Commentary | Nearly a half century after making history, Wichita State's Manny Zafiros nearly takes it one step further

adell@bradenton.comApril 7, 2013 

Life can begin at any age. All you have to do is create a little magic.

Manny Zafiros took care of that detail 48 years ago when he went played for the first Wichita State men's basketball team to reach the Final Four.

Until this weekend, it was the school's only Final Four appearance.

Zafiros has stayed close to the sport. For the past four years, he has been the public-address announcer for the State College of Florida basketball team and was the athletic director at the old Bradenton Prep.

He recently celebrated his 70th birthday and has become a celebrity.

Zafiros was in Los Angeles when Wichita State won the region championship last weekend.

He was one of two players from the 1965 Wichita State Final Four team in Atlanta on Saturday, and the media was chasing him around like he was Justin Bieber.

Zafiros was asked by school officials to address a pep rally Saturday and speak to about 3,000 Wichita State fans, and he had them screaming. He is living a dream reserved for 20-year-old athletes and celebrities.

His Shockers lost a 72-68 heartbreaker to Louisville in Saturday's semifinal, but Zafiros still has a lot of magic flowing through his veins.

In his last collegiate basketball game in 1965 at the Final Four, Zafiros, a reserve guard, took one shot. But he was part of an historic weekend.

In those days, they played for third place, and future NBA Hall of Famer and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley set an NCAA Final Four record with 58 points when Princeton beat Wichita State in the consolation game.

In the semifinal, the Shockers lost to eventual national champion UCLA, which was coached by the great John Wooden and featured Gail Goodrich, who would become the leading scorer on the Los Angeles Lakers team that holds the NBA-record 33-game win streak.

The 1965 tournament had only 23 teams. Wichita State won the Midwest despite losing its two best players, Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman.

Stallworth was a mid-year graduate, and Bowman was academically ineligible.

For the only time in school history, the Wichita State men's basketball team was ranked No. 1 nationally. The Shockers held the ranking for a two-week period in December of '64, when they were undefeated. The Shockers went into the Palestra in Philadelphia for a Christmas tournament and host Saint Joseph's shot 27 free throws to seven for the Shockers, who lost their first game.

"I will never forget it," Zafiros said. "Our coach (Gary Thompson) said he would never go back there, and nobody could blame him. But if we didn't lose Stallworth and Bowman, I think we would have won it all."

Stallworth was the third overall pick in the '65 NBA draft, and Bowman was the seventh. They both won an NBA championship with the Knicks in 1970.

They got theirs and Zafiros was hoping to get his this weekend. He didn't, but the ride has been great.

Back in Zafiros' day, there was no shot clock and no such thing as a 3-point field goal.

"That part of my life that will never be forgotten because we created an historic moment," Zafiros said. "It's different today because there is more media coverage, and the internet and you have to win four games to get to the Final Four. But it was harder to make the tournament in my days.

"Still, it has taken 48 years go get back there, and these guys should cherish every minute of it."

Just getting to Wichita State was a task for Zafiros. He averaged about nine points per game for George Washington High in Manhattan, and the Shockers were the only team that offered him a scholarship because of connections his family had.

Against Louisville, Wichita State had a 12-point, second-half lead and couldn't hold on. But it was a lot closer than the Shockers' 108-89 loss to UCLA in 1965.

"We may have lost tonight, but we took Louisville to the brink, and we are very proud of our team," Zafiros said. "When we played UCLA, they controlled tempo and we didn't have the size to go with them without Stallworth and Bowman. We had much better chance to win tonight. Tonight we wanted to be there at the end, and we were, but couldn't finish. Hopefully it won't take another 48 years to get back."

Alan Dell, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Followhim on Twitter at@ADellSports.

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