Every day, University of Evansville faculty member Joe Atkinson walks past the “Weeping Basketball” in the Memorial Plaza on campus. Stone slabs are etched with the 29 names of members of the Aces men’s basketball team who lost their lives on Dec. 13, 1977, in a fatal plane crash.
“Those players have become names carved into concrete, and I wanted to know who they were as people and bring that story back,” says Atkinson, who serves as the digital multi-media specialist in residence at UE and managing partner at Court Street Productions. “I want to tell the story of the players and the team. Everyone knows the ending, but not the rest of the story.”
Atkinson recently completed a documentary called “From the Ashes,” which explores the stories of the 1977 season leading up to the plane crash and the aftermath. The team was bound for Nashville to play against Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro the following day when the plane went down after 90 seconds in the air.
The Cincinnati native interviewed 76 people with ties to the team and traveled all over the country to film. He says he is targeting a festival run for the piece and plans to distribute it in the next few months.
The idea for the 90-minute documentary was born from WNIN President Brad Kimmel who worked closely with Atkinson while he produced “Top 9,” a countdown of the top nine local weather disasters, restaurants, crimes, and more. After encouragement from Kimmel, Atkinson began to immerse himself in archives, news reports, and video.
Atkinson met with the deceased players’ parents and siblings, assistant coaches who did not travel with the team because of recruiting engagements, and the players who transferred to the University of Evansville after the NCAA waived the transfer rule to help rebuild the team.
City View: What prompted you to pursue this documentary?
Joe Atkinson: I’m actually kind of surprised it hasn’t happened before now and someone hasn’t done it before me. A lot of the people who can tell those stories and remember those players are getting older. I spoke to a lot of the families and those involved, and I believe their willingness to talk about it is they don’t want their child, brother, or whoever’s story to be lost.
CV: What are some interesting facts “From the Ashes” explores?
JA: The documentary explores the fact that Robert “Bobby” Watson, the Aces’ coach who was killed in the crash, actually was a replacement for NBA Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan. Sloan originally was hired and held the position for five days before withdrawing his name. He said he made a mistake and left, then Bobby came in after that. I had the opportunity to interview Sloan.
Also, the flight’s manifest indicated there were 30 people, instead of 29, on the plane causing inaccurate early news reports. The 30th name was a student broadcaster Mark Moulton, who missed the plane due to the flu. A second student broadcaster Laura Gottschling wasn’t allowed to step in his place because she was a female and a separate hotel room would be required.
When she found out she couldn’t go, she went to the Dean of Students Dr. Thorton Patberg and he said it was too late. She said she stomped her feet and got mad, and didn’t get on the plane. I went to Washington D.C. and met Mark, and Chicago and met with Laura.
CV: How emotional was this experience of making this documentary?
JA: You would be inhumane if you weren’t moved during all of this. There were times where people are telling their stories and you’re having a hard time not crying with them.
For more information about “From the Ashes,” call 812-893-1642 or visit courtstreetproductions.com. To read Evansville Living’s November/December 2007 story, “30 Years After 90 Seconds,” visit evansvilleliving.com/articles/30-years-after-90-seconds.