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We were all champions, together

I continue to be amazed at how celebrating teamwork and athletic excellence¬†can bring a community together. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Richmond High School boys’ basketball state championship in 1992, and I’m pleased to share this related guest column from Rob Zinkan. I hope it inspires you. -Chris

Twenty-five years later, the memories are still vivid: 33,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome, dramatic come-from-behind overtime wins in both games, and Richmond High School’s long-awaited first state championship in boys’ basketball.

But as incredible as that Saturday in 1992 was, there was much more to that season’s story.

Triumph rarely comes without setbacks along the way. Our setback was the abrupt ending of our 1990-91 season in the semi-state, where we squandered a late seven-point lead to Mount Vernon. Instead of advancing to play Brebeuf Jesuit and harass Alan Henderson in the semi-state final with our “Runnin’ Red Devils” style of play, another promising season had ended in heartbreaking fashion. That awful feeling of what-could-have-been festered, setting the stage for ’92.

We knew that our 1991-92 squad had the potential to be special. Within the season’s first two weeks, we put up 100 points at New Castle, challenged nationally-ranked Chicago Martin Luther King (with its two seven-foot future NBAers), and knocked off top-ranked Anderson Highland at home.

Ranked number seven in the preseason, we finished the regular season 15-5 and ranked 12th. As was the case annually, the North Central Conference was a beast. (I remember a late-night visit to Reid Hospital for stitches after taking an elbow to the face during a road win at third-ranked Lafayette Jeff.)

I loved playing in Hinkle Fieldhouse; it was the quintessential atmosphere for Hoosier Hysteria and the one-class tradition. To reach the semi-state final, we won our first six tourney games by an average of 30 points. We benefited from a favorable tournament draw and avoided conference foe and number-one-ranked Anderson, an upset victim to Ben Davis earlier in the day.

Even though we were down at the half to Ben Davis that night, the collective feeling in the halftime locker room of confidence, excitement, and belief in one another is a lasting memory.

The euphoria of Billy Wright’s game-winning three from the top of the key was unreal. We had won the semi-state, our season was continuing, and we were going to the Dome!

The following weekend provided countless memories, both significant and seemingly minor. I recall our Friday practice at the Hoosier Dome and the weirdness of shooting in such a cavernous setting. I remember that it seemed to take forever to get to our locker room, as we snaked through never-ending hallways in the recesses of the Dome). And I remember how Coach George Griffith surprised us at practice with new black shoes to replace our standard white ones. Black basketball shoes were a big deal back then, having been made famous by Michael Jordan (the Bulls would break them out for the playoffs) and Michigan’s Fab Five.

Our hotel was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While other teams stayed right downtown, we stayed in the same place as the weekend prior – whatever it took to keep luck on our side.

In the early game on Saturday, we had a lackluster first half against Sherron Wilkerson’s Jeffersonville Red Devils. They were up by eight at halftime and manhandled us on the boards. I thought we would get ripped at halftime by Coach Griff. Yet, he simply told us that we had come too far to play like that. That approach ignited an 8-0 run to start the half, and the battle was on. However, Jeffersonville pulled away late and led by six with a minute to go. I’ll never forget the vibe in the building. Jeffersonville’s crowd was already celebrating, certain of a victory. But we never quit. Dedric Thompson and Robert “Boogie” Sanders hit three-pointers (Dedric’s was off the glass). Neither had made a three all season. We somehow extended the game to overtime. Once we got to the extra session, we knew the game was ours to win – final score 94-92 RHS in a classic.

The title game, a rematch with Lafayette Jeff, was also tight. We found ourselves down by three with 30 seconds to go. Chad Austin missed a three-pointer, and we had to foul. A made free throw would have sealed it, but they missed. Chad came right back and drilled a game-tying three. Unbelievable. Once again, the momentum was all ours heading into overtime. We were going to wear down and outlast anyone. When the final horn sounded, it was pure joy jumping around and hugging everyone in sight. State champs!

The trophy presentation, cutting down the nets, and the bus ride back to Richmond – all amazing memories. Coach Griff spent time with each player on the ride home to say thank you.

And we had no idea that when we came back to Tiernan Center there would be thousands of fans waiting for us. It felt as if the entire city had come to celebrate. We were all champions, together.

No city wanted it or deserved it more.

My dad taught at the high school, and we attended virtually every home game when I was a kid, dating back to the Civic Hall days. RHS produced so many great teams and great players over the years. This state championship was for all of them too.

I have now worked for almost 15 years as an administrator in the Indiana University system. Legendary 20th century IU president Herman B Wells (who was instrumental in laying the foundation for IU East’s eventual founding) once said that the most essential leadership ingredients are energy and luck. Our championship run required an abundance of both.

Many people remember the famous NCAA regional final from that same evening, with Duke beating Kentucky 103-102 on Christian Laettner’s iconic buzzer-beater. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski later wrote, “Many people said we were lucky, but I think luck favors teams who trust one another.” He could have been talking about our 1992 team.

It was an honor to wear the Richmond jersey, play in front of packed home crowds, and call those guys teammates.

Rob Zinkan, George Griffith, Boogie Sanders, and Billy Wright at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame annual awards dinner on Wednesday

Of everything that has stuck with me in the years since, one lesson from Coach Griff stands out – the necessity of having a laser-like focus on your goal. No one wanted to win a state championship more than he did. Whether it was off-season conditioning or a teaching moment during practice, he would always make the connection to that singular goal.

Looking back a quarter century ago, our uniform shorts were shorter than I remember and the cheerleaders’ hairstyles were bigger than I remember, but the thrill of Richmond’s first state championship was exactly as I remember.

Rob Zinkan grew up in Richmond and graduated from Richmond High School in 1992. He went on to earn degrees from Wabash College, Xavier University, and Creighton University. A former administrator at Indiana University East, Rob currently serves as associate vice president for marketing at Indiana University. He, his wife, and their four children reside in Bloomington.

1 Comment

  1. Clay Bond

    Rob- Great piece, thanks for sharing.

    I have been going to RHS games all of my life. I was only three years old at the time, but I was at both the semi-state and state finals games in 1992.

    Later in my life, I would read old news articles and a book about the 1992 team. I would watch a recording of the Championship game on VHS, before running outside to my hoop to emulate the last second heroics of the hometown heros.

    Today I feel such a strong connection to the city of Richmond. I believe the foundation for that connection was the sense of community I have experienced inside the Tiernan Center over the years.

    It’s been 25 years, but it’s still a source of pride for many of us in Richmond. Thanks.

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