IOWA CITY, Iowa — The television would turn on. Kathy Ford’s family would find the Iowa basketball game. Everyone would gather around in the farmhouse and eat popcorn while rooting for the Hawkeyes.
It was an Iowa version of a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
“It’s just a great memory,” Ford said.
There were plenty of those memories for Ford growing up in Iowa City, but none better than the 1980 Final Four team. And with Iowa hosting an unofficial/official remembrance for the 1980 squad along with an Illinois game on Saturday, there was no debate — Ford would be there. She wanted to make one more memory with her favorite team.
“That’s when I started really paying attention to Iowa basketball,” Ford said Saturday. “That is the first thing I really remember about it.”
The 1980 Final Four was 37 years ago next month. Yet, walking in and around Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, it seemed like it was closer to 37 days ago.
Ronnie Lester. Steve Krafcisin. Steve Waite. Kenny Arnold.
Arnold, who averaged 13.5 points and dished out 141 assists for the 1980 team, suffered a brain tumor at 25. He is now confined to a wheelchair and lives in a nursing home. As part of the festivities Saturday, fans were able to purchase T-shirts, with proceeds going to support Arnold.
More than 30 minutes before the doors opened, fans were lined up outside, repeating those names. The games from that all-time season: the win at Illinois, the 1-point victory against Georgetown in the Elite Eight, served as conversation starters.
The damn Lester knee injury came up as often as the fans would breathe. Seemingly everyone in line believed it ended the team’s hopes for a national title as much as the loss to Louisville in the Final Four did.
When the arena doors finally opened, fans rushed toward the south concourse. A group of former Iowa players, including Bobby Hansen, Tree Henry, Vince Brookins, Waite and Lester from the 1980 squad, waited to sign autographs.
Ford was the second person through the line. A smile crossed her face as her autograph sheet went from former Hawkeye to former Hawkeye.
Former Iowa players are signing these today at Carver pic.twitter.com/qjfZd5KwFL
— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) February 18, 2017
When Ford approached Lester she thanked him for being there.
“They kept it moving,” Ford said. “You didn’t have time to say much else.”
But the fans didn’t need time to say much more; they would come from across the state to say a just a few words.
Joel Whelchel said he drove 125 miles from Winterset. He remembers nearly breaking his television when Iowa made the Final Four. He wouldn’t miss this for anything.
“It’s a big deal,” Whelchel said. “How often does it happen? Drake did it in ’69. Iowa did it in ’80 and it might be a once in a lifetime thing.”
Whelchel made it a point to joke with Hansen — Whelchel didn’t appreciate all the newspaper stories written about Hansen’s Dowling Catholic high school teams back in the day.
He can laugh about it now, especially after Hansen helped the Hawkeyes get to that Final Four.
“We are both Iowa,” Whelchel said. “That matters.”
Within 20 minutes the line for autographs wrapped around one-fifth of the concourse. It wasn’t just a group of aging baby boomers and Gen-X’ers waiting to meet their heroes, either. Kids who weren’t alive in 2000, let alone 1980, patiently waited for a signature.
Bob Butrick brought his family. His children know all about the 1980 team. He doesn’t believe he’d be raising them right if they didn’t know about Lester & Co.
That’s why no one in the family could say for sure if he or his son, Hayden, were more excited about meeting the team.
“He is kind of a history buff,” Butrick said. “He likes sports, especially Iowa.”
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) February 18, 2017
Everyone in line had their individual moment with the 1980 players. They took pictures. They exchanged handshakes. The Hawkeyes gave them autographs.
Then everyone shared a collective moment. Most of the crowd showed up in those white shirts, with TFL (teammates for life) and Arnold’s name across the back.
“It was pretty awesome that these guys came out to support a teammate and came back home and paid it forward,” Ford said.
Once she started talking she didn’t stop. For her money, the 1980 team defines what it means to be a teammate, the way Henry always visits Arnold and how everyone else stays in touch and does what they can to help out.
Ford glanced at the 1980 players as she finished speaking and became choked up.
“It’s what it means to be a Hawkeye,” Ford said.
She wanted one more memory with the 1980 team. This was it.