Almost every college athletic fan can recall a “we almost got this player” story. And just like every other school, Iowa State has had its share of them.
As a Cyclone fan growing up in the 1980s, I remember when Glen Rice committed to play basketball at Iowa State. Rice was high school teammates with Jeff Grayer at Flint (Mich.) Northwestern and it looked like Johnny Orr had tapped into the Flint area for another star player who could eventually hang in the rafters with Grayer and Barry Stevens.
Of course, it wasn’t meant to be, as Rice changed his mind and eventually signed with the University of Michigan. He later single-handily led the Wolverines to the 1989 NCAA title, earning Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four before embarking on a 15-year NBA career where he was a three-time All-Star.
I know most Cyclone fans are aware of the close call with Rice. But did you know that one of the greatest players in hoops history, Julius Erving, was almost a Cyclone? Yes, The Doctor was this close to beginning his practice in Ames, Iowa.
I first heard of this story in 2002 when Bill Cain was inducted into the Iowa State Letterwinners Club Athletics Hall of Fame. Cain, a native of New York, had an extraordinary hoops career at Iowa State (1967-70), earning first-team All-Big Eight honors in 1969 and 1970. He set school records for rebounding average in a season (15.2) and rebounds in a game (26 vs. Minnesota), marks which are likely safe for eternity. He’s still one of only four players in school history to finish a career averaging a double-double (19.5 ppg; 12.5 rpg).
Cain was the 42nd pick of the 1970 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers. After narrowly missing the final cut with Portland, Cain contacted then-Drake assistant and future Iowa State assistant Gus Guydon, who was trying to hook him up with a team in Europe through his connections.
“I told Gus, ‘I’m not going to Europe. I want to stay here and play in the NBA,’” Cain told me recently over the phone. “Well, I listened to Gus, and as I’m talking to you now I’m sitting in a country house outside of Paris, France.”
Meeting Cyclone legends and listening to their stories when they come back for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony is one of my favorite times of the year.
When I first met Cain in 2002, I immediately peppered him with questions about his days in Ames. I also asked him about the outstanding players from the New York City area who came to ISU before him. Guys like John Crawford, Vinnie Brewer, Henry Whitney and Zaid Abdul-Aziz, just to name a few.
Without warning, Cain laid a shocker on me.
“You know, we almost got Julius Erving, too,” Cain said at the ceremony.
Well, this was news to me, and as a lifelong fan of Dr. J, frankly I couldn’t believe it. I mean, how come I had never heard of this?
Cain filled me in a little more on Dr. J’s 1967 recruiting visit to Ames in an interview over the phone this past week.
“He (Erving) was from Long Island and was in Ames for an entire weekend, and boy, did we have some great games in State Gym that weekend,” Cain said with a laugh. “I think he would have come to Iowa State if things would have been done a little differently. It is very possible we could have gotten him. It’s too bad he didn’t come there, but we had a great weekend.”
Cain vividly remembers everything about the visit. How could he not? He spent a weekend with one of the all-time greats. Larry Farmer, who played for and later became the head coach at UCLA, also paid a visit to Ames that weekend.
“The Temptations were playing in Des Moines and I grabbed Julius and we went down to the concert on a Saturday night,” Cain remembered. “It was at the old Vets Auditorium and it was the first time both of us had seen them play. We had a blast. I was hoping that was enough to get him to Ames.”
In later books about Erving’s outstanding career, his visit to Ames is backed up. In 2013, Erving published his autobiography, “Dr. J,” where his weekend at Iowa State is mentioned.
We all know the story from here. Erving chooses Massachusetts and evolves into a 16-time All-Star in a 16-year Hall-of-Fame career. He was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.
Cain loves telling the story of his weekend with The Doctor. He also loves recollecting about the sequel to the meeting.
In the 1990s, Cain was in New York to attend a family reunion. By chance, Erving and Cain are distant relatives and Erving was present at the same family gathering. Cain made eye contact with Erving, but after 30 years, he figured he would have no idea who he was.
Suddenly, Erving started walking toward Cain. He put out his enormous hand, which made a basketball look like a softball in his grip, and said, “Bill Cain. Iowa State. The Temptations.”