Last Thursday an NBA scout was in attendance for Murray State’s home game against Tennessee State. But it wasn’t just any NBA scout.
Carl Nicks is a scout for the Indiana Pacers but is best known for being a member of the 1978-79 Indiana State basketball team that went undefeated into the Final Four and was the runner-up in the NCAA Championship.
In a story similar to this season’s Murray State team, the Indiana State Sycamores, playing under a rookie head coach, glided its way into the national spotlight and into the big dance, defying all odds along the way.
Nicks, a Chicago native, was the second leading scorer on the team that year with an average of 19.3 points a game, just behind team-leader and basketball icon Larry Bird who averaged 28.6 points.
After graduating from Indiana State, Nicks was a first round draft pick for the Denver Nuggets where he played one season before playing for both the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers for a season. He finished his career in Europe before he and his wife, a social worker also from the south side of Chicago, moved to Indianapolis where he worked with the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program at the Methodist hospital.
Three and a half years later, on a summer morning in 2004, Bird called Nicks to ask if he would scout for him at the Pacers and the rest is history.
Nicks, a son of a preacher, remains close to his collegiate basketball roots by living his dream of scouting for the big leagues.
While watching the Racers play Thursday, Nicks caught himself taking a jog down memory lane.
“The first time I saw Murray State I thought, ‘Golly, that reminds me of my team,’” Nicks said. “The same type of players, same size, because we didn’t have anybody, Larry Bird was 6-foot-9 and that was it. The rest of the guys was 6-foot-7, 6-foot-2, I’m 6-foot-3 and that was it. But we was just like wild dogs on the floor.”
The similarities don’t stop there. The head coach of the Sycamores that year, Bill Hodges, shares a few things in common with Racers Head Coach Steve Prohm in that he didn’t expect to be the team’s leader that particular year.
Prohm, who recruited more than half the players on Murray State’s roster, served as assistant coach to the Racers when he was hired in May as head coach after Billy Kennedy went to Texas A&M. Likewise, Hodges served as assistant coach when he stepped in for Bob King who had an aneurysm and wasn’t able to coach for the season.
“We were all OK with it because Bill Hodges primarily recruited all of us,” Nicks said. “He was the one who was always at our high school games, bringing us gym shoes and stuff like that. He wasn’t just assistant coach but he was your father figure and big brother off the court so we felt comfortable with that so it was just a happy marriage, really and things just fell in place. He was a player’s coach in that he would just let you play. If he saw something he’d call a timeout and tell you about it but he would just let you play and that’s what we needed. It was a great situation for us.”
The success of the 1979 Sycamores quietly stacked up over the course of the season, as did the team’s confidence.
“The season started and we were 5-0 and we didn’t think nothing of it, then we were 10-0 and we still didn’t think anything of it and then come 15-0 we started saying to ourselves, ‘Man, I don’t know, I don’t think anybody can beat us,’” Nicks said. “Then when the conference games started up we started beating those guys on the road and that’s when it dialed in: ‘You know what, no one can beat us and we’re going to go to the tournament. We weren’t arrogant or cocky we were just like ‘no body can beat us.’”
The small Indiana State school retained the No. 1 spot in both national basketball polls most of the season but never allowed the media to distract them, Nicks said.
“We were getting national attention and there wasn’t any pressure,” he said. “Pressure is only pressure when you put it on yourself. No one expected us to be there and no on expected Murray State to be 25-1, so if there is any pressure it’s because those guys, not the coach, put pressure on themselves. You’ve got to stick to what you know and you’ve got to stick together. You don’t have to love your teammates so much off the court but you’ve got to love them on the court. Some of my teammates, we didn’t all hang out together and we didn’t all click together but we were a family when it came to practice and on the court.”
The family of a team was led by Bird who avoided the media so much that Nicks did interviews in his place.
“I think if Larry had a different personality type and was cocky and it was all about him and he had a he’s-going-the-league attitude and all that stuff, things probably would have fallen apart, but it was totally opposite of that,” Nicks said. “He was probably the greatest player, all-star, all-American icon that I’ve ever played with, it was unbelievable and the way he approached the game was just unbelievable.”
Nicks said the historic team, which went 33-0 before falling to Michigan State 75-64 in the championship round, wasn’t the biggest or most athletic team in the country, but had the most important weapons: heart and a will to win.
“We were just blue-collared, hard-working, scrappy, dive-on-the-floor-for-loose-balls, reckless abandon type guys,” he said. “We bought into it on our own that nobody was going to beat us and that we were going to the tournament.”
Hodges repeatedly told the Sycamores to stick to what they knew and to focus on one game at a time.
“We approached every game like we were the underdogs and we wasn’t,” Nicks said. “That’s another little secret that nobody knows about. We never approached games like, ‘Oh we’re playing this school so we get to have a night off,’ no. We always thought we were the underdogs and everybody was out to get us.”
As the team, which stayed focused and close-knit on and off the court, remained unbeaten to the final round against the Michigan State Spartans who held a 26-6 record.
“We felt like they were overrated and we were going to beat them,” Nicks said. “But when it came to game time and everything they were unbelievable and Magic Johnson – was he good. Michigan State had an NBA-sized team at the time, they were so big and Magic Johnson at 6-foot-9 playing the point guard was so big and so fast and so smart and it was almost overwhelming for us. And their strategy – they did some great homework to contain Bird and by them doing that they did us. Michigan State was really good but I always make a joke when people ask me about that game, I say they didn’t really beat us, we just ran out of time.”
Time is something Murray State still has and is something Nicks suggests they use wisely.
“I wish I could give those guys a pep talk because they’re going to need it right now,” Nicks said. “It’s time to switch gears and switch their psyche right a little bit because it’s getting ready to get really tough. The NCAA Tournament is another beast right there because you don’t have enough preparation time to scout other teams because you could be playing a team from Idaho and you’re like ‘who is this?’ and they’re as good as hell.”
As he watched the Racers take its first fall of the season, losing 72-68 to Tennessee State, Nicks said the team didn’t appear to be performing at the same level that had given them 23 straight wins.
“I don’t know exactly what they did to get to that point but it seemed like they wasn’t gelling as a unit together, that’s what it looked like to me and I think that’s why they lost that game,” Nicks said. “In my opinion, Murray State is still a Cinderella team. They’ve got another season to look forward to and they’re going to the tournament, but it’s all about not getting too high and not getting too low and just keep it rolling – that’s what we did.”
Both the Sycamores from 1979 and this year’s Racers are the same type of team, Nicks said.
“We wasn’t even as athletic as those guys but we was more fast but we were tough, we were scrappy and we played hard. That’s the similarities that Murray State and Indiana have: tough, strong, scrappy, blue collar.”
Nicks admonished the team to stay together in order to achieve greatness.
“The bottom line is the team needs to remember what they did to be 3-0, to be 5-0, to be 10-0 and stick to that,” he said. “Please don’t forget to stop listening to the coaches because once you’re 20-0 you can think you don’t need the coach and that you did all of this, no you didn’t. That’s a trick.”
With proper leadership from junior guard Isaiah Canaan, who scored 31 points the night Nicks observed the Racers, the team has the potential to make a deep run in postseason play.
“If Canaan is the guy who is going to make the big buckets for you, then that’s who you need to count on,” he said. “And if Canaan is going to be the guy who is going to lead the team he’s got to make himself present that way and I didn’t know if he did that real well that night. The points were great but I’m talking about staying real positive and confident and patting his teammates on the back and telling them, ‘Come on guys, let’s hang in there,’ those are the things he needs to step up and do.”
Despite the Racers’ disrupted winning streak, Nicks encouraged the team to keep its head up.
“I look at my ring all the time and think about what life would be like after that,” Nicks said. “But, just like the Murray State guys, once this is over you can look in the mirror and you can smile and say, ‘Hey, we did something real special here.’ Because what they have done is special.”