The story is a consistent one among Hoosier fans …
Raised on the storied tradition of Indiana University basketball, when one becomes old enough to fully appreciate it they discover “their guy.” Their hero.
For myself, who began to really appreciate IU basketball during the 1989-90 season (I was only six at the time), “my guy” became Eric Anderson.
My parents and grandparents were both season-ticket holders, but I was fortunate to maybe attend 1-2 games that season. Still, I was lucky enough to watch “Uncle” Chuck Marlowe on Channel 4, or listen to the master Don Fischer on the radio.
Needless to say, for me, IU basketball was much better when Eric Anderson was on the floor.
Eric Anderson passed away on December 10th at the age of 48. Like many, I was floored to hear the news.
Another Hoosier legend gone too soon.
A graduate of St. Francis DeSales High School in Chicago, Anderson was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, as well as a McDonald’s All-American. Rated 17th in the nation according to recruiting guru Bob Gibbons, it was clear that IU coach Bob Knight was looking forward to the arrival of the 6’9″ big man: “Eric can shoot the ball, handle the ball, and pass it. I would say he will fit right in with everything we want to do”.
Ascending on Bloomington in the fall of 1988, Anderson would “fit in” immediately. In fact, he became the first IU freshman since Isaiah Thomas in 1979 to start his very first game. Anderson made the most of that initial starting opportunity as he chipped in eight points in a victory over Illinois State on November 19th.
Anderson’s play throughout his freshman year was impressive, especially in conference play, as the forward became a reliable scorer thanks to a solid mid-range shooting game, as well as a disciplined approach on the floor. He would go on to average 11.9 ppg (third highest on the team) during his first season at IU and earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors as a member of a team that surprised many in the college basketball world by winning a Big Ten conference title in 1989 (IU had lost Keith Smart, Daryl Thomas, and Dean Garrett to graduation the season prior).
In many ways, Anderson would be looked upon for leadership despite only being a sophomore for the 1990-91 season as the Hoosier squad lacked upper-classmen with the graduation of Joe Hillman. Seniors Jeff Oliphant and Mark Robinson had never been more than minor role players during their IU careers.
Additionally, Indiana boasted a recruiting class of seven freshmen, dubbed the “Magnificent Seven,” meaning IU’s squad consisted of 10 freshmen or sophomores. Freshman Calbert Cheaney, one of the less-heralded from Bob Knight’s incoming recruiting class, burst on the scene averaging an impressive 17.1 ppg. Anderson would be second on the team in scoring at 16.3 ppg and would lead the team in rebounding at seven per game.
Despite having spurts of consistency, Indiana’s youth would be its weakness during much of the 1989-90 season, as the Hoosiers would finish 18-11 overall (8-10 in conference play).
I was fortunate enough to meet Eric as a seven year-old in January of 1991.
My grandfather, who at the time had just retired as Bursar of Indiana University, took me to a Pizza Hut here in Bloomington where we met Anderson. I had not known at the time that I was going to meet him, so needless to say, I was in awe.
He sat with us for over 30 minutes, during which I asked him questions about anything from what practices were like with Coach Knight to if food tasted different in college. He could not have been a more genuine, outgoing individual, and it remains one of most cherished moments of my childhood.
Big things were expected for not only Eric Anderson in his junior season, but the entire talented Indiana squad. Flashes of greatness had been seen from the now sophomores the season prior, and along with highly touted freshman Damon Bailey coming in, hopes of a rebound from the season prior could be heard all over the state.
Some who would watch the season unfold might’ve have observed a digression from Eric Anderson in terms of scoring, but this was only due to Calbert Cheaney emerging as Indiana’s main shooting threat (Cheaney would average 21.6 ppg).
Those around the team at that time speak about how Anderson embraced his role in whatever capacity was asked of him. Still, Anderson would average another solid average of 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
The 1990-91 squad rebounded in convincing fashion from their losing record in Big Ten play a season prior to clinching a share of a Big Ten title with a 15-3 conference record. Additionally, the three Big Ten losses were only by a combined 11 points.
Indiana’s five starters would all return for the 1991-92 season including Anderson, now a senior. With the talent the roster possessed, Indiana was once again in the conversation among teams expected to contend for a Big Ten title.
The season would not get off to a great start as the Hoosiers would be blown out by UCLA 87-72 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. Freshman Alan Henderson would lead IU with 20 points, while Anderson added 14 points. Indiana would have only one other setback in pre-conference play (a loss to Kentucky on December 7th) leading to a 9-2 record. Conference play would be a story of strong stretches and fizzling performances for Indiana, leading to a 14-4 record, including dropping two of their final three games.
In his final home game, Anderson would go out on a high note with 15 points and 11 rebounds, helping the Hoosiers defeat Wisconsin (their 15th straight win over the Badgers at Assembly Hall) 66-41. A recording of the game and Anderson’s senior speech can be found here (thanks to Dr. Galen Clavio).
Indiana would then head to Boise, ID as the #2 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the ups and downs of the Big Ten season, the Hoosiers would find their consistency during post-season play.
After a first-round victory over Eastern Illinois, the Hoosiers would face LSU and their imposing center phenom, Shaquille O’Neal. Despite allowing O’Neal to score 36 points, Indiana would limit other aspects of LSU’s offense en route to a 89-79 win.
After the game, Anderson would comment on his defensive assignment of O’Neal: “I was just out there hackin’ him up and hoping for the best”. Indiana would face off against Florida State in their Sweet Sixteen matchup and would defeat the Seminoles 85-74. Anderson would score 24 points to lead the Hoosiers.
Next up for the Hoosiers would be a rematch against UCLA, the team that embarrassed IU at the start of the season. In what is still discussed as one of the most dominant Indiana performances in their NCAA history, the Hoosiers pounded the Bruins 106-79. Calbert Cheaney, Eric Anderson, and Damon Bailey would combine for 62 points in the win.
The loss for UCLA would be the worst in 89 career NCAA games stretching over 28 appearances in the tournament. The victory would propel Indiana to their first NCAA Final Four since 1987, and Anderson’s strong play in the West Regional would earn him Most Outstanding Player recognition.
Duke, the defending NCAA Champions, were up next.
Indiana came out hot against the Blue Devils and led at halftime 42-37. The lead would be short-lived as Duke came out in fury in the second half, ultimately stretching a lead out to 13 points.
Many Hoosier faithful will point to the foul discrepancy as a major factor in the outcome of the game. While Duke would commit 18 fouls for the game, Indiana would be called for 33 fouls, which would lead to Alan Henderson, Damon Bailey, Greg Graham, and Calbert Cheaney to foul out.
Despite a heroic fury of three pointers from Todd Leary — nine points in 26 seconds — Indiana would fail to move on to the NCAA title game, losing to Duke 81-78. The Blue Devils would go on to win a second-straight NCAA title, the first team to do so since UCLA in 1973.
The loss would mean the end of Eric Anderson’s impressive yet humbling Indiana collegiate career. Anderson would leave Indiana in 1992 with 1,715 career points, 5th all time. Today, his point total is still good for 11th overall. Additionally, his 825 career rebounds remains top 10 in Indiana history.
Anderson was a beloved figure in IU basketball history. However, he was so much more than that, especially to his teammates. Pat Graham, Anderson’s teammate at Indiana from 1989-1992, said it best: “He needs to be talked about. When you say Eric Anderson, my first thought is not a basketball player. He just is a great teammate. Most people have no clue what I mean by that, but the players that played with him, they know exactly what I mean.”