Memories remain fresh for Campbells two champion hoop teams

Campbell recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of its one and only NCAA basketball appearance, against Duke no less, along with the 40th anniversary of its 1977 NAIA national runnerup team

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Former Campbell University basketball Head Coaches Danny Roberts

BUIES CREEK — At some point in the next few weeks, probably when the smaller college basketball conference tournaments begin, someone in the stands will earn himself some television time at a game by holding up a sign that says “We want Duke!”Mark Mocnik has some words of advice for that person and others like him: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.Mocnik knows that from experience. He played for Campbell back in 1992, when the Camels qualified for the school’s first — and to this point only — Division I NCAA tournament with a Big South Conference title.Like most newly minted champions, the Camels were feeling pretty cocky in the days following their victory — until they found out on Selection Sunday that they actually were getting Duke as a first round opponent.”When you see you draw Duke … I wish somebody would have took a photo of our faces that night when we saw it,” said Mocnik, the team’s leading scorer at 16 points per game. “We were the first pairing to come up on the screen. It was in Greensboro against the No. 1 team. The facial expressions would have been a great picture to have.”If the pairing announcement wasn’t enough of a reality check for the Camels, they got an even bigger one a few days later when they actually played the eventual national champion Blue Devils, an absolutely loaded squad that went 34-2, with both losses on the road by a combined six points.Campbell never had chance, losing 82-56.”We knew the train was coming,” coach Billy Lee said. “We just couldn’t stop it.”For Lee and his outmanned team, though, the inevitable outcome wasn’t nearly as important as the experience of being there.It’s an accomplishment that was recognized recently with a 25th reunion and halftime ceremony during a game against Liberty at Gore Arena. Also honored that day were members of the Camels’ 1977 team, which 15 years earlier advanced all the way to the national championship game of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.”It’s good to be back with the team to see these guys that have done so well, to see what they’ve done and what they’ve gotten into,” Lee, now a special assistant to coach Sylvia Hatchell with the North Carolina women’s team, said.Lee added it’s hard to believe a quarter of a century has passed since that magical 1992 season. His top scorer, on the other hand, is reminded of how long it’s been whenever he goes out onto a court and plays ball with his children at home in Wake Forest.And yet, despite the passage of all that time, Mocnik said the memories of that team and the night it got its brief moment in the national spotlight remain as fresh as the night they happened.”For me it was amazing from the standpoint that it played right into my hands,” said Mocnik, a Fayetteville native who has spent much of his post-basketball life working in the auto finance business with former Camels teammate Bobby Murray.”Going against Duke with the size they had, we couldn’t go inside. So coach trusted me in how I could shoot the ball and he let me loose that night. It was one of nights where you don’t really remember what was happening while the game was going on, but afterwards when you sit down and watch it, you realize that was a pretty good evening.”Mocnik said he still has a few souvenirs from his NCAA tournament experience and a DVD of the game, in which he made seven of 13 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 29 points.Other than Mocnik’s individual performance, the most memorable aspect of the Duke game was the number of Campbell fans that traveled from Buies Creek to Greensboro to the game and how the unaffiliated fans in the stands rallied behind the Camels and their spirited effort.Looking back on that 1992 season, play-by-play announcer Ron McLamb said his best recollections are of the journey rather than the destination.After getting off to a slow start in the Big South, Campbell got hot at just the right time by winning nine of its last 11 regular season games behind Mocnik’s long-range shooting, the grit and rebounding of undersized forward Joe Spinks and contributions from teammates Billy Ellison, Steve Martin, Scott Neely, Keith Ison, Jamie Lee, Salaam Hall and Doug Mitchell. The Camels then earned their NCAA big by beating Davidson, Liberty and Charleston Southern in the conference tournament.”All the individual pieces fit so well together on that team. It really was a true team,” McLamb said. “You remember Mark Mocnik and his ability to shoot the three and Joe Spinks for being such a great all-around player. but you also had certain players that were willing to fill certain roles and they were willing to do that. It was a really big deal for all of us involved back then.”In many ways, Campbell’s 1977 team took a similar path to its glory.Although first-team All-American Sam Staggers was consistent while averaging 18.2 points per game, the team took a while to hit its stride. But once it did, it quickly picked up momentum to become the first unseeded team team in the 40-year history of the small college NAIA national tournament to advance all the way to the final game.With Staggers and fellow Campbell Hall of Famers Don Laird and Don Whaley leading the way, the Camels beat Elizabeth City State to win the District 29 championship before going to the 32-team national event in Kansas City and knocking off Lincoln Memorial, Southwest Oklahoma State, Alcorn State and Henderson State.The team ran out of gas in the championship game, losing 77-41 to Texas Southern. But like the 1992 team, that defeat did nothing to diminish the pride of those who helped get Campbell that far.”Even though we lost the national championship, it was a tremendous experience in Kansas City, something we will always remember,” team member Ernie Gilchrist said. “Quite honestly, there may have been better teams at that tournament than we were. But we overcame a lot of challenges.”My best memory of that team was a team that was resilient and overcame the odds, the ups and downs of that season. At the end, we pulled together and were extremely successful.”Danny Roberts, the coach of that 1977 team, remembers having a good feeling about his Camels heading to Kansas City, even if few others did.”When we left for Kansas City, everybody was expecting us to be back the next day,” Roberts said. “But I thought we had the best player in the country in Sam Staggers and we had a bunch of kids that were good athletes and loved the game.”Roberts said it meant a lot to him and those players to have Campbell recognize them all these years later. He said his only regret was that Staggers wouldn’t make it to the reunion. He did, however, send a recorded message from his home in Belgium that was played on the Gore Arena video board.”It really is an honor,” Roberts said. “The place really has changed a lot and grown since we were here.”One of the most visible signs of that change is the Camels’ current home arena. The modern 3,100-seat facility is a far cry from the tiny, outdated and aptly named Carter Gym at which Campbell played until 2008.Looking around the vibrant, orange-themed court, 1992 coach Lee could only wonder how much different recruiting to Campbell had he had an arena like Gore rather than one in which he’d avoid bringing prospective players to for fear of scaring them off.”Oh man, what a beautiful place,” he said. “Having a place like this in my day would have made all the difference in the world.”The one thing missing from the new arena is championship banners.Although the rafters are filled with flags commemorating the Camels’ athletic accomplishments, only two — that 1977 NAIA run and the 1992 Big South Crown — were earned by the school’s men’s basketball program. This year’s team is 13-13 overall (6-8 Big South).”It’s a work in progress,” Mocnik said. “I tell my kids that one day, I want to go back and watch Campbell play in an NCAA tournament game.”Preferably against someone other than Duke.