MURRAY — As he watched a meet-and-greet activity from a distance Friday afternoon ahead of a dinner and program with the 2022 Racer Hoopalooza reunion for Murray State men’s basketball players and coaches, Racer Head Coach Steve Prohm tried to absorb the scenes he was witnessing.
Inside the Hall of Champions, adjacent to the CFSB Center, ahead of the evening’s event, he saw players of different eras exchanging hugs and handshakes. They would tell stories of their respective times as players on campus. Sometimes, it was teammates seeing each other again for the first time in many years.
It all reminded Prohm, now in his second tour of duty as Racers head coach, of why he so much wanted to start this nine years ago during his first go-round in that position.
“Not every program can do this,” said Prohm, who was named head coach in late March. His first tenure started in 2011 and ended in 2015 as he took the head job at Big 12 power Iowa State, where he stayed until 2020. “At both places I’ve been head coach, we were able to kick this off and I’ve been fortunate to have been in two programs that love their basketball and where their players love coming back.
“I just think when you’re an assistant and, one day, hoping to become a head coach, you’re like, ‘I would love to do this and my last couple of years (as an assistant) to (former Racer Head Coach) Billy Kennedy, we were talking about doing it, then he got the opportunity at (Southeastern Conference member) Texas A&M. My favorite day of the year is Senior Day, but this is my favorite weekend of the year.”
For Prohm and fans able to be part of the festivities this past weekend, it was a chance to mingle up close with some of the biggest names the program has ever produced. Four of the six players who have had their jerseys retired and are still living (Paul King, Jeff Martin, Marcus Brown and Isaiah Canaan) returned. One of those — Martin — is Murray State’s all-time leading scorer, while Canaan is part of a class that had the most career wins in Racer history.
Martin’s presence was significant for this year’s event, the first since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for another reason. The Murray State Hall of Famer was also one of the main players for a team that holds an extra special place for Racer fans.
Martin was a starting forward for the 1987-88 team that gave the program its first win in an NCAA Tournament game. The 78-75 win over a North Carolina State team that was only five years removed from a stunning run to a national title paved the way for what has followed. Since then, Murray State has added four more NCAA game wins and has become a nationally-known program, routinely labeled as one to watch around tournament time.
This year, the ‘88 NCAA team and its head coach, Steve Newton, were given a particularly bright portion of the Hoopalooza spotlight.
And Martin echoed the sentiments of nearly all of his teammates who attended the reunion.
“We were not overly surprised. This is what we were meant to do,” Martin said during the meet-and-greet. “There’s no doubt, in my mind, that we got (Murray State’s run of high-profile accomplishments) started. I think we did put Murray State on the map.”
There had been many Murray State teams that came before the ‘88 team that could have broken the NCAA ice for the program. However, Martin said, in his opinion, there were some things present with the ‘88 team that were a little different.
“We had Coach Newton. We had a lot of great coaches and we had players that were committed, resilient, and we went out and played every night. We also had team chemistry,” Martin said.
Newton did not say a whole lot Friday as he was presented a commemorative ball for his service to the program. However, as was the case during his time as the Racer head coach, what he said was sincere.
“I just want to take a moment here to say how blessed I was to be the coach at Murray State and for all of the support that was had here,” Newton said. “It takes great players and great assistant coaches to be successful and I was blessed to be a big part of that.”
Newton also was known for being rather calm on the sideline. Friday, though, he did show his loud voice.
“Thank you all and all I can say is ... GO RACERS!” he exclaimed with a smile as the audience roared its approval.
One particularly important part of that season came in a three-night stretch against the Racers’ bitter Ohio Valley Conference rival, Austin Peay. The Governors came to Racer Arena and handed the host team its only OVC loss of that season on a Saturday night. Two nights later, they met again in Clarksville, Tennessee, where the Racers avenged the loss in resounding fashion.
Fellow Murray State Hall of Famer Don Mann, the starting point guard for the ‘88 team, said that win at Clarksville was huge.
“We had to bounce back. That’s what champions do. They brush themselves off and jump back into the ring. That was critical,” Mann said. “That was at a pivotal part of our season, and we had to have that game.”
Murray State would finish the regular season 13-1 in OVC play and would vanquish Peay one more time in the OVC Tournament title game at Murray. What followed several days later at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Nebraska was a mostly dominant performance against Wolfpack in a 3 vs.14 matchup. Murray State led throughout, even seemed on the verge of blowing out N.C. State at one point, before the Pack came roaring back late.
However, the Racers did hold on ... and made history.
“I’m super excited to come back for this,” said reserve power forward Linzie Foster. “Now, we get the chance to tell our coaches how much we appreciated everything they did for us. We get to tell the fans how much we appreciate all they did for us.
“I’m super proud because you realize that it’s not about you. It’s about Murray the city, about Murray the community, about the people that supported us all the way. Those are the things that we embraced and everybody on the team is doing extremely well in life.”
There also will soon be a third player from the ‘88 team enshrined in the Hall of Fame. King was a starting guard/forward and received notice that he was being inducted to the 2022 class several weeks ago.
“I was told on Father’s Day. That’s when I got the call and we were actually leaving a restaurant (in his hometown of St. Louis) and I had to pull over to look at the phone and see the number and make sure that wasn’t a prank or spam call,” King said Friday. “I’m very grateful and appreciative just to have played here and had the college experience with those that appreciated the effort and hard work we put in and enjoyed watching us do what we do.”
Robert McClatchey was a reserve forward for the Racers in ‘88 and said that NCAA run gave him quite a bit of satisfaction. He was finally able to get people he knew to understand that Murray State meant serious business in the game of college basketball.
“I used to tell friends at home, ‘I play for Murray State.’ They’d say, ‘Where’s Murray State? Is that some little college?’” he recalled. “I’m serious. They’re telling me we’re some ‘little’ college, and I’d tell ‘em, ‘Hey! We’re going to a big college this year!’
“They can’t ignore it now.”