Road Trip – Grand Rapids, Mich.
How the Men’s Basketball Team, Its Fans & The Rolling Stones Claimed the 1983 Division III Championship
In the spring of 1983, there was no bigger stage than the basketball court at the John J. Long, S.J., Center. While Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones may have opened the show – literally, not figuratively – the men’s basketball team was the headliner, and the Royals didn’t disappoint.
To secure a seat at a Scranton home game meant arriving an hour before tip off, joining the standing-room-only crowd or wedging yourself into the crowded wooden bleachers. The chants of “Roooyyyyaaallls, Roooyyyyaaallls” started soon thereafter thanks to “super fans” like Tom Grech ’84, Mark Degenhart ’85, Rocco Mariano ’84, George Rafferty ’83 and so many more. Of course, Paul LeClair ’84 – and his alter ego, the Royal Rooster mascot – was already working up a sweat, playing to the crowd and razzing opponents.
Mark Hutchinson ’83, a starter on the 1982-1983 Royals, recalls experiencing chills before the team even hit the floor. “We’d be in the locker room a good hour before the game, and our lockers were shaking because the gym was already at capacity,” he says. “The fans would be chanting, cheering and stomping. Our lockers would literally be vibrating.”
The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was a staple of the Royals’ introduction and, before Jagger’s voice reached its crescendo, the Long Center was in full frenzy. The song became the team’s anthem, so much so it resonates with fans decades later.
“I can’t hear that song today without it taking me back to my college experience and the Royals’ basketball team,” says Karen Kaczmarczyk Roberts ’84, then a captain on the cheerleading squad. “That was their song.”
Legendary coach Bob Bessoir reveled playing in front of the home crowd, moving the bleachers to the edge of the sideline. “The Long Center was a tough place to play,” he says. “Division III teams weren’t used to playing in games where fans were all over the court. We were the ‘Rock-N-Roll’ Royals.”
It should be noted that the original “Rock-N-Roll” Royals were the members of the 1976 championship squad, but the 1982-1983 team proudly carried on the winning tradition, according to Coach Bessoir.
After securing their place in the NCAA Final Four, the Royals – like any popular band – hit the road, headed for Grand Rapids, Mich., site of the 1983 NCAA Division III tournament championship. The Scranton faithful followed – in droves.
This isn’t a story so much about the University’s championship-winning basketball team. It’s a story about how the Royals’ fans caught “Michigan Fever” and turned Calvin College’s fieldhouse into “Long Center West.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you wanted to be there to make the most of it,” says Francie Truran Warther ’84, a Royals cheerleader. Adds Roberts, “Everybody knew that we would remember this trip for the rest of our lives.”
Immediately following Scranton’s 65-64 quarterfinal win over Potsdam State, “Michigan Fever,” as The Aquinas called it, “spread throughout the campus as quickly as a Royals fast break.” Nearly 650 miles separate Scranton and Grand Rapids, and University students and Royal faithful were concocting nearly that many ways to make the trip.
While the basketball team flew to Michigan – the first plane trip for several members of the team, Hutchinson recalls – students hit the road by automobile, bus and rented “wrecks.”
Packed in his roommate Greg Strasuss’ station wagon, Keith Lane ’85 and two others – maybe three, who can remember – made the long drive. “I don’t know if you have ever done that trip to Ohio and Michigan, but it is basically Route 80 West the whole way,” Lane says. “Once you get into Ohio, you make a right turn and head north.”
Likewise Grech teamed up with 15 people to rent an eight-person Winnebago from a Dunmore rental company. “By any means necessary we were getting out there,” he says. The Aquinas reported Dan Shea ’83 skipped his GMATs and rented a vehicle from Rent-A-Wreck with nine of his fellow Royals. Similarly Mike Booth ’83, Ted Christy ’84 and six others chipped in on their own rental.
Mariano, who was roommates with high-flying forward Jeff Jones ’84, didn’t have an automobile or the money to make the trip himself. Instead, he led a bus trip with sports information director Ken Buntz’s blessing.
For just $70 fans purchased a bus ticket that included transportation, lodging and game tickets. “The only way for me to get out there was to run that trip,” Mariano says. “Once we found out the team was going to Michigan, everyone started making plans to get out there.”
As many as 16 buses hit Route 80 packed with students, family, friends, alumni and other members of the Scranton community. The actual number of buses has evaded those who made the trip 30 years ago.
“It was my first major road trip in college,” says Lane, a photographer for The Aquinas. “We drove straight through. We had no place to stay. It was just four or five of us with just enough money for gas and junk food. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, but we wanted to be there.
“As a journalist, as a fan of the team, as a student at the school, you had to be there.”
The memories of the city of Grand Rapids and the campus of Calvin College have faded for many of the Royals who made the road trip. In fact, for some, it’s hard to recall who made the trip at all. “I don’t remember how many of my good friends went, but it was the type of thing where you almost didn’t care,” explains Degenhart. “It was a pilgrimage. If you were into the team and into the season, you just wanted to make the trip.”
“There was this excitement among the fans,” Lane adds. “To us, it was the playoffs, not just the Division III playoffs. If it’s your school, it doesn’t matter what division it is, it’s the Final Four.”
While Scranton had the furthest trip of the four semifinal teams, there was an undeniable pro-Royals crowd at Calvin College’s Knollcrest Fieldhouse. In every direction, purple and white dominated the crowd.
When starter Mickey Banas ’84 looked into the stands, he saw his roommate Steve Casey ’84 and his entire dorm, the Mercer House, as well as family, friends and alumni who were all regulars at the Royals’ games. Even Scranton mayor James Barrett McNulty was there. It might not have been the Long Center, but it sure resembled it.
The Aquinas painted a great picture of the crowd explaining, “Armed with bedsheets, toilet paper, our home-grown rooster, and flashing the latest Burger King crowns, we prepared ourselves for battle against the Roanoke Maroons.”
Support aside, Friday’s NCAA semifinal against Roanoke was closer than its 82-67 final score indicates. The first half was nip and tuck, but sixth-man Tom Kosin ’83 poured in double digits to lead the way. The Royals’ victory shouldn’t have been a surprise given the game’s tempo. “Roanoke wanted to run up and down and play a fast-paced game,” Hutchinson recalls. “Anyone who did that with us ended up on the losing end that year.”
Afterward, Coach Bessoir and his staff stayed behind to scout the semifinal match-up between Wittenberg and Wisconsin-Whitewater in preparation for the following day’s title game. Bessoir put Hutchinson and his fellow captains in charge, explaining, “everyone has to be in their hotel rooms by 11 p.m.”
“Well, we get back to the hotel and there are probably 200 students waiting for us,” Hutchinson laughs. “I thought, ‘There is no way I’m going to be able to corral all of this.’ But our guys knew what was at stake. We were focused, and we were ready to take care of business.”
All these years later, LeClair – like many Royal students on hand – can’t remember where he rested his head that night. There was good reason – Scranton fans weren’t in Michigan to relax. “Sleep is not one of the things you remember from that trip,” adds Roberts.
Nearly halfway through Saturday’s title game, the Royals, trailing by as many as nine points, looked like anything but champions.
Although the crowd – 3,700 strong – favored Scranton, Wittenberg was grinding down the pace, using its physical, half-court style to keep the Royals at bay. To make matters worse, point guard Todd Bailey ’85 was injured, and his return was uncertain.
With 30 years of hindsight available, Banas knows exactly how Scranton pulled off what now seems like an inevitable comeback.
“It was a combination of good coaching, Billy Bessoir ’85 having an unbelievable game, and our fan base,” he says. “What brought us back was the crowd, and the energy they generated helped us pull out the win. Beyond a doubt they helped us win the title.”
With eight minutes left, Bailey returned and teamed with Banas to nail a series of key free throws down the stretch, and Bessoir put the finishing touches on a spectacular contest, pouring in 27 points en route to the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. In the closing seconds, Wittenberg got off a desperation heave that missed its mark, securing the Royals’ 64-63 win and igniting “utter bedlam, but in a positive way,” says Grech.
Fans rushed the court, engulfing the players on the floor. Banas calls a photograph of him and Jones hugging moments after the final buzzer – with a storm of fans converging from behind – one of his most prized possessions. “The happiness and the magnitude of that win as you get older gets better and better,” he explains.
“The fans’ support, including how many came out to Michigan, just solidified how the student body and the community of Scranton felt about our team and how much it meant to them,” Hutchinson says. “They were responsible for that championship as much as our play.”
As the Royals cut down the net in celebration, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was queued up on the gym’s PA system. “The transformation of the Knollcrest Fieldhouse into ‘Long Center West’ was finally complete,” concludes an Aquinas article.
“When that song would play, and we would head out on the floor, whewwww, what a wonderful feeling that was,” Coach Bessoir recalls.