NORMAN — All these years later, after a quarter century, Ricky Grace mostly remembers the fun.
Which is no different than all the rest of us who watched Billy Tubbs' 1987-88 OU basketball team. The greatest college basketball team most of us have ever seen and the greatest we ever will.
And the most entertaining sports team in Oklahoma history. More dazzling than any Barry Switzer wishbone wizards. More electrifying than the Thunder's modern trapeze acts.
“I just think of how much fun it was,” said Grace, the silky point guard on that wondrous team, who for an OU basketball reunion this weekend was back on campus for just the second time in 25 years. “It was just a great, great team. I think we were ahead of our time a little bit, with the style we played, the atmosphere Billy created.”
The Sooner reunion featured players ranging from the 1940s (Ted Owens) to the second decade of the 21st century. But those '88 Sooners were special honorees Friday night at a Lloyd Noble Center banquet, and well they should have been.
Those Sooners went 35-4 and became America's best team.
“That was a great team,” said Grace's backcourt mate, Mookie Blaylock, who also rarely has returned to his alma mater. “How can I explain it? It's hard to put that back together again. That's going to be hard to do. Oklahoma's trying to do it. But … what we had special. We didn't win the whole thing, but it was special what we had.”
The 1988 Sooners did not win the NCAA championship; they were an upset victim in the title game, like Houston in 1984 and Georgetown in 1985, in that decade when college hoops were at their best.
But that disheartening loss to Kansas has not dimmed the status of those Sooners.
Longtime CBS analyst Billy Packer, in his book, placed the Sooners among the top 15 college teams of all time.
They pressed full court, created turnovers galore, shot quickly and played ferociously. The starting unit of Grace and Blaylock and Harvey Grant and Stacey King and Dave Sieger became so well-conditioned that by season's end Tubbs rarely had to substitute, and the assault was never-ending.
There is nothing like it in college basketball anymore. The days of Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of Arkansas hell and Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels and OU's BillyBall are over. The game is pedestrian, played not by refined stars but by young prospects headed for the NBA after a college drive-thru.
I told Tubbs on Friday his '88 Sooners would beat Kentucky's most recent national champ by 40 points.
“Fifty,” Tubbs said with that wry smile. “The game has turned into push and shove. It would be really hard to play like we did. We dictated the tempo of the game with our defense. Nobody really wants to get out and defend 100 percent of the floor anymore.
“The whole face of the game has changed. From a team standpoint, it would take a couple of years to learn to do what we did defensively.”
That was full-court pressure, with four athletic players attacking and the 6-foot-10 King playing back to protect the basket.
“That was a unique group of guys, because we had speed, quicks and endurance,” Tubbs said. “And they loved to play like we wanted to play. It's hard to play like we played. That's why people don't play that way. It takes tremendous endurance.”
In Hawaii, those Sooners routed Virginia 109-61 and Dayton 151-99. “I can remember being up 25 against Virginia, with about eight minutes to go, and they called timeout,” Grace said. “Coach Tubbs said, ‘That's the ACC … kill 'em.'”
OU put up 144 on Oral Roberts, 108 on OSU, 120 on Missouri, 112 on Kansas State, 120 on New Mexico, 134 on Colorado and 113 on Nebraska. In the NCAA Tournament, OU beat Auburn 107-87 and Louisville 108-98.
In the Final Four, the Sooners beat a loaded Arizona team 86-78, but then Kansas pulled the big upset, Danny (Manning) and the Miracles winning 83-79.
But that defeat didn't lessen the brilliance of that team.
“I had no idea we were going to be that good,” Grace said. “After we beat up on a few teams, I knew this was something special. I think we knew we were a little different. Dancing on the sidelines … we were having innocent fun. If you dribbled down the court and pulled up for a 3-pointer, that was a questionable shot back then. But Billy gave us that freedom. We sort of knew we were trendsetters.”
And this weekend, most of them were back. Grant and Sieger didn't make it, but King and Blaylock and Grace were joined by Terrence Mullins, Andre Wiley, Tyrone Jones and Tony Martin.
“It's amazing,” Grace said. “Seeing the guys, seeing Mookie, haven't seen in probably 15 years. Tyrone Jones, don't think I've seen since I walked off campus 25 years ago.
“But all the guys look great. I was real curious to what the guys would look like, because some of my high school classmates don't look too good. I was wondering what these guys would look like, but looks like everyone's held on pretty good.”
Blaylock, who played 13 NBA seasons and never was one to talk much, turned a little wistful Friday.
“Glad to be back; 25 years makes you feel old,” he said. “I don't want to think about that. It's good to come back and enjoy people who loved watching you play.”
That would mean anyone who ever saw them.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
OU Alumni Game
What: OU Legends alumni basketball game
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman
Who: Players from every decade going back to the 1940s are staging a reunion, though only more recent-vintage players are expected to play.