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Randy York's N-Sider: Fort Returns to Lincoln
Courtesy: NU Media Relations
06/19/2008
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Jerry Fort, NU's No. 3 all-time leading scorer, returned to Nebraska for the first time in nearly two decades to play in the Doc Sadler Golf Classic on Friday.
Courtesy: Scott Bruhn/NU Media Relations

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It was about 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in February. Corinne Fort was tired and ready for bed in Newington, Conn. She knew her husband wanted to watch Nebraska play basketball on TV, so the former University of Connecticut cheerleader, trying to be cordial, said she’d watch the first half with him in the bedroom.

By the time Nebraska had upset nationally ranked Kansas State, Corinne had paid dearly for her casual suggestion. How many times, she must have thought to herself, does a 53-year-old otherwise sane adult man pump his fist and raise his voice while his wife is winding down for the evening right next to him?

Jerry Fort, the third leading scorer in Nebraska basketball history, pleads guilty as charged.

“I was so pumped about watching my alma mater play Michael Beasley, the big All-American who everyone was calling the best player in the country,” Fort said. “I saw the game as a bit of a coaching masterpiece. Nebraska won (74-63). We contained Beasley and did what we had to do on the other end. My poor wife  . . . she was laying in bed, just about asleep several different times. We were both up way past our bedtime, but I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t playing, but I had sweaty palms. I pumped my fist and yelled something that woke her up more than once, I can assure you.”

Early the next morning, Fort, who has never met Doc Sadler, fired off an e-mail, congratulating Nebraska’s head coach on the upset win. He’s flying into Lincoln for the first time in 17 years on Thursday, June 19, to participate in Friday’s sold-out Doc Sadler Golf Classic at Hillcrest Country Club.

Even though he knows few of the former players who will join him, Fort wants to reconnect with the program and meet the head coach who he believes will take Nebraska to the next level – the winner’s circle of the NCAA Tournament and at least some measure of national success.

It’s About Coaching, Toughness and Rapport

“You can just see how tough the players are and how well they relate to their coach,” Fort said. “I was really fired up to see the way (Aleks) Maric – and everyone else – responded to coaching. I’m convinced that he (Sadler) can develop the kind of rapport to win at a higher level and maybe even a much higher level.  If he’s able to recruit the right players to his system, the sky is the limit.”

A first-team All Big Eight selection three times, Fort said Nebraska has been “a sleeping giant in basketball for a long, long time.” An insurance underwriter for almost three decades in New England, Fort uses evidence to reinforce his forecasts. He knows it will take more than a fist pump and a loud voice to wake up the Huskers enough for them to challenge for a conference championship and NCAA success.

 “It’s going to take a lot of really, really hard work recruiting and on the practice floor before you see it all come to fruition,” Fort said. “But to me, there’s no question – not even a hint of a doubt. From what I see right now, I can’t think of any reason why basketball can’t succeed big in Lincoln with the fans rallying around an excellent coach and the prospect of a new arena. If basketball success can happen in Storrs, Conn., it can happen in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Fort sees meaningful parallels between a national football power in the nation’s heartland and what has become a national basketball power in the Big East. A season ticket-holder in both major sports at UConn, Fort remembers when Jim Calhoun arrived as UConn’s head basketball coach in 1986. “The program was in bad shape. They had real problems,” he said. “But he came in and took all the right steps to clean it up.”

Calhoun won only eight games in his first year at UConn.  In his first three seasons there, his teams lost 46 games.  In his fourth season, the Huskies made the NCAA Elite Eight and by 1999, they were national champions. Five years later, they were national champs again.

“It’s amazing what a Hall of Fame coach can get done,” Fort said. “I’m not putting that kind of pressure on Nebraska, but Connecticut fans remind me of Nebraska fans. They’re so rabid and once they get stoked, they’re all running in the same direction. They can help things change in a hurry, especially if a certain coach gets a certain player and then another. That starts the flow and really changes the momentum.”

New Nebraska Assistant Coach Has the Right Connections

Relationships with AAU coaches pay recruiting dividends. So do relationships with the international basketball community, and Fort is glad to hear that Nebraska’s new assistant coach (Walter Roese) has those kinds of ties.

Don’t underestimate the power football brings to the basketball equation. “When you get Tom Osborne heading the athletic department and what that means to boosters and former players, you start to think about the momentum that kind of leadership can create,” Fort said.

Nebraska’s list of former basketball players attending this weekend’s reunion is an impressive mix of five different decades. They include:

1960s: Tom Baack, Ivan Grupe, Sam Martin, Tom Scantlebury

1970s: Chuck Jura, Jerry Fort, Brendy Lee, Bob Munson, Al Nissen, Tom Novak

1980s: Henry Buchanan, Dave Hoppen, Beau Reid, Joel Sealer

1990s: Terrance Badgett, Bruce Chubick, Bernard Garner, Andy Markowski, Eric Piatkowski, Troy Piatkowski

2000s: Jason Dourisseau, Aleks Maric, Jake Muhleisen, Bronsen Schliep, John Turek

Even some former Husker football players – Jeff Krejci, Mike McCashland and Tom Ruud – are participating in the Sadler Golf Classic. That’s appropriate because football was pivotal to Fort’s recruitment to Nebraska.

“We were able to get Big Eight basketball games on TV in Chicago just like we got Big Ten games,” he said. “But I was already a Nebraska fan just watching Johnny Rodgers’ punt return in the Game of the Century against Oklahoma. When I realized Lincoln was a fairly easy one-day drive or a 90-minute plane ride from Chicago, I was ready to go.”

Fort played on Husker teams that beat Kansas three times and Kansas State three times. Two of three wins over the Wildcats were in Manhattan and one over the Jayhawks was in Lawrence. “The last three years, we were almost always competitive against those two conference powers,” he said, recalling a total of four losses to KU by a combined nine points and two overtimes. “We could play defense and scrap for rebounds with just about anyone. We just didn’t have enough overall offensive firepower.”

Fort was the notable exception. He still ranks third on Nebraska’s all-time scoring chart with 1,882 points, trailing only Dave Hoppen (2,167) and Eric Piatkowski (1,934). His biggest game was a 40-point performance that included 24 second-half points in an 80-77 win over Missouri in 1975. He was 14 of 20 from the field and 12 of 14 from the free throw line. If there had been a three-point line in ’75, he might have scored closer to 50 points than 40, which are two off Nebraska’s single-game scoring record set by Piatkowski.

Against conference opponents, Fort has scored more points than any Husker in history – 1,055 in 56 league games.

Still, he believes a tenacious defense and an efficient offense are the right combination to win at Nebraska. One of his teammates, 6-6 center Larry Cox, still holds Nebraska’s single-season field goal percentage record of .672 (133-198) in 1975-76. Cox is now an associate professor and director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Fort was inducted into the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991, and Cox was inducted into the same group nine years later. “We still stay in touch with each other,” Fort said of Cox. “I was hoping he could come back to the golf tournament and the reunion, but he had a family conflict.”

Disappointments Can’t Tear Down an Optimistic Nature

Fort is no stranger to disappointment. When Nebraska finished 19-8 and third in the conference standings (10-4) his senior year, the Huskers not only missed the NCAA Tournament, but also the NIT. “Both fields were so much smaller then,” he said. “We practiced most of our last week thinking we were getting a post-season bid, then found out we weren’t.”

That was a tough blow, Fort said, because, “We had that old Coliseum jumping like the football stadium every time we stepped on the court that season. We wanted to keep playing and didn’t get the chance.”

One disappointment was followed by another – a broken leg in a pickup game after Fort had been the Boston Celtics’ second pick in the third round of the NBA draft. He wasn’t ready to compete for a job that season. But after working by day as an underwriter in Hartford, Conn., and by night as a player in a professional development league, he got another chance the next season and ended up being the last player cut by the Celtics.

Never once – not then and not now – has Fort ever played the game of “What if?”

“I barely made the varsity basketball team my sophomore year in high school,” he said. “I was a late bloomer and never really had professional basketball aspirations. In fact, Nebraska was looking at someone else on my high school team when they found me. So I knew I always had to attend class and pay attention because education was going to be what I’d fall back on in my life. I can’t tell you how much Ursula Walsh (then Nebraska’s academic counselor) influenced my life.

“I loved playing in Lincoln. I loved the players I played with – guys like Steve Erwin, Steve Willis, Bob Siegel, Carl McPipe, Brian Banks, Rickey Harris, Allen Holder, Terry Novak and, of course, Larry Cox,” he said. “I still stay in touch with Ricky Marsh. He came from New York, spent two years at Nebraska and transferred to Manhattan. He made the school's Hall of Fame and ended up starting 50 games his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors.

“I’m proud of what Ricky has accomplished on the court and in life and personally, I have no regrets,” Fort said. “Basketball led to my job, and my job led to my lovely wife. For almost 30 years, I still play basketball and tennis once a week year-round with mostly the same guys. I get to play golf this weekend with former players, and I get to travel almost whenever I want.”

 

Fort said he loves teaching Matthew, his 6-year-old nephew, about basketball. “He was showing me his jump shot last night,” he said. “He has it down.”

 

To share with his family, Uncle Jerry is bringing a portable video recorder Thursday to shoot Nebraska’s basketball facilities and memorabilia. He’s also touring and shooting video of the new football facilities. “I hope they get the new basketball arena, plus their own practice facility,” he said. “Arenas and practice facilities give programs a real edge in recruiting.”

As much as he embraces new facilities, Fort’s favorite is still the old Boston Garden, where he made sure to catch a few Celtic games every season, until it was replaced by the new TD Banknorth Garden. “I enjoyed watching the Celtics win the NBA championship this week,” he said. “Put everything in my life together, and I really don’t have a whole lot to complain about.”

That’s why Fort is so excited about a weekend of dinner, golf, laughter, reminiscing and uniting with others to help fight the battle of colon cancer – something truly worthy of pumping your fist and maybe even raising your voice.

Even Corrine Fort would agree with that.

 

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