Gordon Monson: The Utah man who cheated death 43 years ago with Jerry Sloan has thoughts about their paths not taken

(Photo courtesy of Larry Kaplan) The Kaplan family, from left: Larry, Nathan, Gail, Daniel and David.

Larry Kaplan never met Jerry Sloan.

“But I felt like we were connected,” he says.

What he means by that is Sloan almost died with Kaplan just shy of 43 years ago, on a cold, rainy, foggy December night in Evansville, Ind.

The 67-year-old Utahn had a date with destiny, with tragedy, alongside the man who with additional time became a legendary Hall of Fame coach for the Utah Jazz. A few alterations from probabilities in their life paths veered them away from seats aboard a doomed aircraft that carried the University of Evansville basketball team, coaches and staff headed for a game in Murfreesboro, Tenn., against Middle Tennessee State.

A game that was swept away in a torrent of tears.

Twenty-nine people, everyone aboard Air Indiana Flight 216, died when the chartered DC-3 took off at 7:20 p.m., on Dec. 13, 1977, hit some trees 90 seconds later, and crashed on rough ground near a ravine in the Melody Hill neighborhood near the Dress Regional Airport on Evansville’s north side.

According to a review upon the crash’s 40th anniversary at SBNation.com, one first responder said the crash site looked through the mist like a cemetery, with scattered plane seats appearing to be headstones.

Sloan would have had a front row spot on that flight since he had accepted the head coaching job at Evansville, his alma mater where he won two Division II national championships as a player in the mid-’60s, before that season began. Sloan was nothing short of a hero at the school, after his college showing and his stellar NBA career with the Chicago Bulls. Five days later, he changed his mind and walked away from the Purple Aces job for what he called “personal reasons.”

Otherwise …

Seats in a graveyard.

Kaplan, who lives in Sandy, would have occupied one, too.

He had commenced a career in sports administration a year before the accident, going on to work for various colleges and professional teams, including the Wichita Aeros, the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate.

Later, he moved to Utah while working for the Florida Citrus Commission, covering that organization’s west region, and thereafter founded and directed the U.S. Autism Assn. here in the Salt Lake City area.

But prior to all of that, the Illinois native was contacted by the athletic director at Evansville, asking him if he was interested in a new position being created at the school as it entered Division I play — sports information director. The AD told Kaplan he was pretty much a shoe-in for the job, if he wanted it, with one caveat: The position had already been offered to a man named Greg Knipping.

The likelihood of Knipping taking the job, though, was low because he already held a similar position at Purdue, a more prestigious Big Ten school. “The AD didn’t think Knipping would take the job,” Kaplan says, “because … why would he?”

(Danny Chan La | Tribune file photo) Jerry Sloan takes issue with a call during a game against the Heat in 2007.

Kaplan was set to move to Evansville, was sure he would, making his plan, when Knipping surprised everyone by deciding to leave Purdue for the smaller school. His reason: His wife was from that town and she wanted to return.

Knipping was on the plane that sad night and perished.

Kaplan went on to other jobs and lived.

The crash devastated Evansville, a community that had embraced a proud Aces basketball program for its great success, thanks, in part, to Sloan. Jerry years later used to say he thought about that plane crash often, nearly every day, it somehow bringing a sense of perspective to the less important aspects of his existence.

Twenty-four of the passengers on the plane were directly connected to the school’s basketball team. Every one of them died, some living for a few minutes among the wreckage when responders got there, but passing shortly thereafter.

The only player on the team who survived never made the flight — 18-year-old David Furr — who was recovering from a severe ankle injury. In another cruel twist of fate, Furr was killed two weeks later in a car crash.

Again, the community was crushed.

Two months after the tragedies, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to Evansville to play in a charity basketball game to raise money for the victims and family members left behind.

There remains, all these years later, a “Weeping Basketball” memorial at the school, paying tribute to the lives lost.

The whole of it shakes Kaplan to the core.

He remembers with exactness the feeling that swamped him when he was informed of the tragedy back then: “I was in shock. I literally was in shock.”

Kaplan adds: “I think about it all the time.”

He thinks about how fragile life is, how decisions, big and small, have unseen consequences that, as the poet says, echo in the eternities.

“One little move changes everything,” he says. “I would have been on that plane.”

He thinks about his wife, Gail, and his three adult sons, David, Daniel and Nathan, about the family he helped create and raise, the education he received (including a Ph.D), the career he built, all the things he’s been able to experience and accomplish in subsequent years.

And he thinks about Greg Knipping and the family that misses him.

Kaplan is retired now, and aids in the needs of one of his sons, who has autism. He looks back on the blessings of what’s been for him, he says, “a wonderful life.”

He always wanted to talk to Sloan about their shared cheating of death, but never had the occasion, despite both men’s roots in Illinois and their longtime careers and residencies in Utah.

When Sloan died last week, at the age of 78, it brought a wave of reflection to Kaplan, and somehow it seems to have soothed his soul to tell his story.

“Some people dwell on the things they wish could have happened in their lives,” he says. “But for what didn’t happen in ours, that’s what opened our paths to fulfilling lives.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

Return to Story