On a wintry January evening early this year, a Princeton undergraduate named Artie Klein looped in a long field goal in the last second of play to beat Dartmouth 61-59 and was borne, amid unrestrained voicings of joy, off the floor on the shoulders of his classmates. At this moment, the game of basketball came full cycle. Not once since Jim Naismith hammered his first peach basket into place on the balcony of a Springfield, Mass. gymnasium that other winter evening back in 1891 had anyone carried a Princeton basketball player off the court. At Princeton they frequently do not even speak to basketball players.
If dedicated followers of the game elsewhere in the land observed this broaching of one of the last bastions with an air of almost complete indifference, it was easy to understand. It was, they felt, about time. In recent years the American-conceived game of basketball—the only game, as a matter of fact, to have been devised in the United States with no appreciable roots in the sports of other nations—has circled the globe and captured the fancy of both players and fans of virtually every country on earth. It has been received with exuberance not only in Australia and France and Russia but in British Guiana and Luxembourg and Mauritius as well. It was inevitable that the Ivy League, which counts among its members several of the schools that formed the first intercollegiate basketball conference as early as 1902, would eventually convince its followers, too, that this newfangled game was here to stay.
So this week, as the whistle toots for the 1957-58 college basketball season, Princeton will be in there cheering along with all the rest: North Carolina and Kansas and Kentucky and Utah, Hofstra and Wabash and Slippery Rock, Philadelphia Textile Institute and the College of Puget Sound. To say that college basketball this year will be bigger and better than ever is to glorify the obvious. It always is.
The college game, while neither so vast in scope as high school basketball (over 100 million persons attended high school games in the U.S. last year) nor so expert in its execution as the brand displayed by the professionals, remains the spear point of the sport. It is into the colleges that the high schools pour their great reservoir of youthful talent, and it is from the colleges that the pros draw the matured product upon which they depend for their very existence. As athletic directors and ticket managers of almost a thousand colleges and universities are happy to point out, in most sections of the country, basketball joined football long ago in the collegiate athletic big time.
This year, to project into the future a recent and exhaustive survey made by the Converse Rubber Company (which happens to be interested in this sort of thing since it manufactures the shoes that basketball players wear), more than 900 four-year colleges and universities will suit up teams and, before it is all over, play before almost 15 million fans. The basketball-happy Midwest, including the equally basketball-happy Missouri Valley area, will draw almost 5 million spectators. The South will attract crowds of nearly 3 million, the Middle Atlantic and Pacific Coast colleges more than a million apiece, and even the football-obsessed Southwest, which would have shuddered at the very thought of a basketball boom a few years back, now expects to play to an audience of almost a million with only 48 teams in action.
Whether it is cause or effect, one of the reasons college basketball is able to attract so many spectators during a relatively brief season is the attendant boom in gymnasiums and field houses (see page 30). The Southwest Conference is a good example: this year seven of the eight teams will be playing in arenas built since 1950. Since 1947, 24 colleges have constructed field houses with a seating capacity greater than 7,500; of the 10 largest college arenas in the country, six have been built since 1949. Last year the University of Kansas, runner-up to North Carolina for the NCAA championship and handicapped hardly at all by the presence of Wilt (The Stilt) Chamberlain, played before 152,500 fans in just 10 games at its new 17,000-capacity Allen Field House.
This is a long way, however, from being a stay-at-home sport. Kansas also played 17 games on the road (and another 161,000 turned out to swell the Jayhawks' total attendance to 313,500). Teams like Seattle, Brigham Young, Utah, Loyola of California and Texas traveled over 15,000 miles. This year there will be some 40 tournaments scheduled for the Christmas-New Year holiday period alone, when teams from the East will play in the Southwest and teams from the West Coast in the East and midwestern basketball players will abandon their own snow-spotted campuses to invade gymnasiums nestled among the orange orchards and magnolia groves of the Deep South. In March, three major national tournaments are scheduled to decide, after long conference seasons and additional preliminary playoffs, just who are the best teams in the land after all. The biggest of these, the NCAA's university division, is already approaching the sellout stage not only for the semifinals and finals at Louisville but also for the four regional playoffs at Lexington, Ky., Charlotte, N.C., Lawrence, Kans. and San Francisco as well.
The basketball fan who is unable to shake loose to watch a game now and then really has no problem. He will find basketballs bouncing across his television screen all season long. CBS will be on hand for the National Invitation Tournament from Madison Square Garden in March. NBC will televise a professional game nationally each Saturday afternoon and its West Coast division will handle Pacific Coast Conference games on a regional basis. Sports Network, Inc. televises Big Ten contests for the second year over a massive midwestern net of 40 stations which will blanket 10 states and this year will also sponsor a similar project with Atlantic Coast Conference teams on a smaller scale. And there are, additionally, scheduled local telecasts by numerous TV stations in cities all over the country wherever college basketball is played. If you don't like basketball, maybe you can sign up for one of those bargain trips to the moon—or perhaps just hide under the bed. Even man's last friend and sanctuary, the neighborhood bar, is now out of bounds.
Basketball's amazing popularity, despite the fact that it seldom leaves blood dripping on the floor, is due more than anything else to the fact that it still answers the original need which triggered its conception: a highly competitive team game that could be played indoors during the winter months, with the emphasis on speed and skill. Before 1891 there was a void which basketball came along to fill; in the 66 years since, nothing has appeared to replace it. For thousands of young men who never could get very excited about Indian club twirling, basketball was the answer to a prayer.
Basketball has never been an expensive sport. Courts are everywhere and every kid has a pair of sneakers. The main item of expense, especially on the playground or recreational league level, is the basketball itself, and a good basketball costs less than $10. While dozens of colleges have dropped intercollegiate football in the postwar period because of increasing overhead, none of them have stopped buying basketballs; the Athletic Goods Manufacturers Associations happily report that it sells 16,000 dozen more every year than it did the year before, and this season total sales are expected to reach 210,000 dozen.
The game's real charm, of course, has little to do with cost. For the spectator, basketball is colorful and exciting and full of action, and even the relatively uninformed find it an easy sport to watch, understand and appreciate. This team up here wants to take the ball and throw it into that basket down there. The other team, in theory at least, wants to stop them, although in recent years this has become somewhat of a secondary consideration; what the second team really wants is to get ahold of the ball so it can do a little throwing at baskets itself. For the knowledgeable observer there is, of course, a great deal more: the fine points of the game and an appreciation of tactics and timing and finesse.
At some colleges basketball is more than just entertainment. For every great university which competes not only in basketball but in a dozen other varsity sports as well, there is the smaller college which has never played football or seen a crew race or had a fencing team and is totally unaware—and would hardly be impressed even if it knew—that ski jumping and calf roping are intercollegiate sports. On campuses like these, basketball is the sine qua non of intercollegiate athletic competition.
If basketball is fun, however, it can also at times look a little foolish. No game can be all things to all men and basketball has always had its share of voluble critics. Some of the game's weaknesses are so apparent, in fact, that even its staunchest disciples have to admit they exist.
Basketball finds itself involved far too often, for example, with gambling, and although the great point-shaving scandals of 1951-53 exposed and helped to clean out much of this corruption, the unsavory air has a tendency to linger on. Even today, more care is needed in the selection of not only competent but also completely honest officials (SI, March 4). And although far less guilty than college football, basketball has been known to engage in nefarious recruiting activities, too. "Six-foot-four high school basketball players are a dime a dozen," says one nationally famous coach, "but, boy, you should see the scramble when a good six-nine kid comes along." There are also the more or less intramural problems of too much shooting or not enough shooting or the stall or the zone defense, and the business of sectional differences in rules interpretation always seems to keep popping up. But basketball's biggest headache revolves like a double-post offense around its oldest and most inherent problems: excessive whistle tooting and domination of the game by the big man.
If anyone has a solution for the former, basketball fathers await him with open arms and a solid gold lifetime pass. Basketball, a noncontact sport, has long been concerned with how to keep the players not only from bashing each other on the nose but even from slapping each other on the wrist. Solutions have been suggested ranging from a) abandon the noncontact clause altogether, to z) make the penalty for an infraction so severe that it means instant dismissal from the game, but each has its evident drawbacks. The first, for example, might be fun for the spectators but a little hard on the players, and, anyway, a 20th century version of the Roman Colosseum wasn't exactly what the good Dr. Naismith really had in mind. The other extreme wouldn't work either; both teams would probably run out of eligible players shortly after the opening tip-off.
So the rulesmakers have had to look elsewhere, and the free throw, as unsatisfactory as it may be, apparently remains the best bet. No one likes fouls and the resultant abrupt halt in a fast-paced flow of action. No one likes the monotonous fiddling around at the foul line. No one, on the other hand, has ever been able to figure out anything better; 10 large, healthy young men were never meant to be caged up in a small area, given just one ball to play with and then told, "No, no mustn't get rough." It is the one jarring note in the entire concept of the game and it is perhaps a tribute to man's respect for law and order that basketball players for more than half a century have managed to contain themselves as well as they have.
When Dr. Naismith was wondering where to hang his peach baskets, his first thought was to get them up high. "In order to avoid having the defense congregate around the goal," he wrote later, "it was placed above their heads, so that once the ball left the individual's hands, it was not likely to be interfered with." Little did he know how healthy the human race would become in the next few years or how tall some of its members would grow. The rim of a basket has always been 10 feet above the floor. Today there are a number of basketball players who can jump high enough to look it straight in the eye.
Critics say there are far too many who can do just that; the extremely tall player has turned the whole thing into a farce. This time, basketball men do not agree. They feel that height prevails, perhaps, but domination is something else, and that there will always be a place in the sport for the good little man. For every Mikan and Pettit and Russell, there is also a Cousy and a Sharman and a Slater Martin. Last year, alongside Chamberlain, SMU's Jim Krebs, Louisville's Charley Tyra and the other giants, the All-America selectors placed little Chet Forte, a deadly 5-foot 9-inch sharpshooter from Columbia, and Gary Thompson, the brilliant 5-foot 10-inch ball hawk from Iowa State. And this year, while some coaches bemoan the lack of a man like the 7-foot Chamberlain or Rice's 6-foot-10 Temple Tucker or 6-foot-9 Jack Parr of Kansas State, there are others who need backcourt help just as badly. They, in turn, gaze wistfully toward such supercharged shorties as Temple's Guy Rodgers, Don Hennon of Pitt, Charles Brown of Texas Western and Joe Stevens of Wichita. A good case in point is Kansas itself. Even with Chamberlain back, the Jayhawks are not expected to reach the NCAA finals again. Reason: gone are the two good little guards, Maurice King and John Parker, who made the attack go.
No one close to the sport seems to worry much any more, however, about this rather academic question of domination by height. The game has advanced so much that to be merely very tall is no longer enough; even the big man must be a well-coordinated and agile athlete with a great deal of skill, and the advantage he gains is no longer due entirely to how many feet separate his cranium from the floor. The coaches themselves, who used to worry a great deal about all of this since they were never absolutely certain they weren't creating a Frankenstein, are now happy that everything has turned out so well. They have even grown fond of their towering infant. "It is the only sport," says Hank Iba of Oklahoma State, who has coached teams to victory in almost 600 games, "in which the really tall man can compete."
The best college teams in the nation this year will have tall men and short men and men in between. They will come from North Carolina and Kentucky in the South (see SCOUTING REPORTS page 43); Bradley, Kansas State and the Big Ten triumvirate of Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State in the Midwest; Rice in the Southwest; Temple in the East; Utah in the Rocky Mountains; and San Francisco, Washington and Seattle on the West Coast. They may, of course, also come from somewhere else. Regardless of which school wins the NCAA's university division championship at season's end, however, the NCAA college division winner—considered too small to compete in the top class—will feel that it could whip the big boy if it had the chance. And the littlest champion of all, the NAIA winner, will be certain that it could beat them both.
With this spirit, college basketball gets under way once again. If you don't like whistle tooting or tall people, maybe it isn't for you. If you like color and excitement and skill and speed, join the crowd. There will be a big one. There always is.
U.S. BASKETBALL ATTENDANCE 1956-57
NIBL & AAU TOURNEY
TOTAL FOREIGN ATTENDANCE