The Day the Basketball Died: The 35th Anniversary of the Plane Crash That Took the Lives of the Evansville Basketball Team

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With additional research by Dennis Goodman

The University of Evansville (UE) Purple Aces spent much of their afternoon and evening on Tuesday December 13, 1977 sitting in the Evansville Regional Airport waiting for a plane.

The chartered DC-3 that was scheduled to take them to Nashville (en route to Murfreesboro, Tennessee for a game against Middle Tennessee State) was three hours late, delayed by inclement weather.

Air Indiana flight 216 finally departed at 7:19 p.m. Only seconds after taking off, a member of the flight crew radioed the tower, saying only, “Standby.”

Less than two minutes later, the DC-3 crashed into Evansville’s Melody Hill neighborhood, not far from the airport.

Only four people survived the impact. Three died at the scene. Freshman Greg Smith would die in Evansville’s Deaconess Hospital a few hours later.

Wreckage of the DC-3 plane that was supposed to take the Evansville Aces to Nashville on December 13, 1977 (Photo from Evansville Living)

Patrick Alvey, a pilot who was at the airport when the plane went down, told the Associated Press in 2007, “We saw [the plane] go into the clouds. We heard a loud ‘pop.’ We heard an engine rev up, then we heard the crash and saw an explosion.”

Alvey, who was one of the first people to arrive at the crash scene, said of the wreckage, “The fuselage was intact, the left wing was ripped off. Very many bodies were still in their seatbelts and many were strewn around. It was a mess—just a total mess.”

Larry Smith, a reporter with Evansville’s WFIE-TV, the local NBC affiliate, was one of the first people on the scene. Smith told WAVE3 (Louisville’s NBC affiliate) that when he arrived to the site he noticed a young man’s body. “I took about three more steps and I tripped over something. I got up and I looked and it was a big gym bag, like they carry basketballs in. And it had the U-of-E logo on the side. And my heart absolutely stopped.”

News of the tragedy spread throughout the evening.

Jeff Kniese, younger brother of Evansville student trainer Mark Kniese, had just turned 16 and was celebrating his first evening as a legal driver on December 13, 1977. Kniese, a student at Harrison High School on Evansville’s east side, went to that night’s Harrison basketball game with some friends. He remembers people in the bleachers talking about a plane crash, but details were scarce. It wasn’t until he went to McDonald’s after the game that he learned the news.

Middle Tennessee coach Jimmy Earle said in 2007, “We were going over the scouting report and the next thing we know we got a call that the plane had crashed.” Middle Tennessee held a memorial for the crash victims at the Murphy Center, the school’s basketball arena.

Evansville assistant Mark Sandy was on a scouting trip at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He heard the news on the radio on his way back to Evansville. “It felt like it was somebody else—that it was a mistake,” he told the Associated Press.

Current Evansville men’s basketball coach Marty Simmons was a middle school student in Lawrenceville, Illinois, about one hour north of Evansville, on December 13, 1977. He recalls his dad telling him the news. “I remember going to my bedroom and crying,” he said.

Evansville has always recruited heavily in southern Illinois, and the region was well represented on the 1977 team. Simmons was a fan of Mike Duff from Eldorado, who was a freshman at Evansville that year.

“I watched him play in the state tournament,” Simmons remembers. “Mike was one of the best ever.”

“He just about swallowed you up with his enthusiasm”

In 1977, as the Aces prepared to make the jump from Division II to Division I, legendary coach Arad McCutcheon retired.

“Coach Mac,” who doubled as a math professor and was responsible for Evansville’s famous sleeved jerseys and other quirky traditions that had endeared the program to local fans, won five NCAA championships at the Division II level.

But the program had dropped off since Coach Mac’s Aces won their last title in 1971. When Evansville moved to Division I, it made sense for the old coach to step down.

When McCutcheon retired, the school turned to Aces legend Jerry Sloan, who had just ended a successful pro career with the Chicago Bulls.

Residents of southern Indiana know Sloan for leading Evansville College to back-to-back NCAA College Division (Division II) championships in the early 1960s. The rest of the world knows him as the Hall-of-Fame coach who coached the Stockton-and-Malone Utah Jazz to 15 consecutive playoff appearances, including two trips to the NBA Finals.

Sloan accepted the Evansville job but didn’t last long. After five days, citing personal reasons, he left UE and took a job with another of his former teams, joining the Bulls coaching staff as an assistant.

By the end of the decade, the former Bulls star was the team’s head coach. After an unremarkable three-year stint in Chicago, Sloan took several coaching and scouting jobs (including a gig as the coach of the Evansville Thunder of the Continental Basketball Association) before being named the head coach of the Jazz.

With Sloan back in Chicago, Evansville turned to a young coach named Bobby Watson, an assistant at Oral Roberts.

The ORU Golden Eagles (who would later be Evansville’s conference rivals) were consistent winners in the 1970s, winning more than 20 games for six consecutive seasons, from 1971 to 1977, and earning four NIT invitations. (The NIT was still a big deal in the 1970s.)

Coach Bobby Watson took over the Aces in 1977. (AP Photo)

Evansville fans approached the move to Division I with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

The coach who had become a basketball legend and a transcendent figure in the community was no longer on the bench. And fans understood that the unparalleled success the Aces had enjoyed at the Division II level wouldn’t translate immediately (or possibly ever) to NCAA’s upper tier.

It was a tough situation for a young coach in his first head coaching gig.

Watson, who stood 6’7″, answered the challenge with energy and charisma. McCutchan told Sports Illustrated in 1978, “Coach Watson was so big and nice and all, he just about swallowed you up with his enthusiasm.”

Norman Kniese, father of student trainer Mark Kniese, said in 2007, “It was a popular team. They had a new coach, and things were looking up for them. Enthusiasm was very high.”

Watson—who was responsible for introducing the Aces’ mascot, a riverboat gambler named Ace Purple—embraced the challenge of leading a Division II power into Division I and replacing a coach who would later be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. And the community loved him for it.

Watson’s tenure as the head basketball coach at the University of Evansville would last only four games. The Aces were 1-3, including a loss to Larry Bird and Indiana State, when they set off for Tennessee on December 13, 1977.

The 1977 Evansville Purple Aces

The 1977 Evansville Purple Aces

Sloan mentioned the tragedy in his 2009 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech:

I was offered the position of head coach at Evansville . . . . Unfortunately, I lasted five days. I resigned for personal reasons and went back to Chicago. I was replaced by Bobby Watson in Evansville and sadly he was killed, in that fall, along with the entire basketball team and traveling staff.

Their plane crashed on takeoff while leaving Evansville and everyone was killed on that team. That incident on December 13, 1977 made me realize that there are a lot more things more important than basketball, even though I love this game.

The Legends of Eldorado

Eldorado High School in Eldorado, Illinois, a town of just over 4,000 one hour west of Evansville in the Shawnee Hills region of Southern Illinois, plays its home basketball games in the Duff-Kingston Memorial Gym.

The name refers to Mike Duff and Kevin Kingston, two of the legends in the storied history Eldorado High School basketball, both of whom played for the Aces in 1977—Kingston was a senior, Duff was a freshman—and both of whom were on Air Indiana flight 216.

Greg Goodley, the athletic director and former head basketball coach at Eldorado, says of Duff, “I think that Mike was on track to have a great career at Evansville. He was playing a lot as a freshman, and showed that he could play at that level.”

Current Evansville coach Simmons, who as a kid in southern Illinois followed Duff’s high school career, said that Duff was like the “Larry Bird of Illinois.”

Eldorado High School dedicated its gymnasium to Mike Duff and Kevin Kingston, two former Eldorado Eagles who died in the 1977 plane crash. (Photo from Greg Goodley, Eldorado High School)

The Eldorado teams of the 1970s were some of the best in school history.

Behind Duff, who scored a school record 2,113 points during his high school career, the Eagles made three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight in Champaign, finishing as high as third and fourth in the state. Goodley recalls Duff and Kingston both being players whom he idolized and guys that he could talk to and joke around with.

Goodley was in fifth grade in December of 1977. He remembers the night of the crash vividly.

“I remember that night like it was yesterday, watching the news as a kid, and the realization that we had lost two great young men, as did many others. The community was in shock, phones rang through out the town that night with people asking if Mike and Kevin were on the flight, asking if this is really true? Going to school the next day and feeling the lose of people who you admired. I think that feeling was through the entire town.”

*****

Click to continue reading and learn the individual stories of more victims of the plane crash, as well as how the Evansville basketball program rebuilt itself in the aftermath and continues to honor the crash victims to this day.

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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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