The tallest player in collegiate basketball hurried head and shoulders above the crowd through the halls of Gonzaga University in Spokane last week and ducked into the office of his French-speaking academic adviser to resume a debate on the Rabelais-Montaigne influence on the era of Francis Bacon.
Jean Claude Lefebvre (pronounced Luh-fay-vra) of France, who is 7 feet 3¼ inches tall and knows little English, has performed so well in this literary scrimmage that his campus stature is assured whether or not he ever dunks a basket.
"His knowledge and appreciation of literature," said the learned dean of faculties, the Rev. Clement H. Regimbal, S.J., "is quite extraordinary for a freshman student."
Much more extraordinary is Lefebvre's two-year evolution from the awkward, shy and sickly son of a farmer on the outskirts of Paris to the poised biggest-man-on-campus of a U.S. college.
December 9, 1957
His arrival in Spokane on Labor Day this year may well have given birth to a new dimension in basketball recruiting and brought an end to isolationist thinking among domestic proselyters.
Actually, it all began one spring day in 1955 when Lefebvre's 6-foot 6-inch father (his mother is 6 feet 3) sent him to a doctor in Paris for treatment of a sore knee.
The doctor diagnosed the ailment as minor but, before he released his patient, he put in a telephone call to an old friend, Robert Busnel, who was coach of the French National Basketball team. Busnel hurried over, gazed fondly at Lefebvre's tremendous size and asked simply: "Would you like to play basketball?" He got a simple answer: "Yes."
Busnel worked for hours every day with his giant, who had to learn the game from the ground up. He found in Lefebvre a pupil so willing he fell exhausted after practice but came back for more. His feet, bound tightly in shoes too small, were bloodied and covered with blisters.
While Lefebvre fell in love with the game, he wasn't the valued asset he might have been. Busnel took him aside each day, begged him to play close to the basket and use his height. Then Lefebvre gave him his problem.
"You do not know, Monsieur, what it is to be too tall, do you?"
Busnel worked almost tenderly with big Lefebvre after that, gradually convincing him that he was no freak, but a fine athlete with a God-given advantage that could be used in basketball for the greater honor and glory of Jean Claude, his family and the Republic of France.
Basketball has become big time on the continent, and Lefebvre made France a contender in the international European matches. He was featured in big picture spreads in French magazines and was interviewed and profiled in Parisian newspapers before the French army caught him in the draft, then let him go for lack of a uniform that was large enough.
Lefebvre became a tower of strength on the French National team and scored 45 points in one game, but was bottled up last year in a 64-62 loss to Czechoslovakia.
It was during a tournament in Holland that a ubiquitous, globe-trotting basketball addict named James McGregor spotted Lefebvre. At one time a coach at Spokane's Whitworth College, McGregor decided Lefebvre was just the man for Coach Thor Henry Anderson of Gonzaga. This was not as logical as it might at first appear. Anderson and McGregor were rivals of long standing, the trouble stemming from a time when the aggressive McGregor tried to recruit Jerry Vermillion, Anderson's top scorer, right out of the Gonzaga gymnasium during a freshman game.
Recruiting, it would seem, is in McGregor's blood, just as adventure was in Richard Halliburton's or romance in Ava Gardner's. Indeed it was on his ability as a recruiter that the intense 5-foot-8 ex-track man from the University of California built an enviable reputation as head coach at Whitworth.
In western basketball, Whitworth, a little Presbyterian school of 900 students, was only slightly better known than McGregor, when, at 32, he mapped a campaign to advertise them both in a hurry.
He started recruiting in half a dozen states, organized an athletic fund-raising club, lined up a barnstorming tour of California, brought in a Hawaiian team with a heavy guarantee, signed to play in the Islands the following season and laid plans for Whitworth games in Madison Square Garden and Convention Hall in Philadelphia.
To get a 6-foot-10 center from California, he brought the boy's widowed mother and two brothers to Spokane, got the Kiwanians to find them a house and helped with the bills.
McGregor started getting results. His team the first year was the best in Whitworth history. He won 22 games the next season, reaching the quarter-finals of the national small college tournament in Kansas City.
To fascinated sportswriters, he became known as "Jolly Jim," a remarkable personality, with a slow wit to charm doting parents of tall boys who would like to play big-time college basketball.
But Whitworth, though tagging along and happy with success, was beginning to run out of breath and asked McGregor to slow down. The school said it couldn't afford the barnstorming, ordered him to hold individual traveling expenses to $7 a day and started a reappraisal of scholarship benefits for McGregor's gangly imports. Then, only about 500 people showed up for the Hawaii game on the campus and the school was stuck for much of the $2,500 guarantee. Whit-worth prepared to fire Jolly Jim.
McGregor, however, struck first. In a letter of resignation he blamed "de-emphasis." He turned it in just eight hours before the area's sportswriters picked him "Coach of the Year."
McGregor left town in the spring of 1953, to go to work for an airline promoting tourist trade to Japan. It was during this tour of duty that the ever-restless McGregor lined up a basketball tour to the Far East. He offered it first to Anderson, who turned it down with an "I don't know about you, Jim. I can see us coming back in a rowboat." The University of Oregon went instead and came home happy, safe and solvent in a four-engined airliner.
McGregor next popped up in Italy, where he signed on as coach of the Italian National team. He learned three new languages and soon became known as a leader in European basketball. In his spare time, he flitted back and forth through the Iron Curtain, gave clinics and wrote letters back to Spokane from Africa, South America, Warsaw and Istanbul.
Anderson, his old antagonist, was on the mailing list and sometimes even wrote back. He had learned to forgive McGregor's aggressiveness, which is not remarkably charitable of him when you take into account McGregor's international epistolary style. One letter from Russia ended with a startling p.s.: "If you can find someone at Gonzaga who speaks Russian, I can get you a 7-foot-6 Ukrainian."
Anderson, now full of respect for McGregor, could find no Russians around Gonzaga, but he was ready with eight French linguists when McGregor wrote about a 7-foot-3 Parisian.
With Anderson's ready assent, the persuasive McGregor went to work on Lefebvre and Coach Busnel. Lefebvre forthwith decided he would like to go to the U.S. for college. Busnel, eying the 1960 Olympics, was just as certain the experience would be good for Lefebvre and the training helpful for France.
Anderson took it from there and negotiated for the next six months. He lined up a French professor at Gonzaga as his prime diplomat and stayed awake until 3 a.m. for long distance calls from Paris. A friend put up $771 for a round-trip plane ticket, and it was fired off airmail to France. The American embassy gave Lefebvre a four-year student visa, and finally he was off. Anderson scarcely slept a wink for the next 36 hours.
He called Thomas Bradley, a New York trucking executive and a Gonzaga regent, to make contact at Idlewild. Bradley dispatched an aide, Thomas Griffin, who took Lefebvre away from possible sales talks by anyone else.
Anderson, who stands 6-feet-6 himself, was popeyed when his French recruit stepped off the plane at Spokane. He hustled him home and secured him in a basement room. Registration at Gonzaga, and permanent possession, was still three weeks away.
With Lefebvre safely asleep in a special 7-foot 8-inch bed downstairs, Anderson went to work. He called Babe Brown, the athletic director at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, and lined up another game for December 2 to open the season at home in Spokane.
Then he pulled five scheduled games out of the 1,500-seat Gonzaga gymnasium and booked them into the Spokane Coliseum, which accommodates 7,500 for basketball.
Chores done, he gazed fondly back on Lefebvre, who came with embroidered pajamas and wash towels, a modest but well-tailored wardrobe and nine words of English. He also arrived with a pair of size 17 basketball shoes that were too small.
There was more civic interest in Gonzaga basketball in the next few weeks of September than all of last season, when the team won 11 of 27 games, drew skimpy crowds and hardly raised a murmur among the students.
The Spokane Chronicle greeted Lefebvre's arrival warmly in a lead editorial, whistled at his tremendous size with a "Golly, Quel Homme!" A clothier wanted to outfit him, and Playfair track begged Lefebvre to crown the winning horse of a feature race. In the last season, Anderson sold fewer than 300 season tickets. He is now banking on at least 1,000 at $7.50 each.
As both coach and promoter, Anderson ensconced big Lefebvre in a room in a campus dormitory with Norman Gillette, the new 5-foot-8 athletic news director whose credentials include B's in high school French.
Then he helped Lefebvre line up his freshman course: English I (with a tutor); the French theater since 1930 (with a French-speaking teacher); the history of French literature, and Racine's tragedies (with the same teacher); and four hours of physical education (with Coach Anderson).
Lefebvre quickly bought himself a Larousse French-English dictionary, four bottles of shaving lotion, a camera and a notebook to take down play patterns from Anderson's blackboard.
He gets $10 a week on a campus job (one of his tasks is installing high-hanging library shelves), in addition to the standard Gonzaga scholarship of board, room and tuition. He came without cost and no under-the-table payments. In return, even before firing a shot at a Gonzaga foe, he has given the school one of its most intriguing athletic heroes without an inch of goon on an outsized frame. When he has a better grasp of English, Lefebvre intends to switch to a business course. He will study the export-import trade, which he hopes eventually to enter.
Almost lost in the Gonzaga glee over its recruiting coup is the fact that Lefebvre plays pretty good basketball. He can move, shoots well and is learning to lift his 280 pounds off the floor for rebounds. After six weeks of practice, Anderson feels Lefebvre's rough edges are beginning to smooth over.
"He has done very, very well," he said. "I'm more than pleased with his offense. He'll hit 12 of 16 shots in close in a tough scrimmage and is learning to pivot off the screen. He must learn to be more aggressive on rebounds, and he has to get back faster on defense. Moving back seems hard on his toes and soles.
"Right now, I'm concerned about his feet. He has size 17 shoes with the toes cut out. We need a size 19 and they don't have them. A Spokane shoe man has promised to provide at least an oxford-type shoe with a sponge sole. A sporting goods dealer said he'd get me something, although it may be a Primo Carnera-type boxing shoe that will need building up."
Lefebvre's feet slow him down after 30 or 40 minutes of scrimmage but not until he has whipped in a dozen hook shots or dunks on rebounds.
"His hook shot is real good for a big man," Anderson says, "but he needs experience. He really needs experience on rebounds. He can't understand yet how friendly teammates can rough him up on a scrap for the ball during scrimmage. He thinks they should be his friends. He'll learn."
Coach Anderson intends to use Lefebvre in a 1-3-1 offense. "It's something I picked up from Hank Iba of Oklahoma A&M at a coaching clinic," he said. "You'd call it a high and low post, with big Jean and low man near the basket and the others out front. They'll weave and try to hit Jean, then screen for him for a hook or expect a pass back out for a routine close shot. Lefebvre has become a team man, he's passing out real well when he doesn't have a shot. He passes back even when he does and he peaks over the defense real well, too."
Lefebvre seems better than average with his favorite shot en suspension, a one-handed jump shot from 25 feet away. His hook shots come equally well off either hand, but he is terrible on free throws.
Lefebvre shoots so well from outside that one day he told Anderson he wanted to play back as a guard. The coach hustled him into a dark room and brought out old movies of Oklahoma A&M's Bob Kurland, another 7-footer.
"That's where I want you to play, and that's the way I want you to play it," he argued, with hands going and pigeon French strained to the limit.
A major impasse might have developed had not Anderson called in some of his French professorial help. After a full hour's session they divined what was wrong. Lefebvre had decided that in playing center he was taking advantage of his height. He wanted to make the team on his ability alone.
Richie Williams, a 5-foot-8, 135-pound junior college transfer from Vallejo, Calif., has become Lefebvre's closest campus friend. Williams speaks no French, but both boys get along well together in the languages they both understand—basketball and the ballroom.
Williams, a classy dancer, has taught Lefebvre the basic steps of "the bug and the bop" and coached him through one dancing date with a 5-foot 9-inch coed. He almost stopped the show.
"This Lefebvre," an excited alumnus told the Rev. John P. Leary, S.J., education dean, "is the greatest thing that ever happened to Gonzaga—including Bing Crosby." Crosby, a member of the class of 1924, is the college's most celebrated graduate and its most faithful benefactor.
Father Leary agrees but also urges moderation, as does Coach Anderson, who is worried about Lefebvre's effectiveness in the new 12-foot lane designed to neutralize big men. Anderson points out that Lefebvre has played basketball for only two years, he is 20 and has four to go at Gonzaga, where freshmen are permitted to play on the varsity. Even so, Anderson can't resist a wistful dream or two: "He could be the greatest basketball player in the world," he has been heard to remark.
McGregor is now director of student activities at Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey and won't see Lefebvre play his first U.S. games. But Anderson will keep him informed because Jolly Jim has become a one-man steering committee for Gonzaga in a basketball land untouched before.
Only last month, a brief McGregor letter stirred the Anderson imagination to even greater heights.
"I have found," McGregor wrote, "a 6-foot-10 kid in Greece who is only 16 and still growing. He should be ready for export soon."
In a moment, Anderson knew half a dozen classical Greek scholars among the Jesuit priests.