Air Force’s basketball team had zero reason to believe it could travel to the 2004 NCAA Tournament. The Falcons were short and slight. The Falcons had spent 25 seasons getting stomped by opponents.
But strange and wonderful things happened during the winter of 2003-2004.
At the dawn of the season, coach Joe Scott announced in his New Jersey growl, “You can change the bad course of history.”
A few weeks later in Salt Lake City, 6-foot-2 cadet A.J. Kuhle soared above the rim to block a dunk by 6-foot-10 Utah center Tim Frost. It couldn’t have happened, except it did.
A few days after the block, Air Force clinched the Mountain West regular-season title amid hugging and shouting at Clune Arena. It was time to cut the nets, but nobody had ever cut nets at Air Force. It took several minutes to search a closet and find a ladder for players to stand with their celebratory scissors.
And on March 14, 2004, 15 years ago this week, the Falcons were invited to the NCAA Tournament, college basketball’s ultimate party.
Jacob Burtschi, one of those boys of winter, now works in insurance in his native Oklahoma. In 2004, he was a teenage believer in the unbelievable.
“No matter what, we were going to fight,” says Burtschi, a freshman forward in 2004. “We were not the most athletic. We were not the biggest. We were not the best shooting team, but there was something about us.
“There was something about that team.”
Yes, there was. There was enough mysterious something for the Falcons to defy logic and bad history. In the previous 14 seasons, Air Force won 38 of 222 conference games, a win percentage of 17.2 percent. Clune was a vacant, sad destination.
“It was like this building where hoops dreams went to die,” says Colorado Springs resident Ben Sims, a 2004 AFA grad.
In 2003-04, the Falcons won 12 of 14 conference games, an 85.7 percentage as Clune changed to packed and thunderously happy.
On Jan. 17, the Falcons traveled to New Mexico and the fabled “Pit,” filled with fans known for obnoxious loyalty to their Lobos. The Falcons raced to a big lead, and New Mexico fans responded by switching allegiance. They booed the Lobos and cheered the Falcons.
On Feb. 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah pushed to an eight-point halftime lead. The Falcons had lost 13 of 14 games to the Utes. Another loss seemed inevitable.
Kuhle was playing with a hairline fracture in his back. When he wasn’t on the court, he walked gingerly like a prematurely ancient man. Somehow, he transformed on court to fierce enforcer.
Late in the game, Utah’s Frost rampaged into the lane and rose for a statement dunk. Kuhle, 8 inches shorter, stifled the shot to ignite a jamboree on the Air Force bench.
“I was completely surprised,” Burtschi says, laughing. “Some days A.J. had a 35-inch vertical jump. Some days he had a 2-inch vertical. That block was just awesome. I couldn’t believe this just happened.”
In many ways, the finale of Air Force’s improbable season was the sweetest night of all. The Falcons traveled to Pepsi Center in downtown Denver to face mighty North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels would win the national title the next season.
Texas and Princeton played in the first game of the doubleheader. With 18 minutes left in the Texas-Princeton battle, the Falcons walked into Pepsi Center. As the Falcons sat down, the Pepsi Center crowd stood to clap and shout for the best service-academy team since the David Robinson era (1983-1987) at Navy.
“Bone chilling,” Burtschi says of the cheers.
For a moment, it looked as if the wildly improbable fun would linger. With 13 minutes left against North Carolina, the Falcons led by six. Their handsy defense frustrated the Tar Heels. Their intricate, slowdown offense buzzed with energy.
A massive upset was right there.
But North Carolina found its rhythm and cruised to victory. A season of joy and surprise ended in downtown Denver.
Kuhle works in Denver for the Catholic Diocese. He’s the father of a young daughter and son. His back has mended, but he’s got a growing bald spot.
Somewhere in his home, he keeps a sheet. On it, the Falcons compiled goals for the 2003-04 season. Despite immense evidence for doubt, the Falcons wrote on the sheet their plan to rule the Mountain West.
“We thought we could win,” Kuhle says.
“We had those goals, and if you have goals, you have to think you can accomplish them. It was not outlandish.”
Ah, A.J., it was outlandish, and that’s the sweetest part of it.