Longtime Buckeye fans will recognize the name Luke Witte, one of the first seven footers to suit up in scarlet and gray. Luke was far more than just a big guy to fill space, though. After a season on the freshman team in 1969-70 (freshmen could not play varsity in that era), he exploded onto the scene in 1970-71, averaging 18.9 ppg and 12.7 rpg for an OSU squad that won the Big Ten title and advanced to the Elite Eight. A rugged rebounder, Luke still ranks third in career rebounding average in Buckeye history.
Unfortunately, Witte is best remembered by many fans as the player who was viciously attacked by some Minnesota Gopher players, in the last seconds of a game played at Minneapolis. There is no shortage of articles on this ugly incident, including this piece from the Sports Illustrated Vault. Knocked unconscious, Luke spent a few days in the hospital, but bravely completed his junior season, and then came back for more as a senior in 1972-73. Many fans and basketball experts suggested, though, that he was never quite the same player after that horrific experience.
Chosen as the 57th player in the 1973 NBA draft, Luke went on to play three years for the Cleveland Cavaliers, though his NBA career was shortened due to injuries. After a few years playing in Europe, Luke operated a sports store in Alliance, Ohio, along with his wife, before entering seminary and becoming a minister. Today Luke serves as a chaplain, and he took some time recently to patiently answer my questions. His candor and testimony was so compelling that I have decided to space the interview into two segments. Regardless of whether or not you are a basketball fan or whether you remember Luke Witte, you will enjoy his insightful remarks.
You were part of some excellent OSU teams. What is your best memory of your basketball career in Columbus?
LW: Certainly my sophomore year comes to mind, as we had a young team with three sophomore starters, one junior, and our senior leader in Jimmy Cleamons. We won the conference title and advanced to the NCAA Regional Final against Western Kentucky. It was an incredible journey. But what really stands out to me is the individuals on that team. I think there were six guys on the squad who went on to become physicians. We were truly student athletes, and it was indicative of the kind of young men Coach Fred Taylor recruited and developed, as I believe that something like 68% of his players pursued continuing education degrees.
LW: Very little. The last thing I remember was halftime in the locker room. The next thing I can recall is waking up in a hospital room. I honestly can't remember any of the events of the second half. Of course I have seen video tape of the game many times, and so I am now aware of what transpired, and over time it is difficult to separate the events that I recall from memory and what has been etched in my mind over the years from watching it on tape. It all kind of runs together, but when I woke up in the hospital I didn't know what had happened.
Do you think the injuries that resulted negatively affected your basketball career?
LW: In honesty I think that I was probably a much more aggressive player before the incident. I went after the ball with complete abandon, and never worried about cuts and bruises that resulted. Afterwards, observers said that I wasn't as aggressive, and that is probably true. There were times that I kind of flinched when in the midst of physical action, and didn't go after the ball with as much aggression. It wasn't a conscious decision or something I thought about, but looking back, I think it was true.
I have read that you later sought reconciliation with the Minnesota players involved. Is that true? What led you to that point?
LW: Actually, the first contact was made by Corky Taylor, the Minnesota player who kneed me in the groin. He initiated the communication around the time of the ten year anniversary of the incident. One day I received a letter from him, and it wasn't lengthy, but Corky said he was troubled by the whole thing. He had kids by then, and they had seen some of the media coverage since it was the ten year anniversary. They were asking questions, and he didn't really have any answers. By that point I had worked through it and didn't have any animosity, and so I hadn't thought of contacting any of the guys involved. Anyway, I sat down and tried to write a reply but couldn't find the words. So I discussed it with my wife, and decided to try and call Corky. I picked up the phone, dialed information in Minneapolis, and got the number. He answered and it was pretty stiff as you might expect with two guys. It wasn't like he asked for forgiveness or either of us said anything profound. But because of that call I decided to fly up to Minneapolis and meet Corky in person.
Part two: In the second part of the interview we'll discuss what happened when Luke met up with Corky and Clyde Turner, another former Gopher player. And we'll also talk about the good that came from this ugly incident, what Luke has done with his life, and how he would like to be remembered. Again, I want to thank him for graciously giving of his time and sharing his gripping story.