Michelle Kaufman: Miami Hurricanes a long way from basketball rebirth in ‘85

03/14/2013 12:01 AM

03/14/2013 12:15 AM

I leave for Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday morning to cover the (can’t believe I’m about to type these words) No. 1-seeded University of Miami basketball team in the ACC tournament. My flight itinerary says the trip is 710 miles, but anybody who has followed Hurricane basketball since its resurrection in 1985 knows the journey has been far longer.

I was there at the very beginning. I was a UM sophomore and staff writer for The Hurricane school paper on Oct. 15, 1984, when then-coach Bill Foster held his first practice outside, on the student union patio, a three-point shot from the swimming pool, where co-eds and frat boys sunbathed.

As I stood amid the bedlam on the BankUnited Center court Saturday afternoon, a sellout crowd of 7,972 cheering as the Hurricanes climbed a ladder to cut down the net following their ACC title-clinching victory, my mind wandered to that day on the patio 27 years ago.

Not a single current UM player was born yet. Coach Jim Larranaga was a 36-year-old assistant at Virginia at the time.

My, oh my, how times have changed.

They used portable basketball goals that day. A couple hundred students showed up to watch, and the team held an open tryout, from which a few walk-on players emerged. Suffice it to say, none of the students who tried out that day would have a chance of making this Hurricane squad.

Foster had pizza delivered for the students. The football team, under coach Jimmy Johnson, was the undisputed king on campus. The baseball team, under The Wizard Ron Fraser, was a big draw. I vividly remember the excitement on campus that day, the feeling that the Hurricanes athletic department was truly big-time with a basketball program after a 14-year hiatus.

Of course, there were no big-time facilities.

The games would be played at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami, adjacent to the Hyatt hotel. It was not a basketball arena. It was a 5,129-seat theater/concert hall, and games were on a giant stage with bleachers on only one side and behind the baskets. Among the shows there during the Canes’ first season: Patti LaBelle, the O’Jays, Barry Manilow and the Miss Universe pageant.

Foster, with his big smile and syrupy Southern drawl, was a great salesman. From the time he was hired, he canvassed area Rotary Clubs, church and synagogue groups, schools, anywhere he could go to pitch the rebirth of UM basketball.

Exactly one year after that open tryout, on Oct. 15, 1985, the Hurricanes held their first official practice at 3:30 p.m. at the Knight Sports Complex, an all-purpose gym built adjacent to the athletic department. There was a cake, balloons and streamers. I covered the event.

In fact, I recently ran across an old spiral notebook overflowing with my yellowed and tattered newspaper clippings from my years as a college journalist. Here are some of the headlines I found:

“Hurricanes Welcome Basketball Back to Campus.’’ This was the story of the first practice, and the on-campus celebrations that went on that day. There was a poolside shooting and dunking contest, “Miami Basketball’’ T-shirt and Frisbee giveaways, a 3-on-3 tournament and media game on the intramural courts. Outside the student union, Laura Foster, the coach’s daughter, sold UM basketball shirts for her business fraternity. “All my dad has talked about for the past year was Miami basketball, so the least I could do was help promote his cause,” she said.

“Young Canes Anxiously Awaiting Opportunity to Take Wraps Off Season.” This was the preview story for the first exhibition game, against the Australian national team. The Canes’ roster had nine freshmen. Foster joked: “I think we’ll use diapers instead of jockstraps.” UM won, by the way, 72-70.

“Miami Returns to Court in Style — 85-77.’’ UM won its season-opening game over The Citadel. Freshmen Dennis Burns, Eric Brown and Kevin Presto combined for 66 points. Burns, a fancy dunker, led with 24. Brown and three-point specialist Presto added 21 apiece. The game was a sellout, and Rick Barry, the former UM and NBA star, was on hand for the festivities.

Later that season, the Canes played their first nationally televised game. The pep band wore tuxedos. Tito Horford, a 7-foot-1 prospect from the Dominican Republic, was in the stands. I interviewed him in Spanish. The Canes lost 81-74 in overtime, but Horford was so impressed he signed with the Hurricanes for the next season.

That was more than a quarter century ago. I’m a 48-year-old mom now. The UM program is all grown up, and the Hurricanes are impressing an entire nation.

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