AMES, Iowa – This past weekend, Iowa State men’s basketball letterwinners spanning nine decades congregated to Ames to reminisce with teammates/friends/colleagues at the Cyclone Basketball Alumni Reunion.
The event was organized by head coach Steve Prohm and Assistant Athletics Director for Special Events/Letterwinners Club Lindsey Long. The duo spent hours on the phone calling former players to personally welcome them back to Ames.
Prohm is keenly aware of the importance of keeping former Cyclone stars connected to the program. The concept of an alumni reunion was something he envisioned when he took over the reins of Cyclone men’s hoops in 2015.
“We have great tradition here at Iowa State,” Prohm said. “It’s so important for our staff and athletics department to pay tribute to our former players, just to let them know how much we appreciate them.”
The turnout was amazing, with 90 alumni attending the social/dinner Friday evening and the Johnny Orr Basketball Alumni Golf Classic on Saturday.
Many of the letterwinners who returned are among Cyclone Royalty, which this list below affirms.
11– 1,000-point scorers
5– Players who played in the NBA for 27 years of experience
4– Iowa State Hall-of-Famers (Gary Thompson, Zaid Abdul-Aziz, Fred Hoiberg, Andrew Parker)
4– Academic All-Americans (Fred Hoiberg, Julius Michalik, Paul Shirley, Jake Sullivan)
3– Players whose jersey number is retired and hangs in the Hilton Coliseum rafters (Gary Thompson, Zaid Abdul-Aziz, Fred Hoiberg)
Virtually all of the greatest teams in school history had representatives at the reunion, which included at least one member of 12 of ISU’s 13 conference championship teams (regular season & tournament).
However, maybe the most astounding note of the weekend was there was at least one representative from all 20 of Iowa State’s NCAA postseason squads.
This was possible because Fred Gordon, a starter on ISU’s 1941 Big Six champion and NCAA District Qualifier team, and Bill Block, a starter on ISU’s 1944 NCAA Final Four and 1944-45 Big Six champion squads, were back in Ames over the weekend.
Gordon, at 99 years old, is one of ISU’s oldest living basketball alumni. He was 23 years old in 1941 when the Cyclones made history by defeating Phog Allen’s Kansas team, 41-29 in State Gymnasium to clinch just the second conference title in school history.
Hilton Magic wasn’t born yet, but there was plenty of “Magic” inside the tight corridors of State Gym that night. Gordon was ISU’s defensive specialist, and his assignment was to guard KU’s star guard Howard Engleman, who was the second Consensus All-American in the school’s storied history.
Engleman came into the game boasting a 16.5 ppg scoring average, an astronomical clip for its time. Gordon did his part, holding the All-American to a mere five points.
“I remember Coach Menze telling me I was going to have to guard Engleman,” Gordon recollected. “The year before, Kansas made the national championship game, and he was a really good basketball player. But on that particular night, competing for the conference championship, I scored seven points and Engleman scored five. In other words, I outscored their best player, and I wasn’t one of our top offensive players. I guarded him tough that night, and we came out fine.”
Maybe the Cyclones didn’t celebrate the championship like the 2017 squad did in Kansas City last March, but they certainly understood the significance of the win.
“Oh, we celebrated like everybody else does,” Gordon said. “We were giving each other hugs and patting each other on the back. It was a big deal. The only time that Iowa State, to my knowledge, had won a conference title at the time was in 1935 with Waldo Wegner. So it was a big deal for us and the school.”
The 1941 Cyclones had plenty of talent. Gordon teamed with Al Budolfson, who was a two-time first-team All-Big Six selection and later an ISU Hall of Fame inductee.
“He was a real competitor, and really quick,” Gordon said about his teammate. “He was tall for those times and very quick, and very, very determined. He was our star, so if you did something wrong, he would let you know about it. The whole team was determined that year.”
The NCAA Tournament was only in its third year of existence, and by winning the league title, the Cyclones were invited to play in the Fifth District NCAA Qualifying game, the first time a Cyclone team was selected for postseason competition.
Two weeks after the big win over KU, the Cyclones traveled to Kansas City to face Creighton for a chance to play in the eight-team NCAA Championship.
The Cyclones lost to Creighton, 57-48, but Gordon, who scored six points in the contest, can still remember that historic game in ISU hoops history.
“Creighton was a good team and some of us got the feeling Al (Budolfson) didn’t want to play in that game,” Gordon said. “Neither did Nick (Gordon Nicholas), but I was excited for it. I don’t think we were ready to play, but Creighton was probably the better team.”
Gordon, who graduated from St. Ansgar High School, will forever be a Cyclone. Fans will remember Gordon at the age of 90 playing in the Iowa State Century Celebration basketball game in 2008.
He scored the first basket of the game, with an assist from a ladder.
“It wasn’t as exciting as it was funny,” Gordon laughed. “One of the coaches stopped the game and he cleared everybody off of the floor except me. He came to me and said, ‘Now Freddie, you’re going to get a chance to score. Those guys are going to stay off the sideline and all you have to do is dribble down and make a layup.’ Well, I dribbled down and missed the damn thing. I was wide open, but I grabbed the ball and thought, ‘I’ll get it this time and make up for my error.’ I missed it again. I shot four times and missed them all. Finally, they bring out a step ladder and I got one to go in.”
The 1944 Iowa State NCAA Final Four team is, without a doubt, one of the greatest units in the history of Cyclone basketball, and Block, who is 92 years old, was a key player in their success.
The Cyclones recorded a 14-4 overall record and a 9-1 league mark in 1944, claiming a share of the Big Six crown and earning ISU’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
It was a tumultuous time in the United States in 1944, as war was ravaging in Europe and the Pacific. The majority of the young males in the U.S. were serving their country and it was no exception at Iowa State, where enrollment dropped significantly.
Because of its strong engineering programs, ISU was one of several schools that offered Naval training programs. The Navel cadets could train under ISU’s V-5 and V-12 engineering curriculum and be eligible to participate in athletics for the Cyclones regardless of age or previous college graduation.
Block, a native of Muscatine, was among the Navy cadets, as well as one of the most colorful characters on the 1944 Cyclone team, a guy named Price Brookfield. At 23 years old and eligible as a V-5 cadet, Brookfield had already graduated from college, earning All-America honors at West Texas State.
Block remembers Brookfield being a man among boys.
“He was probably the best basketball player I had ever seen at the time and a really nice guy,” Block said.
How the Cyclones made the NCAA Tournament in 1944 is a fascinating story. Because many members of the team were involved with Naval responsibilities, it looked like Iowa State couldn’t participate because the cadets couldn’t be away from their base longer than 48 hours.
The Cyclones eventually got permission to go, and was one of eight teams to make the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, we thought we were pretty good,” Block said. “It was really exciting to go and play for the whole thing in ‘44.”
With an NCAA bid secured, the Cyclones traveled to Kansas City to face Pepperdine in the Western Regional Championship. Pepperdine was a fast-paced, high-scoring team for its time, but the Cyclones put the clamps down, holding the Waves to a season-low 39 points in a 44-39 triumph.
Pepperdine was led by 6-7 All-American Nick Buzolich, who had 22 of the team’s 39 points. Even though Buzolich proved his mettle in the paint, ISU head coach Louis Menze felt the Cyclones were far superior in the backcourt and could win that battle.
“Pepperdine had a player named Nick Buzolich, who seemed like he was like 8-foot tall,” Block remembered. “We weren’t used to playing against someone that size. We just felt we could beat them by running, and we did.”
Utah was ISU’s next opponent, as the Cyclones were now a win away from the national championship game.
ISU was again confident heading into the matchup with the Utes. Utah first accepted a bid in the NIT, and after bowing in the first round, added a NCAA invitation when Arkansas had to decline when two players suffered injuries and a staffer was killed in an automobile accident.
ISU’s luck ran out vs. Utah, falling 40-31, as Block chipped in with five points in the loss.
Block remembers the Cyclones being plagued by foul trouble and having one of their worst performances of the season.
“I remember our coach Louis Menze said, ‘You know those big tall slim guys from Utah? We’ll just cut their legs off of them.’ As it turned out that’s what they did to us. They had two good guards in (Arnie) Ferrin and (Wat) Misaka. I remember we had the lead in the second half. Then I fouled out and Ray Wehde fouled out. Next was our star player Brookfield, who also fouled out.”
If the Cyclones had any chance to beat Utah, they had to have Brookfield at the top of his game. It didn’t happen, as Brookfield fouled out with six points on 3-of-17 shooting.
“He (Brookfield) was thinking more about going out the night before,” Block remembered. “He had his dress uniform on, and we didn’t see him after the Pepperdine game. Coach Menze came to supper and said, ‘Where’s Brooky?’ He was completely gone, nowhere to be found. He shot 14 times in the second half and didn’t make a point. He was our star, and we felt he kind of let us down a little bit.”
Another issue arose before the game that probably led to ISU’s poor performance. The team was alerted they were required to return home after the game, meaning win-or-lose, the Cyclones wouldn’t be able to play in the national championship game because the Navy was going to enforce its 48-hour rule.
“After we beat Pepperdine, we got word since we were in the Navy, we couldn’t go to New York to play in the finals,” Block said. “The Naval people said we couldn’t be off the base for more than 48 hours, so we couldn’t play in the championship game even if we won. So that kind of hurt, you know?”
Block wasn’t done making his mark as a Cyclone, however, helping ISU win its second-straight Big Six title the following year in 1944-45.
Both Gordon and Block were thrilled to be a part of the reunion. The stars of yesteryear spoke highly of their former coach, Menze, who is an ISU Hall-of-Famer and one of the great leaders in the history of Iowa State Athletics.
“He was a very fine man,” Gordon said. “He was a strict person, and he liked to have us dress up. In other words, when we go on a trip we had a suit. He always had us looking sharp.”
“He was a great coach, and very likeable,” Block added. “No profanity. He never yelled at you, even though you might goof off every now and then. We all liked him very much.”