With the future so frightening and uncertain, people can take a little comfort from living in the past and remembering happier times.
No mistake, life will eventually be normal again. And I don’t mean some sort of “new normal,” just some more new wrinkles to a society and a civilization that have witnessed changes almost daily since human beings first walked the earth.
I’m saddened quite often that more and more people won’t be around to see our world press forward from this COVID-19 plague. One such individual is Benjamin McGilmer, Jr., whose passing on June 6 in Decatur, Ga., became yet another story lost in the chaotic shuffle of a health crisis, terrible gun violence and considerable public unrest.
McGilmer, a 74-year-old Marysville, Tenn., native, left behind quite a legacy when it comes to basketball at the University of Iowa. In the winter of 1969-70, he helped Ralph Miller’s fabled “Six Pack To Go’’ make some remarkable history, winning a Big Ten title with a 14-0 record.
In 112 Big Ten seasons, this was the only one of Iowa’s eight league championship squads to go undefeated. Nearly as significant was the 102.9-point scoring average the Hawkeyes piled up in conference play.
Five seniors and one junior did nearly all the damage in the last of Miller’s six seasons before heading to Oregon State for a career-capping 19-year stint.
Four of the six primary performers averaged more than 17 points a game with 6-7 forward John Johnson leading the way with a hefty 27.9 per contest. Chad Calabria, a 6-1 guard, followed with 19.1 a game while 6-3 junior Fred Brown added 17.9 and 6-5 forward Glen Vidnovic 17.3.
Dick Jensen, a 6-8 senior center from Madrid, Iowa, managed just a 3.1-point scoring average in a starting role, but McGilmer chipped in 10.3 while becoming arguably the best sixth man in Iowa basketball history.
It was a team many regarded as a national championship contender heading into a 25-team NCAA Tournament. Iowa was one of seven in the field to draw a bye while the other 18 battled to advance out of the opening round.
Among the nine first-round winners was a dangerous Jacksonville team with twin towers Artis Gilmore, a 7-2, 240-pounder, and Pembrook Burroughs, a 7-footer. Gilmore averaged 26.5 points and a staggering 22.2 rebounds while Burroughs contributed 10.8 and 7.3 for the team Iowa was unlucky enough to draw.
On top of those two imposing “bigs,” the No. 2 scoring threat was 6-5 point guard Rex Morgan, whose 18.2 points and nine assists per game helped get him into the NBA along with Gilmore.
With no one taller than the 6-8 Jensen, the team from Florida posed a major challenge to Iowa, which wound up having a 16-game winning streak snapped in a thrilling 104-103 regional semifinal in Columbus, Ohio.
There were two consolations for the Hawkeyes, one literal and one figurative.
First was a third-place regional consolation game that saw them race to a 121-106 victory over Notre Dame despite a 45-point night for the Fighting Irish star, Austin Carr.
Then came a little more solace in seeing Jacksonville make it to the national championship game before falling to UCLA. That was the fourth of what would be seven straight titles for the Bruins, a mind-boggling 205-5 during this unprecedented run.
Johnson, just 68 when he died in 2016, was the seventh pick in the 1970 NBA draft and Brown became the sixth selection in 1971.
Johnson began his 12-year professional career with Cleveland and was an all-star in his first two seasons for the Cavaliers. He later played for Portland, Houston and finally Seattle, reuniting with Brown, whose 13 NBA campaigns were all with the SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder).
Despite a 3-4 start to the season, Iowa finished with a 20-5 overall record and led the nation at 98.7 points a game with non-conference matchups included.
This was such a special team that McGilmer, a special athlete in his own right, had to come off the bench to make his impact. The eldest of seven children, he spent most of his youth in Detroit, where Clara Mae and Benjamin McGilmer, Sr., moved their family from Tennessee.
Junior blossomed into a three-sport all-stater at Detroit’s Northwestern High School and excelled, as well, as a student.
Two years after enrolling at Iowa, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, which assigned him to its All-Army basketball team. According to his obituary, the team went undefeated for a coach who allegedly threatened to send them to Vietnam if they ever lost.
Turning down two different NBA offers, McGilmer played for professional teams in Belgium, France and Turkey before retiring to become the coach of the Turkish Junior National team.
In 1990, having become fluent in French, Turkish and Spanish, he left coaching to open a fine jewelry boutique in Spain. It was during this chapter of his life that he took part in a marathon basketball game that lasted 25 hours and 54 minutes, which landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records.
McGilmer finally returned to the U.S. in 2007, earning a degree in computer programming four years later at age 65.
He is survived by a son, Dr. Christopher McGilmer, an only child, and three grandchildren.
This retrospective wouldn’t be complete without also celebrating the life of Ralph Miller, who was 220-133 in 13 seasons at Wichita State before taking the Iowa job. He was 95-51 with the Hawks and then 342-198 at Oregon State, totaling 657 wins to rank seventh in Division I history.
Miller, who was 82 when he died in 2001, was a three-sport star in his hometown of Chanute, Kan., setting a state record in the low hurdles while earning all-state laurels three times each in football and basketball.
That led him to Kansas University, where he not only lettered three times on the hardwood for the legendary Phog Allen, but three times, as well, as a football quarterback.
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