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BYU honors 1981 Elite Eight men’s basketball team

By Darnell Dickson - | Jan 25, 2022

Former BYU All-American and NBA standout Danny Ainge (left) signs a jersey for a fan during halftime of the Cougars' WCC game against Portland at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope is a creature of habit, especially when it comes to his pregame rituals.

On Saturday, he broke that pattern for a good reason.

Pope took a few moments before his pre-game preparation to talk to the 1980-81 Cougar basketball team that was to be honored at halftime of the game against Portland.

“A bunch of those guys came to shoot around and then we had a dinner for the coaches and the team,” Pope said. “I never break my pregame protocol, ever, but I did just that to go see them for five minutes. We take it for granted a little bit I think and let me explain what I mean. We walk into this building, and there’s 15,000 people. This is the greatest, most accomplished team to ever compete for BYU. All these 15,000 people have put aside their life for a couple hours to come support these guys and watch these guys and that’s super humbling.

“When I walked into that dinner tonight and talked to those guys for two minutes, I felt super humbled. Because these are great men and great families, great coaches and players that did something that has never been replicated.”

For many of those in the Marriott Center on Saturday, their BYU fandom only extends as far back as the Jimmer Fredette days in the early 2010’s. For the older fans, Saturday was quite a thrill to have a chance to honor their heroes. The 1980-81 team defeated Princeton, UCLA and Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament to become the only Cougar basketball team in history to reach the Elite Eight. They fell to 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and Virginia, but created some incredible memories.

Danny Ainge, who was the Wooden Player of the Year in 1981, outscored the entire UCLA team in the first half of that victory and of course, made a length-of-the-court dash to beat the buzzer and Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. After a distinguished NBA playing career with the Celtics, Kings, Suns and Trailblazers, Ainge was a general manager in Boston and is now the CEO of the Utah Jazz.

Ainge drew the loudest cheers during the halftime celebration. As he left the floor, Ainge signed a Boston Celtics jersey for a young BYU fan.

“Danny has been super generous,” Pope said. “It’s not like really detailed specific to BYU, but just exploring the game. What I love talking to Danny about is just the trends and the direction of the game because he’s kind of like the front, the vanguard.”

Pope said he also spent time with many former BYU coaches.

“It’s funny because we’re trying to tap into all of those guys,” Pope said. “Roger Reid was here and Frank Arnold was here. I mean, I’ve had multiple meetings with both those coaches, and with Coach (Dave) Rose, where we sit down and do X’s and O’s. They’ll bring in play sheets.”

On an individual level, the players and coaches from former eras might be just names or old highlights for current Cougars. Seneca Knight, who transferred to BYU from LSU this spring, said he has heard of players such as Ainge and Greg Kite.

Pope understands how important those legacies can be for young players.

“Yeah, it’s incredible,” he said. “I mean, you think about in my locker room after the game. I got Greg Kite talking to Atiki Ally Atiki. We’re taking Elite Eight, four NBA championships, 12-13-14 years in the NBA. Same size guys just a little bit of weight difference right now. And who gets that, right? I really believe this, that the very best programs in college basketball, those guys are invested and engaged. So it’s pretty special, man. We should feel like a family and we’re really working to get there.”

Pope said that 1981 team set a very high bar.

“You know how much we love history,” he said. “These guys have done something that’s never been done here. And to think they’re willing to walk into the gym and watch us fight and support us is incredible. And we also remember every single day. We talk about it all the time. We get to walk in with 15,000 people in this building because those guys built this incredible fan base. When they were playing it was 23,000 every single night. They built this generational love for this university.

“My last comment to them was, ‘We’ve got to take you guys off the board, man.’ It’s the most accomplished team. We got to find a way to do it somehow. So it was really special.”

The 1980-81 BYU men’s basketball team that reached the Elite 8 was honored at halftime of the Cougars’ game against Portland at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

A BYU fans holds up a Boston Celtics jersey signed by former Cougar great Danny Ainge at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

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