Rick Jones remembered sitting in the stands at the Hurricane Classic Holiday Basketball Tournament in 1963. The former Central Mr. Basketball was ineligible to play as a college freshman at Miami (Fla.), so he was watching his teammates work amidst a crowded field.
The teams in the building that day included his own Hurricanes, led by future hall of famer Rick Barry. There was Syracuse, led by future hall of famer Dave Bing, and Princeton, which featured eventual U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who also has his name enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. And lastly came Army, anchored by future Olympian Mike Silliman and led by a young coach named Bobby Knight.
And yet, with all that talent in the building, John Dampier stood above them all. The former Bearcat, who was three years ahead of Jones at Central, dumped in 76 points in two games, prompting Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood to write, “When he is right, there is nothing safe within 40 feet of the basket.”
And it left a mark on Jones, who got to know Dampier when their paths crossed briefly in Coral Gables, Florida.
“John outscored and outplayed all those All-Americans,” Jones said.
“He was a nice guy, you can take my word for that. Wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”
Dampier died this week after an illness the presented itself in early spring. At each step of his career, he seemed to brush against greatness, playing for strong teams and alongside all-time legends.
Ex-teammates such as Jones and Gerald Lanich recalled a quiet personality, someone who wasn’t very outgoing or talkative, unless he was around friends he knew well.
But on the basketball court he was a force. In an era when few players shot from beyond 15 feet, the slender 6-foot-3 forward pulled up at any range. Jones, who was no slouch on the court, marveled at Dampier’s strength to even propel the ball that far through the hoop.
He was a wizard with the ball in his hands as well. Lanich remembered a semistate matchup against Indianapolis Arsenal Tech and its dynamic press when Dampier eschewed the usual tactic of moving the ball back and forth to get upcourt. Instead, he simply dribbled through, coaches declaring “that’s not the way it’s done” as he cut past.
Dampier was the No. 2 option on the 1960 Bearcats, arguably the greatest team in state history to not claim a state title. Alongside Indiana Hall of Famer and future Boston Celtic Ron Bonham, Dampier helped lead his team to a 28-0 record heading into the state title game, fresh off a 36-point win against Bloomington.
But East Chicago Washington pulled off the 75-59 upset. Dampier scored 11, second on the team behind Bonham’s 29, and Jones said the loss always stuck with him.
But that team was also heavily built on longtime camaraderie. Lanich, Dampier and Bonham had grown up near each other and frequently met up for basketball or anything else.
Lanich recalled one night after practice when Bonham and Dampier got into a free-throw shooting contest. Bonham was a legendary shooter, but Lanich said Dampier hit 250 free throws in a row, a figure that all but muddles reality with myth.
Lanich saw Bonham at Dampier’s calling this week and they got to reminiscing about the group that ran together in those days.
“We were up talking and I said, ‘Nobody really knows how close we all were, all the time we spent together, playing ball and in class.’ ” Lanich said. “It was really neat.”
But Dampier’s next step took him away from Muncie. In a move that seemed out of his quiet character, two years after leaving Central, he went west to play for Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, felling his share of records in his time there. From there he moved on to Miami, and after being the second option behind Bonham, he reprised that role with a future NBA scoring champion in Barry.
That first season, he delivered 19.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, ranking second on the team in field goal attempts, makes and free throws. The Hurricanes went 20-7 with a berth in the NIT.
The next year, Dampier tore up his knee six games into the season. The player to ascend to his starting spot: Rick Jones.
Dampier caught on in 1965 with the Washington Generals, the team that faces the Harlem Globetrotters, but then returned to Muncie after that. He worked for Indiana Steel and Wire for 22 years, and was also a veteran of the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam.
And though he accomplished a great deal on the court both in Muncie and on the college level, those who knew him saw him as something well beyond that.
“When you’ve known somebody all of your life like that, they become more than an athlete,” Lanich said. “He was a great person.”