'Super humbling': Why 1981 BYU basketball team draws praise, motivation 41 years later

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) drives on Portland Pilots guard Matija Svetozarevic (13) in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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PROVO β€” Mark Pope is hardly one to mix up his pregame routine.

Whether by superstition, habit or a little bit of both, the third-year BYU coach has a very particular rundown he likes to go through before every game. It's so precise that he doesn't even like talking about it β€” not even with his own players.

There was one thing that made him break from the norms Saturday night before the Cougars' 78-65 win over Portland, though.

Prior to the game, the BYU athletic department hosted members of the 1980-81 basketball team β€” you know the one, the guys who broke through for the longest NCAA Tournament run in BYU history to date, an Elite Eight appearance that hasn't been matched since, headlined by Danny Ainge's coast-to-coast buzzer beater to sink Notre Dame in the final seconds.

In the dinner was Ainge, the NBA All-Star and current Utah Jazz CEO who has stayed close to BYU, and Greg Kite, the two-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics. There was NBA veteran Fred Roberts and Steve Trumbo, Craig Christensen and Roger Reid, and β€” of course β€” the coach of them all, Frank Arnold.

Legends, all of them, in their own right. Super humbling, in Pope's words.

"And when I walked into that dinner tonight and talked to those guys, that's how I felt; I felt super humbled," Pope recalled. "Because these are great men and great families, great coaches and players, that did something that has never been replicated.

"To think they're willing to walk into this gym and watch us fight and support us is incredible."

BYU honored the 1980-81 team β€” described by many to be the greatest in BYU basketball history, or at least the most accomplished.

Fair or not, the mark set by the 1981 team has become the standard against which all BYU basketball teams are measured. And until it is exceeded, the standard will continue to remain.

Which is why having so many legends in the building was so humbling for Pope.

Ainge met with the media after the school honored his team at halftime. Kite sat down with freshman center Atiki Ally Atiki for some one-on-one tutelage β€” big man to man β€” in the locker room.

Even players like Seneca Knight, who scored 14 points for the second consecutive game Saturday, took a moment for respect. The San Jose State transfer from New Orleans didn't grow up well-versed in BYU history and mythos.

But he knew something of those players β€” those dudes β€” who walked into the gym Saturday night.

"Of course; it's Danny Ainge and Greg Kite," Knight said a few hours after sitting down with Trumbo. "They're legends in their respective fields playing basketball."

Of course, these current Cougars have their own special players β€” starting at the top with Alex Barcello, described by some as one of the best shooters in the country with a scoring average of close to 18 points per game.

"Alex is a fantastic player. He's a joy to watch," Ainge said. "He maximizes his abilities with great character and work ethic, sacrifice and selflessness. He's a coach's dream, and I've really appreciated and enjoyed watching him play."

So in many ways, for those players, the honor was an equal.

Equally gratifying. Equally humbling, in some ways, Ainge joked shortly after he dived into the student section filled with current BYU students half his age β€” maybe less β€” to take selfies and shake hands.

"We're just a bunch of old men barely walking up and down the court out there," he joked. "But it's nice to hear them yell at us.

"We had some amazing crowds here in the Marriott Center, too. It's always a great place to come back. I have some great memories of 22,000 sellout crowds. All the great players that came in to play against us in our era. I've seen some spectacular games here since, too."

Those same players of 1981 who reached heights that haven't been replicated are also eager for the current Cougars to surpass them. Maybe that will come this year β€” maybe another year.

But it will eventually come. And when it does, there may not be anyone happier for the program than those 81ers who battled top-20 teams in the old Western Athletic Conference, knocking down a top-10 Utah squad in the regular-season finale and taking down Larry Brown and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament before Ainge's dazzling coast-to-coast shot against Notre Dame.

"It's a great legacy of basketball," Ainge said. "Basketball is really important in the state of Utah. And there's just been some fantastic players and teams that have come through here."

The 2021-22 BYU basketball team gets to build on the legacy of those that went before them.

And then maybe β€” just maybe, eventually, someday β€” they'll burst through the wall, too.

Until then, they'll marvel and stay humbled.

"We get to walk in and see 15,000, 17,000 or 18,000 people in this building because those guys build this incredible fan base," Pope said. "They built this generational love for this university. So the reason Seneca gets to bang a three and a youngster loses his mind on the front row is because of what those guys did. Those guys essentially built this building.

"And then, it's a lot of hunger. My last comment to them was, we've got to take you guys off the board as the most accomplished team. We've got to find a way to do it, somehow. It's really special."

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