March 4, 1993, was the day Calbert Cheaney, BA’93, broke the Big Ten basketball all-time scoring record. Cheaney was a three-time All-American at IU, sweeping the National Player of the Year awards his senior season.
In this far-ranging conversation, Cheaney talks about his early life in Evansville, his time playing for Bob Knight, a career as a basketball professional, his family, and his future plans.
An All-Star Athlete in the Making
What sorts of interests did you have as a youngster? What was it like growing up in Evansville?
I pretty much did every sport, not only basketball, but I played baseball, football, and I ran track. I was one of those kids who was always outside playing, whatever it may be, two-hand touch football in the street, baseball over at the airport. Anywhere there was a basketball game, I would try and find it.
We used to live down on Gum Street, right off Kentucky Avenue. And if there was a game out here out on the east side, I would take my ball, take my bike, and me and my guys, we’d ride out there and go play.
We were always out trying to get a game in, and we would be out there all day.
And my mom would always say, you know the type of neighborhood you’re in, so be responsible and make sure you’re home before the blue [street] lights come on.
So at what point did you know that basketball was gonna be it for you?
I think a lot of that had to do with my high school coach, Jerrill Vandeventer. He knew I played a lot of sports and that I was a shy kid, a big-time momma’s boy.
Coach Vandeventer called me into his office one day and he said, “Hey Cal, you have an opportunity with your athletic abilities. If you bring the work ethic with that athletic ability, you have a chance to get a scholarship to play college basketball.”
I always thought that I would graduate high school, and get a job somewhere in Indiana. My mom couldn’t afford to send me to college, so it was one of those things where once he told me that, I was off to the races and I did everything I could to try to make myself a better basketball player and give myself an opportunity to go to college and get an education.
Cheaney in Bloom
You say you were kind of a shy kid, so what was it like adapting to a big university?
It was little different. Until that point I rarely had been out of town, and I had rarely been on my own. So yeah, the size and everything [of Indiana University] was kind of different. But once you establish friendships and meet new people, you kind of get the lay of the land and know where your classes and everything are.
The biggest thing about being a student athlete in college is managing your time. That’s the first thing that I needed to do. I didn’t manage my time very well when I first got there, but I knew I had to at some point.
If you wanna be able to survive, especially being a student athlete, you’ve gotta go to school and when you get done with school, you’ve got a two and a half, three-hour practice. Then after that you might have a tutor, and you might have to go study when you’re dead tired. Those things I had to get used to.
How about adapting to Big Ten competition?
I’ll tell you a story: When I was in high school, I had heard about Pat Graham, BA’94, Greg Graham, BS’93, McDonald’s All-Americans, and all these guys—Lawrence Funderburke was there too. I think [IU] had the best recruiting class in the nation that year.
I was very intimidated by those guys at first, thinking,“How am I gonna be able to play with these guys?,” because you had heard so much about them, and I’d broken my foot toward the end of my senior year and was just now coming back.
So, going into the fall [semester], after classes we’d play pickup. We got up and down the court a few times, I made a couple of buckets and I thought to myself, “I think I’m gonna be okay. I think I can play with these guys.” It kinda went from there.
Speaking of Greg Graham, Pat Graham, and your other teammates: Do you still talk to these guys?
Oh yeah. I haven’t talked to Greg in a while, but Pat, he lives down in Evansville and I talk to him. And Alan [Henderson], BS’95, MBA’10, we talk a lot. As a matter of fact, we had the 25th anniversary of the Final Four team at Assembly Hall in Bloomington back in December , and I got a chance to talk to Eric [Anderson], BA’92, again, got his information.
It’s good to be able to not only to have played with those guys, but at the same time be able to establish a continued relationship with them over the years.
I think we had pretty good team, and it was because we all were about winning and we didn’t care who got shots. We didn’t care who got the most rebounds, we didn’t care who got the most assists or defended the best. Each individual guy on the team brought their own type of greatness to the team, and that’s why we had so much great chemistry. And at the same time, we all got along.
Are there certain memories that stand out as an IU player?
Obviously, the [Big Ten scoring] record is one, but my junior year was especially memorable, because I think that was probably our most talented team.
We got out to a slow start that year because we played in the Hall of Fame Classic in Springfield and UCLA kicked our ass, and in the whole non-conference season, leading up to the conference and the actual conference season, we were up and down. We were struggling a little bit trying to find our footing and I think the addition of Alan brought such a dynamic to our team.
I would always tell Alan and everybody that he was the most valuable player on our team because of the things he could do offensively and defensively. He just made everybody’s job much easier because not only could he score, but he was a great rebounder, a great shot blocker, and he could guard in numerous positions.
I think we were trying to figure ourselves out with him in the fold and then once we finally got it, we played particularly well. And even then, we had the Big Ten title in our hands that year and we lost it. I think if we would have beat Purdue in the last game of the conference season, we probably would have been the number one seed in the Midwest, as opposed to the number two seed out West. We lost that game and the guys were down.
So, it was an up and down season. We decided to rededicate ourselves once the tournament started and we played the best basketball of the season during the NCAA tournament. We were able to get to the Final Four. We competed against Duke and played well against them. We had an opportunity to get there and came up short, but I think that was probably one of the most memorable things in terms of basketball.
But more importantly, I think the greatest memory was just the camaraderie we had as a team.
Not only did we compete and go at one another in practice, but after practice was over, we’d all grab something to eat, and hang out. When you have that type of camaraderie, it leads to great chemistry and everything tends to take care of itself on the court, because we all know what each person can and can’t do. We maximized each other’s strengths and minimized each other’s weaknesses and that makes for a good basketball team.
The Duke game, do you still think of that?
Yeah, I do. I think about it and we played about as flawless a first half as you could play—minus the foul trouble.
When I worked at IU as director of basketball operations, I can’t tell you how many emails and calls I got about the officiating during that game and how they wish we could turn back the clock and play Duke again. And I just reply with, “Hey, it is what it is.”
To Duke’s credit, they turned it up a notch in the second half, and at a particular point we knew why they were the defending national champions. I think we didn’t score for the first seven minutes of the second half. Then, when we finally were able to regain our footing and match that intensity, it was a little too late. Like I said, it is what it is, but to Duke’s credit, they were the better team that night, and you gotta accept that.
At the same time, it was great to have been able to have played in the Final Four. The excitement and the fact that there were so many people in the Metrodome. I think there might have been 80,000 people, which is ridiculous. Just to see a college basketball game. It doesn’t get much better than that as a college basketball player.
But I’ll tell you, I’ve only cried a couple times as a player. I cried when I broke my foot in high school when our basketball team was undefeated and we had a great opportunity to win state that year. I think maybe the only team that probably gave us trouble was the team that won the state title. That was Eric Montross’s team at Lawrence Central.
The other time was when all of us fouled out against Duke. I just put my head in my hands, and I just started crying. Those are the only two times.
As you approached the Big Ten All-Time scoring record, did you know it was coming up? How did your teammates react?
Honestly, it was just business as usual for us. I mean, obviously when it got a little bit closer, for me personally I started to feel pressure a little bit. I had a stretch there where I wasn’t playing particularly well, but in terms of our team and our guys, and my teammates, it was business as usual for us. We were all about trying to get as many wins as possible. That was just who we were as a team.
Days with Knight
Do you remember that first time you met Coach Bob Knight?
I went to Indiana for a game, and I got to witness one of Coach Knight’s outbursts. I think it was right after the game and he was throwing and kicking a few things around and I said, “Okay, I guess this is who he is.” But I also told everybody that my mom was worse than he was. He was pretty easy to handle in my opinion.
It was one of those deals where you hear about the coach and all the competition he had when he was at Indiana University and to get a chance to talk to him, it was amazing. And then to have this opportunity to go over there and play and represent, not only the university but the state, that was special.
How do you think of Bob Knight? Can you encapsulate who he was?
He challenges you mentally. The physical part is not the hard part. He’s gonna challenge you mentally, because he wants you to be motivated like he’s motivated. He wants you to be competitive like he’s competitive. He wants you to think about winning every single basketball game like he thinks.
That’s something that I had to get used to when I got there. Even though we won in high school, obviously you’re going up a level when you go to college, and the players are a lot better so you’ve got to be a lot better physically. You’ve got to be a lot better mentally and you’ve got to be a lot better competitively. You’ve got to bring all those types of characteristics to every game.
I think that’s when Coach Knight was at his best, being able to motivate and get players to play and to win.
So what can the current generation of players learn from him today?
He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He had a motion offense, and he was able to put you in a position to be the player that you potentially can be. A lot of ball screening, a lot of set plays. A lot of teams really don’t run too much motion anymore.
X’s and O’s-wise, he was able to figure out how to beat a team. Even if he didn’t have the best talent, he would figure out a way to beat that team with the better talent.
And that’s just who he was. He was able to figure that out offensively and defensively. If he had a team that didn’t shoot the ball well, he’d just have us play exclusive man-to-man defense. If the other team couldn’t shoot, we’d just pack it in, and make a switch and the only way you’re gonna beat us is if you shoot over the top because we knew on offense we were gonna be able to score the ball.
So in that regard, in terms of the situation and getting teams ready to play, he was one of the best.
Do you still talk to him? Do you stay in contact with him?
It’s been a while. I think it has been a couple years since I talked to him. Actually, I talked to Chris Reynolds, BA’93, JD’96, PhD’12, recently, and he said he talked to him. But I haven’t talked to him in a little while. I need to give him a call at some point.
From Hoosier to the NBA and beyond
You were in the NBA for 13 years. What did being a pro teach you about basketball? About yourself?
Again, it teaches you about managing your time. I had a good first couple of years as a player. The one thing that I wish I would have done is have been more mature. I had a few good years but in terms of my nutrition and taking care of myself, I could have done a lot better job at that.
But other than that, I had a great time. Personally, I wish we would have made the playoffs more. We had a very talented team in Washington but things just didn’t work out. A lot of it had to do with chemistry, but looking back on it, I don’t think I did the best that I should have done for the organization. When you get to a professional organization, no matter how good or how bad it is, you should do the best you possibly can as an individual. But you leave it up to the organization to make things better in terms of personnel and everything.
I feel I didn’t live up to that part of the bargain, so I told myself that whether I’m coaching or if I’m working with anybody, I’m gonna do everything that I can to try and help that organization, university, high school, or elementary school.
[If I’m coaching,] I’m gonna try to help that kid do the best he possibly can. I’m not gonna let him or her try to hurt themselves in terms of becoming a better basketball player. That’s how I grew up, basically. I grew up busting my ass working hard. I always had the talent, but I think the one thing that separated me from a lot of people was my work ethic. And when I got to the league, I let the fact that our team was not very good affect my development as a player and my maturity as a player too.
So I decided I’m not gonna let that happen again, no matter what I do from here on out. I’m gonna bust my tail and do whatever it takes to help that person or that organization. I’m gonna do the best I possibly can to achieve success.
How about working as assistant coach at St. Louis University and director of basketball operations here at IU? What did you learn from those experiences?
Well, the coaching side is a lot different than the player’s side. When you’re a player, your job is to go play and try to carry out what the coach wants you to do. You might go home after a game or stay and get some extra shots up or something.
But when you’re coaching, you gotta put more time into it. A lot of preparation, a lot of film work. I never had a problem with film work, because even as a player I used to watch a lot of film, so that part was pretty easy. But in terms of the preparation, the X’s and O’s, how this works, how to get a player a shot and those kind of things, that was very intriguing to me and I’ve learned that over the years.
Being a coach and director of operations in Indiana with Coach Tom Crean, I got to learn a lot about the kids. I would bring them in and talk to them. Even though I didn’t coach, I was able to talk to them away from the court. They would come to the office and we would sit and talk. I got a chance to know players and what made them tick. Every person is different. But that’s the great part about it, you get to learn and they get to learn more about you, or who you are as a person.
So those are things that I really enjoy. It’s a great job to coach college basketball. You get the opportunity to talk to the kids about how to become a better player and more importantly, how to become a better person.
Let’s talk about your family a little bit. Your son Julian, we hear he’s not a bad ball player. Is he as good as his old man?
He likes playing and he’s a lot better shooter than I was at his age. A lot better. He can shoot from deep.
He could be good if he wanted to be. I told him, “Don’t play because I played—do it because you want to do it.” I think he likes playing, but he doesn’t love it. And in order to be really be successful at whatever you do, you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to have a passion for what you do.
I tell him,“If you don’t want to go to college to play ball, that’s fine. Just make sure that whatever you do, have a love and a passion for it. It doesn’t have to be basketball. It could be computer science, it could be you being a doctor or being a lawyer. Just make sure you do your best at it.”
But sometimes it gets hard. The competitor in my mind is like,“You need to do this, you need to do that.” Sometimes I got caught up in doing that but at the end of the day, it’s gotta come from within. You’re the one that’s gotta be the competitor. You’re the one that’s gotta lay it on the line and love what you do. That’s just life though, that’s life.
And what has your daughter Sydney been up to?
She’s a junior in high school and a tennis player. She’s a big fan of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Venus Williams BS’15, all those guys, and so she decided she wanted to play some tennis. Three years ago she picked up a racket, and she’s gotten pretty good over that short span. She made varsity this past year and then finished third in the state so she’s doing well.
She’s very, very smart and she will have her choice of whatever college she wants to go to. That’s all you can ask for your kids. You gotta raise them the best way you can and when it’s time for them to take the reins of their life, hopefully you’ve done a good enough job to get them prepared for that.
A Lasting Legacy
So what’s next for you?
I need to take a couple years off, spend some time with my kids. I’ve been running as a player and then running as a coach for the last 16, 17 years, so I just want to take a break and watch my kids grow up. My wife and I are gonna wait in St. Louis on the kids until they graduate. Julian is a senior and Sydney is a junior. Probably within a year or two, I’ll try to get back into basketball in some capacity.
Any chance you’ll be coming back to IU to coach?
You never know. That’s the one thing that’s always gonna be with me is Indiana University basketball. Whether I’m there or not, the one thing that matters is that I do love Indiana basketball.