March 28, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Spend time talking to Rich Yunkus and Jim Thorne, and chances are your spine will tingle as they talk about Georgia Tech basketball then and now, especially when conversation tilts to playing in Madison Square Garden — a hoops mecca where they helped the Yellow Jackets win four games in 1970 and 1971.
Sounds like going to heaven without dying. You’ll be amazed by their memories.
The former Jackets are tickled about Tech (20-15) playing CSU Bakersfield (25-9) Tuesday night in an NIT semifinal in the Garden. Thorne will be there. He and a friend will travel to New York City that morning. Yunkus, Tech’s all-time leading scorer and fifth-leading rebounder, will watch on TV in Benton, Ill.
“I personally think Madison Square Garden may be the No. 1, or at least in the top two or three places, to play basketball in the United States,” said Yunkus. “If someone could say there’s one place I want to play basketball, it would be Madison Square Garden.”
This isn’t Tech’s first visit to MSG, in Manhattan.
The Jackets won an NIT game in Madison Square Garden in 1970, and three in 1971 to reach the finals of that tournament, as Thorne helped run the show while averaging 13.2 points as a senior. Tech set a program record that season with 23 wins and Yunkus averaging 25.5 points and 11.1 rebounds.
Banners from those two season-ending tournaments used to hang in the old Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Now, Yunkus and Thorne have them.
“We will give the NIT banners back if they want them,” Yunkus said. “I’ve got the `70 banner … That would be something, and if they did it at a ball game to honor the team I would go back for it. I think it would be well received by the student body.”
Thorne says, “When Tech took down the banners, I couldn’t believe it. If they’d like it back, I’ll give it to them. I just think that people don’t realize how good the NIT was in 1971.”
The NIT had a 16-team field then, when the NCAA Tournament was taking 25 as opposed to the current 68 — mostly just conference regular-season champions, the champions of scant few conference tournaments and a few independents.
Tech was independent at the time, having left the SEC some years earlier and not yet having joined the old Metro Conference.
The Jackets were really good.
Yunkus was stellar from the start of his career, averaging 24.1 points and 11 rebounds as a sophomore and 30.1 points and 12 rebounds as a junior — staggering numbers in any day or age. He went into the Georgia Tech athletic Hall of Fame the same year his career ended, which is nearly unprecedented.
He’s scored more points (2,232) in three seasons — freshmen were not eligible to play in his era — than any Jacket ever, and he’s fifth in rebounds (955) behind three four-year players in Malcolm Mackey, Alvin Jones and Matt Harpring, and Tech’s all-time rebounding average leader, Jim Caldwell (1963-65).
With head coach Whack Hyder, a Tech graduate, helming the team, the Jackets had an interesting season, the only season in school history where the squad lost twice to Hawaii and twice beat Georgia (back in the day, the schools played each other twice, once on each campus).
Thorne almost missed it, almost missed being a roommate with Yunkus for four years on The Flats.
The talented guard from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, just north of Akron, nearly went to North Carolina — the school Tech fell to in the ’71 NIT final.
“In those days, the assistant coach recruiting was Larry Brown, and Eddie Fogler, too,” Thorne said of North Carolina. “I remember sitting at dinner saying to my dad, `I’m going to play for Dean Smith.’
“The phone rang and it was Al Ciraldo, the announcer [at Tech], and all he talked about was the growth of Atlanta and things like that. I was that close. Life takes turns. I roomed with a McDonald’s All American, and he’s still Georgia Tech’s leading scorer.”
Thorne and Yunkus stay in touch, and they have periodic contact with former fellow teammates like Tommy Taylor, Bob Murphy, Howard Thompson, Frank Samoylo and Tommy Wilson.
Yunkus was ridiculous at Tech, averaging 26.6 points over his career.
“He’s left-handed, and lefties are harder to guard because you don’t see them,” Thorne said. “If there was a 3-point line, he could have gone out there and hit them. If you average 27 in your college career, that’s ludicrous!”
Thorne and Yunkus are excited about the Jackets playing in Madison Square Garden. Their memories of the place are singular.
In the 1970 NIT, Tech played in MSG and beat Duquesne in a first-round game before falling 56-55 in the second round to home-standing St. Johns.
A year later, the Jackets won three games in the storied building, beating LaSalle, Michigan and St. Bonaventure to land in the title game against North Carolina. They’d lost to No. 13-ranked St. Bonaventure in the regular season, barely, in the Gator Bowl Tournament.
The second time around, the Jacket caught breaks.
“We had a one-point lead in the championship game [of the Gator Bowl Tournament],” Yunkus said. “Hoffman looked like he was going to block the pass from our guard, and he held it back and the ball fell out of his hands. He got it and scored.”
In the rematch, Tech won 76-71 in two overtimes.
“In [the NIT], first overtime, Hoffman misses at the buzzer and they call a foul on us. There’s no time left,” Yunkus recalled. “Back then, cameras rolled around in this little machine with a little red light, and we were all standing on the sideline; there was nobody out there on the free-throw line.
“The first one was in and out, and he missed the second one bad.”
Tech put itself on the map a year earlier, with wins over No. 5 NC State and No. 10 North Carolina in the late-season North-South doubleheader in Charlotte on the way to a 17-10 season that ended in the NIT with a 56-55 loss to St. John’s.
They were back a season later, and went all the way to the title game.
Thorne and Yunkus have great memories of that trip.
“Junior year, I remember we warmed up, and the announcer for the Garden had one of those electrifying voices,’ Yunkus said. ” `Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the magical world of Madison Square Garden.’
“One of those magical voices, kind of like the boxing announcer who says “let’s get ready to rumble. The fans loved basketball. They liked you. They didn’t care what part of the country you were from. Good, intelligent fans. They’ll let you know where they stand.”
Thorne and Yunkus remain engaged.
Thorne, who lives in Chamblee with his wife, with whom he raised four children, has been a season ticket holder at Georgia Tech since shortly after his graduation in the earlier 1970s.
“I go to most of the games,” said Thorne, who was inducted into the Georgia Tech athletics Hall of Fame in 1979, the same year as his basketball-playing brother, Pete Thorne, who preceded him by three years. “I like the way they play.”
Yunkus is watching, and a former teammate has taken up the charge to get those banners back up.
“Tommy Taylor sent the president of Georgia Tech [Bud Peterson] the article that [The Atlanta Journal-Constitution] wrote and he wrote back, and said to Tommy, `Many thanks for the information. Copying athletic director Todd Stansbury and Josh Pastner,” Yunkus said.
These trailblazers are paying attention, and they’re excited for the current Jackets.
“When we were up there, we took the subway out to Coney Island and had a hot dog just to say we did it,” Yunkus said. “There’s always something going on, and it’s just a very vibrant place.
“I’ve seen them play several times, all three NIT games. I’m really impressed with their hustle, their desire to win. They play very well together. I really like the way they dish the ball to each other. I really like [Pastner’s] coaching style. I like the way he motivates players. He’s really got the student body behind the team. I’m one of the firm believers that win or lose, if you give 110 percent, they will support you.”