The day before Cincinnati came to town, Coach Chuck Orsborn was putting his Bradley squad through special drills. Cincinnati was the nation's No. 1 college basketball team, with a 13-0 record as well as the top scorer and best all-round player in Oscar Robertson. Bradley is in Peoria, Ill. where, Orsborn says, "everybody is crazy about basketball and we get wonderful support." For the Cincinnati game the Bradley field house (8,000 seats) had been sold out since Thanksgiving.
Watching his players, Orsborn said, "We're not a very impressive bunch to look at, are we? Scrawny, not really fast and just fair height. Every center we face in our conference is bigger than our Chet Walker, and he's 6 feet 6. We may be the worst free-throw shooters in the country. We're hitting about 60% of our fouls, and that's terrible.
"But we're in condition. I'm a fanatic on that. We really work hard before the season opens. For one thing, I want our kids to be able to play a whole game without having to call a time-out. I don't want the other team to be able to rest on my time. It's important to have a few time-outs left at the end of a close game for strategic reasons, so you can set up a play or help kill the clock. I like to play straight man-for-man on defense. We always play Oscar that way. I figure he's going to get his share of points anyway, and if you try something special on him you're bound to weaken yourself elsewhere."
A sharp-faced, lean 6-footer whose hair is beginning to go, Orsborn is rarely without a cigar or cigarette in his lips and a roll of stomach-aids in his pocket. He has won 79 games and lost only 19 since coming to Bradley. At 42 he is as good a basketball coach as there is in the country. He likes Peoria ("Peoria isn't so small that everyone knows what you're having for dinner") and, in fact, will gladly tell you he has the "best basketball coaching job in the country." He lives in a small, cheerful house near the Bradley field house with his pretty blonde wife Janet and their three children.
Twice in the two days before the Cincinnati game he ran off for his players the films of their December game in Cincinnati, which they lost by 15 points. The darkened room was silent except for an occasional comment by Orsborn. "See what you did wrong there, Chet?" "That was a foolish foul, Al."
Actually, it had been a very close game until the last few minutes; then Bradley fell apart. The fact impressed the players. When they had gone, Orsborn talked about his profession. "The practice and the games are the easiest part. First you've got to recruit the kids and keep them happy and eligible for four years. You've got to be a father to 15 kids all with different problems and personalities. I've got a problem right now with Chet Walker. He's only a sophomore but he's got everything you need to be an All-America, only he doesn't play anywhere near his potential."
TEARS IN THE LOCKER ROOM
"I haven't figured out how to get to him yet. Every kid requires a different approach. In his very first game on the varsity Chet scored 28 points in the first half, terrific. In the locker room at half time I was telling each kid what he'd done right and wrong and I told Walker he'd been making some mistakes on defense. I went on talking and when I looked back he was dabbing away at his eyes. 1 Can you imagine that? No, I haven't figured out how to handle him yet."
The next day Orsborn told his team, "Last night I saw a high school team sink 20 free throws in 21 attempts and they won their game by one point. It could happen to us. You're all good shooters. Put those free throws in. Just be confident they'll go in and they will.
"Now, Walker, you know how much depends on you. You can do everything Oscar does. But so far he seems to want to play more than you do." Then Orsborn dismissed them.
A few hours later they were back, to put on one of the best-played and most exciting college games of this or any other year. Cincinnati started a first team that was two or three inches taller than Bradley's at every position. Cincinnati's statistical record was better in every important department: free throws, field goals, total points, rebounds. And they quickly demonstrated why this was the case.
With Robertson dominating the game on deceptive drives, amazing shooting and sleight-of-hand ball handling, Cincinnati ran away to a 21-12 lead before Bradley called timeout for strategic reasons. Orsborn changed his defense from a zone, with which he had tried to surprise Cincinnati, back to his usual man-for-man, and he changed his offense from a loose outside-shooting affair, also calculated to surprise, back to a normal single pivot.
Immediately the game turned from a near rout into a taut contest which drove the Peorians wild. The Bradley field house was awash with noise the rest of the night. By half time Bradley was only three points behind, 47-44. The team had made 82% of its free throws, and Chet Walker had demonstrated he really could play basketball with the likes of Oscar Robertson.
KEEPING UP WITH OSCAR
In the second half the lead changed hands 12 times. Walker and teammates Al Saunders and Bobby Joe Mason between them kept up with Oscar Robertson's rapid-fire point production. Suddenly there were only two minutes to play, and Bradley was behind 84-83.
Orsborn called another time-out and ordered a full-court press. Forty seconds from the end, Bradley gained a one-point lead, 89-88, with a magnificent drive and stuff shot by Walker. Orsborn called time-out again. Play resumed with Bradley in the back-court killing time. When only 18 seconds remained, Orsborn, having hoarded his time-outs, was able to call still another so that Bradley could start again at midcourt. The ball was given to team Captain Mike Owens, and Cincinnati was forced to foul him to get possession. Owens, a stocky little youngster with a Mickey Mouse face and all the confidence in the world, stepped to the free-throw line and sank both shots without pausing for breath. Cincinnati had the ball but there just wasn't time enough left to win. Robertson dribbled in for a layup, with the whole Bradley team, aware that a three-point foul would tie the game, giving him plenty of room. He put the ball through the basket for the last of his remarkable 46 points just as the buzzer sounded. Bradley won 91-90.
After a riotous locker-room session with his team, Chuck Orsborn managed his first public smile of the day. "Now you see," he asked, "why this is the best coaching job in the country?"