News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 15, 2014

The night it rained tears

Terre Haute native remembered in Evansville memorial to fallen team

EVANSVILLE — March fuels college basketball teams. Fun, glory, buzzer-beater shots and storybook endings in the NCAA Tournament await there.

The 1977-78 University of Evansville Purple Aces intended to experience March. Someday.

It would take time, perhaps a season or two. Four games into their school’s first year at the intensely competitive Division I level, the young Aces were still learning the ropes. A longtime powerhouse in Division II, Evansville climbed to the NCAA’s highest plateau in the fall of ’77. After 31 years and five D2 national championships, beloved coach Arad McCutchan retired as a living legend. Charismatic newcomer Bobby Watson stepped in and seized the challenge of leading a revered small-college program into the big leagues of college hoops, recruiting eight freshmen, including Terre Haute sharpshooter Mike Joyner.

The fourth game of the ’77-78 season clarified the scope of the Aces’ quest. They traveled to Joyner’s hometown and took a 102-76 thumping at the hands of Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores before a near-sellout crowd in Hulman Center. Bird rained in 35 points. Afterward, Watson vowed his Aces would become a fiercer road team. It was Dec. 10, 1977.

“All I can say,” Watson told the Terre Haute Tribune that night, “is that two years from now, we’ll have the courage to knock people around.”

Though their competitive natures were momentarily frustrated, the Aces possessed youth, energy, drive and hope.

“All of them were full of life,” recalled Fred Joyner, Mike’s younger brother, last week. “That’s what I hope people remember. These guys were young, they played together, stayed together, practiced together, argued together, got along together. They loved the game together. They were full of life.”

Yet, history tends to remember them in tragic terms. Lives that ended too soon. Dreams dashed. A plane crash on Dec. 13, 1977, that left no survivors and a Hoosier community grieving for the loss of a collection of men who embodied a local treasure — Purple Aces basketball.

A new Memorial Wall in downtown Evansville pays tribute to them. It stands inside Ford Center, a $127-million, multi-purpose facility that became the university’s home arena after venerable Roberts Stadium closed in 2011. The foundation that raised funds for the memorial unveiled the wall on Jan. 26. Fans overflowed the Ford Center halls to watch the dedication, almost reverently.

One panel of the 20-foot-long, 8-foot-tall wall reflects the “full of life” spirit Fred Joyner mentioned. “It shows a short, exciting, abbreviated season,” said Joe Ellsworth, a 1976 Evansville grad and president-elect of the Roberts Stadium Foundation, the group that organized the Memorial Wall.

Action photographs of Watson, Joyner and fellow Aces dominate the left panel of the wall. Those pictures are accompanied by mugshots of the team’s 14 players, Watson, three student managers, three U of E athletic department staffers, their play-by-play radio announcer and two businessmen who were fans.

The wall’s other two panels tell the rest of the story.

‘An empty space’

The center panel contains a quotation by Wallace Graves, the University of Evansville president in 1977: “Out of the agony of this hour, we shall rise. Out of the ashes of a desiccated dream, we shall build a new basketball team, stronger, more valiant than ever before. That was the mission of our fallen brothers. Their dream will be fulfilled.”

The memorial’s far-right panel depicts “the agony.”

On Dec. 13, 1977, just three nights after the loss to ISU in Terre Haute, the Purple Aces boarded a DC-3 charter plane, southbound for their next scheduled game at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. The conditions were dreary. Fog, drizzle and chill filled the air. “Everybody remembers the weather,” Ellsworth said.

The plane lifted off the runway at Dress Regional Airport and instantly encountered trouble. Rubber control locks, mistakenly left in place, impaired the rudder and a wing, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Within 90 seconds, the aircraft crashed into a remote ravine, less than a mile from the runway’s end. All 29 people on board, including five airline personnel, died. Joyner was 19 years old.

The university canceled the remainder of its season, respectfully waiting to reintroduce the program until the fall of 1978. “[Roberts Stadium] was just, like, this empty space that whole year,” said Kathy Kleindorfer, the Roberts Stadium Foundation’s current president and a 1975 Evansville grad.

Purple Aces basketball enveloped the entire city, winter after winter, for decades. Players became local celebrities, and the community flocked to see them perform in Roberts Stadium, built in 1956 during the administration of Mayor Henry Roberts, Kleindorfer’s grandfather. The Aces won national titles with McCutchan coaching on the sidelines and future pros Jerry Sloan and Don Buse playing on the court.

“That was Evansville’s team and a lot of the identity of the community, especially [in 1977],” Ellsworth said. “Aces basketball represented Evansville.”

Even for those few months in 1977. Once Joyner, as well as the other freshmen, committed to the school, “the community would’ve known that he was an Ace.”

Keeping memory alive

Memories of the lost Aces linger. “I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of that team,” said Stafford Stephenson, one of three assistant coaches spared by fate because Watson had sent them on recruiting trips instead of flying with the team to Tennessee. Stephenson, now an insurance agent in North Carolina, returned for the Memorial Wall dedication seven Sundays ago.

Evansville communications firm Fire and Rain designed the wall to give visitors who remember the tragedy a place to reflect, and to enlighten those with no memory of it. A mix of both crowds filled the Ford Center lobby for the dedication. An Aces game followed the ceremony, and the home team won. Even amid the post-game euphoria of an Aces victory, fans returned to the Memorial Wall for another glimpse.

“People were very, very quiet. Reflective,” Ellsworth said.

The center panel features a glowing, multi-colored ball of light, symbolizing the “weeping basketball” fountain at the university’s on-campus tribute to the team, the Memorial Plaza. The “call to action” from U of E president Graves is etched above the light. The center panel represents the commitment to the future, flanked by the images of a determined team full of hope on the left, and the grief of an entire community on the right.

“This captures ’77,” Kleindorfer said, standing beside the memorial.

The wall’s design required a delicate balance, sensitive to the emotions stirred by the crash and its cause, even 36 years later, Kleindorfer and Ellsworth explained. A handful of pictures — photos capturing people in mourning and the day-after crash site — were selected to document the catastrophe on the right panel. “There are some grim photographs,” Ellsworth said, “but it was a very grim situation.”

Not surprisingly, Kleindorfer said many visitors spend the most time on the left panel — those black-and-white shapshots of vibrant teenagers and twentysomethings competing in their first Division I season, their enthusiastic coach, and a corps of their program’s supporters. Last week, members of Joyner’s family said they look forward to viewing the Memorial Wall. Their recollections of Mike mirror those lively photographs.

“So much has been focused on their deaths. I really appreciate the focus on their lives,” Fred Joyner said of the Memorial Wall.

‘A good brother’

Just one year separated Fred from his older brother. Both played for Terre Haute South Vigo High School’s Final Four teams in the late-1970s, and like fans of those squads, Fred can still picture Mike’s feathery left-handed shooting touch and court intensity. The 6-foot-3 guard became the Braves’ all-time leading scorer and remains No. 3 on the school’s points list, despite playing just three seasons, all before the 3-point rule. South needed Mike to deliver in big games. “There was a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” Fred said by telephone from his home in Texas. His parents and six siblings came to watch.

“It was important that his family was always there for him,” Fred said.

He recalls Mike as fun-loving and supportive, even through typical brotherly ups and downs. “Mike always made sure to let me know he was proud of me,” Fred said.

Younger sister Patricia McGee laughs at the memory of riding the team buses to games, sitting with the cheerleaders. To her, Mike was more than a star player. “He was just outgoing, very loving, personable. It’s like he didn’t meet any strangers. He was very kind and gentle,” she said. “He was a good brother.”

The thud of a basketball hitting the goal beside the family’s garage, late at night, is still vivid for Martha Joyner, Mike’s mother. Her sons and neighborhood friends played there almost nonstop. The routine followed Mike to South, where he was in the starting lineup game after game, from his first high school season on. “They used to call him ‘Iron Horse,’” Martha said. “He hardly ever got upset on the court.”

Watson’s recruiting visit to their home was memorable. The 6-foot, 7-inch Watson survived 18 months of combat duty in Vietnam and earned five Purple Hearts in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne unit. He had a wife and three children. He impressed Martha and her late husband, Robert Sr. “He was a family man, and he was real comfortable to be around,” Martha said. “I had a lot of respect for him.”

Mike solidly wanted to become an Ace, his mother said.

“He always told me, ‘I’m going to be a pro basketball player, and I’m going to do it. But I’m going to get my education first,’” Martha said.

Given to Evansville

When Mike made his commitment to play for Evansville, “It was like we gave him to that school and the people,” his sister, Patricia, said.

Besides Watson’s charisma, Mike also liked Evansville’s home court, Roberts Stadium. In that cavernous building, Mike shined in South’s victories over Jeffersonville and Northeast Dubois in the 1977 semistate. “Mike liked to play in Roberts Stadium,” Martha said.

His performances in Hulman Center were memorable, too, as South played for regional titles and bragging rights against Terre Haute North. Mike’s final trip there — as an Evansville Purple Ace in ’77 — was special in a different way. Bird and the Sycamores dominated, and Mike scored a modest four points in his hometown return. But his family, once again, was in the crowd, cheering him on. They talked afterward.

“He was telling me what he wanted for Christmas,” Martha said. An electric blanket and sweaters topped his list. Mike also got to see his new baby sister, Peggy. As for the lopsided loss to ISU, he handled it in characteristic fashion. “He said, ‘We chalk it up to experience — now you know what you’re up against,’” Martha recalled.

Then the Aces headed off to Evansville.

Mike had been on campus since that summer. He and teammates played pickup games in Carson Center. Joe Ellsworth, the Memorial Wall co-organizer, had just earned his U of E degree the previous year. Ellsworth and buddies hung out at Carson Center and served as the opposing team for the Aces players in those pickup games. “I was just one of those guys they played against — the scrubs,” Ellsworth said, with a chuckle.

Facing Joyner wasn’t easy. “He was tough. Really, really tough,” Ellsworth said. “He was real serious about it, kind of quiet, but really serious. He was not one of those guys to jaw or talk trash. He was there to play basketball — all business.”

The college game, at its top level, was a transition for most freshman, said Stephenson, a Watson assistant in ’77. With eight of them on the roster, the coaches kept that first Division I season in perspective. “A .500 record would’ve been a good start for us,” Stephenson said by telephone from High Point, N.C. They’d chosen a nucleus of “kids from Indiana who could help us,” he added, a strategy fostered by Watson.

Combined with returning upperclassmen, “We felt like we had a very strong group of kids character-wise,” Stephenson said.

Joyner fit both needs. “A great kid,” Stephenson said. “He was left-handed, and I’m left-handed. I used to kid him about that.”

What would’ve been

Watson planned for Stephenson and the other assistants to join him on the bench for the first four games and then scatter on recruiting trips on following game nights. On Dec. 13, 1977, Stephenson was in Tampa, Fla. He scouted a prospective player, met the kid, picked up a burger, went back to his hotel and watched the “Tonight Show” until he fell asleep. The next morning, Stephenson bought a newspaper and read the horrible news. He called his wife and returned to a devastated Evansville.

“Initially, I think I was literally in a state of shock for a few days afterward,” he said. “They are a blur of funerals and trips to funeral homes. I tried to attend as many as possible.”

Stephenson stayed on as an assistant coach under new coach Dick Walters, who began the rebuilding process the following season. Stephenson remained for three seasons, left for a similar position at Southern Illinois and then left college coaching in 1985. He took an insurance agent job in High Point, close to his roots in southwest Virginia. This January’s dedication of the Memorial Wall, in which he spoke to the hundreds of people gathered at the ceremony, marked the 66-year-old Stephenson’s first trip back to Evansville since his coaching days.

“From a personal standpoint, coming back to Evansville 35 years later made my wife and I realize Evansville is a big part of us,” he said. “Coming back for the memorial dedication really, really brought that home.”

The bright potential of that 1977 team, in basketball and beyond, lingers in his mind.

“The seeds were there to be great citizens and very good contributors to society,” Stephenson said. “I’m sorry that more people didn’t get a chance to know them.”

Patricia often wondered what might have become of her brother. “I do think about where he would’ve been,” she said. Patricia recalls Mike drawing out his teams’ plays for her and figures he would be coaching youngsters now. Martha thinks he might’ve reached his goal of playing professionally and then become a basketball commentator. Fred could see Mike using his college major, business, and his personality to build a company.

Mike’s loss was hard for them, as with the other Aces’ families. “I can still remember it like it was yesterday,” Martha said, “but, me, I just thank God that I had him as long as I did.” Fred is thankful his high school alma mater, under former South coach and friend Mike Saylor, retired Mike Joyner’s No. 42 jersey a few years ago “to remind everybody that my brother made a contribution to that school.”

Patricia keeps a picture of Mike, in his Aces jersey, as the wallpaper on her computer. “So I see him every day,” she said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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