Flyers in the finals
Fifty years ago, the Dayton Flyers, coached by Don Donoher ’54, played in the final game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship for the only time in school history. The 1966-67 Flyer season is chronicled in “Flyers in the Finals: The 1967 NCAA Tournament,” by Michael Williams ’82, the cover story of the January-March 2017 issue of Timeline, a publication of the Ohio History Connection. The following is an abridgement of part of that article, beginning with the first-round game against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Few among the Flyer Faithful expected a big run in the tournament. ... Sixth-ranked Western Kentucky was far tougher than the Flyers’ first-round opponents had been the previous two years.
Nearly equidistant from the two campuses, the Lexington coliseum was filled with partisan spectators. Hilltopper fans yelled, waved red handkerchiefs and hoisted half a dozen rebel flags overhead, although their stars, Clem Haskins and the Smith brothers Dwight and Greg, were African-Americans who had broken the color line at Western. Dayton fans stood and waved white handkerchiefs and roared just as loudly.
Hilltopper partisans had more to cheer in the first half as their team took a 10-point lead. Don May’s steady scoring and rebounding kept Dayton in the contest. Down by 12 in the second half, Rudy Waterman sparked a Dayton surge and tied the game with a free throw. Soon, his layup gave the Flyers their first lead, 52-50. ... Dwight Smith tied it at 62, sending the game into overtime.
Dayton scored first, but Waterman fouled out on a driving layup. ... Haskins had broken his wrist in February; hampered by his injury and Dan Sadlier’s aggressive defense, Haskins had managed only two field goals all night but broke free for a layup that tied the game at 67. After bringing the ball across midcourt, Bobby Joe Hooper called time-out. With 14 seconds remaining, the crowd stood and roared.
“Give me the ball, coach,” Hooper said in the huddle, “I’ll put it in the hole.”
Thinking Western would crowd the middle and look for May, Donoher agreed. Hooper in-bounded the pass to Gene Klaus, who passed it back to him. Looking inside, Hooper dribbled to the right of the lane and launched an 18-foot jumper that swished. It was perhaps the biggest shot in Dayton history, securing a 69-67 overtime victory and making possible all that came after.
Dayton was again the underdog as it headed to Evanston, Illinois, to face Tennessee in the regional semifinal. The Volunteers finished the year ranked seventh nationally. Coach Ray Mears employed an unorthodox 1-3-1 zone defense anchored by his 7-foot center, Tom Boerwinkle, while All-American forward Ron Widby did much of the scoring.
Mears insisted, “Being unusual means other teams have to make unusual preparations.”
Donoher was not awed.
“We prefer that the first game would match us against the team that is the toughest to prepare for.”
And Donoher had six days to get ready for Tennessee. It was dangerous to play a Donoher-coached team with time to prepare.
Donoher loved watching films to dissect what made a team tick, and his players reaped the rewards.
“He broke things down for us,” Klaus later said.
Donoher pointed out that Tennessee hoped to make opponents impatient and shoot themselves out of the game.
During the game, Klaus and Hooper effectively put on a clinic. Predictably, the Tennessee zone collapsed on May, who scored just nine points, mostly from the foul line. Dayton’s guards were a model of patience and precision as they drove the seams of the zone, passing to their partners until an opening occurred. Klaus and Hooper combined to shoot 11 for 14 on the night. Sadlier, too, picked his shots carefully and went 4 for 4. The Flyers led 36-25 at the half.
Mears used halftime to “chew a few rear ends,” and his team responded. Still playing a deliberate pace, the Volunteers chipped away at Dayton’s lead. Even before midpoint of the second half, both teams went into a stall — Dayton to preserve a two-point lead, Tennessee to prevent Boerwinkle from fouling out. After five minutes that nearly lulled the crowd to sleep, Tennessee hit a jumper to tie at 50. Dayton again held the ball. Hooper got fouled with 24 seconds left and made his single free throw. A Tennessee shot bounced off the rim and was corralled by Sadlier, who was fouled over the back. Sadlier’s free throw made it 52- 50, Dayton. With seven seconds left, Tennessee’s court-length pass went wild, giving Dayton the ball under its own basket. Hooper inbounded to a driving Glinder Torain, who was fouled to prevent a shot. His free throw clinched the game. The Flyers watched Tennessee drive for a meaningless bucket that made the final score 53-52. Dayton fans hoisted Torain on their shoulders as they celebrated the school’s first berth in an NCAA regional championship.
In the locker room, athletics director Tom Frericks said, “Boys, you just built us an arena.”
Virginia Tech upset Indiana 79-70 to become Dayton’s regional final opponent. Defense dominated the first half in Northwestern’s McGaw Hall. Klaus turned his ankle on a jump shot and was replaced by Waterman. Midway through the second half, Virginia Tech’s Glen Combs got hot and poured in five straight jumpers that hit nothing but net. With the Flyers trailing by 10, Donoher called timeout.
“If we’re going down,” he told his team, “we’re going down with what brought us. Get it inside to May.”
May scored seven of Dayton’s next 11 points as the Flyers cut the Tech lead to one. In rebounding a Tech miss, Torain was fouled, and his free throw tied the game at 64. ... Tech had the ball as the clock wound down. While they dribbled, Sadlier closed in and got a five-second call with 20 seconds left. He won the tip, but Hooper’s shot bounced off the rim. Tech’s last-second heave missed as well.
In overtime, Waterman connected on two foul shots. On Dayton’s next possession, Waterman found May open on the baseline; he dunked the ball for a 67-64 lead. After a Tech basket, Waterman lost possession but redeemed himself by deflecting the inbounds pass off a Tech player. Free throws by Torain and Hooper sealed the 71-66 victory.
As the horn sounded, Flyer fans surged onto the court and began hoisting players onto their shoulders. In the midst of the celebration, staff at McGaw Hall began retracting the Flyers’ basket toward the rafters while a Dayton student, junior Jack Hoeft still clung to the net. After much shouting and waving, the backboard was briefly lowered to allow the fan to jump down safely. Apparently, McGaw’s nets were too valuable to cut.
Next stop was Freedom Hall in Louisville to play in what has become the Final Four. Dayton’s first opponent was fourth-ranked North Carolina, coached by Dean Smith. His aggressive, stunting defense — known as the jump and run — was designed to disrupt an offense and cause turnovers. To exploit turnovers, Smith had a pair of rangy, high- scoring All-Americans, 6-4 junior Larry Miller and 6-3 sophomore Bobby Lewis.
As with Tennessee, Donoher had six days to prepare, but, after viewing North Carolina’s films, admitted to “thinking in terms of how not to get embarrassed.”
Smith feared his players were looking beyond the Dayton game to a championship showdown with UCLA.
“Our team wasn’t worried, but the coaching staff was,” he recalled.
Despite Smith’s repeated warnings that “Dayton is dangerous,” his Tar Heels knew the Flyers had only squeaked past Virginia Tech, a team they had thrashed less than a month earlier. The semifinals were on Good Friday, and the Flyers left nothing to chance. The team attended a noontime rosary service, and Don May inserted an Immaculate Conception medal into the waistband of his shorts.
After the game’s opening minutes suggested the expected Carolina route, May hit a 10-foot jumper and from that point on could not miss. He made 13 straight field goal attempts, an NCAA tournament record that has yet to be equaled. By half-time, the Flyers were up 29-13.
Dayton stretched its lead into the second half. Midway through the half, Carolina cut the margin to nine, but then Dayton scored the next four points. As the clock wound down, Flyer fans began to chant, “We’re No. 1!” A group held a banner reading: “Who needs ’Cindor? We’ve got Glinder!” Torain had played a brilliant game, fouling out before the 2-minute mark with 14 points, 11 rebounds and assists on three of May’s baskets. Sadlier provided a punctuation mark with a dunk that made the final score Dayton 76, North Carolina 62.
For the third game in a row, Donoher agreed with those insisting it had been UD’s biggest win ever.
The final was only 24 hours away, insufficient time to prepare for one of the greatest teams in basketball history, especially when much of Donoher’s Saturday was consumed by a coach’s luncheon and taping a sports talk show. Assistant coach Chuck Grigsby supervised Dayton’s brief practice. Later, on reflection, Donoher recognized his mistake of running their regular offense against the Bruins. The only teams that had beaten Dayton that year had featured an athletic big man, none of whom had the size, speed or agility of Lew Alcindor.
“If I could do it over, I’d take our guys to a ballroom to do a walk-through and restructure our offense,” Donoher said. “I don’t think we could’ve beaten UCLA, but we could have made a better showing.”
Seconds after Dan Obrovac stunned the Freedom Hall capacity crowd of nearly 19,000 by winning the opening tip, the ball came back to him at the high post. Adrenalin pumping, he turned and launched a foul-line jumper, something he had never done before at this point in a game. It missed. Bringing the ball up against the Bruin press, the Flyers turned it over. UCLA corralled the rebound and scored at the other end. The rout was on.
The Flyers learned to manage the press, but their first-half shooting was atrocious. Almost six minutes in, Torain finally scored for Dayton. By the midpoint of the first half, UCLA led 20 to 4. Alcindor blocked four shots and altered many more. May missed his first eight attempts. Meanwhile, when Alcindor got the ball down low, he usually dunked it. Double- or triple-teamed, he passed to guards Mike Warren or Lucius Allen, who combined for 36 points, or to forward Lynn Shackelford, who added another 10. Donoher switched to a zone, but it made little difference as the half ended with UCLA up 38-20.
May got on track in the second half and finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds. Waterman was the only other Flyer in double figures with 10. The Bruins at one point pushed their lead to 29. Coach John Wooden began benching his starters at the five- minute mark. Alcindor finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds. In the final minute, Donoher also cleared his bench so everyone could get court time in the finals. Senior reserve John Samanich made a basket before the game ended, UCLA 76, Dayton 62.
To reporters, the heavily favored Bruins seemed more relieved than elated at winning the national championship. In contrast, the Cinderella Flyers felt neither shame nor sadness in finishing second. For the third year in a row, Dayton had lost to the nation’s top-ranked team. Of them, Donoher conceded that UCLA topped them all and that “Alcindor makes them the best.”
Shortly after, the NCAA rules committee outlawed the dunk, citing concerns over injuries and damage to rims and backboards that delayed or canceled games. Most considered it an attempt to curb Alcindor’s dominance, yet UCLA repeated as national champions his junior and senior years. The seven straight NCAA titles captured by Wooden’s Bruins is a record that will likely never be broken.
Dayton Daily News Sports editor Si Burick observed that basketball had almost become a religion in the city. As predicted, the new UD Arena opened in 1969. To date, it has hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other venue. Dayton’s crowds consistently rank among the top 30 college programs, despite the presence of many larger arenas.
Expectations for the Flyers in 1967-68 were sky-high, and preseason polls ranked Dayton in the top 10. However, nagging injuries, narrow defeats and unexpected racial turmoil off the court produced a dismal 7-9 start. Then Donoher found a lineup that clicked, and the Flyers won their last nine games to make the NIT. Four victories later, they claimed the championship, with May taking honors as the tournament’s most valuable player and surpassing Hank Finkel as Dayton’s career scoring leader.
One factor in Dayton’s 1968 run was Dan Obrovac’s development into a fine center, especially on defense. He graduated in 1969 and briefly played pro ball before returning to Dayton for a computer science career. Alcindor also graduated in 1969 and was drafted by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. In 1971, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. During Abdul-Jabbar’s 20-year NBA career, he won six championships and six MVP awards and is still the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Years after their encounter on the court, Obrovac and Abdul-Jabbar ran into each other at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and shared a few laughs over Obrovac’s brief moment of fame. In 2008, both men were diagnosed with cancer. Abdul-Jabbar’s was a form of leukemia that has been held at bay. Obrovac had esophageal cancer that spread, forcing him into two years of grueling chemotherapy. Hearing of the struggle, Abdul-Jabbar reached out to him with two personal notes. The kindness touched Obrovac deeply.
From his home, Obrovac cheered as his beloved Flyers won their third NIT championship April 2, 2010. The next morning, he developed flu-like symptoms and was taken to the hospital, where he died April 21.
Michael Williams, a Vandalia, Ohio, resident, teaches social studies and history at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center. For information on purchasing single copies or subscriptions to Timeline, call the Ohio History Connection at 614-297-2315.