“We started from the bottom now we’re here.’’
Those lyrics by rap artist Drake have been the rallying cry of the University of Miami basketball team this season as the Canes went from afterthought to national power. The once-unranked team finds itself two wins from the Final Four heading into Thursday night’s Sweet 16 game against Marquette.
What these Hurricanes don’t realize, as they sing and dance to the thumping beat of those lyrics, is that they don’t really know from bottom.
Although they started the season as underdogs before the nation took notice, and Marquette player Junior Cadougan called the Canes “the Cinderella story of the season,’’ the UM team plays its home games in a $48 million campus arena, competes in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference and is featured on national television on a regular basis. The Hurricanes have been flying in style on charter planes in the postseason.
The true bottom of this program was April 22, 1971, when the UM Board of Trustees sat around a conference table and decided to do away with basketball because of sagging attendance and financial losses. The nomadic Hurricanes had traipsed from the Coral Gables High gym to the Miami Beach Convention Hall to Miami-Dade Junior College to Dinner Key Auditorium.
When the Board of Trustees folded the program that spring day, the press release read: “The basketball team will cease operation temporarily until such time as a permanent field house can be constructed on the main campus.’’
Rick Barry, the former UM and NBA legend, remembers the day well. His heart sank quicker than one of his trademark underhanded free throws. Despite their lack of a home court, the Hurricanes had built up quite a resume,and Barry hated to see it all flushed away.
Before Barry got there, a kid named Dick Hickox led the 1959-60 Hurricanes to a 23-3 record, top-10 ranking and their first NCAA Tournament.
Forced to get by on a shoestring budget, that team, known as “The Cinderella Five,’’ drove themselves to road games, shared banana splits at Breeding’s Drug Store, and their coach, Bruce Hale, laundered their uniforms and shared an office with coaches from three other sports.
When Hale went on the recruiting trail, he pulled out a photo of the palm tree-lined Miami Beach Convention Hall and told teenagers that is where the Hurricanes played most of their games — never bothering to mention the campus was a half hour drive from Miami Beach.
From 1962 to 1965, UM boasted a 65-16 record, and Barry was the undisputed star of that era. The 6-7 New Jersey native became the school’s first consensus All American in 1964-65 and led the nation in scoring with 37.4 points per game. He was the only player in history to win the season scoring title in the NCAA, ABA and NBA and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
“I was very disappointed and upset that they did away with basketball,’’ Barry said by phone Wednesday. “It was a ludicrous decision. If it was money they were worried about, they should have dropped football. I went on talk shows and TV shows to lobby against the decision. It was ridiculous that a team from that school was practicing at the armory and playing games at a junior college gym.’’
For the next 14 years, while UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Georgetown built up tradition, UM basketball lay dormant.
Then, in 1985, the program was reborn under coach Bill Foster. Open tryouts were held on the student union patio. Bob Schneckenberg, a 6-6 architecture student from Orlando, was one of the lucky few who made the cut. Games were played at the James L. Knight Center, a downtown theater with velvet seats. The court was literally on the stage.
“This program has come a long way and there’s no way I’d make the team now,’’ Schneckenberg said on Wednesday. “We were a rag-tag team of whoever Coach Foster could get, and I will always be grateful that I got a chance to play. The highlight for me was scoring on a finger roll over J.R. Reid at the Dean Dome. The fact that we won half our games the first year was truly amazing. Playing games at the Knight Center was surreal. Even the lighting was weird because it was stage lighting.’’
The UM program grew in tiny increments, and then coach Leonard Hamilton got the team back to national prominence with a Sweet 16 berth in 2000 — the only other time the Canes got this far in the NCAA Tournament. It was considered a minor miracle considering UM went 0-18 in the Big East in 1993-94.
Heat forward James Jones was on Hamilton’s Sweet 16 team, along with Johnny Hemsley, Mario Bland, Vernon Jennings, Elton Tyler and John Salmons, who plays for the Sacramento Kings. He said this UM team reminds him of that one. He sees Kenny Kadji as Tyler, Durand Scott as Hemsley, Julian Gamble as Bland, Rion Brown as Salmons and Shane Larkin as Jennings, whom he said was the team’s quarterback and “go-to’’ guy.
“Coach Ham fostered an unselfish mentality on the court, focused on fundamentals and truly cared for the well being of his players, which is what I see in Coach Larrañaga,’’ Jones said Wednesday. “Our team bonded on those half hour bus rides to Miami Arena. We would have loved an on-campus arena, but what really mattered was winning together. We felt a sense of responsibility to push the program forward for Coach Ham.’’
The former players all say they’re watching UM’s success this season with pride.
“They’ve had brushes with success over the years, but now I think with Coach Larrañaga, they’ll be able to build something long-lasting,’’ Barry said. “I hope this is the start of something big for years to come.’’ He appreciated that Larrañaga took the time to look into Barry’s youngest son, Canyon, who will be a college freshman next fall. UM didn’t have an athletic scholarship to offer, so the youngest Barry will play at College of Charleston.
Schneckenberg said he never really thought of his team’s historical significance at the time.
“I’m an architect now, and it’s kind of like when I lay a foundation for a building, I can’t really picture the penthouse party that will be thrown there years later. I never dreamed the program would get to this point, and it’s really fun to watch and realize I played a small part in it.’’