On Nov. 14, 1986, the movie “Hoosiers” was released across the United States. A short while later it was playing in Meadville at the Academy Theater, and a group of high school students — friends since 5th grade — went to see it.
“I remember sitting in the balcony,” said Mike Burnett. “The movie had just started rolling and they stopped it. Next thing I know, they are introducing us to the crowd.”
The movie-goers who suddenly had everyone’s attention on them instead of the screen were members of the 1986-87 Meadville Bulldogs basketball team.
“We got a standing ovation,” said Burnett. “I think that is when I finally realized the impact we had on the community. It was really profound.”
By this point, the Bulldogs should have been used to the spotlight. At the time, they were in the midst of one of the best basketball seasons in Meadville High School history, packing gymnasiums wherever they played.
In the games, however, they were too busy playing ball to notice all the eyes on them.
“I never realized it until it was over,” said Tommy Wofford. “I never knew we had that many followers until I sat and watched the tapes.”
How many followers were there?
The boosters chartered 15 fan buses to make the trip to Hershey for the state championship game. The western final against Allderdice drew well over 6,000 fans to set a venue record.
And Norm Price recalls counting at least nine crowds of more than 5,000 fans.
“That is one of the things people talk about,” said Donald Burnett. “The number of fans we had.”
It was the kind of following rarely seen at the high school level. But this wasn’t your ordinary high school team, either. There have been bigger individual names, but to have a team as athletic as Meadville was ...
“We were eight, nine players deep that could all play above the rim,” said Mike Burnett. “I had plays where I would dunk the ball or block a shot and the referee would blow the whistle.
“I’d ask, ‘What’s the call?’ And the ref would say, ‘I don’t know.’ I’d respond, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ He would answer back, ‘I don’t know because I have never seen that before.’”
And we may never see it anywhere again.
Perhaps that is why the team is still widely regarded 25 years later. Ask any “Meadville Maniac” who followed the Bulldogs that season, and that person can instantly recall a specific game or play that still resonates to this day.
“I remember, after the (state final) game, my dad warning me,” said Mike Pero. “He said, ‘This will be talked about for years to come.’
“Years later, I couldn’t go a week afterwards without someone stopping me and asking me about it. It gave everyone something to talk about. They looked forward to going to those games. Now that I am in my 40s, I realize the effect we had on the community.”
“They bring up a play or a shot I don’t even remember,” said Mike Burnett. “Even to this day, when I come home (to Meadville), people ask me about it.”
Losing the state championship didn’t take any of the luster off the shine, either.
In fact, that loss may have only solidified the legend of the “Slammin’ Dogs.” Many people still argue over just how good the team was. And nine times out of 10, that argument ends with the ’86-87 team way out in front.
And the players ... they are still treated just as they were at that showing of “Hoosiers.”
“Pretty much everywhere I go,” said Donald Burnett. “Whether it be Erie, Pittsburgh, even Philadelphia. People recognize me and want to talk about that team.
“It just reiterates how magical that season was for people.”
And it remains magical.
Not just to the fans, but to the players. Today when they look back on that season, there really is more happiness then sorrow. Even in defeat, they enjoy that season and still enjoy talking about it.
“It is very humbling to me that the talent God gave me to play basketball had such an impact and that it still continues to impact people’s lives 25 years later,” said Mike Burnett. “I thank God every day that I was able to be a part of that.”
“Actually, it still kind of affects me to this day,” said Donald. “There were a lot of people who watched us and didn’t know who we were. (At the time) I didn’t realize people would still be talking about this team.”
How long will the legend be talked about?
Could be forever by some counts. A team like the “Slammin’ Dogs” doesn’t come along every day. Factor in the addition to the PIAA of the Philadelphia city and catholic league schools, and it has also become harder to reach the state championship game.
“I don’t know if we will ever see it again,” said Joey Gray. “I hope and pray we do, but I just don’t see it right now.”
“It could be another 50 years,” said Mike Burnett.
Or, it could be just a few short months.
Currently, another outstanding former Bulldogs player, Jerry Ambooken, is organizing an alumni game. The tentative date is Nov. 23, the Friday after Thanksgiving. The “Slammin’ Dogs” are looking forward to it, too.
“I have been hoping to get together for a while,” said Wofford. “I kind of wish those days didn’t end.”
“I would love for all of us to just be on the court together,” said Gray. “We don’t even have to run and play. Just be there together, give them a hug, that kind of thing. I think that would give me some closure.”
“I still play,” said Donald. “I know Mike (Pero) plays a little. So does Tommy and Joey. And my brother says he is still dunking on guys in Texas.”
“That would be awesome,” said Mike Burnett. “I don’t think we have been together since the last alumni game in the mid 90s.”
How many will actually make the game is unknown.
November is a long way off. However, if all five members can make it back, Ambooken might want to think about a venue change.
After all, the “Slammin’ Dogs” could still draw a huge crowd of “Meadville Maniacs.”
Matthew Digiacomo can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.