A third of a century later, Dan Gay still remembers the view.
Gay can still recall seeing Patrick Ewing’s arm well over the rim, only 35 seconds into then-USL’s opening game of the 1981-82 basketball season. The Ragin’ Cajuns were a heavy underdog to mighty Georgetown in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage that November.
“My arm was up there, and Alonza (Allen) had his arm up there,” Gay said of the monster dunk that gave the Hoyas a quick 2-0 lead, “and it seemed like his (Ewing’s) arm kept going.”
Gay laughs at the memory, and he can afford to. The rest of the night, the Cajuns controlled Ewing and the Hoyas in what became a 70-61 victory. Gay, a 27-year international pro player after leaving USL, held Ewing to seven points and four rebounds before the future Hall of Famer fouled out.
Two nights later, after a semifinal win over Washington State, USL humbled Marquette by 17 points in the finals to win the Shootout title and send a shockwave through college basketball.
If people didn’t know that USL basketball was back, they knew it then.
It had been eight years earlier that the school resurrected the program after a two-year NCAA-mandated suspension. The architects of that rebuilding project, coaches Jim Hatfield and Bobby Paschal, are being honored in a weekend-long reunion that continues Saturday with activities surrounding the Cajuns’ 1 p.m. basketball contest against Texas-Arlington.
Those two, along with about 80 former players, staffers and others involved with the program from 1974-86, were the guests of honor at a Friday evening reception at the UL-Lafayette Alumni Center. On Saturday, that group will get a VIP tour of the campus and the athletic complex, will be honored at an 11:30 a.m. pregame reception at the Cajundome and will be recognized individually at halftime.
The players and coaches will also have an autograph session at 12:30 p.m. near the front of the Cajundome just before tipoff.
“This place was so special,” said Hatfield, who was charged as head coach with bringing the program back after two years of inactivity. “There was a spirit here, and it wasn’t the wins and losses. Those that went through it are the only ones that will understand, but very few people will ever have the opportunity to experience what I experienced, and I am forever, forever thankful.”
Hatfield coached for one year without playing a game in 1974-75 before the Cajuns returned to the court the following year, and four of the six players who signed with USL during the program’s shutdown were on hand at Friday’s reception. Hatfield, who left after the 1977-78 season to become head coach at Mississippi State, took the time to pay homage to that group.
“We were all pulling in the same direction,” he said. “The administration was behind us, the community was behind us, and we brought in players who could help us achieve those goals. And they bought into the program. To see those guys back here and to get the recognition they deserve, it’s very special.”
Paschal was Hatfield’s assistant during those three years, when the Cajuns went from 7-19 the first year back in 1975-76 to a 21-8 record and the Southland Conference title the next year. Paschal then took over as head coach in 1978-79, and went 153-85 while making six postseason trips in eight years — two to the NCAA tournament and four to the NIT including a memorable run to the NIT FInal Four in 1983-84. He left for the top job at South Florida but still has family in Lafayette and finds himself spending more and more retirement time in Acadiana.
“I will always be indebted to coach Hatfield for allowing me to come here, and I will always be indebted to him for going to Mississippi,” Paschal said to a laugh-filled room Friday.
UL-Lafayette president Dr. E. Joseph Savoie was a USL student in 1972-73 in the final year before NCAA probation.
“Things were just depressed during that time,” Savoie said of the two-year suspension. “The spirit wasn’t there. Coach Hatfield had to convince players to come and sit around for a year, but when we finally got back on the court, the university spirit came back.
“It was like there was new pumping blood in the community. You guys didn’t just bring back a program, you brought back a spirit. You were all involved with something bigger.”
Paschal added: “It was amazing how quickly people got back into it. They supported us, they got emotional, they got rowdy. It was easy to get a kid excited about coming to play here when he saw that environment.
The aura of venerable Blackham Coliseum helped a lot, Paschal said.
“No matter if you were a player, for us or an opponent, no matter if you were a coach, or a fan, Blackham was a place you never forgot,” he said.
The coming together was magic,” Hatfield said. “It wasn’t me ... I was an opportunist. It was these guys, all these players, these coaches and all the rest, they made it special.”