By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa men’s basketball team had just clinched a spot in the 1980 Final Four earlier in the afternoon when the plane carrying the players and coaches landed in Cedar Rapids.
It was March 16, 1980, a day that Hawkeye fans will cherish forever.
Star point guard Ronnie Lester noticed shortly after landing that fans were lined up outside the fence that surrounds the airport.
There were also fans parked on the side of road that stretched from the airport to the interstate.
Lester and his teammates had just made a stunning second-half comeback to defeat Georgetown 81-80 in the Elite Eight in Philadelphia, and to say that fans were excited would be an understatement, as Lester would soon realize.
“We thought that was it, really,” Lester said of the fan turnout in Cedar Rapids.
Lester would soon learn that the celebration was just getting started.
The players and coaches traveled back to Iowa City and went to the Iowa Field House to drop off their bags and equipment.
Lester was physically and emotionally exhausted after having played in two grueling tournament games over the past 72 hours and he looked forward to getting some much-needed rest.
Lester figured he would drop off his bags and leave the Field House as he normally did.
But then the players were ushered as a group on to the court and waiting to greet them were thousands of delirious and appreciative fans.
“They had us ushered out through the Field House, which we didn’t normally do,” Lester said. “So we went out and it was like we were going to play another game. The place was packed with people. It was loud. It was unbelievable.
“It’s one of the special moments that I experienced playing at the University of Iowa.”
That special moment happened almost exactly 40 years ago, and it marks the last time that Iowa has advanced to the Final Four.
Iowa lost to eventual champion Louisville 80-72 in the semifinals in a game in which Lester reinjured his knee in the first half after playing just 12 minutes.
Lester had made all four of his field-goal attempts and both of his free throw attempts when he was injured.
Hawkeye fans insist to this day that Iowa would’ve not only defeated Louisville with a healthy Lester, but would’ve also won the national title.
Lester isn’t one to dwell on the past, but he recently pulled out a scrap book from his senior season that was put together by two Hawkeye fans, and the memories came rushing back.
“I try to not think about that, but it’s funny,” Lester said. “There were a couple of ladies that were in Iowa City when I was in school there. They would do scrap books for the senior players and they did a scrap book for me. And I’ve had the chance to go back and look at those scrap books recently and it brings back so many good memories of being at the university, and especially that year getting to the Final Four, although, we experienced a lot of adversity getting there.
“I would have liked to have played my senior year without a knee injury, as anybody would. And I think we would have been one of the better teams in the country that year and not lost many games to be honest with you.”
Lester missed 16 games during the regular season after first injuring his knee against Dayton in the eighth game of the season.
Iowa would go on to finish just 10-8 in the Big Ten, but that was good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.
Lester then came back near the end of the regular season, and that’s when something special started brewing.
His teammates had gained confidence and valuable experience playing without him, and that paid huge dividends during the postseason march to the Final Four.
Sophomore Kenny Arnold, who normally played shooting guard, replaced Lester at point guard and was the driving force for much of the regular season.
“He was so versatile,” Lester said of Arnold. “He could play almost anywhere. He was a two-guard who could play the point. He could guard most people. He played bigger. He could play against smaller guys.
“I think he was one of those guys that you could plug in at two or three positions, really, and not lose anything. So his versatility was his main calling.”
Arnold’s courage and resilience would prove to be his main calling after he graduated from Iowa, but under sad circumstances.
He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the mid-1980s and then spent the rest of his life battling numerous health issues until passing away last April at the age of 59.
“He just loved his teammates,” Lester said of Arnold. “He loved the Iowa experience, as I did. It made us better people. And part of it is your teammates.
“The guys on that team really stuck together and I think Kenny’s sickness and illness for all those years was one of the big reasons why.”
Lester and Arnold had a special bond, on and off the court. They were both from Chicago. They were both humble and soft spoken. And they were both talented basketball players who thrived at Iowa while playing under former head coach Lute Olson.
“I’ve also got to give coach Olson credit for recruiting, not only the type of player that he did, but the type of people that he did, too,” Lester said. “People that cared about each other, not only on the court, but off the court, which I think is probably just as important as playing on the court.
“You have to like the people you’re playing with on the court and getting to know them. And coach Olson had that family atmosphere that kind of brought all of us together, although, we were from different places in the country and we were different people. He had us all honed into one thing.”
Despite being injured for much of his senior season, Lester still is considered by many the greatest player in the history of the Iowa program as a lightning-quick 6-foot-2 point guard.
Lester would go on to play for six seasons in the NBA after being selected with the 10th pick overall in the 1980 draft. But he was hobbled by knee problems throughout his professional career.
He also has worked as an NBA executive.
His decision to attend Iowa changed the course of Lester’s life, and helped set the stage for the glory years under Olson.
In addition to playing in the 1980 Final Four, Iowa also won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title during Lester’s junior season in 1979 in which he earned All-America honors.
Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten regular-season title since then.
Lester’s path to Iowa started being paved when he grew about eight inches during the summer after his sophomore year of high school. He only stood about 5-6 as a sophomore, but was 6-2 by the time his junior year started.
“I was not recruited until my senior year of high school and I think part of it was I didn’t really grow until after my sophomore year of high school,” Lester said. “I can remember the worst knee pain ever. I thought something was wrong with my knees because I was growing so fast my knees were giving me a lot of trouble.”
Iowa was the first school to recruit Lester and it started with him meeting Hawkeye assistant coach Tony McAndrews after playing in a road game his senior year.
Lester was convinced that Iowa was the best place for him after taking an official visit and getting to know the Iowa players. He was hosted on his trip by Iowa players William Mayfield and Clay Hargrave, and the three of them clicked immediately.
Lester also visited Creighton, Nebraska and Arizona, but then he cancelled another visit because he already knew that he wanted to be a Hawkeye.
“My goal was to go to a school where I thought I could first of all possibly play my first year,” Lester said. “I didn’t want to go to a place where I’d have to sit. I thought I wanted to go someplace where I could fit, and Iowa was a good fit for me. It was not that far from home. The places that were recruiting me, it was the closest place to home. So all those things played a part.
“And I got there on my visit, it was a great visit. The two hosts for me the weekend I came to Iowa were William Mayfield and Clay Hargrave, and I hit it off with those guys. And I liked the other players that I would be playing with once I got there. So it was a combination of things that led to me Iowa.”
No place like home
One of Lester’s fondest memories of being a Hawkeye was playing at the Iowa Field House, which opened in 1927 and served as Iowa’s home court until 1983.
“You’d meet people that you played against at different schools later in life, and inevitably, most of those guys would say coming into Iowa City and playing at the Field House, they didn’t enjoy it because it was a big home-court advantage,” Lester said. “It got really loud. People were packed on top of each other basically. People stomping on the rafters, it got really loud. People we played against didn’t like playing there because of that. It was one of the tougher places to play, they thought, in the Big Ten.”
Lester was clearly the face of the Iowa program and the team’s best player during his time as a Hawkeye, but he never looked at it that way.
“You kind of take those things in stride,” Lester said of the individual accolades. “You play to win, really. That’s what I played for. Basketball being a team game, you can’t do anything by yourself. One person can’t beat a team no matter how good that one person is in my opinion.
“And at Iowa, we had some good solid teams because of that. The coaching we had knowing that one person is not going to beat a team and we were in a lot of games at Iowa where I think a lot of others teams that we played against had more talent than we had. But we were a better team.”
Lester can't believe how fast the 40 years have passed since that magical season.
“The years have gone by so fast it’s amazing," Lester said. "As a younger person, I can remember talking to older people saying that as you get older the years will go by faster. Now I know what they mean because it’s amazing, forty years have gone be almost in a blink of the eye to me.”