To celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary, FIU News is sharing 50 moments in FIU’s history as part of our “50@50″ series.
James Sutton, an associate professor and chairperson in FIU’s Department of English, grew up in Michigan. And like many Michiganders, he became a diehard fan of the University of Michigan Wolverines.
But on Nov. 13, 1998, when he was still a young professor at FIU, his allegiances were put to the test.
The FIU men’s basketball team was opening its 1998-1999 season at home against his Wolverines, and his heart was torn between the university he grew up rooting for and the university that had become a home away from home.
“I didn’t know who to root for,” Sutton says with a chuckle.
But as he sat in the upper bleachers with his family, some of them visiting from Michigan, the Panthers won him over as they completed a stunning 69-62 victory over the Wolverines.
After the final buzzer sounded, the FIU Arena crowd of 4,638 – an attendance record that still stands today – went nuts as fans flooded the court and mobbed the team as they celebrated arguably the most monumental win in FIU men’s basketball history.
“The place was rocking,” Sutton recalls. “It was loud. It was crazy and people were just screaming their heads off. It was an incredible experience and a grand moment for FIU.”
For much of the 1990s, the Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball had established themselves as a national powerhouse. Earlier in the decade, the famous “Fab Five” – featuring future NBA stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard – led the Wolverines to back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship appearances in 1992 and 1993.
Entering the 1998-1999 season and their game with FIU, the Wolverines were the defending Big 10 Champions and made appearances in the NCAA Tournament six of the previous seven seasons.
Michigan came in as the heavy favorites to win the game, but FIU had other plans.
“This was the greatest victory in FIU history,” President Modesto A. Maidique told The Miami Herald after the game.
Thanks to future NBA players Raja Bell and Carlos Arroyo, the Golden Panthers were able to stave off a relentless outside shooting spree from the Wolverines.
Bell led the way with 23 points and scored the team’s final six points to seal the victory for FIU. Arroyo came alive late in the game, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the second half to help the home team maintain control of the contest.
“This was a statement game for our program,” Head Coach Shakey Rodriguez told the Herald. “We’ve been preaching that we’ve got a pretty good basketball team, but I don’t think people understood. I hope the word gets out now. FIU is for real.”
Bell went on to have a fruitful 11-year career in the NBA, playing for six different teams and averaging close to 10 points per game over that span. In 2012, he returned to FIU to finish his coursework and claim his diploma in recreation and sport management.
“I promised my dad and mom that it would happen,” Bell told FIU News. “I know that’s a cliché, but I told them I wouldn’t neglect it – that I wouldn’t say that I don’t need it just because I’ve had a successful career.”
He officially retired from basketball Feb. 13, 2014.
Arroyo’s basketball career has taken him all over the world. After graduating from FIU in 2001, he spent most of the next 10 years in the NBA with a number of different teams – including the Miami Heat from 2009 to 2011.
He played professionally in Israel, Turkey, Puerto Rico and Spain and he currently plays for FC Barcelona Lassa of Liga ACB – Spain’s top tier basketball league.
Arroyo, a Puerto Rico native, carried the national flag representing his home country during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. During the tournament, he led his national team to a 92-73 win over the United States, scoring 25 points in the game.
FIU honored both Bell and Arroyo by retiring their numbers (No. 13 and No. 30) and the banners currently hang up in the rafters of FIU Arena, serving as a reminder of their stellar collegiate careers – and their role in delivering the greatest win in Golden Panthers history.