Remembering the NAIA Championship Team
It was 1990, and Scott Blum was a sophomore at Division I Valparaiso University. He was a sixth man the year before and a starter his sophomore year.
But something wasn’t right at Valparaiso.
Although Division I basketball was a milestone in his dream to one day play in the NBA, he realized that it didn’t live up to its hype.
As a new Christian, Blum could see the negative environment affecting him. “I could tell that I was either going to live my life for the Lord or I was going to start to see myself going the other way,” Blum said.
One night, Blum was in his dorm room upset with the whole situation when the phone rang. It was Jim Kessler calling to see how he was doing. Because Blum had attended Lancer basketball camp and had grown up in the area, they had become friends over the years.
Blum broke down on the phone. Along with his disappointment about Valparaiso’s basketball team, his parents had also gotten a divorce. So Kessler and then-assistant men’s basketball coach Skip Forbes drove up to Valparaiso and met Blum at a restaurant to talk.
Before their departure, Blum popped a question that changed Grace College basketball: “So do you mind if I come to Grace and play basketball?” he asked.
That arrangement wouldn’t be a problem.
Blum sat out the following year due to an injury and made his Grace College debut in 1991. He was part of a special group of guys – a group of guys who ambitiously made it a goal to “win the last game of the season.”
In a Grace College production, “The Heart of a Champion,” Kessler noted that there was utter silence around the table when that particular goal was stated. “I had never had a team that put that as a goal before,” Kessler said in the video.
To win the last game of the season meant to win the national title, and Grace had only made it to the NAIA national tournament once before.
But soon enough, their tournament testing time arrived.
Blum woke up the morning of the first round to discover that he could hardly walk. The result: a foot fracture. His playing time the remainder of the tournament was minimal.
But other guys stepped up. They won their first round game 81-69 over Tiffin (Ohio), and would face then-rival Franklin College (Ind.) the following round. Forbes noted that because all the teams were in the same hotel, some of the Franklin players were harassing Grace’s players.
Before the game began, Forbes remembers holding the door for the players before they ran out on the court. Freshman Trent Lehman approached Forbes. “This is decided,” he said. “Leave this up to us.” Next thing Forbes knew, Grace was winning 19-2, on their way to a 106–70 thrashing. “Enjoy it, did you?” Lehman said after the game.
Grace went on to beat Concordia 95-89 in the semifinals and would play Northwestern (Iowa) in the championship game. By that time, Forbes noted that 250 students had driven down to Stephenville, Texas, to support their team. On top of that, Sports Illustrated was also at the tournament to do a story on Blum.
Blum didn’t play the first half of the championship, but Forbes noticed him inching closer and closer to Kessler every timeout.
Eventually, Blum was in Kessler’s ear begging to get in.
“Coach (Kessler) says to me, ‘Do we play him?’” Forbes remembers. “We agreed that if he helped get us here, we can’t leave him out.”
His minutes may have been scarce, but Blum’s All-American presence drew attention and opened up other players. On top of that, Blum hit a clutch three-pointer and drew a momentum-swinging charge in overtime.
Grace’s 85-79 victory sparked a dog pile at center court with Kessler sandwiched at the bottom. “After the dog pile, we all got around a circle and prayed,” Blum said. “We really focused on giving glory to God that year. That’s what Coach Kessler stands for. Through all that emotion, he still gave thanks to the Lord.”
And while 250 students witnessed history in Stephenville, Texas, another party erupted in Winona Lake as the game was broadcasted in Lancer Gym. “That was the neatest thing – sharing that with everybody,” Blum said.
Nearly two decades later, they have a chance to do it again. They have a shot to experience what Forbes, Kessler and Blum experienced 19 years ago.
By Stephen Copeland
This story was previously published in a 2009 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.