Mark Bennett: Williams, Graves -- exemplary, talented Sycamores -- see jerseys retired

Feb. 8—Inner-city traffic flowed through campus. Most students commuted to class. A few years earlier, a basketball phenomenon named Larry Bird introduced the world to Indiana State University and Terre Haute.

Indeed, ISU looked and moved differently when John Sherman Williams and Barbara Graves studied there in the late 1970s and early '80s.

There were no retired jerseys hanging in relatively new Hulman Center.

Four decades later, the campus features outdoor art, landscaping, modernized buildings and 21st-century technology.

And, the No. 44 jersey Williams wore for the Sycamore men's basketball team from 1983-86 and the No. 20 donned by Graves for the ISU women's team received a perch in Hulman Center during ceremonies last Saturday and Sunday.

Both the campus' look and the honor awed Williams, now 60 years old, and Graves, 62.

She toured the grounds, including the Student Recreation Center, with its multiple gyms, courts for pickleball and other sports, fitness center, pool, sauna and other amenities.

"We had none of that," Graves said, with a laugh. "It's amazing how much nicer it is, and I love it."

Williams felt the same. "I saw all the changes made, and it was pretty amazing," he said.

As for watching the unveiling of their retired jerseys in Hulman Center, Graves said, "It was an honor I never dreamed of. It's rare for women to have their numbers retired. And there's a lot of great players that have come through that program."

Her jersey now hangs alongside two other former Sycamore women's players — Melanie Boeglin and Amy Hile. ISU formally retired Graves' number at halftime of Sunday's game between the current ISU team and Illinois State. She starred for ISU from 1979-83.

The smiles and emotion shown by Williams and his family as they gazed up at his No. 44 — positioned amid those of Bird, Carl Nicks, Jerry Newsom and Duane Klueh — sum up the moment's impact on him.

To illustrate how far ISU athletics have advanced, consider where Graves and her teammates played their games. Though Hulman Center opened in 1973, the Sycamore women played in the cozy confines of the bygone old Women's Gym and then the ISU Arena. It wasn't until Graves' coach, Andi Myers, retired from that position in 1989 that ISU moved the women's games into Hulman Center, aside from a few rare games in that larger facility.

Still, the game remained the same, and Graves played it well.

"As coaches say, she was one of those players that if you said, 'Barbara, I need you to run through that wall,' she would," said Myers, who coached Graves in her senior season. Graves played her first three seasons under coach Edie Godleski, who recruited Graves from Anderson Madison Heights High School.

Basketball opened up lifelong opportunities that a young woman born in Birmingham, Alabama, and then raised in Anderson, Indiana, may never have imagined.

She earned a scholarship to ISU, resulting in a bachelor's degree in education. Graves won the team's MVP award in each of her last three seasons. She played professionally for a year in Falkirk, Scotland, and a year in Dublin, Ireland. "They treated us really top-notch," Graves said of those European cities.

"I would not have gotten opportunities to go to those countries, but basketball opened those up," Graves said.

And, Graves was one of 18 women invited to a tryout in California to become the first female Harlem Globetrotters player. Graves hasn't forgotten opening up that invitation from her mail in 1985. "That was jaw-dropping," she said.

Once the weeklong tryout ended, the Globetrotters selected former University of Kansas star Lynette Woodard. "She was exactly what they were looking for," Graves recalled. "I was thrilled to be one of the 18 invited."

Her family moved from Alabama to Indiana when Barbara was about 5 years old because of her father's railroad job. Her playing career got off to a rocky start, when she got cut as a freshman from the Madison Heights High basketball team. The athletic director intervened and got her a spot on the team, and Graves became a standout for coach Billie Bienert.

Godleski recruited Graves, and the young freshman helped the Sycamores win 19 games in her first season.

One highlight of her four seasons was breaking former ISU standout Shelly Newell's career scoring record. "That was a special night," Graves said. She finished her ISU years with 1,498 points, 898 rebounds and 315 steals. Most important, she left with a degree. Graves retired from a 25-year UPS career and now works part-time for the Westfield schools.

Similarly, Williams has worked for 20-plus years at Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis, where he serves as facilities and equipment manager. On Tuesday night, the school celebrated his ISU jersey retirement during its boys basketball game.

He and his wife Gabe have been married for 30 years. Their son J graduated from Anderson University, and daughter Jazmine is a junior at Indiana Wesleyan University.

In Williams' collegiate playing days, he led coach Dave Schellhase's high-octane Sycamore offense that scored as many as 113 points in a single game. In some games, both ISU and its opponent scored triple-digits, including a 111-103 win over Missouri Valley Conference foe West Texas State in 1983 and a 126-102 loss at ninth-ranked MVC power Tulsa.

Williams served as the dunker on ISU's alley-oop combo with assist man Rick Fields, "which I encouraged, because I liked that kind of basketball," Schellhase recalled this week from his home in Logansport. He and assistant Jerry Hoover recruited Williams from Indianapolis Washington High School, where he played for legendary coach Basil Sfreddo, an Indiana State grad himself.

Both Sfreddo and Williams became Indiana Basketball Hall of Famers. If not for Larry Bird, Williams would be ISU's all-time leading scorer, finishing his four seasons with 2,374 points. He ranks 10th in career rebounds with 629, delivered 81 double-figure scoring games and ranked fifth in the nation in points-per-game with 25.4 in 1985-86, his senior year. His 47-point night at West Texas State in 1984 is the most by any Sycamore not named Larry Bird. (LB had 49- and 48-point games.)

Unfortunately, ISU couldn't top the .500 mark in wins and losses through Williams' three seasons under Schellhase and final season under late ISU coach Ron Greene. But the Missouri Valley was stacked with talent in that era, including greats like Wichita State's Xavier McDaniel and Bradley's Hersey Hawkins.

"It was very, very tough," Williams said Monday of the '80s MVC.

Williams matched the other Valley greats. He hit a game-winning shot with 2 seconds left to beat Bradley in 1985. "I remember the ball leaving my hand and then hearing the buzzer," he remembered.

Bradley and Hawkins nipped ISU 54-52 the following season, despite Williams' 20 points. Afterward Braves coach Dick Versace told the Chicago Tribune he tried to recruit Williams and called him "a sweetheart of a kid and a great basketball player. You can't let him get the ball much, and when he does, you want him to be tired."

Williams was rarely tired. He played 4,107 minutes in four ISU seasons, the most by any Sycamore ever.

Williams' jersey retirement is "well deserved," Schellhase said. "Indiana State was fortunate to have him. If we could've got a couple other players, it would've been much better in that time."

Professional teams spotted Williams' abilities. He played one season for the Rockford Lightning and Wyoming Wildcatters of the Continental Basketball Association, a forerunner of the current NBA G League, a developmental league. "I played with some guys that got to play in the NBA," the 6-foot-5 Williams said of his CBA season. "Unfortunately, I didn't get that chance but still, to play in that league was a good experience."

He later spent four seasons in the World Basketball League and four seasons with Athletes in Action, a Christian-based team. "He's a good Christian man," Schellhase said of Williams. "I never heard one bad word about him."

Fans attending ISU games in Hulman Center should remember those stories when they look up at Graves' and Williams' jerseys.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or