There is nothing like the first time.
While LSU fans seem to remember the Final Four teams of the 1980s most of all, let's never ever forget the team that did it first - 60 years ago - in 1953 when it wasn't called the Final Four, but it was still very, very important.
Don't remember the year 1953? Well, a guy nicknamed "Ike" was President of the United States. A postage stamp was three cents, cokes were a nickel, movies were a dime. Gasoline hovered at 22 cents a gallon. Yes, things were different. So was what we know as the NCAA Basketball Tournament and what we now know as the Final Four.
It's amazing to look at the official program that (thanks to the wife of Benny McArdle) has been preserved over these 60 years and see the event titled as the East-West finals and in an article in the book the event is also referred to as the NCAA "Tournament of Champions." The moniker of the Final Four would not come into play until the 1970s, but no matter what you want to call it, the 1953 season is one of the pinnacle seasons in LSU basketball's 100-plus year history.
LSU and 21 teams were invited to the 1953 Big Dance. Two wins and LSU found itself in Kansas City for the Final Four.
A Big Deal? Sure it was. As big a deal as today? In some way, it's your reflections of the time. Don't tell the members of the 1953 team being honored Saturday it wasn't a big deal.
But how did it happen? How did these Tigers make such a great run in 1953? How did they do it with a coach (Harry Rabenhorst) that some fans felt was "too old to win?" Some of them tried to tell AD Skipper Heard that and by the end of the season, Heard told New Orleans columnist Hap Glaudi: "Why Harry's been with us for something like 27 years and I know he ain't too old to win."
The Tigers were the favorites to win the SEC with Kentucky not eligible in 1953. But Rabenhorst was having nothing of it with the media. "Nothing's certain but death and taxes." But he did say that LSU had a "better than average ball club, although I don't think we're as good as people say."
Rabenhorst was able to mold a perfect lineup from a young team to go with his lanky junior star Bob Pettit. He needed a smart fast guard and that came from McArdle (who reminded me with a big happy smile at the 100 year celebration that he was the one that got the ball to people like Pettit). He would be voted the league's top playmaker that year with good reason. The forward Rabenhorst needed who could make outside shots was Don Belcher. Another big man who could play defense came in the form of Ned Clark and the other guard who could be a terrific driver and shooter was Norman Magee.
Other members of the team were Kenny Bridges, Bob Freshley, Don Loughmiller, Bill Lee, Jim McNeilly, Charlie Roberts, Darrel Schultz, Don Sebastien, Skip Jones and Paul Brayman.
Bridges, Clark, Freshley, Loughmiller, McArdle, Pettit, Roberts, Sebastian will represent the team in ceremonies before the Tip-Off Club and later at halftime of today's game.
Pettit (Bobby as he is listed in the 1953 media guide) was the start of the team and he went on to legendary status in the game, but the 1953 season had a cast of players who could all contribute.
The regular season of 1953 was near perfection for the Tigers, going through the SEC undefeated. Even a spell of viral pneumonia that knocked 6-9 Pettit out for several games couldn't stop LSU as the Tigers continued winning.
Pettit, speaking at the Tip-Off Club luncheon, reminded everyone they "won every game while I was gone."
"That's what brought us together," McArdle said at the time. "We gained confidence knowing we could win even without Bob."
Dan Hardesty wrote in the local paper then: "The other Tigers may not be Pettits, but neither are they nice guys named Joe. They include several boys who might have been headliners if they had done to another school. At LSU, they seem glad enough to be shock troops while big Bobby sets the records and that attitude toward the game is what has made a good team into a near-great one this year."
"I think that made us a stronger team because we saw what we could do," said Ned Clark. "When Bob returned we were an even stronger team at that point."
After winning the SEC, the team advanced through Raleigh with wins over Lebanon Valley and Holy Cross to get to Kansas City and the promised land of college basketball. Call it what you would back then, but in basketball history, this was and will always be the Final Four for this group of players.
In January 1993, the members of the team came together again on the LSU campus with memories as bright as the sun. They were back on the LSU campus where it all began. They were honored with the NCAA rings they so deserved.
Now in February 2013, 60 years after an amazing undefeated SEC campaign that featured 22 overall wins, the living members of the team are back once again for LSU fans to remember and honor. It was a special time in LSU basketball. Let's enjoy the chance to salute these great players one more time. This is history we need to recognize, honor and celebrate. This is LSU Basketball!