My trip down March Madness memory lane watching Butch Lee as the most decorated player, Magic as the best and John Shoemaker the top all-around athlete

My trip down March Madness memory lane watching Butch Lee as the most decorated player, Magic as the best and John Shoemaker the top all-around athlete

PHOTO: John Shoemaker (right) the night he was honored at Dodger Stadium as the franchise’s “Captain of Player Development” in 2015. Then-Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis stands with him as one of the 133 big-leaguers Shoemaker has helped groom. Shoemaker was one of the first college athletes to take advantage of an NCAA rule that permitted signing as a pro in one sport and retaining college eligibility in another. Magic Johnson and Shoemaker are both Dodgers now, but on March 11, 1978 Shoemaker wrote some March Madness while under the same Market Square Arena roof as Johnson.

By TOM SHANAHAN

Not long after Magic Johnson’s ownership group purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Basketball Hall of Famer spoke to employees at an organizational meeting. Johnson draws a crowd, no matter the subject, but somebody at some point should have combined baseball talk with basketball.

“Hey, Magic. Remember the 1978 NCAA basketball tournament? John Shoemaker is here.”

The upcoming baseball season is Shoemaker’s 40th as a manager or coach in the Dodgers’ minor league system and his 44th with the franchise.

But 43 years ago, his focus was March Madness, not March spring training sunshine. Johnson and Shoemaker were under the same basketball roof on March 11, 1978, playing separate opening-round contests in the NCAA Mideast Regional at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

In the first game, No. 18-ranked Miami (Ohio) pulled off one of those upsets that define March Madness, shocking defending national champion and No. 8 Marquette in overtime, 84-81. Shoemaker, Miami’s senior point guard, scored 20 points with six assists.

In the second game, Johnson, Michigan State’s freshman point guard, scored 14 points with seven rebounds and seven assists as the No. 4 Spartans beat unranked Providence, 77-63.

The assembled talent that day featured Marquette’s All-American guard Butch Lee as the most decorated participant. Johnson proved himself the best player. Shoemaker’s aura was as the best all-around athlete. He took the court due the next day to report to the Dodgers’ spring training in Vero Beach, Florida, for his second minor-league baseball season.

“I called the Dodgers to tell them we won, there would be another game and I would be coming later,” Shoemaker said. “They didn’t seem to mind. There were so many other minor league players, they weren’t going to miss me.”

John Shoemaker managing the Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Michigan.

Shoemaker’s humble recollection is typical of him, but it overlooks he was drafted three times in two sports — the San Francisco Giants out of high school, 1974, 26th round; the Dodgers after his college junior baseball season, 1977, 35th round; and once by the NBA’s Chicago Bulls after his college senior basketball season, 1978, sixth round.

He played four years in the Dodgers’ farm system, rising to Triple AAA in 1980. At that point the franchise decided he had reached his ceiling on the field, but the hierarchy envisioned another future. At age 24 in 1981, he accepted a job offer as the hitting coach at Class A Vero Beach.

Up until then Shoemaker’s plan, if pro sports didn’t work out, was to coach high school basketball. He is the son of a high school coach, and he spent his Miami senior year fall semester as a student teacher.

“I look at my career path, and I had a couple of options,” said Shoemaker, now 64. “I could have said, ‘I think I can still play’ and try to hook up with another organization. Or I could have said I’m not sure I want to coach baseball. Had I not signed with the Dodgers, I’d be coaching high school basketball. That piqued my interest.

“I do know I wouldn’t have lasted much longer as a player. Coaching with the Dodgers has been a great choice for me. I was in the right place at the right time to be with the most cherished franchise in the world.”

Shoemaker’s longevity often has him compared to Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ Baseball Hall of Fame manager for 20 seasons, but his loyalty and personality more closely resembles Walter Alston, the Dodgers Baseball Hall of Fame manager for 23 years prior to Lasorda.

Alston and Shoemaker both came from small Ohio towns and played basketball and baseball at Miami. They remained small-town by nature, deflecting the spotlight.

Lasorda’s personality would have found a way on the stage next to Magic at that organizational meeting. Alston would have stayed in the background. And that’s what Shoemaker did on that day.

When Johnson’s talk ended, Shoemaker could see others were eager to meet the L.A. Lakers great. Not wanting to interrupt, he went about his work day. Since then, Johnson and Shoemaker have been at spring training the same day but always at opposite ends of the complex. Shoemaker kept working, instructing his young prospects.

“He has been the model for all of us, and the legacy we try to uphold with the Dodgers,” said Will Rhymes, the franchise’s Director of Player Development. “He has very little ego and incredible authenticity. He sets standards with young players at an early age. They learn what it means to be a professional and understand the game.”

Shoemaker, over the length of his career, has been credited with helping develop 133 big leaguers, including Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez along with Dodgers greats Clayton Kershaw, Eric Gagne, Eric Karros and Adrian Beltre. Although he is quick to add, “around here, we feel we all contributed,” the franchise didn’t’ honor “all” in a Sept. 16, 2015 on-field ceremony at Dodger Stadium.

Shoemaker was named “Captain of Player Development.” The unique title includes having him wear a “C” on his manager jersey. His 2021 assignment, when minor league baseball resumes from the COVID-19 pandemic, is with the Dodgers’ Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in southern California.

Shoemaker’s career path into pro baseball began as one of the first college athletes to take advantage of a new NCAA rule. When he was drafted in 1977 after his Miami junior baseball season, he was able to sign with the Dodgers and retain his basketball eligibility. He played the summer of 1977 in the Midwest League with Class A Clinton, Iowa, and returned to the Oxford campus in the fall for his senior 1977-78 basketball season.

Miami point guard John Shoemaker poses for the type of 1970s photos that were typical of college basketball in those days. Note he’s wearing the standard high-top canvas Converse shoes of the era.

“Once you’re here, his basketball is well known among everyone in Player Development,” said Rhymes, the former Major Leaguer with Detroit and Tampa Bay who was born five years after the Miami-Marquette game. “We like to throw old pictures at him playing college basketball. It’s such a cool thing.”

Miami’s upset of Marquette marked the first time since the NCAA expanded to a 32-team field in 1975 a defending national champion was upset in the first round.

“I remember Michigan State’s fans started filling the arena at the end of our game,” Shoemaker said. “When they sensed an upset, we could feel them get behind us. I always remembered that.”

Rehashing the Miami-Marquette game was a trip down memory lane for more than Shoemaker. I was a Michigan State senior sports editor for our college paper, The State News. Colleague Mike Klocke and I were both wide-eyed kids for our first NCAA experience. The same was true for Terence Moore, who was then a senior sports editor for The Miami Student prior to his long writing career.

Small world.

“After 42 years as a professional sports journalist — even though it happened in college — that’s still one of my five most unforgettable moments,” Moore said. “That was incredible.”

Moore is now a professor at his alma mater, but his career included covering pro teams in Cincinnati, the San Francisco Bay Area and most recently as a columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His classmate still stands out for more than his talent all these years later.

“John Shoemaker was ferocious,” Moore said. “He was Pete Rose; that kind of intensity. He is one of the 10 or 15 fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen.

John Shoemaker in Zoom call on the play with Jerome Whitehead

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Shoemaker sparked the game’s turning point from a 10-point deficit with a steal, although as he drove to the basket Marquette senior guard Jim Boylan blocked the shot. As Shoemaker regained his footing, Marquette’s Jerome Whitehead, a 6-foot-10, 220-pound senior center that went on to play 11 NBA seasons, grabbed the rebound.

“I had gotten the steal,” Shoemaker said. “I don’t know if you could classify it as a breakaway, but somebody (Boylan) was on my shoulder. I put up a shot and they pinned it or swatted it up on the backboard. The rest of the team came down, and Jerome got the rebound. One of our guys came over his back and probably fouled him, but they didn’t call it. I was behind Whitehead because I had just gone in for the shot.

“He’s out here doing all this stuff (demonstrates waving elbows with the ball), and I came in to try and to get a steal. You see guys try to clear people off and they never hit anybody. Well, just as he coming that way, I was moving in. It wasn’t the point of the elbow or I would have been in bad shape. It was more the meat of the forearm. I went in and went down. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was dazed a little bit.”

Referee Pete Pavia called a flagrant foul and ejected Whitehead. Such calls were viewed differently and trips to the monitor were far off in the future. Athletes had more leeway swinging elbows to clear space; basketball was a more physical game. It’s akin to baseball brushback pitches then and now.

Miami’s Randy Ayers scores between four Marquette players. In the lower left corner on press row are myself (left) and Mike Klocker as wide-eyed college kids covering our first NCAA tournament game for The State News. Terence Moore of The Miami Student is nearby us on press row.

When Marquette coach Hank Raymonds protested vociferously the foul wasn’t intentional, Raymonds was whistled for his first technical of the year.

Shoemaker remained prone on the court for two minutes until he was walked wobbly back to the bench. Marquette led 68-58 with 3:38 to play. Rich Babcock came off the bench for Shoemaker to make one of two free throws. Then starter Archie Aldridge (19 points) made two free throws for Raymonds’ technical. Miami retained possession with Rich Goins (18 points) scoring off the inbounds play.

The five-point play had suddenly halved Miami’s deficit to 68-63.

Shoemaker, who then and now didn’t consider Whitehead’s elbow a dirty play, returned to the game. He hit two long shots from the side in the era before three-point field goals, both of them off the glass.

That was not unusual for kids that grew up watching the Boston Celtics guard Sam Jones and his patented bank shot. The Basketball Hall-of-Famer played alongside Bill Russell on 1960s NBA title teams.

Shoemaker, Randy Ayers (20 points) – a Phoenix Suns assistant coach who was formerly Ohio State’s head coach – and their teammates managed to force overtime. Miami finished off Marquette in OT, 9-6.

Next up for Miami was No. 1-ranked Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. The Miami campus was buzzing. A pep rally was staged at Millett Hall, the basketball arena. Shoemaker spoke to the fans and referenced a column Moore had written in early February when the team had slumped. The Mid-American Conference regular-season title was at risk. In a 32-team NCAA tournament, the MAC only received one bid. Conference tournaments, other than the ACC, hadn’t proliferated yet.

Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, Greg Kelser and Magic Johnson after the Spartans beat Providence 79-63 in the second game of the day at Market Square Arena in 1978. Michigan State is playing in its 23rd straight NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo this season, but in 1978 it was the Spartans’ first NCAA trip since the 1959 Mideast Regional final loss to Louisville.

Moore had written that the MAC preseason favorites were letting a league title and NCAA opportunity slip away. He listed what they needed to do to secure the title and wryly added they also needed to “swim the English Channel at midnight.”

For Moore, it was an early journalism lesson. Coaches and athletes can surprise you with their reaction to the story. Moore thought it was a legitimate critique the team was underachieving. The players and coach Darrell Hedric read unfair criticism.

In Shoemaker’s pep talk, he borrowed from Moore’s column, listing everything the team had done to reach the NCAA tournament and upset Marquette. Then, his voice dripping with sarcasm, added, “We even swam the English Channel at midnight!”

It was one of the few times the Shoemaker showed his bulldog on-court personality out of competition, but both Shoemaker and Moore laugh about the moment now, expressing their respect for each other.

Miami’s Cinderella story, though, struck midnight on March 16, 1978 in the Sweet Sixteen. Eventual national champion Kentucky beat Miami, 90-69. If there had been one more “ball” for Miami to attend two days later in the Elite Eight, Shoemaker and Magic would have met head-to-head. Michigan State routed Western Kentucky 91-69 before falling to Kentucky in the Mideast Regional final, 52-49.

With Miami’s season complete, Shoemaker repacked his bags for Vero Beach. He spent the summer of 1978 playing for Class A Lodi, California. As an infielder, he batted .317 with 93 runs scored and 55 RBI.

In June, his parents called to tell him he had been drafted by the Bulls – the NBA draft was virtually obscure in those days. He joined the Bull’s preseason camp after the minor league season ended, but was let go. He had cast his future with baseball by then, although he thinks he would have had a better chance to make the Bulls roster if he had been able to join the team for the summer rookie league.

Shoemaker’s leadership and work ethic that earned the Dodgers’ coaching job have always stood out. Moore said it came as no surprise to learn the Dodgers had honored his old Miami classmate as “Captain of Player Development.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (L) and John Shoemaker speak to minor league prospects in the locker room during spring training in 2019.

“Ho hum,” Moore said. “What else is new?”

Another baseball spring training is here and another NCAA March Madness. Maybe one of these days at a future organization meeting somebody will raise a hand and point out Shoemaker to Magic. They can talk baseball and basketball. It will take some scheduling, though, to arrange their two busy schedules.

“John is the hardest worker,” Rhymes said. “When we’re in spring training, he’s there early in the morning. You can’t beat him to the complex, even when we have a night game. He’s a tireless worker, an incredible guy.”

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