For years the blight area of basketball was that section of the Southwest that sweeps across Arizona, New Mexico, and the vast reaches of Texas. Every sporting instinct was absorbed in a year-round furor over football. If a boy happened to grow very, very tall, people were inclined to say, "Too bad, but maybe he can still play end."
What basketball there was took place before throngs of three or four fans in small gymnasiums with leaky roofs and buckling floors. The gym that Texas Christian University used until 1954 was known as The Barn, and though the wind whistled through the sizable cracks in its walls college officials could see no point in putting up a new building for a minor sport. Once two freshmen saw smoke coming from one of the cracks and rushed inside to put out a small fire. Then they told the basketball coach, Mike Brumbelow, what they had done. "Damn," he is said to have answered, his chance for a new gym snuffed out, "why don't you freshmen mind your own business?"
Worse still, the play was as bad as the facilities. (Until last season, no Border Conference team ever won a single game in the NCAA tournament.) The schools competed lethargically in their own section and got thrashed when they left it. But in the past five years all this has undergone a sudden and surprising change. It is now hardly possible to squint across a prairie without seeing the lump of a new field house on the horizon. Ten years ago the University of Texas' gym was the best in the area. Now it is the worst. In 1955 Texas Tech was drawing crowds of 1,500. Last year the average attendance at Tech's conference games in the luxurious Lubbock Municipal Coliseum was 9,400. Junior high and high school basketball programs have grown just as fast, insuring marked improvement in the quality of college play.
Nowhere, however, has the change in southwestern basketball come as thoroughly or as noticeably as at Arizona State, whose Sun Devils have become not only one of the fanciest and flashiest teams in the section but one of the country's best as well. Arizona State is located at Tempe, a community of 25,000 that is some eight miles of stockyards, cactus, dust and dried-up riverbed from downtown Phoenix. The campus is distinguished by towering palm trees, cooing mourning doves and a steep, bleak butte informally known as Pikers' Peak (or, perhaps, Pikers' Peek), because it affords a natural and free grandstand overlooking the football field.
Four seasons ago the rapidly expanding school (from 3,800 to 12,000 students in 10 years) decided to improve the quality of its basketball. State had failed to win a Border Conference Championship in 23 years of trying, was drawing 800 uninspired fans to its games, and the Phoenix newspaper was devoting three inches of space to accounts of such contests. So State looked to the Midwest, naturally, for a coach to lead it out of the desert. It found Ned Wulk, a highly successful young man then at Xavier in Cincinnati. Wulk, now 41, is a native of Wisconsin, where basketball is taken seriously. His eyes are as blue and chill as Lake Superior in December; his hair and his temperament are reddish, and he can't understand people who don't take basketball seriously. His first indication of what Phoenix thought of the game came when Arizona State's alumni chapter there scheduled a meet-the-coach luncheon. Only eight people showed up.
Seat in the balcony
"This lack of interest kind of upset me," he recalls. "1 knew we had to have a team that people would like to watch, one that they would talk about." So he taught Arizona State one of the most hell-bent-for-the-bucket fast-break offenses in the game. He also did his own best to display the spirit he wanted, spending more time jumping off the bench to shout at referees and players than he did sitting on it. He highlighted that first season by throwing a chair into the upper balcony, after losing a close game at Texas Western, and collecting a total of nine technical fouls. But the jolted Sun Devils got the idea. They won their first conference championship, and people started coming to games.
Since then State has won two more championships, and last season at the NCAA tournament it firmly proved the new status of Southwest basketball by beating Seattle and USC before finally losing to Utah. This year, with a host of sophomores from a freshman team that averaged 105 points a game, the Sun Devils are even better and attendance is a different kind of problem. The gym, which has a capacity of a mere 4,600, is packed for big games. The overflow crowd pays a dollar a head to go to the neighboring student-union building and watch on closed-circuit television in the ballroom. For the first time in its history State is selling season tickets and has reserve-seat sections. At one game, played against Brigham Young two weeks ago, the gross gate was bigger than it was for the entire 1957 season.
The fans are paying to see a team that is interesting, even by Ned Wulk's standards. It is led by a microscopic 5 foot 9 guard, Larry ("Call me Sweet Larry") Armstrong, who hurtles so fast and cuts so sharply that he wears a pair of gym shoes to tatters in two weeks. A welterweight boxer in the Army (seven wins, no losses), his hands are as quick as Sugar Ray's, and he is almost as much of a showman.
Sweet Larry's most valuable teammate, and the key to the fast-break offense, is Tony Cerkvenik, a mighty young man from Mountain Iron, Minn. who has a way of snaring a rebound and hurling it down the floor before he has even come down himself. This adds greatly to the success of what Wulk calls his "go" style of basketball. His team attempts to run its opposition into the floor and is acutely sensitive to the first sign of an opponent's wilting. When this happens it can run off streaks of 15 or more straight points with a sure killer instinct.
Last week Arizona State began its campaign for a fourth Border championship (also its last; next year it joins the new and tougher Great Western Conference), and the Sun Devils looked like the fastest guns in the West. Rolling through, over and around the West Texas State Buffaloes, they had a 59-34 half-time lead and won with a floorful of substitutes. Two nights later they made a fantastic 71% of their shots in the first half and defeated Hardin-Simmons 110-50. That raised their scoring average to 89.2 points a game, the second highest in the country, and made their record 9-3. Through it all the school's cheerleaders danced on the sidelines with glee, Ned Wulk jumped up and down on the bench and the crowd roared for Sweet Larry. "The fans want to see basketball at its fastest possible pace," said Armstrong after the West Texas game. "They want action and we give it to them."