By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE - March just doesn't bring Madness, it brings memories.
And right now, sitting at courtside in Bridgestone Arena, seconds away from tipoff of LSU vs. Georgia in the opening game of the second day of the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament on Thursday, it is hard for me not to think of Don Redden.
About 10 seats to my right on press row sits Ricky Blanton, LSU radio analyst and Don's teammate on the Tigers' 1986 team, a No. 11 seed that became the first team ever to beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in a region en route to the Final Four.
Across the court kneeling in suit and tie is LSU first-year head coach Johnny Jones, a former Tigers' player and assistant coach who helped recruit Don from Monroe (La). Ouachita High.
Twenty-five years ago on March 8, 1988, two years after Don led LSU to a 26-12 record before losing to eventual national champion Louisville in the Final Four, he died of an undetected enlarged heart at age 24.
It happened three days before the start of the SEC tournament, which was to be played in Baton Rouge.
"I was in my office at home, it (the news of Don's death) came on the radio and my heart just dropped," then-LSU coach Dale Brown recalls. "I got in my car and took off to the hospital.
"On the interstate halfway to the hospital, I hear `Don Redden has been pronounced dead.' I don't know if they got him to the hospital. You'd never think that big strapping good-looking son-of-a-gun would die at such an early age."
None of us did.
Don wasn't the biggest, fastest, most high-flying basketball player I ever came across. His LSU career stats don't blow you away - 10.9 points per game including 13 per game as a senior. He only scored 30 or more twice (31 vs. Pacific and Mississippi State), never had 15 rebounds in a game, and had 10 or more assists just once (11 vs. Florida).
But he had impeccable character, and it filtered through every area of his life.
On the basketball court, Don was very much about the moment. It's why he was MVP of the 1986 Southeast Regional, an undersized 6-5 forward who teamed with 6-7 Ricky to form two pieces of the most unlikely front line ever to grace the Final Four.
It was only appropriate that in the closing seconds of LSU's 59-57 regionals final victory over SEC rival Kentucky that sent the Tigers to the Final Four, Don and Ricky found themselves on a 2-on-1 fastbreak. Kentucky's lone defender was Kentucky's Kenny "Sky" Walker, the league's best player and a future NBA standout.
Don passed the ball over Walker to Ricky, who converted a layup for a 59-55 lead with 17 seconds left.
"From day one when I arrived at LSU (from Miami, Fla.), Don grabbed me by the hand," says Ricky, and said `Come along. Here's the do's. Here's the don't's. Here's the maybe's. Here's how it's going to be.' Make no mistake, he was my big brother on the team."
When LSU signed Don in 1983, they knew they were getting a two-time all-state player who was fundamentally sound. Don's dad, Levy, was a high school coach and he trained Don well.
"But even when we signed Don," says Johnny Jones, "we weren't sure the impact that he would have on the SEC level. But because of his discipline and desire to be great, it allowed him to become an impact player. I don't know if I've been around a player who maximized his potential more than Don.
"He knew he had limitations. So he worked on them every day. He played hard. He practiced hard. Even when he was in the gym alone shooting, he never let up."
Don's teammates adored and respected him. His North Louisiana drawl and sly sense of humor brightened even the gloomiest locker room, and his competitive spirit made him the ideal, beloved teammate.
"Let me tell you how well liked Don was," recalls Dale. "We were playing Georgetown in the Cap Center, and John Williams had a sensational game.
"Billy Packer (of CBS) came in, said `Coach, we have five extra minutes, can we get John Williams on?' John said, `Oh no, Mr. Packer, take Don, he played a better game than did.' I never had that happen in 44 years of coaching.' "
Both Dale and Ricky use the same description to describe Don - "A Southern Gentleman."
"It would be nearly impossible to embellish anything about Don Redden," Dale says. "Don was the epitome of the type of person that you'd want to coach. If I could fill my roster with a Don Redden, a Johnny Jones, a Ricky Blanton, a Bernard Woodside, a Oliver Brown, you could coach forever.
"Don Redden wasn't just a jock, but a man who happened to be a jock. He was compassionate, he loved kids. He looked like a movie star. I never worried about him not doing the right thing.
"He made coaching easy. You can take defeats with Don Redden-type people, because you know they followed the game plan and they played as hard and as intelligently as they could play."
Dale recalls a conversation he had a few years ago at a reunion for LSU's 1953 Final Four team with Bob Pettit, LSU's greatest player ever until Pete Maravich came along in the late 60s.
"I told him, `Bob, people have asked me to describe you, and in one word it would be `gentleman'," Dale says. "Now, gentleman does not mean you're weak.
"To me, Don was a modern day Bob Pettit. He was a great leader without being boisterous, without cursing, without wanting to be a great leader. At timeouts, he'd shake his fist and said, "C'mon guys, we practice harder than we're playing.'
"He was tougher than nails. Was he fast? No. Could he jump high? No. But his hustle was a talent. And he was a beautiful pure shooter. He'd get those legs under him, those shoulders were squared.
"I never ever remember being mad at him. I never ever remember being disappointed in him. He was a solid, fundamental player who never got offended from constructive criticism."
Ricky does, however, recall the day in practice when Don launched a deep perimeter shot way beyond what now would be the three-point line. Dale didn't think that represented smart shot selection, and he let Don know about it.
"I remember Coach saying, `Don, that's not a high percentage shot, you're not gonna make as many from there as we would if we run our offense and get the ball to where we need'," Ricky says. "Coach made the mistake of saying, `Don, I'd give you 10 shots from there, but you're not going to make many.'
"Don didn't say a word. He took Coach's challenge. We just sat there while one of our managers threw him the ball and he made 7-of-10 from that spot. That was typical of what Don was capable of. He would have been very popular now from the three-point line now, a stretch guard. He had NBA range back in '86."
Don may have left LSU after his playing days - he was drafted and cut by the NBA's Denver Nuggets, then played in the USBL and in Europe - but LSU never left him.
When he died at his girlfriend's house in Baton Rouge, he was wearing an LSU basketball T-shirt.
"He loved his school, he really loved LSU," Dale says. "He was so proud to be here."
The night before Don died, he stopped in at the LSU athletic dorm for a 15-minute chat with Ricky.
"He was excited, because he was thinking of going to law school that fall," Ricky says.
And barely 12 hours later, Don was gone. Ricky had lost one of his best friends, and now he had to go play a SEC tournament game against Vanderbilt.
Ricky says the days after Don's death leading up to the SEC tourney were "a blur."
Dale was also hurting, yet he couldn't show it as much as he would have liked.
"I do remember the night before the game that Don's parents called," Dale says. "They just felt to honor Don and this team that they had to come to the game and sit behind our bench.
"That night when I knelt down to say my prayers, I remember saying, `Dear God, I don't care if I win another game in my entire career. Please tonight, if there is one game to win, let it be one for the Reddens and the heartache for Ricky Blanton and this team in honor of Don.' "
Then, the next day, playing in an emotional fog, Ricky scored 30 points in an 87-80 victory over Vanderbilt. When the final horn sounded, he took the game ball and he and the rest of the LSU team climbed over the bench and into the stands to present the ball to the Reddens.
As each player hugged Don's parents, there wasn't a dry eye in LSU's arena.
"We had Don's services in the middle of the week," Ricky says. "And it was one of those times where you just go out and do what you do instinctively. I didn't practice for two or three days, but Coach Brown was kind enough to put me in the lineup.
"I didn't know what to expect, but it was all instinct. It was a struggle. I don't wish that on any young student-athlete, it was quite difficult."
And it still is, especially at this time of the year, tournament time, when Don and Ricky and their Tiger teammates created magic yet to be duplicated.
"Don was the kind of guy that when you were around him, that you'd ask if he was for real," Dale says. "When you're not used to seeing somebody that real and pure, you question it.
"Don Redden was real. I loved him so deeply. I still get goosebumps thinking about him."
So does Ricky.
He thinks about Don more than ever because of his role as LSU's radio color analyst. And now, that Johnny Jones was hired as LSU's coach this season, former players are flocking back to support the program.
"Don was Louisiana born and bred, he was all about LSU," Ricky says. "If Don was still living, he'd be awfully proud with LSU basketball moving forward."
This story is now finished, and I return my full attention to the LSU-Georgia game. The Tigers' 20-point lead at the half has been reduced to one possession. The bigger stronger Bulldogs have bullied their way back into the game, trailing 66-63.
Two Johnny O' Bryant free throws rim out for the Tigers with 26 seconds left. After a timeout, Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope misses a game-tying three-pointer and 5-9 LSU guard Andre Stringer climbs among the trees to grab the rebound.
He gets fouled, calmly hits two free throws with 6.3 seconds left and the Tigers escape with a 68-63 victory.
I walk past Ricky Blanton outside the Tigers' dressing room. He has a tired, relieved smile.
Somewhere, so does Don Redden.