He kept going up against these guys who were supposed to be better than him but he outplayed them all four games.”
Heath’s play earned him the Bud Obee Outstanding Small Player award, an annual award named for the national tournament’s first director that goes to a player no taller than 6-1.
The Norsemen entered the Git-N-Go Juco State Tournament in Tulsa as the No. 1 seed, then beat Western (96-62), Seminole (66-57) and Northern (83-54) to advance to the Region II championship.
The Golden Norse eked out a 68-57 victory over Mississippi County, Ark., at the NEO Fieldhouse in the first game of the best-of-three series.
NEO used a second-half burst to earn a 73-64 verdict in Blytheville, Ark., to punch its ticket to Hutch.
NEO entered the tournament at 32-4, sixth best among the teams entered.
The Norse pounded Moberly, Mo., 97-72 in the first round, then shelled Emmanuel College of Franklin Springs, Ga., 97-79. Brown had 35 points against Moberly then “only” scored 25 against Emmanuel.
In an 81-69 victory over Pratt (Kan.) Community College in the semifinals, the lead changed hands 13 times before the Golden Norse took charge.
A conventional 3-point play by Banks gave the Norsemen a 56-52 lead with 10:42 remaining.
They beat Northeast Mississippi 83-76 in the championship game.
NEO led 48-36 at the half and eventually were up by as many as 19 (60-41) with 14:30 remaining.
Northeast Mississippi bounced back and shaved the deficit down to six, 80-74, with 2:04 left.
Free throws by Brown, Plautz and Heath in the final 55 seconds held the Tigers at bay.
Five players scored in double figures. Brown had 26 points, Plautz netted 14, Heath added 11 and Banks and Brian Beauford chipped in with 10 each.
Brown was named the tournament MVP after scoring 118 points in four games. He was the second leading scorer behind Anthony Gamble of Northeast Mississippi.
Roach and Troy Johnson, both freshmen who didn’t play a minute in the tournament because rosters were limited to 12 players, received the championship trophy for the Norsemen.
“We were both freshmen and we played different positions,” Roach said. “I fully understand why Coach Gipson had to make the decision he made. It really made Troy and me feel a big part when the team voted to have us go up and get the trophy.”