TERRE HAUTE —
Mike Joyner has been gone almost 33 years, but he is not forgotten.
Killed with his 13 teammates, his coaching staff and others affiliated with the University of Evansville men’s basketball team in a plane crash Dec. 13, 1977, Joyner was Terre Haute South High School’s all-time leading scorer at the time of his death.
Now he’s No. 3 behind Maynard Lewis (1994-98) and Will Uzzell (1975-78).
Keep in mind that Joyner played in an era when South had only three grades — no freshmen. So he couldn’t play four years on varsity like today’s athletes can if they’re good enough. Also, there was no 3-point arc in high school basketball then, making his 1,356 points even more impressive.
Yet Joyner’s No. 42 jersey was never retired by South — until tonight.
During halftime of the Braves’ season-opening home game against Lawrence North, a ceremony will take place with several members of Joyner’s family to officially make sure no South player ever wears 42 again.
If you ask me, it’s long overdue.
The 6-foot-3 Joyner — left-handed as Andy Amey might remind us — used a sweeeeet long-range jumper to propel South into the 1977 IHSAA Final Four his senior year and help himself earn an athletic scholarship at Evansville.
Joyner’s final game — as a freshman for the Purple Aces, enjoying their first season as an NCAA Division I program — was against a Larry Bird-led Indiana State squad Dec. 10, 1977, in Hulman Center.
Three nights later, Joyner was one of 29 passengers who did not survive the crash of a twin-engine DC-3 that had just taken off from Dress Regional Airport in Evansville.
Oh, how the tears flowed in Terre Haute that week. Nobody could believe it really happened. It’s still hard to believe.
South’s current head coach, Mike Saylor, grew up one street from the Joyner household, so it’s no surprise that he supports the jersey retirement for his fallen friend.
“I’m thrilled that our administration agreed to honor Mike,” noted Saylor, a 1978 South graduate. “I think it’s important that kids on our end of town and in our city know what kind of young student-athletes went before them. Unfortunately, Mike isn’t around to speak with them and be a role model for them.”
Saylor said Joyner might have been the most confident person he’s ever met.
“He always believed he was going to get hot even if he wasn’t hot,” Saylor recalled. “He was confident as a person off the court too. He was a natural leader because of that confidence.”
Saylor fondly remembers Joyner’s “strong laugh and big smile.”
“But he was an intense competitor,” the Braves’ coach quickly added. “He wanted to win.”
As I wrote in a column about Joyner several years ago, we’ll never know how far he could have taken his talents. I believe he could have been a solid starting guard for Evansville by his sophomore or junior year. He could have been a force in Division I basketball, at least around the Midwest.
Saylor thought the sky was the limit for Joyner.
“He was a big shooting guard who had the stroke,” Saylor said. “You never know how high his upside could have been. I know his ambition was to be a pro player. He wanted to be an NBA player.”
Robert Joyner, who still lives in Terre Haute, agrees with Saylor that his younger brother possessed NBA potential. He’s looking forward to tonight’s ceremony as well.
“I was very happy to hear about it,” he said of South’s decision to honor Mike Joyner. “Some people have said it’s long overdue, but I believe things happen for a reason and that’s why it’s happening now.”
Robert Joyner — a 1975 graduate of State High, where he played basketball for the Young Sycamores — found ways to see his younger brother in action.
“I would leave my games sometimes, when they were done, to try to get to South to see the end of his games,” Robert reflected. “A lot of memories go through my mind about that era and time.”
Same here, Robert. Same here.
I once played a game of h-o-r-s-e in phys-ed class with Mike and his younger brother Fred Joyner — just the three of us — during my senior year at South. Fred eliminated Mike first, leaving me against Fred. I couldn’t hang with Fred’s shooting touch, so he won. But I remember how much fun it was to shoot around with these outstanding athletes whom I didn’t know well on a personal basis. Yet they didn’t mind including a wannabe player like me in their friendly competition to share a few laughs and trick shots.
“Michael had a really good outside shot,” Robert Joyner mentioned with pride. “I’d have to say he had a better outside shot than me and Fred [a ’78 South graduate]. Fred was good, but Michael was just a little bit better than the rest of us. There was no jealousy, though. We all helped each other out.”
The only other retired South basketball numbers are Cam Cameron (10) and the late Kevin Thompson (52), so there’s room on the gym wall for at least one more jersey.
I’m sure Cam and Kevin would join me in saying: Welcome to the club, Mike.
• Special night for North too — On Saturday, Terre Haute North High School will officially name its playing floor after retired boys coach Jim Jones, a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
The “Jim Jones Court” ceremony will occur at 7:15 p.m., right before the start of the Patriots’ varsity game against Vincennes Lincoln.
Jones guided North from 1985 to 2008. Having previously coached at Springs Valley and Princeton, he ended up with 680 career victories, currently fifth most in Indiana history.
The man who replaced Jones on the Patriots’ bench in 2008, Todd Woelfle, spent three seasons playing for Jones in the early 1990s and seven seasons serving as a North assistant for Jones. So Woelfle knows Jones from a variety of perspectives.
“I think this is a great honor for coach Jones,” Woelfle told me Thursday. “He did a great deal for the students of North High School and especially those people who were involved in the basketball program.”
Woelfle said Jones not only taught his players about the game of basketball, but “more importantly he gave us the tools to be successful in life.”
In Woelfle’s case, he took those tools into the coaching profession.
“I learned a great deal from him about work ethic and just how much time you have to put in the game and into your players in order to be successful,” Woelfle reflected. “He was very firm in his beliefs. He wanted things done a certain way and he had high expectations for all of his players.”
David Hughes can be reached by phone after 4 p.m. at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.