A man of the people

I was a misplaced Michigander slumbering through my first winter in Iowa when dad first introduced me to Johnny Orr and Hilton Magic.

I don’t remember the exact game or all the details from that random January weeknight, but the electricity in Ames was something I hadn’t experienced before and won’t ever forget. Walking up the tunnel to our seats sent instant goosebumps through my 10-year-old body.

The crowd rose to its feet. Orr emerged and gave his trademark fist pump. The Iowa State band fired up the “Tonight Show” music for his “Here’s Johnny” introduction.

I had been to big games at Jenison Fieldhouse in East Lansing before our family moved here. Michigan State with Scott Skiles. Boys state basketball tournaments. All paled in comparison to this.

As I learned later in that 1988-89 season with my initial visit to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, there’s nothing quite like college basketball in these parts when the wins are flowing. I never considered myself a “fan” of either program necessarily, but I had a respect and admiration for both given the cult-like following, heroes and icons they seemed to produce.

Orr was an archetype. The Cyclones hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1945 before Orr’s arrival. He danced with them six times during his tenure from 1980-94 and won 218 games.

More importantly, Orr’s energy brought Hilton to life. After opening in 1971, Iowa State’s basketball arena sat listless and half-empty for nine seasons. Orr changed the culture and the expectations of the program, and the building blossomed accordingly. Now well-known to college basketball fans everywhere, the phrase “Hilton Magic” was – for all intents and purposes – coined by this man. He will forever be the founder.

Orr accomplished plenty on the court, relatively speaking, but it’s not like there are banners in the rafters recognizing his championship seasons with the Cyclones. He was 79-117 overall in the Big Eight, with just two winning conference campaigns in 14 years. Yes, he reached the NCAA Tournament six times, but ISU advanced past the first round only twice.

So what made Orr such a transcendent figure? Don’t take the resume at face value. Dig deeper. The personality. The relationships. The stories. The entertainment.

Orr was a very good coach. Exactly what Iowa State needed at the time. More importantly, though, he was an honest, accessible person with the kind of zest for living that most of us can only envy. That’s what people will remember beyond the wins and losses.

Kind of like my first trip to Ames 25 years ago. The score? Not sure. The players? I can name a few.

Johnny Orr and Hilton Coliseum were the lasting impression. He loved the fans and the environment unconditionally, and the feeling was mutual. His legacy will always rest there.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net