January 12, 1997 was a cold and icy Sunday in Austin, Texas. While ice storms can happen in central Texas, they aren't exactly common. It was a few days before the start of the semester. Other than the weather and the fact that it was the day that Hal 9000 became operational in the book version of 2001: A Space Odyssey it seemed like an unremarkable day.
The Runnin' Horns were playing that afternoon against Kansas State. Ice and cold weather weren't going to keep me, a kid from Buffalo, NY, from attending the game. I made the walk from the Jester dormitory to the Frank Erwin Center, carefully walking across the ice. That afternoon I witnessed one of the greatest individual athletic feats that I have ever seen. On that icy day in January, a largely unknown fifth-year senior named Al Coleman became an unstoppable offensive force.
It is hard to remember details of a basketball game that happened 14 years ago. It seems that not many other people remember or care about this game. It is moment number 80 on the Top 100 Moments in Texas Men's Basketball History, although I have a little trouble believing that there are actually 79 greater moments. There is a box score for the game available from statsheet.com, but little else that I can find about the game on the Internet. It cost me $6 to pull three articles from the Austin American Statesman archives to uncover a few of the details that I couldn't quite remember. But don't feel too bad for me, I used a nearly finished gift card. $6 is a pretty low price to help secure and share a fading memory.
The game was not well attended. I remember this quite clearly. The ice kept many people at home. According to the articles, there were only 3,553 in attendance at the game. 3,500 people spread over a 16,000 seat arena is a pretty strange setting for Big XII conference game. It almost creates the atmosphere of a Saturday morning rec league. You really hear the shoes squeak and the bounce of the ball. It is like a Saturday morning rec league if the gym was really big and came with a pep band.
Texas came into the game struggling, having lost three out of their last four games. Six days earlier, they had been rocked by Kansas. Tom Penders decided to shake up his starting lineup, inserting seldom used senior Al Coleman into the starting lineup in place of Chico Vasquez. Coleman had recently worked himself into the playing rotation after spending his college career on the bench. Coleman had cracked double figures in scoring three previous times in December, after starting out the season by playing only a total of nine combined minutes in the first five games.
Al Coleman had one really important skill. He could really shoot. Texas basketball fans were starting to realize this, as coming into the Kansas State game he was 13 for 29 (45%) from the three point line. So when they announced his name in the starting lineup that afternoon, I don't think anyone was all that surprised. But we certainly took notice, if only because Chico was not starting.
To be honest, it wasn't much of a game. Texas jumped out to a big lead early and never looked back, winning by a score of 104 - 63. But it didn't matter, it was like watching a real live version of NBA Jam, with Al Coleman playing the role of Scott Skiles. I was expecting the net to burst into flames. Coleman was possessed, draining shot after shot from long range.
This actually created its own form of suspense in an otherwise suspense-free game. With 14 minutes left, Coleman drained his eighth three point shot, one short of the school record. Penders pulled him out of the game a minute later, essentially calling off the dogs in what had become an out of control blowout. But this just would not do. The crowd, all 3,553 of us, were begging for Coleman to come back in. With a little more than seven minutes left, Penders put Coleman in and the place got about as loud as I think a mostly empty arena can get.
It almost came right down to the wire. Al Coleman hit his ninth three point shot with three minutes remaining, matching Travis Mays' school record. Then Coleman struggled, missing a few shots. With 1:05 remaining, Al Coleman buried his tenth three point shot. He finished the game 10 for 14 from three point range, with a total of 32 points in 26 minutes of playing time. I walked back to the dorm and got dinner.
Al Coleman became a major part of the Texas rotation for the rest of the season, playing more than 40 minutes in the next two games, and seeing heavy playing time for the rest of the season. He continued to shoot well from three point range. And now, he is a mostly forgotten player from Texas' recent past.
But the 3,553 of us at the Erwin Center that Sunday afternoon are trying really hard not to forget.