Gil Hennenfent and Roger Westman are sophomores at Iowa State University at Ames and, like all State students these days, intense basketball fans. Along with other Staters last week, they were disappointed to learn that the Saturday night game with Kansas at Lawrence, some 250 miles away on the Kaw River, had been a sellout for weeks and there were no tickets for Iowa students.
The rest of the Ames undergraduates met the challenge by raising $2,100 to pay line charges from Lawrence so the game could be telecast by their local station, but this did not satisfy Hennenfent and Westman. Early Saturday morning they started hitchhiking to Lawrence, made it by 2 in the afternoon. Still without tickets, they found an open door in the Kansas Field House, slipped in and eluded uniformed guards and ushers all afternoon.
That night, they and 17,000 others present, plus the thousands who watched on television, saw an immensely exciting game. Only two men, however, were fully aware that in addition to a game the final act in a psychological drama was being played out before them. They were Kansas Coach Dick Harp and State Coach Bill Strannigan.
Two weeks earlier, State had beaten Kansas by one point, on a last-second jump shot by Center Don Medsker. It was a victory in which the whole team shared, including Assistant Coach Bob Lamson, who had literally dreamed up a defensive strategy (SI, Jan. 28) to contain Kansas' giant Wilt Chamberlain. That defeat, only one of the season for Kansas, highlighted Dick Harp's difficulties. The first was a season-long tendency by his team to play at considerably less than full effort, trusting, as he put it, "to the Big Fellow to pull them through somehow." The Big Fellow of course is Chamberlain, and he had indeed saved Kansas up to that time. But he had to miss at least once, and when he did the letdown was hard.
February 11, 1957
Harp's other problem—far more complex than the first and one which is still far from being solved—concerned Wilt himself. Chamberlain came to Kansas all the way from Philadelphia on a floodtide of publicity unmatched in college sports history. And Wilt, at best a fitful and moody young man, is simply not equipped to cope with the stares, cameras, reporters and rumors that follow him wherever he goes. He has withdrawn within himself to the point where, even during practice sessions in an empty stadium, he appears to be miles from the scene in spirit. During a game, before the capacity crowds he always draws, he seems to be doing his best to avoid any move that will cause any special notice. On offense, he takes his position in the post and remains rooted for most of the action, coming to life just long enough to block a few shots and dunk a few buckets to save the day for Kansas.
Before the Iowa State game, Dick Harp, who is 38 and in his first year as head coach, tried for hours to talk Chamberlain into a relaxed frame of mind. He also tried to impress the rest of his charges that out on the court they were not just four anonymities surrounding a star. By game time he had nearly talked himself out.
Bill Strannigan had to approach tip-off time by a different psychological route. He had no new strategic rabbits to pull out of his hat—nothing new that might give his boys a lift. Indeed, he was sure that his problem was to bring them down from the happy heights, mentally, that they seemed to have been in ever since they had beaten Kansas. It was an attitude perhaps best summed up by State's star shot and playmaker, 5-foot-10 Gary Thompson, who said, "Why should we worry about this Kansas game? They're supposed to win."
Without even a dream to fall back on (Lamson tried hard but learned what Freud taught, that dreams arise in the subconscious and can't be forced) Strannigan had only one card to play. He brought along the films of the State-Kansas game that State had barely won, and a few hours before game time he herded his boys into a Field House projection room and ran them off, with the barest of critical comment. There for Thompson, Medsker, et al. to see was clear proof of how tough it really was to beat Kansas. They trooped out considerably sobered.
And so, at the jump-off, the two real contestants in this game—Harp and Strannigan—sat back on their benches, both literally relying more on their abilities as psychologists than as basketball strategists. As he usually does, Harp sat frozen through most of the game, only occasionally breaking his silent suffering to whisper a comment to the player nearest him. Strannigan lived up to the limit of his trigger-taut temperament rather than the dark, conservative suit he wore. Never still, he kept up a running fire of instructions which he must have known could not be heard by his men over the din of 17,000 partisan Kansans and the valiant efforts of Iowa hitchhikers Hennenfent and Westman: "Put Gary in the post. . . . Move the ball. . . . Watch the baseline, John. . . ."
What they saw in the first half sent Harp into the locker room wondering if his boys—and Chamberlain, in particular—had been listening to anything he had said during the past two weeks. The score was State 38, Kansas 31; twice State had led by as much as 11 points. Even more important, Chamberlain was still not moving; State's double-teaming of him had held him to four points. Harp's one spark of hope lay in the fact that the rest of the team might really be trying somewhat more than usual; they had taken 37 shots to State's 24, most of them reasonable tries. But their percentage was 27 to State's 50.
Strannigan could not have failed to be pleased that his once-tried strategy against Chamberlain was working again and that his boys had taken those films to heart and were deadly serious. In addition, Thompson was shooting beautifully off screens, getting the ball away for a half-time high of 13 points despite brilliant close guarding by Kansas' Maurice King. Finally, the zone press—a bush league tactic, really—that had disconcerted Kansas previously was having the same effect again. In this, instead of falling back when Kansas put the ball in play after a State basket, State kept four men over the center line in a loose box formation. The purpose was to slow Kansas down, cripple a fast break upcourt that would set up Chamberlain, and even try to intercept the ball before Kansas could get under way. Thompson himself accomplished this last feat three times.
There was only one ominous note for Strannigan to consider: his team had built up a total of 11 personal fouls. Medsker, key man in the pinch on Chamberlain, had three. Two more and he would be lost to State.
Seconds after play resumed, it was apparent that Harp's fortnight of cajoling had finally paid off—on all counts. Kansas was threading its way through the press exactly as Harp had patiently drilled them, getting the ball upcourt fast where—surprise—Chamberlain began to move. Sliding off his normal post, he would pull two and sometimes three men with him. This forced State to give King gobs of shooting room in the opposite corner, and Loneski room underneath. Temporarily surprised, State soon found the score tied, and then began 10 full minutes of the most nerve-tingling type of basketball possible: two well-matched teams playing their very best.
For State refused to collapse in the face of the Kansas surge. They would lose a one-point lead and get it back. Thompson, scrambling and faking, dribbling back and forth at the top of the key, would somehow get a split second ahead of his man and find that extra inch of room he needs to get off his jump. And he kept on hitting, finishing with 22, high for the game.
The seesaw The might have kept on indefinitely, with a final shot deciding it, if State's two big men—Medsker and Krocheski—had not fouled out with a full seven minutes to go. Kansas took swift advantage of this by feeding the ball to Chamberlain repeatedly. But Wilt had already begun to show what he could do. He eluded the clamp on him and drove, he drew 20 foul shots, he grabbed 24 rebounds (more than twice that of any State player), he blocked easy State layups and scared away many more. He finished with 19 points, only fair for him, but for the first time he really played all-out.
Despite Wilt's awakening and the loss of State's two big men, Kansas was leading by only two points with less than three minutes to play. Close to the two-minute mark, State had a last chance to pull up. Thompson, fittingly enough, had possession of the ball and was beginning his usually patient maneuvering for position.
Then came the moment when Strannigan lost the psychological battle. For some reason even he may never be able to explain, Thompson lost his head, took an incredibly bad shot. He missed, and the shocked State team lost its poise all at once.
The last two minutes of the game must have seemed an eternity to Strannigan. The tattered remains of his beautifully cohesive unit still out on the floor were playing some kind of a game out there—possibly potsy—but it wasn't basketball. The buzzer mercifully put an end to Strannigan's suffering with the score Kansas 75, State 64.
The 17,000 who crowded the Field House in Lawrence, Kan. (pop. including students: approximately 25,000)—yes, even Hennenfent and Westman—were lucky people indeed. They had seen, said a tired but proud Dick Harp, "the finest game our boys have played all year"—and possibly the finest game of the college season.