The way the Evansville Purple Aces came back home last Wednesday night was by running through a purple paper barrier and out onto the court, with the band playing and the cheerleaders tumbling and the people roaring. There was not a misty eye in the place, because it was basketball season again, and that is a time of raucous joy in the little river city in southern Indiana.
Of course, there was also an altogether different group of Purple Aces that the people of Evansville knew well, but all of them had gone down in a chartered plane. It shattered on a muddy hillside just outside of town last Dec. 13. But it is another season now, another winter's dream, and as the Evansville Courier wrote last week of that desperately sorrowful night less than a year ago, "that was once upon a time."
The good people of Evansville are not hard folk, not disrespectful of their dead—29 in all, 14 players, the coach, a number of staff and fans—but they had grown weary of grieving and of the fruitlessness of grieving. Condolences had come from all over the world; $330,000 in unsolicited funds had been mailed in; there had been memorial services, a memorial tournament.
At first, the fans had even found it hard to embrace the new coach, whose name is Dick Walters. They wished him well. They were polite to him when he talked about "rebuilding the program." But in their sorrow they were not able to give him their hearts. Then, in October, came the first day of practice, and 450 fans showed up to watch the new team that Walters had assembled. Mike Blake, the Aces' TV play-by-play announcer, recalls, "It all changed then. Once the people saw boys playing basketball again, they could accept Dick." He did not really exist in Evansville until he had a team and a season.
Stan Blackford, a student who works in the sports PR office and who knew just about everybody killed in the crash, was watching practice the other day. "For a long time, I couldn't stand to even come into this building," he said.
How can he stand it now? He waved toward the floor, where the boys were playing. "Why, the Aces are back now," he said matter-of-factly.
So this is why, when the time came, they put up the purple paper instead of asking for a moment of silence.
You must understand that the plane crash was more than just a horrible snuffing out of a large number of young lives. The university basketball team had great meaning for the whole Evansville community—the city even more than the school. When the Aces won the first of their five NCAA Division II titles in 1959, Evansville was in an economic and spiritual depression, and anybody will tell you that the city's resurgence began then. Soon, the social fabric of the town revolved about the Aces' schedule and fortunes, and the team helped Evansvillians better tolerate the ignominy of being citizens of the largest municipality in the country without an Interstate highway.
The coach of all five championship teams, the coach from 1946 to 1977, was a down-home Hoosier named Arad McCutchan, who doubled as an algebra teacher. He dressed the Purple Aces in orange shirts on the court (for better passing vision) and full-length robes on the bench (for warmth). In 31 years he spent a grand total of three nights on the road recruiting, and he won 514 games from fancy Interstate coaches.
When McCutchan retired after the 1977 season, Bobby Watson, an assistant at Oral Roberts who stood 6'7", was hired and charged with the task of leading the Aces into the big time, Division I. By now the fans were jaded with success at the secondary level. It was to be the beginning of an exciting new era for the Aces. "Coach Watson was so big and nice and all, he just about swallowed you up with his enthusiasm," McCutchan says. But then, of course, Watson's era lasted only four games.