A few years ago, Kansas City’s strongest connection to Wisconsin basketball ended his personal streak of attending Final Fours at 54. John Erickson had turned 80, and the trips were getting expensive.
But with an opportunity to buy tickets in November, Erickson had a sense about this season.
“I had a feeling Wisconsin might make it this year,” he said.
The Badgers did and will take on Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinals, and their former coach, who has lived in the Kansas City area since the early 1970s, is thrilled to be along for the ride.
Erickson, 86, who led the program during 1959-68, felt the old tension of coaching in the nail-biting final moments of Wisconsin’s overtime survival of Arizona in the West Regional final in Anaheim, Calif. When the Wildcats’ Nick Johnson didn’t get off his final attempt, sealing the deal, Erickson’s premonition was realized.
“I thought in the preseason they had the makings of a championship team,” said Erickson, who lives in Lenexa. “A fine coach, a big center, very good shooters, guys off the bench. This is a very good team.”
Coach Bo Ryan and Frank Kaminsky, the 7-foot center whose step-back three-point ability has helped build his 13.7-point scoring average, received loud ovations during the Badgers’ net-cutting ceremony, and if they win two more games, Erickson will be there to cheer in person.
Erickson’s Wisconsin teams didn’t reach the postseason — only conference champions did then — but his teams contributed big moments to the program’s history, none more special than the 1962 team’s upset of top-ranked Ohio State.
The Jerry Lucas-led Buckeyes were headed to their second straight national championship game and arrived in Madison undefeated and having won 27 straight Big Ten games. The Badgers won by 19 on their way on to a second-place conference finish.
Erickson’s coaching tenure is only a slice of a basketball career that will be honored on Sunday in Dallas as a Guardians of the Game award winner, presented by the Kansas City-based National Association of Basketball Coaches.
He came to Kansas City in 1972 as executive director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a position he held until 1988 when the Big Eight was seeking a supervisor of officials.
Here, he was reunited in a professional sense with his longtime friend Iowa State head coach Johnny Orr. They had been teammates at Beloit College in Wisconsin in the late 1940s, and outside of Orr’s family, perhaps nobody took Orr’s death in December harder than Erickson.
“We’d known each other for 65 years,” Erickson said. “That was a tough one. He’d have loved this Iowa State team.”
Perhaps the most fascinating years of Erickson’s basketball life occurred between the Badgers and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In 1968, he was hired as the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, in their second year of existence.
As most teams do, the Bucks stumbled through their inaugural NBA season. But the opportunity for vast improvement presented itself in the second year. Three-time national player of the year Lew Alcindor, who soon changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was about to enter the draft.
The Bucks and the other two-year-old NBA team, the Phoenix Suns, flipped a coin for draft position. Phoenix got to make the call — heads. The coin, flipped in the office of commissioner Walter Kennedy, landed on tails.
“But we had to sign him,” Erickson said.
That became Erickson’s job, and he was battling the fledgling American Basketball Association. The New York Nets thought they had an edge, inviting Abdul-Jabbar to play in his hometown.
Abdul-Jabbar told the Bucks and the Nets he would accept one offer from each team, and Erickson was tasked with putting together the proposal. After a few days of consideration, Abdul-Jabbar called Erickson, to accept the Bucks’ five-year, $1.25 million deal.
The Bucks improved by 29 games in Abdul-Jabbar’s rooking season and, after acquiring Oscar Robertson, won its only NBA championship in the next year. It would be the first of Abdul-Jabbar’s six MVP seasons.
More than the numbers and achievements, Erickson remembers the person.
“He was a great team man, the best in the locker room, and represented the Bucks so well,” Erickson said. “He never asked for favors, extra tickets or anything like that.”
The person who played major roles in Wisconsin’s sports history will be in the building to witness what would be a monumental achievement, a Badgers’ national championship.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Erickson said. “I think they can do it.”