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SIU's Walt Frazier holds up his finger to signal No. 1 as he is hoisted onto shoulders of fans after his team defeated Marquette, 71-56, to win the National Invitation Tournament in 1967 in New York City. Frazier earned NIT's Most Valuable Player award by scoring 21 points, seizing 11 rebounds and assisting on five shots.

Sometimes a diversion is exactly what is needed in stressful times.

In Illinois, the state has gone 18 months without a budget. Our education system is in peril. Our roads are in disrepair. And, there is no end in sight.

Semester after semester, we get more bad news about declining enrollment at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The latest figures show that enrollment has dropped below 15,000. Jobs are being cut on campus, and programs are being threatened.

Nationally and internationally, the situation is just as depressing. Americans seem to be living in two distinct worlds.

It can all be overwhelming.

The chaos and the unrest makes us yearn for something that can unite us — basketball for instance.

This weekend, SIU will honor the 1967 NIT championship basketball team, the team that put SIU on the nation’s radar — at least from an athletic perspective. The championship team will be honored at a dinner Friday night and will be introduced during Saturday afternoon’s game with Evansville.

That team, led by Walt Frazier, came out of nowhere to defeat Duke, Saint Louis, Texas Western and Louisville to win the National Invitational Tournament. The NIT today is the NCAA’s consolation prize, but in 1967 it was on par with the NCAA crown.

The Salukis run through the NIT was such a surprise that it caused Jerry Isenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger to pen this:

"Princeton has its Tiger. B.C. has its Eagle,

Rutgers is the Queensmen, a title truly regal.

But from frigid New York City to Kentucky's old Paduchee,

There's just one burning question — what the hell is a Saluki?"

For the past 50 years, Little Egypt has been proudly showing the world just what the hell being a Saluki is about. And, in these trying times, it is important to push the compelling problems we face on a daily basis into the background for just a moment or two.

Yes, let’s take the time to relish in the success of Frazier, Ed Zastrow, Craig Taylor, Willie Griffin, Rich Brueckner, Chuck Benson, Roger Bechtold, Creston Whitaker, Bobby Jackson, Jay Westcott, Ralph Johnson, Rick Millis, Clarence Smith and Dick Garrett.

The Salukis were coached by Jack Hartman, George Iubelt, Joe Ramsey and Jim Smelser.

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In the long, proud history of SIU athletics, the NIT championship is arguably the crowning achievement. The legacy of this team has been enduring. When SIU is mentioned in sports broadcasts, the name Walt Frazier and the ’67 NIT championship team is inevitably mentioned.

But, athletic achievement is fleeting. After winning the NIT title with a 24-2 record, the Salukis finished just 13-11 the next season.

Conversely, SIU’s legacy in the community, and the world at large has grown since the 1967 basketball squad conquered the NIT and Madison Square Garden. Ironically, the NIT championship came at a similar time in American history. Protests against the Vietnam War were mounting. The “Summer of Love” and Woodstock were on the horizon.

SIU remains the economic engine of the region. The Saluki athletic program was pioneer in integration and the promotion of women’s sports. SIU is well-known for its aviation and journalism programs. The Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory has long been one of the university’s crown jewels.

The university has produced thousands of teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals that have contributed to the quality of life in the region.

So, let’s take a brief respite from the harsh realities of life this weekend to remember one of the proudest moments in SIU athletic history. And, at the same time, let’s not forget how important the university is to all Southern Illinoisans, whether or not you or a family member attended school there.

Reality will return soon enough — enjoy the moment.

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