By Anthony Flott
“Number 30” blew it.
On the first play of his first start in the first game of his first Creighton season, promising freshman Bob Harstad made his first mistake. And hot-headed Tony Barone was too disgusted to even look at the rookie.
All week prior to Creighton’s 1987 season-opening tilt against California, Barone had coached the Bluejays to defend an alley-oop pass the Golden Bears liked to run — likely to Matt Beeuwsaert. Right before tipoff, Barone warned his team again: Watch out for the alley-oop.
“Got it, coach,” said Harstad.
Cal won the tip and came down court, Harstad guarding Beeuwsaert. Harstad felt an elbow in his back — a screen — then saw Beeuwsaert rise for an alley-oop bucket. Worse, Harstad was whistled for a foul. Cal, a Sweet 16 team that season, went on to whip the Bluejays 70-49.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the memory remains seared in Harstad’s memory. “It was the most traumatic moment of my career,” he says.
It’s doubtful anyone else remembers the play in such vivid detail or with such agony (OK, perhaps Barone). But Harstad provided Bluejay fans with plenty more to remember him by during the next 127 games of his career — all starts. In December, Creighton honored his career by retiring his No. 30 jersey at halftime of the Bluejays’ 82-75 win over St. Joseph. Only former Jays Bob Portman, Paul Silas and Bob Gibson have been so honored.
Harstad is one of only four Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) players to top 2,000 career points (2,110) and 1,000 career rebounds (1,126), along with Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Xavier McDaniel. He was MVC first-team from 1989 to 1991 and the conference’s player of the year in 1990. Along with center Chad Gallagher — his fellow “Dynamic Duo” partner — Harstad led Creighton to two regular-season MVC titles, two MVC tournament titles and two NCAA appearances (including a 64-56 win over New Mexico State in 1991). With him, Creighton improved every season, posting consecutive records of 16-16, 20-11, 21-12 and 24-8.
Numerous other numbers could define his career. But the hard-nosed, hustling, dive-to-the-floor Harstad always was more about attitude than he was averages. He may not always have been the most talented player on the court, but he squeezed out every last drop of what he did have.
“I felt I owed Creighton every time I went out there to do just the best job I could do,” he says. “I really felt privileged to play for Creighton University.”
It wasn’t always that way, though. One of Harstad’s most vivid memories is of a day in his dorm after his freshman season. He was disappointed, tired of being nervous all the time, and tired of being tired all the time.
“I was just surviving my freshman year,” he says. “Going forward, I wasn’t going to go in with a survival mentality. I was going to go in with a success mentality. To do better every day. It was the mentality of stop trying to get by and being relieved after practice is over to almost being disappointed practice is over.”
That attitude spread throughout the team, first to Gallagher. That summer the Bluejay big men decided to put their friendship aside during practices and challenge each other to improve. “Our summer games were more competitive than really our practices ever on the team were,” Harstad says. The rest of the team followed suit — and so did the wins.
Post-Creighton, Harstad played nine seasons of pro basketball in Spain and one in Portugal. His scrappy play took its toll: Harstad’s ankles (one of which now is tattooed with a flaming basketball) are “really bad” and he’s had four knee operations. That means no more basketball. When he returned to Omaha for his jersey retirement, the alumni game he played in was the first time he’d been on the court in a year.
One of Harstad’s proudest accomplishments occurred outside the basketball arena, when he completed his Creighton degree in the summer of 1993.
“My wife, Kate, and my academic advisor were instrumental in me returning and completing my last 13 hours,” Harstad says. “They were very persistent and I kind of figured out quickly that I was probably not going to be able to retire once I retired. After I did retire from basketball and began to look for a ‘real’ job, it quickly became apparent how important that diploma was and the many additional doors of opportunity that it opened for me.”
After his playing career, Harstad eventually joined Ackerman McQueen, an ad agency in Oklahoma City. He lives there with his wife, fellow Creighton grad Kate Rooney, BS’91, and their two sons. He is a vice president and account supervisor with Ackerman McQueen, the Oklahoma City Thunder among his clients.
“I love it,” he says. “The ad agency is crazy, and you have deadlines every day. I thrive on that stress. It’s a lot like basketball.
“I believe I’m a blue-collar worker in a white-collar world. I have to go 100 percent or I’m not effective. I think that carries over to the real world.”
Too bad he can’t wear No. 30 there, too.