I’ve spent part of the past couple of weeks preparing a nomination to the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame for the 1976/ 1977 Acadia men’s basketball team. It’s been interesting.
For those too young to remember (or have short memories), the 1976/ 1977 Axemen was the last Acadia basketball team to win a national championship, following on the heels of the 1964/ 1965 and 1970/ 1971 Axemen teams.
Acadia has competed at nationals a number of times since, including a couple of appearances in the championship game, but have not been able to win again.
Part of the process required me to compile documentation on the 1976/ 1977 team’s victory and, in particular, the national tournament held Mar. 3 to 5, 1977 at the Halifax Forum. (The “Final Eight” would move to the new Metro Centre the following year.)
While it was nice to take a trip down memory lane – 1977 was my graduating year from Acadia, and I got to broadcast the national final for Radio Acadia – I also couldn’t help but think just how far university basketball has come.
In the early 1970s and before, university basketball in Canada was a very different game than it is today.
The court was the same size, there were still five players on the court at one time and you had 30 seconds to shoot and 10 seconds to advance the ball over centre – still the case until FIBA rules took effect this season. There was no three-point line – a change, when made, that would alter the game arguably more than anything else.
The other major difference between the past and now is, prior to 1973, university basketball rosters, especially those in the Atlantic conference, were primarily made up of Americans. There was a smattering of Nova Scotians on most of the Nova Scotia teams but, by and large, the teams that won – which, year after year, seemed to be Acadia and Saint Mary’s and, to a lesser extent, St. F.X. – had a definite U.S. flavour.
To their credit, many of the Americans who came to Nova Scotia to attend university – including Brian Heaney, Steve Konchalski and Mickey Fox – stayed and helped make basketball here what it is today.
Prior to the 1973/ 1974 season, the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union instituted a rule limiting to three the number of non-Canadians on any CIAU roster.
Acadia, a perennial contender and winner of a pair of national titles with teams mainly comprised of Americans, challenged the validity of the rule in court on behalf of a handful of American players who had been recruited and ended up not being able to play. The rule was upheld in court, at which point the Axemen, under their head coach, the late Dick Hunt; quietly put together a team that had its three permitted Americans, but was otherwise predominantly Nova Scotian.
Each year, more pieces of the team that would win the 1977 CIAU championship came together. Acadia qualified for nationals every spring from 1973 to 1977, either as AUAA champs or as a wild card, and, each year, inched closer to that elusive national crown.
The 1976/ 1977 Axemen went 25-5 overall, winning 16 games in a row, including their last seven straight en route to the national title.
The following year, many of the same players would make it back to the first-ever CIAU championship game played at the Metro Centre, only to drop a close 99-91 decision to Saint Mary’s in an all-Nova Scotia final.
Players like Gordie West, Robert Upshaw, Ted Upshaw, Al Oliver, Steve Johnson, Tony Aker, Eric Skinner and John Archibald – all Nova Scotians – helped pave the way for a time when Nova Scotia hoopsters no longer needed to feel like second-class citizens.
Within 11 years of Acadia’s 1977 national title, Dave Nutbrown took an Axemen team to the CIS final with a roster that included five Nova Scotian starters – Peter Morris, Kevin Veinot, Grant MacDonald, Charles Ikejiani and Tyrone Carvery.
The previous year (1987), Nova Scotia won the gold medal in men’s basketball at the Canada Winter Games in Cape Breton with a lineup that included some of those same Acadia players.
The 1976/ 1977 Acadia basketball Axemen are not in the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame – but they should be and, hopefully, soon will be.
The nine Nova Scotians on that team - including Bruce Hunt, who, while not a native Nova Scotian, grew up and received most of his basketball training here - were real trail-blazers, though they could hardly have realized it at the time.
Today’s generation of Nova Scotians playing CIS basketball have these individuals, and others like them, to thank.