Feb. 16, 2002
LARAMIE, Wyo. -
Many say the great Wyoming NCAA men's basketball teams of the 1980's paved the way for the current success of the Cowboy basketball program.
University of Wyoming Hall of Famer Charles Bradley takes it step further.
"You take a look at Coach (Everett) Shelton's days (1940-59), all of the guys from Tony Windis and John Bertolero (both 1957-59). You take a look, there's a group of guys who really initiated the Wyoming basketball program," Bradley said Saturday at the Cowboy Basketball Lettermen Luncheon at the Rochelle Athletic Center.
Bradley should know. He was a key ingredient of the late 1981 Wyoming team that went to the NCAA Tournament, a predecessor of the 1982 team that returned to the "Big Dance" and the 1987 team that reached the "Sweet 16."
"When I was here we hadn't been to the NCAA's for about 12 years," Bradley continued. "We had the opportunity to go, which was great. It is just a snowball effect. We just have to keep it going again. I think Steve (current Wyoming head coach Steve McClain) will do a great job of keeping it going. We can't have any more lapses."
It was that kind of pride and reminiscence this weekend with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Arena-Auditorium, culminating with Wyoming defeating UNLV Saturday afternoon, 82-78. Nearly 40 lettermen ranging from Justin French (1997-2000) to Ted "Gunner" Neuman (1937-39) attended various activities and many were honored at halftime of the UW-UNLV game.
Also celebrated in an emotional halftime ceremony were members of the 1981-82 and 1986-87 Wyoming teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament, led Hall of Fame head coach Jim Brandenburg.
"Probably the greatest thing is getting back with my old teammates," said Eric Leckner, UW Hall of Fame center (1985-88). "It's kind of disappointing without Fennis (Dembo), being the cornerstone of our basketball team. He's probably the most recognized guy in a long time with this university."
Looking back, Leckner remembers the wins, the camaraderie and the opportunity to come to the University of Wyoming.
"It's such a big concept to look at one small thing," Leckner added. "Actually, being a part of the University as an adult and being out of school is the best part of it. Having the opportunity to come to these events and be recognized, be part of the University. I'll be part of this University forever. That's probably the best thing."
The opportunity to come back to the University of Wyoming weighed plesantly on several of the former Cowboys' minds.
"It's always great to come back to the University," Hall of Famer forward Bill Garnett (1979-82) said. "People here always make you feel special. I can't say enough, I love coming up here (from Denver)."
Reunions and banquets such as this give the former student-athlete a chance to reflect, an opportunity they don't normally get while students.
"(Then) you think about this four-hour practice you have to go to," Leckner said with a laugh. "Then you go to the Bunkhouse to eat, then to study hall. You have to keep your school together and you have to be ready to play. So much is going on when it happens you don't really have time to enjoy it.
"Then you look back. Every second in college was better than every second I had in the NBA. The college atmosphere is so much better and so much fun. You just wish you can get back to it. I'm 35 now ... what I'd do to be 20 again."
For the most part, many of the players from the 1982 and 1987 NCAA teams didn't spend much time thinking about what they were part of - until years later.
"When we went through it back in the mid-80's, I don't think we really realized how special the relationships were on the team, the relationships with the University and with the people of Wyoming," said former Cowboy forward Jon Sommers (1986-88). "I think it is great to come back and get re-acquainted with that."
Said former guard Mike Jackson (1980-83): "We were all just competitors, we just wanted to go out and compete. I don't think you really fathom what you're starting or anything like that. You just want to compete and win and do it with as much effort as you possibly could within Brandenburg's philosophy. That's what we started ... being a program within the University that likes to compete."
McClain spoke to the UW lettermen and other Wyoming fans at the luncheon, and said he can only hope his Cowboys can live up to what their predecessors started and maybe 20 years from now this team can come back and enjoy the good times as well.
"Some national media guy asked me the other day why did I take this job?" McClain said after the UNLV game. "I said because I looked at the tradition and I knew you could win here. Those guys are proof that you can win here and you can win big here.
"More than anything I'm watching the video and the song was, 'Our heroes have always been Cowboys.' I'm watching and I turn around and I see guys with tears in their eyes.
"I told my team this. If you could stop the game and asked any of them, 'Would you come down there and for one second you could put that uniform back on?' They would have sprinted out of the stands. That's what this program is about."
And it's about friendship. Many of the former teammates moved on to jobs or careers in the NBA, often in different parts of the country.
There's no place like home.
"You really don't know how special these guys are to you until you see them again," Jackson said. "These guys are like brothers to me. It's been a long time since I've seen some of them, but when you do see them it really touches your heart."
The center of the reunion and of the 1980's teams was Brandenburg. Although Brandenburg left Wyoming for San Diego State after the 1987 season, he said Laramie and the University of Wyoming have a special place in his heart.
"We have a lot of diversity here," Brandenburg said Saturday at the luncheon. "We're here to support a great university and athletic program. So here we are, we're going to celebrate the anniversary of the Arena-Auditorium. I see an awful lot of friends here besides the '82 and '97 teams."
Brandenburg is also special to his players.
"He's a tremendous part of this University, he's a tremendous part of my past," Leckner said of his former coach. "He brought me to this state and made me a part of it. Really, he turned this city, this state, this University around. The things we did for those years and the things that he accomplished in his tenure really put us on the map. It's great to be part of it. He's a great guy and I'm glad he's doing well."
Many of the former Cowboys have stayed in touch with their coach, but seeing him in this atmosphere again brought a glint to their eyes.
"You see the look on his face when he sees everybody and how special you were to him," Jackson said. "I hope he realizes now when he sees the look on the faces of the players how special he was to us."
Bradley said Brandenburg was the architect of the great Wyoming teams and one of the deans of college coaching nationally.
"He had nine great years here," Bradley said. "In my estimation, he's one of the premier coaches, not only at the University, but also in the coaching fraternity. If you look at the history of the WAC, I think Coach Brandenburg had more NBA players than most of the schools in our conference. That speaks for itself."
Said Garnett: "Something I will always be proud of is our two WAC championships, the teammates that I had and Coach Brandenburg got it all started."
As is the case with most reunions, memories are past back and forth, many comparable to fish stories. They get better throughout the years.
"I heard there were a few flying out about me, so I'm in the process of finding those out," said Jackson, who missed Friday night's get-together at the Vee Bar Ranch because as coach of the Sheridan High School boys' basketball team, he was working.
"It's fun because you personally forget a lot of things, then someone will bring something up and it will just take a path of its own," Sommers said. "It all comes back to you. It was a real joy to sit down with these guys and relive a fun time in our lives."
The Cowboy lettermen will now return to their busy lives and remember their return to glory in Laramie - present and past.
And as true Wyoming alumni, they're always rooting for the Cowboys.
"It's fun to talk about Wyoming at work, I try to brag as much as I can," said Sommers, who is a CPA in Denver.
Especially when the Cowboys beat Colorado State.
"Anytime we get the chance to smack CSU upside the head, or get a chance to beat up on CU, we brag a lot," said Bradley, who also works in Denver.
Until next time.