Landon Turner recalls IU's '81 championship team

Joe O' Gara

Landon Turner

At the start of the 1981 NCAA basketball tournament, not too many of the "experts" picked the Indiana University team to win the championship. But that wasn't the consensus among the members of that Hoosiers squad.

The Hoosiers had lost nine games that season, including four in Big 10 conference play. But according to one player on that team, the IU squad was definitely a confident bunch.

"We always thought we were the best team in the country," Landon Turner recalled during a recent conversation. "Even the year before, in 1979-'80 season, we thought we were the best. And despite the nine losses in the 1980-'81 season, we still thought so.

"But after those losses, we knew that we had to really get our act together. And coach Knight let us know what we had to do, too. He was not someone you wanted to be around when he lost."

In his book, Landon Turner's Tales from the 1980-'81 Indiana Hoosiers (Sports Publishing LLC), the 6-foot-10 Indianapolis Tech grad admitted that his play through the first part of that season was less than spectacular. But with five games to go in the Big 10 season, Turner found himself back in the starting lineup, and he was determined to prove it was where he belonged.

"I knew that I needed to get my act together, academically and in basketball. So I worked my way back into the starting lineup for the final five games of the Big 10 season, and we didn't lose any of those games."

The star of the 1980-'81 team was sophomore guard Isiah Thomas, who went on to a 13-year career with the NBA Detroit Pistons. Turner recalled that from the first time he saw Thomas play at IU, he knew that the Chicago high school hoops phenom was something special.

"When he [Isiah] came to IU, I knew that we were going to be an even better team," Landon said. "And after the championship season, when Isiah told Ray [Tolbert, another IU teammate and friend] that he was going pro, it didn't surprise me. I knew he was ready for the next level. I congratulated Isiah on his decision to go pro, and wished him good luck."

While Isiah was the focal point of the squad, Turner pointed out that everyone, whatever their skill level, played to the best of their ability, especially during the NCAA tournament.

On the day of the 1981 championship game, then-President Ronald Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin. There was talk that the NCAA would postpone the big game, pending the outcome of the attempt on the president's life. It wasn't until 33 minutes before the scheduled start of the game, once word had been received that President Reagan would pull through, that the decision was made to go ahead.

"We were definitely concerned about President Reagan," Turner said. "I prayed that he would be all right. And once we heard that he was going to be OK, we concentrated on beating North Carolina."

And that's exactly what happened. Indiana University defeated North Carolina 63-50 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Along with teammates Isiah and Jim Thomas, Landon was named to the Final Four All Tournament team (which also included Al Wood and Jeff Lamp of Virginia).

But four months later, Turner's life changed forever. On the way to Kings' Island amusement park with his then-girlfriend and a couple of friends, Landon lost control of his car on State Road 46. The vehicle ended up going off the road, landing on its hood. Turner's injuries were the most serious, as the young man was paralyzed from the chest down.

It was during the months that followed the accident that Turner, and a lot of other people, saw a side of coach Bobby Knight that they didn't know existed.

"In a way, it surprised me that coach Knight did what he did," Turner admitted. "He didn't have to help raise money for the Landon Turner Fund, which paid for my wheelchairs and lifts for my vans. But he did, and I will always love him for that."

As he points out in his book, Landon has worked hard and relied on his faith in God, his family and friends to maintain a positive attitude, in spite of being paralyzed for life. He earned his college degree in 1984, has been a motivational speaker since 1983, and is involved in the Wheeler Boys and Girls Club.

When it comes to keeping in touch with other members of the 1980-'81 championship team, Landon pointed out that the one teammate he sees on a regular basis is Ray Tolbert. Along with Chris Nolan, Landon and Ray run the TNT (for "Tolbert, Nolan and Turner") Dynamite basketball camps for youngsters.

Turner continues to attend IU and Pacers basketball games, as well as Colts games. And he has become an avid outdoorsman, hunting turkey and deer, and fishing.

"I live a pretty full life, by doing as much as I can."

Landon Turner's Tales from the 1980-'81 Indiana Hoosiers is available at local bookstores. Landon Turner, along with Purdue football coach Joe Tiller, will be at the Indiana Ice game this Friday, Feb. 3. For Ice ticket information, contact the Indiana Ice at 317-925-4423 or go to


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