IOWA CITY — It was over, at least that’s what Roy Marble’s mother had thought.
Instead of continuing to watch her son’s team face a whipping at Illinois on Jan. 14, 1987, Bertie Marble left the television and headed for her bedroom.
“She went to her room and prayed because she couldn’t take how bad we were getting beat,” Roy Marble said. “She prayed that we’d win. When she went to bed and she woke up, she called me hollering, ‘There is a God.’”
In the annals of Iowa basketball history, one could argue divine intervention played many roles during the 1986-87 season. From magical victories against North Carolina State, Illinois and Oklahoma to merging the school’s most impressive collection of athletes with the program’s winningest coach, that season’s Hawkeyes were beyond dominant. They were electric, and the team was historic.
Iowa earned its only No. 1 ranking after winning a school-record 18 games to start the season. Eight different players eventually were drafted by NBA clubs, including five in the top two rounds. The team won a school-best 30 games before it was ousted in the NCAA regional finals by UNLV.
Perhaps making the run so impressive was the way it began. George Raveling coached the Hawkeyes for three seasons and brought in stars like Marble, B.J. Armstrong, Ed Horton and Gerry Wright. Raveling left after the 1986 season for USC and Iowa hired Tom Davis from Stanford. Davis said an early discussion with former Iowa and later longtime Arizona Coach Lute Olson sold him on the Iowa job.
“I’ve said this before: I appreciate the talent that I was left by Coach Raveling and Coach Olson and their recruiting efforts over the previous years, so I inherited some really good, talented guys,” said Davis, now 73 and living in Iowa City. “We enjoyed the fruits of their labor in the years following.”
It’s never easy combining talent recruited by one staff to merge the ideas from a different coach. Davis said that wasn’t a problem at Iowa.
"Sometimes a new coach comes in and the returning players kind of fight you," he said. "I did have a definite style that I wanted to teach them. I remember that was one of the thoughts I had, they were good guys also."
Davis brought an up-tempo style of play that included a full-court press and an emphasis on rebounding. The Hawkeyes led the nation in rebounding margin at 12.6. The practices were brutal, not just to impress Davis, but because the players were fiercely competitive with one another. Marble called the preseason Davis’ “boot camp.”
“He took a long time figuring out a starting lineup because he was like, ‘How do I maximize all this talent?’” Marble said. “We banged each other so hard, that’s so important. You’re not dealing with a bunch of average guys. It wasn’t clear who was going to be playing. So we whupped each other’s (butts).”
The team had preseason adversity as well. Wright, considered as one of the school’s greatest all-time dunkers, suffered a broken hand and missed several games. Guard Michael Reaves also was injured. They were replaced by Ed Horton and B.J. Armstrong, respectively. Both of which became NBA draft picks.
Marble ranks at the top of Iowa’s all-time scoring list, yet was moved from his natural off-guard position to small forward. He just laughs when he talks about why he switched.
“Look who we did a favor for? Kevin Gamble,” Marble said. “We did him a favor. New coach, you’re playing out of position, you come back to that position, you’ve got to put up, you’re part of a legacy, you’re part of a movement, you’re part of something new.
“We’re made for this.”
Gamble, a senior bench player under Raveling, averaged nearly 12 points a game as a starter. He later played 10 seasons in the NBA and scored more than 6,100 points.
"Illinois and Oklahoma, what if we would have had me run the two position and let Kevin come off the bench?" Marble asked. "That’s my whole point.
"It’s more amazing now because at the time you’re not even thinking about it."
Iowa won its first 18 games and many were nail-biters. The team edged North Carolina State — which had beaten Iowa in the NCAA Tournament the previous season — in overtime. The most impressive stretch came in mid-January when the Hawkeyes faced a trio of top-10 teams Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
Iowa’s first win of that run was at Illinois. Five days later, Iowa topped the Boilermakers 70-67 in West Lafayette. The Hawkeyes finished with a 101-88 win against Indiana, the first time a Bob Knight team had given up 100 points in Big Ten play.
“That run didn’t surprise us,” Marble said. “We never knew about it, because we were so intense with each other every day.”
Iowa finished the Big Ten 14-4 and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa buried Santa Clara in the opener, then followed with a tight 84-82 win against UTEP in the second round. Iowa then played Oklahoma in a back-and-forth Sweet Sixteen matchup that the Hawkeyes won in overtime.
Iowa took a 90-85 lead, then the Sooners followed with a 6-0 run to lead 91-90. Gamble, the senior who barely played under Raveling, came up clutch one more time, drilling a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to lift Iowa to a 93-91 win.
As exhilarating as that victory, Iowa’s first-half effort against UNLV in the regional final was the same. The Hawkeyes sank 21-of-29 shots to take a 16-point halftime lead. But UNLV countered with a 34-10 second-half run. Gamble’s heroics against Oklahoma didn’t materialize against UNLV when his 3-point attempt late failed to connect, and Iowa lost 84-81.
“When it’s the last game of the year, it’s always the toughest one to lose,” Davis said. “When you’ve got other games facing you, you can kind of bounce back. But when you’re not going to play again for several months, it’s kind of hard. You felt sorry for the three seniors, Kevin Gamble, Gerry Wright and Brad Lohaus. They couldn’t have given any more for that team and worked any harder. We knew had some talent coming back, but you just felt bad for the three seniors."
Iowa’s remaining stars advanced to the tournament the next two seasons but couldn’t sustain the magic of 1986-87. Davis, the school’s all-time wins leader, took Iowa to two more Sweet Sixteens but his contract wasn’t renewed after the 1999 season. He remembers a conversation during that season with CBS analyst Al McGuire, which turned out to be prophetic.
“He had that kind of way, ‘Let me give you some advice,’” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, what’s that?’ He said, ‘Be careful you don’t win too many games that first year.’ Then we kind of laughed. I thought at first he was kidding. Then the more I thought about it, in the days and time after that, I don’t think he was kidding. He was dead serious.“You win too many games that first year it’s hard to live it up to it after that year.”