Growing up in Iowa during the late nineties, and more specifically, when you grow up in Iowa and are raised as an Iowa State fan, there are three major pillars you learn from a young age:
- Pete Taylor was the Vin Scully of the state of Iowa.
- Troy Davis should have absolutely won the Heisman in ‘96.
- Johnny Orr IS Hilton Magic.
Nostalgia can always be a funny thing when remembering things from childhood or even from the perspective of an adult in their early twenties. People tend to idolize events or snapshots from certain moments in history that when looked at over time may not be as impactful as they should have been. There are movies and music when thinking back on them a person may realize they weren’t as monumental or historic as maybe the public thought they would end up becoming.
For anyone who calls Cyclone Nation home, those three tenants aren’t examples of that. (My take that one of the best albums of my life will be “All Killer No Filler” by Sum 41, however, is an example.) See, for years while I played basketball in the driveway with my dad, he would always talk at length about what Johnny represented to the school and to the basketball program as a whole.
With the 1984-1985 team being honored this summer, I thought it would be good to think back on what that means to me, not only from a fans perspective, but also as a little kid that was raised on the history of Orr’s greatness and his impact on those that came before us in the Cyclone Lineage.
Most people know the story of how Johnny got to Ames via Michigan. The story of how initially the school wanted his assistant, but Orr seeing the opportunity that lay before him, negotiated a pay raise to take the job at Iowa State. Within the next decade, Johnny would take the program to its highest profile it had ever seen.
With the ‘84 NIT appearance under his belt, Johnny came back for his fifth season that following fall being lead by three future NBA draft picks in Jeff Grayer, Barry Stevens, and Jeff Hornacek. The team would end up posting an overall record of 21-13 with a conference record of 6-8. The hype and the build-up were there for a program that had only landed one appearance in the NCAA tournament up until now.
Anyone on campus at this time, (including a mop-topped future dad of mine) could feel something brewing, this was the highest point the team had seen since Lynn Nance in ‘78. But it wasn’t just the wins or even the postseason excitement that students, fans, players or casual observers were suddenly fascinated by with this team. No, there was all of a sudden something more to the crowd, something behind Johnny’s fist pump and behind the swagger with which the team fought. There was a tenaciousness with every or big time dunk by Grayer. Something was rising.
And maybe that’s why after all this time this team still stands as tall as it does. Maybe the reason dads everywhere reminisce about this team while posting up on their kids in the driveway isn’t to try and romanticize a youth long gone, but to make sure that Cyclone team never ends up as lost as that youth. To those who saw this team live and in color, this wasn’t a flash in the pan or some sort of asteroid passing us by. It was the foundation upon the house Johnny built. Something magical, if you will.
There’s a quote by David Eagleman, (someone much smarter than the nerd writing this blog) that goes: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” There’s probably an immense amount of truth to that for a lot of different fads in this life time, so maybe that’s what dads in YMCA gyms and driveways everywhere want to keep alive.
Remembering this team is important because it’s a focal point in not just the program, but the school as a whole. This season and those who witnessed it didn’t just sit and watch another year of basketball come and go. They got to see what Iowa State basketball could come to be under the leadership of a generational coach and transformative talent. This team was a symbol of what was to come in a program that knew it should and could become in the years ahead. A man like Orr, some players like Barry and either Jeff, coming together as part of a recipe to cook up the perfect mix of faith in a basketball program destined for bigger things.
Jeff, Barry and Co. deserve respect because, simply put, without them, Hilton Magic wouldn’t exist. Without them the team never would have had the bedrock to stand up and become a force that we all know and love now. This team deserves to be revered because they started something bigger than what was just at their footsteps. This team is the reason your dad always talks about Johnny Orr or Jeff Hornacek.
That or maybe his 20s were just that much better than yours were or ever will be.