This is the second of four March Madness stories involving those with Chattanooga ties.
It doesn’t seem fair that one’s legacy can – or should be – defined by a singular moment in time. Especially in the realm of competitive sports, where outcomes are impacted by thousands of variables leading up to the final verdict and mere inches separate fame and infamy.
Former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball player Russ Schoene understands this concept all too well. While the 6-foot-10 forward went on to enjoy a 12-year professional career – five of those in the NBA and seven more in Italy where he was named league MVP in 1986 – followed by a successful business career in Bellevue, Washington, those achievements still don’t completely eradicate the sting of March 14, 1982.
The setting was the second round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament’s Mideast Regionals at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. The Mocs, coached by the late Murray Arnold, had stunned North Carolina State in the first round, and were on the cusp of shocking No. 2 seed Minnesota to advance to the first Sweet Sixteen in school history.
Down 62-61 to the Gophers in the waning seconds, sophomore guard Willie White penetrated the paint, drawing two defenders. White dished the ball to a wide-open Schoene, who had scored 20 points in the game, on the right block beneath the basket. But Schoene’s uncontested close-range baseline jumper bounced harmlessly off the rim. While the Mocs had one final desperation attempt to pull off the upset, Schoene’s miss is one that haunted him and UTC fans for some time.
“I replayed that shot in my mind a lot,” Schoene said. “Oddly enough, I was playing in Italy a few years later and I was on the same spot on the floor, had the same shot but it was in a game that didn’t really matter because we had already clinched the top spot in the league for the playoffs. I shot it the same way and it went in.
“Everybody’s celebrating and I’m kind of looking down at the floor showing zero emotion. My American teammate, Mike D’Antoni, who’s coaching the Rockets right now, comes up to me and asks, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ I just stared at him and the only thing I remember saying was, ‘Wrong game.’”
The memory of that misfire is something that Schoene, 37 years later, wishes he would have executed differently.
“What I should have done against Minnesota was I should have gone all the way to the rim with the ball and either dunked it or got fouled,” Schoene said. “But I shot a shot that I’ll make not just nine out of ten, I’ll probably make that shot 29 out of 30. But I missed that one.”
The outcome wouldn’t have come down to Schoene’s late miss if not for a second half call that perplexed everyone including the CBS television announcers. Senior guard Nick Morken intercepted a Minnesota pass while pressing and scored to give UTC an apparent 10-point cushion late in the game. But a delayed whistle negated the bucket, and Morken was assessed a foul instead.
“Nobody remembers that steal of Nick’s, but if you watch what happened on the video it was clearly a situation where the referee saw the outcome and made up his mind about what must have happened. It was a clean steal because the Minnesota player slipped down. If we’re up by 10, we would have gone into our spread and been shooting free throws the rest of the night,” said Schoene, as there was no shot clock in the college game at the time.
After transferring from a Missouri junior college, Schoene attributes his two years in Chattanooga as pivotal in his development as a player. He averaged 13.6 points per game his senior season, winning MVP accolades in the Southern Conference tournament as the Mocs finished 27-4.
“No question my time in Chattanooga was important to me,” Schoene said. “I’d come back there in the summer to play to get the competition we’d get over at Maclellan (Gym) during pick-up ball every day at five. I came back for about three or four years after I was playing professionally just to hang out for a while. I still remember the Section G crowd at Big Mac. That’s one of the loudest environments I’ve ever been in all the years I played. It gave us a huge advantage.”
Schoene helped lay the foundation for that memorable season the year before when UTC won the SoCon tournament to earn the school’s first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Mocs led Maryland by two at the half before losing, 81-69.
“They had Buck Williams, Albert King and a couple of other guys that got NBA looks,” Schoene said. “We played them tough, but it wasn’t enough. I remember I had a great second half so at least I played well against Buck Williams. It was tough to lose it, but we showed we could play with some of the top-level conference teams that gave us confidence heading into the next year.”
The Mocs put together a historic season in 1981-82, dropping road games at Mississippi State, UAB and Western Carolina before sweeping the conference tournament in Charleston, West Virginia. That set up the first-round matchup with North Carolina State.
“That experience in Indianapolis was special,” Schoene said. “We certainly outplayed two teams in that regional, but we only got one win. The win over N.C. State was a big win looking back because of what they were able to do the next year in winning the national championship with basically the same team.”
But the jubilation of Friday evening turned into heartbreak on Sunday afternoon in what concluded a dismal day for the Volunteer State inside Market Square Arena. Tennessee had lost a close game against Ralph Sampson and Virginia in the first game of the doubleheader.
“Minnesota for me will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth because I had an opportunity to win it for us and couldn’t do it,” Schoene said. “I’m sure Willie’s rethinking that pass he made to me and wishing he would have shot it. I’ve even thought that at times, but the only change I would have made was to go to the rim.”
Despite the disappointing end to Schoene’s time at UTC, he used it as a springboard professionally. He was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers before being traded mid-season of his rookie year to the Indiana Pacers, who just happened to play their home games at Market Square Arena. After missing a year due to injury, Schoene became one of the highest-paid players in the Italian league for seven years before returning to the NBA with Seattle for three seasons.
He was a co-founder of a successful restaurant chain, Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill, which has over 90 locations in the U.S., served as an assistant coach at the University of Washington one season, and now is a project coordinator with James Real Estate outside of Seattle. His daughter, Makena, is playing professional volleyball in Finland after competing in college at Drake.
“I told my daughter when she was recruited out of high school at the D-1 level, she was already ahead of me because all I had were junior college offers,” Schoene said. “She’s a better athlete than I was so she was far ahead of me in a lot of ways. I was a late bloomer.”
But Schoene did indeed bloom to become a proud ambassador for UTC. While he wishes he could change the outcome of his final March Madness memory, little else would Schoene change about his life.
“I had a great group of guys and coaches who were behind me then, and we still get together every couple of years in Chattanooga,” Schoene said. “Those were special times that seem like they took place only a few months ago.”
To contact Paul Payne email email@example.com or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne
(Tomorrow: Former UTC coach Mack McCarthy looks back at the Mocs’ role of Cinderella in making their run to the 1997 Sweet Sixteen.)