Noie: Special weekend awaits former Notre Dame standout Bob Whitmore

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ND Insider

Time and the test of it have taken a toll on Bob Whitmore.

There have been rough days and hospital stays. Times when the future looked bleak. Times when the former Notre Dame basketball standout seemed close to his last breath while fighting myriad health issues, which include pancreatic cancer and, most recently, several seizures.

Every day is a challenge. That’s nothing new. So has been life, something Whitmore faces with endless optimism that tomorrow can and will be better than today, even when today’s been pretty good.

For the last few months, Whitmore has pointed to one weekend. This weekend. His weekend when he becomes the eighth member of the program in the Ring of Honor. Could the 72-year-old Whitmore make it to South Bend from his Washington home? Could he attend the ceremony at halftime of Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against Boston College? Could he say a few words?

Nobody knew. He might be too ill to travel, to watch the game, to speak. But a message left on his cell phone earlier in the week was returned within five minutes. It offered an indication of the strength that this weekend offers and what it all means.

Everything.

“There are times when I feel like getting out and playing ball, but I’m not getting around as well as I did in my heyday,” Whitmore joked during a 20-minute conversation that could have stretched three times as long. “But I’m still Bob Whitmore.”

Still the man thankful for the opportunity to attend Notre Dame. Ask Whitmore about the school or South Bend, and the stories start rolling. About taking the South Shore to and from Chicago. About going to different clubs around town to listen to jazz. About being the pioneer of what became a player pipeline from the nation’s capital (thanks, Frannie Collins) to Notre Dame.

About waiting for the next flight out of town to another road game while sitting with and learning about life from former South Bend Tribune reporter Forrest “Woody” Miller, a man of few spoken words. About being a black man in Northern Indiana in the 1960s.

“I was always very mindful of where I was, what I was doing out there,” Whitmore said. “It’s a great, great, great athletic and scholastic university.”

Whitmore attended Notre Dame at a time (1966-69) when the Fieldhouse was the epicenter of Irish athletics. It was common for former athletic director Moose Krause and football coach Ara Parseghian to walk in and watch hoops as the football team worked out nearby. For former baseball coach Jake Kline to hold practice a few feet away. For some of the cross country runners to get workouts in on the indoor track. It was controlled chaos a lot of the time, but to Whitmore, what a time it was.

“We’d have all of us individuals running around,” Whitmore said. “What a great feeling.”

Not just numbers

Basketball was Whitmore’s sport, and he played it well. At 6-foot-7, he wasn’t the tallest or the quickest or the flashiest on the floor. There were others in the old building who could shoot it better and pass it better, but few played better. Whitmore loved to play. In the dedication game of the Joyce Center, now Purcell Pavilion, Whitmore jumped center against UCLA’s Lew Alcindor. He scored the first Irish basket in the building.

Put him out there with a ball and two baskets and nine others and he could play for days. Run the floor. Set screens. Rebound. Score. Compete. Win.

Whitmore embraced everything about athletics. He was about more than just numbers, though the numbers are impressive. In three seasons with the Irish (freshmen were ineligible), Whitmore scored 1,580 points and grabbed 1,043 rebounds. A member of the program’s all-century team, he ranked third and second all-time in those categories. He’s currently 15th in scoring and fifth in rebounding. He’s one of only six Irish with at least 1,000 career rebounds. He tallied 47 double doubles for points and rebounds, third in school history. He still owns the school record of six games of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds and the single-game record of 30 rebounds. He averaged 18.8 points and 12.4 rebounds in 84 career games.

“I respected the game,” he said. “I never thought that I was better than anybody. I always gave my best.”

On and off the floor. Whitmore was an example of how to live with class and character at a time when it was hard for a young black man to do either. There was social injustice. Like when Whitmore and four black teammates were booed — during a home game — for being on the court together. That led to anger. Tears. Confusion. Whitmore worked through it, tried to find the good buried beneath so much bad.

Long before athletes became role models, he was a role model.

“He was a great example for how to do it for all the guys who came after him,” said former teammate Collis Jones, a fellow Washington native and friends with Whitmore for 50 years. “He was a great ballplayer (but) he was a great person. It was about more than playing basketball for him out there.”

Drafted by the NBA’s Boston Celtics and the ABA’s Minnesota Pipers in 1969, Whitmore eventually returned to Notre Dame and served one season (1973-74) as a graduate assistant. He graduated from Notre Dame Law School. He worked in banking, in the oil and gas business and in telecommunications. He lived in Denver, San Francisco, Houston and now back in Washington.

“I’ve been around,” he said. “I thank the good Lord.”

It’s his time

Whitmore is the first Irish to enter the Ring of Honor since David Rivers in 2017. Coach Mike Brey has the final say on who goes and who waits. Even then, his decisions are debated by past players. What about this guy? That guy? When Brey decided over the summer to put Whitmore and his No. 53 in the arena rafters, the feedback was unanimous — Whitmore needs to be up there. Now.

“One of the class acts that we’ve had here,” said Brey, a fellow DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School graduate. “The weekend is a powerful weekend for Bob.”

One that started Friday with a private plane ride for Whitmore and his former high school coach, Morgan Wootten. Whitmore seemed equally embarrassed and impressed that a friend of a friend offered the arrangement. The plan was for him to attend Notre Dame’s afternoon practice, where he would speak to the team. Afterward, Brey would present him with a ring to signify entrance into the Ring of Honor. He’ll watch some of Saturday’s game, but is not scheduled to speak.

Words likely wouldn’t come easily. If they did, they’d have to turn off the microphone.

Whitmore took nothing for granted as a player. Still doesn’t in life. It’s the way he was raised, the way he’s always been. It goes back to what his parents taught him — always respect others. It goes back to what Collins taught him — embrace every day because before you know it, five, 10, 15 years slip away.

“Life becomes very short,” Whitmore said. “We’re put on this Earth to accomplish something, so accomplish it. If you’ve got good people around you and can smile and help when someone’s down, hey man, you’ve lived a doggone good life.”

It’s a life that Whitmore wants to keep living, no matter what he must overcome. He’s seen a lot. He’s done a lot. Lived a lot. But he believes there’s still more for him to do. Life’s been hard of late, but it’s still been good.

Who was/is Bob Whitmore? That’s who he is.

“Be a friend as well as you can,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. I love life. I’m blessed.”

Former Notre Dame standout Bob Whitmore will enter the program’s Ring of Honor during halftime of Saturday’s game against Boston College.

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: RSN. The game will be shown locally only on Comcast Channel 101.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Nik Popovic scored 16 points with three rebounds and Ky Bowman added 15 points, three rebounds and two steals in Wednesday’s 83-56 home loss to No. 4 Virginia. The Eagles shot .386 percent from the field, .280 from 3 and .556 from the foul line. The Cavaliers scored 46 points in the paint. … Bowman leads all active ACC players having scored double figures in 23 straight games. He’s third in the league in scoring at 20.0 . … Boston College opened ACC play with a 77-66 loss at No. 9 Virginia Tech. … The Eagles are 6-40 on the road in league play since Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2013-14. … This starts a conference stretch of three of four on the road. … Boston College returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 19-16, 7-11 and 12th place in the ACC. … The Eagles, who have averaged 11.2 wins over the last five years, were picked this preseason to finish 12th in the ACC. … Boston College has non-league wins over DePaul, Loyola of Chicago and Minnesota, non-league losses to Hartford and IUPUI. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 19-10, including 13-4 at home and the last 11 wins in a row. … The Irish are 10-0 against the Eagles as ACC colleagues. … Notre Dame’s last loss to Boston College was in 2004; its last loss at home was Jan. 11, 1997. The Irish have won 10-straight at home against the Eagles. … Notre Dame looks to avoid opening conference play 0-3 for the first time since 2005-06 as a member of the Big East.

QUOTING: “Two teams on Saturday fighting for their life trying to get one. Both teams are kind of searching a little bit, trying to get some confidence. Both teams are dying for a win. We could use one.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.