Thursday, August 27, 2015



The Fab Four- A bond that has never been broken



Most people think of John, Paul, George and Ringo when they hear Fab Four because Beatlemania took the country by storm following their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964. When I think of the Fab Four, I think of Danny, Larry, Lonnie and Gene.

No, they weren’t rock stars, but members of our 1970-71 Kansas State freshmen basketball team. The foursome later helped the Wildcats win back-to-back Big Eight titles for head coach Jack Hartman during their sophomore and junior seasons. The Wildcats finished second in the conference their senior years.  They bonded like brothers their freshmen year and still maintain those close ties to this day.

I’ll tell how they were recruited, what created that strong bond and their most memorable experience.  I’ll conclude with a biographical sketch of each player, as well as some family information, so you will know where they are today.

How were these players recruited?

I was driving on icy roads near St. Louis, heading to southern Illinois during in January of 1970 to watch a high school tournament in Centralia. I knew right away who we wanted after seeing Danny Beard of Sparta, Ill., play.  I was an assistant coach at K-State then under head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. Beard, at 6-foot-3, was a deadly shooter from outside and resembled Walt Frazier who played for Jack Hartman at Southern Illinois and later the New York Knicks.

The 1970-71 KSU Basketball Team

Later that spring, Cotton headed to Sparta to make an official scholarship offer to Beard. He had just been named Southern Illinois Athlete of the Year. 

“Cotton Fitzsimmons was a great talker and in my home where he signed me and said he would not leave Kansas State until he won a championship,” Beard said.  “He called me less than two weeks from the time I signed and left K-State for the NBA and the Phoenix Suns. But, I would have done the same thing.”

I asked Beard about his first reaction when he heard Cotton was leaving. 

“My first reaction was to transfer to a school closer to home, but I loved the Kansas people and Larry Williams and I flew on the same plane together for our official visit and agreed we were both going to attend Kansas State,” he said. 

Williams’ final decision came down to the K-State, Kansas and the University of New Mexico. 

“Kansas State’s assistant coach Gene Robbins practically became part of our family, so he won my family over,” Williams said. “Cotton, who could sell ice cream to Eskimos, sealed the deal.

“Cotton was overwhelming and even won over my hall of fame high school coach Ralph Tasker.”

Williams was familiar with Jayhawks basketball. 

“The best basketball player ever to come out of Hobbs was Bill Bridges… went on to win a ring in the NBA,” Williams said. “KU’s head coach Ted Owens had a brother who lived one hour from Hobbs and was a regular visitor — and charming at that.

“So, Cotton was very impressive to overcome all that. Maryland was actually a frontrunner until Fitzsimmons convinced me that Maryland was north of the ‘snow line.’ That’s the geographical divider that everyone knows, north of which it simply snows all the time. I was 18 and slightly naive.”

# 20 Lon Kruger, #42  Danny Beard (photo courtesy KSU Alumni Association)
# 20 Lon Kruger   #42 Danny Beard (photo courtesy KSU Alumni Association)

I asked Williams why he followed through with his commitment to attend K-State when Cotton left and Hartman took over. 

“Some influences had nothing to do with Cotton or Hartman,” he said. “A feeling had been created about Kansas State by you, the campus, reigning Big Eight champs, the elaborate jock dorm, the dozens of telegrams that were sent to me by Wildcat supporters on the days leading up to signing day. Remember those?”

“It crossed my mind not to follow through with my commitment to Kansas State, but I was 18, loaded down with academic responsibilities and the fact that the tough decision had already been made and the ensuing relief made it easier to simply say, ‘OK, I’ll go with this.’”

Lonnie Kruger was added to our prospect list when I first saw him play as a high school junior — when I was an assistant for Fitzsimmons. We recruited him during the fall of 1969 with a visit to the campus and planned to offer him a full scholarship and split the cost with the baseball program.

Kruger wanted to play both basketball and baseball.  K-State’s head baseball coach, Bob Brazier, was happy with the arrangement. But, before we could close the deal Cotton left K-State in the spring of 1970 to coach the Phoenix Suns. Kruger’s scholarship arrangement was put on hold until Cotton’s replacement was found.

K-State got a lucky break. Kruger was recruited by Kansas, Wichita State and Drake, but didn’t make any commitments because he had an offer on the table to play professional baseball for the Houston Astros. The Astros offered a $5,000 signing bonus and funding for college, but his father, Don, told him to hold out for a better offer. The offer never came.

“I knew if I was going to college, it was going to be Kansas State,” Kruger said.  “Holding out was just a matter of trying to decide should I play baseball or go to Kansas State, even though I was recruited for basketball by other colleges.”

That left the door open for Cotton’s successor, Hartman.  At the urging of Fred White — a sportscaster for WIBW in Topeka at the time — Hartman signed Kruger to play for K-State about the same time he hired me to be Kruger’s freshman coach. 

I was in Seattle helping my former K-State coach Tex Winter with a summer basketball camp when the call came from Hartman. I was elated to learn he signed Kruger.

Gene McVey, a 6-7 center from Kismet, got my attention when I went to the Tournament of Champions in Dodge City in 1970 to see Kruger play. McVey, a senior who was a star at Southwestern Heights, broke his ankle in the next game against Kingman and didn’t play the remainder of the season. Even though we didn’t get to see him play after the injury, we started recruiting him knowing he was definitely a player we wanted.

McVey led his team to a 25-1 record his junior year, with the only loss coming in overtime to Humboldt in the championship game of the state tournament. He was first-team All-State pick both his junior and senior years, averaging about 25 points and 15 rebounds a game.

“I was recruited by Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Maryland and other colleges, but chose Kansas State because of my agriculture interests and the coaches and players,” McVey said. 

I asked McVey what he was thinking when he had agreed to play for K-State and found out Cotton was leaving. 

“I was disappointed to say the least,” McVey said. “Cotton had a great personality and was a great communicator.

“I enjoyed the up-tempo play and the triangle offense, which we played in high school. It was a great offense to involve all five players. Cotton left within two weeks after I signed, but soon after, Lonnie was signed by Coach Hartman.”

McVey knew signing Kruger would be a big plus because he played against him in high school. 

“Kruger was a real player,” McVey said. “I had never seen a player who could see out of his left ear while driving down the lane.”

McVey had not met either Beard or Williams at this point, but the memory of his official visit to the K-State campus his senior year remained a selling point on why he should go ahead with his commitment to play for the Wildcats. 

“I watched David Hall’s great rebounding effort and Bob Zender’s smooth shot from his corner spot when they beat Nebraska, and knew I wanted to be part of a team with these types of quality players,” McVey said. “Zender was one of my idols, even though I did not know him. The intensity of the crowd in Ahearn during my visit was unbelievable.”

McVey’s a guy who sees the glass half full, looks back to his high school injury during his senior year as a blessing in some ways.

“My broken ankle allowed me to improve my GPA, and I got to see Kansas State win the Big Eight in that great game in Ahearn which would not have happened had I played out the remainder of my basketball season in 1970.”

What created the bond between the Fab Four?

The bond between Beard and Kruger started as roommates. 

“Lonnie was my roommate for all but one year,” Beard said. “I could not have asked for a better situation to adjust to being so far from home. His parents took me in like I was one of their sons. We made many trips to Silver Lake and I enjoyed the biggest steaks I had ever seen in my life.

“Lonnie is an incredible human being and maximized his abilities better than any athlete I have known, and if you were open on the floor, he was going to get the ball in your hands.

“I love these guys, even at this distance. I still classify them as my closest friends. We had fun going to movies together, talking and just hanging out. I would do anything for them and miss seeing them on any type of a consistent basis. I loved all of us being together in Las Vegas in May of 2011, a highlight for me. Can’t wait to see them all again.”

“I don’t think it’s just one thing why this happened,” Williams said. “The fact is all of us are from small towns. Lonnie is a natural leader and galvanized everything from the start when he opened up his home to all of us. We went to Silver Lake periodically and his parents Don and Betty made us feel part of the Kruger family. Also, when you win, you stay closer.

“Lonnie invited us to Vegas for a reunion weekend at his home in May of 2011 and continues to stay in touch by sending out birthday and anniversary greetings to everyone in our group. Everyone in our group will know when Patty Zender has a birthday or anniversary, all because of Kruger, and that’s pretty cool.”

Kruger’s three-day reunion at his home in Las Vegas inspired him to reach out to his inner circle of friends and former teammates. 

“As we get older, we realize how important it is to stay in touch with one another, so after our fun weekend together we decided to keep in touch on a regular basis,” Kruger said. 

Kruger said there are many reasons the Fab Four bond was so strong.

“We did everything together the first day on campus back in 1970,” he said. “Family was important to all of us, and we all came from small towns.”

I mentioned the other players said Kruger’s parents played a key role in establishing the bond. 

“The doors were always open to welcome teams and players to our home as long as I can remember,” Kruger said. “Mom and dad loved having teams out to the house for pre-game meals and enjoyed their parental role for those players who wanted and needed that type of relationship.” 

Kruger’s parents attended all the home games when he played at K-State, eventually going to every game, road and home, his senior season.

“Lonnie’s family was the greatest,” McVey said. “They treated us like their own kids and I’ll always have great memories of those times together with them. Our best home away from home was Lonnie’s home in Silver Lake because we were always welcome to go there for visits and meals.”

The communication went beyond the visits to the Kruger’s during college days.

“We all have had our busy lives raising kids and establishing home lives, but Lonnie would always take the time to make a call or leave a message or a text just to say hi,” McVey said.

“Besides Lonnie, our wives had a lot to do with the bond between the four of us, because it seems like we all grew up together as couples after we left college. Without a doubt, we all found the best ladies to call our wives and they also have a great relationship.”

What is their most memorable experience?

“I have many good memories,” Beard said. “I got along very well with Coach Hartman and felt like I could have been better than I was, but have no regrets.”

Beard shared what was most important to him from his K-State experience. 

“My personal faith with Christ was established at K-State,” he said. “I found my sweetheart in Debbie, and found life-long friends in Lonnie, Gene and Larry.”

Williams has never forgotten the game against Missouri in January of 1973 at Ahearn.

“Missouri came to town undefeated and ranked No. 5 in the nation,” Williams said. “Kruger had a sprained ankle and could not play. The Big Eight rolled out a 30-second shot clock that year as an experiment in college play, and coach Hartman had a stroke of genius by installing a three-quarter-court zone press to slow Missouri’s progress and thus limit the time to initiate their offense.

“The Missouri lineup included future NBA players John Brown and Al Eberhart. They were huge — large, wrestler large — and muscled large.

“Throughout the game the MU players were extremely physical, often giving us forearm shivers as they passed through the zone press. No doubt Norm Stewart was encouraging them. I was never one for trash talking, but I’d had a good game and was frustrated with the arrogance of Mizzou. With a few seconds left, we had the game in hand, so I turned to Brown and said, ‘Hey John, I don’t think you are undefeated anymore, and I don’t think you’re No. 5 anymore — and you know what — I just kicked your…’”

Brown, a big boy, came unglued and went after Williams.

Before Brown reached Williams to strike the first blow, the K-State cavalry, including several members of the baseball team, raced to the floor from their seats behind the Missouri bench to protect Williams. Meanwhile, as Williams described it, “6-foot10-inch center Mitch (Steve Mitchell) had grabbed Brown and his teammate Everhardt and had one under each arm.”

“The next thing I knew I couldn’t breathe,” Williams continued. “Coach Hartman had me by the neck and was choking me, then said, ‘Do you really want to fight him?’ He hesitated, but continued with his hand firmly on my throat and said, ‘Then shut up and stop it.’ The next day, the Kansas City paper had three photos with these captions — BROWN EJECTED-MITCHELL OBJECTED-WILLIAMS PROTECTED.”

Kruger’s most memorable experience came when K-State defeated Missouri in Columbia his sophomore year to win the Big Eight title. 

“This win brought great satisfaction for me because we were able to win a championship on an opponent’s home court with the odds stacked against us,” Kruger said. “The spontaneous celebration in the locker room afterwards with a group of about 15 select people and no one else around is something I’ll always remember as being very special.”

McVey has never forgotten the emotion leading up to a home game in Ahearn, even before the team took the court.

“While sitting in the locker room, we could hear 11,000 screaming Kansas State fans led by MC cheerleader Larry Dixon, chanting ‘Bring on the Cats,’” McVey said. “Thinking about it still makes chills run down my spine.”

K-State lost to Kentucky in Ahearn during the 1971-72 season, but McVey remembers walking off the court with legendary coach Adolph Rupp. 

According to McVey, Rupp said, “You have the craziest fans in America.” 

McVey’s wife Bobby had an uncle named Eldo Steele who played football with Rupp while they both attended high school in Halstead, but time ran out for McVey to bring up his connection with Uncle Eldo. 

“The Adolph Rupp memory has always remained, knowing there was a little family connection there” McVey said.

The Ahearn crowd noise level may have helped win a game with Missouri during McVey’s senior year. 

“We were leading and during a free-throw attempt by K-State, the free throw missed and there was a mass of bodies going for the rebound, but Missouri came away with the ball and headed down the floor to try and score,” McVey said.  “The official called a foul during the rebound, but the noise level was so high the Missouri players heading down court didn’t hear the whistle.

“The game stopped and the officials went to the scoring table to reset the clock and try to determine who was fouled and who would shoot the free throw. On the way to the free-throw line, I asked Lonnie who got fouled, and I think he said ‘everyone,’ meaning all of the K-State players involved in the play. It looked like I was going to shoot the free throws, but Lonnie asked me if I wanted him to shoot the free throws, and I said sure. Kruger, an 82 percent free-throw shooter went to the line instead of me and sank both and we won the game. Missouri coach —Stormin Norman Stewart — went wild from the bench with a huge scowl on his face when he saw what was happening.

“All I can say is all KSU players involved in that play were fouled.”

What career did each pursue and what are they doing now?

During his senior year, Beard was invited to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia. Only the NCAA’s top senior basketball stars are invited to showcase their skills so NBA scouts can take another look at the talent pool available prior to the NBA draft. After he returned, he headed off with the Big Eight All-Star team to play Yugoslavia. While in Yugoslavia, Beard received an offer to play with a team in Italy, but he chose to return to the states.

Once he was home, he joined Athletes in Action and played against college teams all over the country for a year before getting married before his second season. Danny had met Debbie Ford while in college. Debbie — from Topeka — was also a K-State student and eventually they married.

“We met at K-State and had one date and I told her I’d write her that summer, but never followed through,” Beard said.

When Beard returned to K-State in the fall, Debbie said, “Thanks for all the letters.” 

“I’ve been explaining for 40 years why I didn’t write to her that summer,” Beard said. “Debbie is a nine-year breast cancer survivor. We’ve been to Mexico and Germany trying to find medical help and everyday’s been a struggle for her.”

Danny joined Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 1976 as an assistant basketball coach.

“I signed a salary contract for $14, 000,” Beard said.  “Can you imagine what you and I got paid as assistant coaches compared to what they are paying coaches today for doing the same job?” 

Beard left Sanford in 1979 for Eastern Illinois as an assistant coach and remained there three years.

In 1982, Danny and Debbie moved to Spokane, Wash., where they still live. Danny formed a traveling team and they’ve played college teams throughout the country for almost nine years as the NBC Thunder. Now Danny is senior vice president of NBC camps and oversees the quality control and promotion of the camps throughout the world. NBC (formerly Northwest Basketball Camps) provides instruction in basketball, volleyball, football and soccer.

Danny and his wife Debbie have three children. Their so, Micah, is 31 and works as a network administrator for the University of Washington-Medicine. He completed his first Master’s degree and is halfway finished on his second. He and his wife, Linet, live in Seattle. Their daughter, Ciara, is 28 and works in traffic enforcement on the police force in Santa Barbara, Calif., and just finished her Master’s degree recently. Another daughter, Alisa, is 23 and works at Best Buy in Phoenix after working a short time for Nike.

Following graduation, Williams was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, but ended up playing overseas for seven years and describes it as, “An Amazing time.” 

“I met the love of my life in Holland, and Els and I have now been married for 34 years,” Williams said.

Highlights included winning the World Cup of club teams with a Brazilian team in 1979 shortly after his first daughter was born there.

Williams returned to K-State for graduate studies in the early 1980s as a grad assistant for Hartman. He was a sales and promotional rep in San Antonio for Converse in the 80s before entering the auto business these past 25 years. He and Els now live in Albuquerque.

They have two daughters — Elisha — who is 33, a Texas graduate and married to Dr. Matt Taylor, who is a naturalist at North Carolina. Their other daughter, Mysha, which means “little girl” in Dutch, is married to Adam Kuhlman. They live in the Boston area where she is a school psychologist. 

Kruger, who was named Big Eight Player of the Year his junior and senior years, was drafted but did not sign with the Atlanta Hawks. He spent one season pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals organization and spent one season playing basketball in Israel before trying out with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.

After being the last player cut from the Pistons, Kruger decided to become a coach. He spent one year as a graduate assistant under Bob Johnson at Pittsburg State and then joined Hartman’s staff at K-State in 1977 where he remained his assistant for five years before accepting his first head-coaching job in 1982 at Pan-American University in Edinberg, Texas.

When Hartman retired in 1986, Kruger was hired to replace him and was a heartbeat away from taking K-State to the Final Four in 1988 after losing in the Midwest regional finals to Kansas.

Kruger became the only coach in K-State history to take his team to four straight NCAA tournaments. After four years at K-State, Kruger accepted the head job at Florida in 1990, and took his team to the Final Four in 1994.

Illinois came calling in 1996, and Kruger won a Big Ten title in his second year there and took his Illini team to the second round of the NCAA tournament three times in four seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks lured Kruger away from Illinois in 2000 to make him their head coach, but the Hawks impatience of wanting an instant winner led to Kruger’s firing two months into his third season. He joined the New York Knicks’ staff as an assistant in June of 2003, but remained in the “Big Apple” for only a short time before the glitter of Las Vegas caught his eye.

UNLV had tried nine different head coaches in the previous 13 seasons before Kruger was hired on March 15, 2004 to take over a Rebels program that had a long absence from the NCAA tournament under Jerry Tarkanian.

Move over Wayne Newton and welcome Coach Kruger was the mantra of those victory-starved Rebel fans. Vegas didn’t want another Elvis or Sinatra to be king, they wanted a basketball coach who could once again wear that crown and return the Rebels to their glory years.

Kruger won the Mountain West Conference title his third year and took his team to the Sweet 16 while winning 30 games. The Rebels found their king, but were shocked when after seven seasons of winning basketball, the Oklahoma president and athletic director came calling, eventually taking Kruger back to Sooner country in 2011.

Kruger has resurrected the OU program as he prepares to start his third season in Norman. The Krugers live just outside Norman in their country home, surrounded by 50 acres. Lonnie met his wife Barb at K-State where she was a member of the Pridettes, a high-kick dance/drill team that performed with the band. 

Barb, who graduated from K-State, stays active and loves horses. She brought her horse, Dancer, a dark palomino mare with her from Las Vegas. While in Las Vegas, Barb worked as a volunteer and advocate of sheltering women from domestic violence in safe houses and spent time with the Nevada Partnership for the Homeless.

They have two children and one grandchild. Their daughter Angie is a medical doctor and lives in Las Vegas with her husband Mike Ciklin and their daughter Avery Carolyn, who was born last August. Their son Kevin, who played one year for his dad at UNLV, is playing basketball in Germany for Eisenbaren-Bremerhaven.

McVey married Bobby Steele, also a K-State graduate, on Aug. 12, 1972.  Gene was an agronomy major and graduated in 1975. 

“My first job after college was in research for Northrup King Seed Company with many long hours of travel,” McVey said. 

McVey then worked for Collingwood Grain as a merchandiser and eventually moved to be head merchandiser after 11 years.

In 1990, he joined WB Johnston Grain Company in Enid, Okla., where he earned the position of vice president. He finished out his career as president of Johnston Seed Company. 

“We had our own research and production areas and our biggest achievement was supplying the turf for the Beijing Olympics baseball fields,” McVey said.

Bobby worked as a Medical technologist and a Certified Medical assistant. They have two children and six grandchildren. Their son, Eric, is 38 and works in sales for Behlen Manufacturing and lives in Enid. Their daughter, Kelly, is 36 and works as a systems analyst for Cobb Engineering and lives with her husband Joe Farmer in Oklahoma City.

“I have recently retired from Johnston’s and stay busy taking care of our cattle and farm ground and do some advisement work on occasion,” McVey said. “Our grandchildren all live within an hour from Enid, so Bobby and I get to visit them on a regular basis.” 

And, I bet the visits to Norman to see the Krugers will increase as well.

Here’s what we’ve learned.

During the past four years, I have interviewed more than 100 former K-State basketball players, starting with Joe Robertson, our oldest living letterman who died three months ago at the age of 95. I have been unable to find any other team members in the history of the program who have bonded like the Fab Four.

Based on their stories you just read, it appears that the bonding occurred as a result of multiple factors, starting with small town humility of each of the players. They exhibited mutual respect for one another right from the start.

When I played on the K-State freshmen team in 1962, there was no such bond among my teammates and we didn’t have the common values exhibited by the Fab Four from the very beginning. To this day, I don’t even know the whereabouts of my 6-10 freshman roommate Roy Smith and neither does the Alumni Association since he’s listed as lost, even though he graduated from the university. We have not spoken in more than 45 years.

Winning back-to-back Big Eight championships may have helped bond them, but family values played a key role with the involvement of Don and Betty Kruger of Silver Lake when they opened up their home to the Fab Four and made them part of the family.  Don and Betty became parents away from home and they attended all home games and followed the team throughout the country during their senior year.

Lon, (we still call him Lonnie) has been the catalyst in keeping the relationships alive because he continued to treat his teammates as members of the Kruger family once they all went their separate ways. He still communicates with them on a regular basis via email with announcements about birthdays, anniversaries and other updates.

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