Louisville thinks of itself as a gentle southern city just below the drawl line, and if once a year it gallops into a dither over a horse race called the Derby, it soon quiets down again into its normal sippin'-whisky frame of mind. Thus it came as all the more of a civic shock last week, a full month before The Horse Race, that Louisville should find itself the center of a frenzy that matched the Derby at its wildest. Into town had come 700 coaches, 200 newsmen and half the population of Ohio to see two furious basketball teams that were bent on settling a national championship and their own civil war in what would long be remembered as the great grudge match of Louisville. By Thursday there wasn't a hotel room available within 40 miles. By Friday, tickets were selling for $100 apiece. And by Saturday at dinnertime the last of the verbal battles were raging from the Bluegrass Room to the Julep Lounge, from Gordon's Golden Horse to the Bit 'n Spur, and even in that rare unequine setting, the Boom Boom Room, as to which team was going to win the national title: defending champion Cincinnati or its hated foe, the squad that has been ranked No. 1 for two straight seasons, Ohio State? By 11 p.m. that night every argument was settled. Cincinnati, with its matchless defense and a center as tall, solid and imposing as the Washington Monument, had thrashed Ohio State 71-59.
The Bearcats had taken up the challenge that their win over Ohio State in last years's NCAA finals was a fluke. They proved that it was not. They had used college basketball's best defense to once again stop its best offense, as well as the great player who made that offense work, Jerry Lucas. "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" shouted the Bearcats' joyous backers as the final seconds of the game ran out, and there wasn't a doubt last Saturday night that they were. But it hadn't been easy. A fantastic game-winning shot the night before had helped a lot; and a freakish accident had helped at least a little.
On Thursday, at the start of this long-awaited basketball weekend, the validity of Cincinnati's claim was yet to be proved. The four regional winners in the NCAA tournament all arrived that day, with Wake Forest from the east and UCLA from the west joining the two overwhelming favorites. At a press conference that afternoon Wake Forest's Bones McKinney, the last of the whooping cranes, took a long slug from a Royal Crown Cola, flashed his wild red socks, fluttered his arms unhappily and said of his semifinal round opponent, Ohio State, that "I'd take most any player they've got and use him instead of mine." Earlier in the season he had said his team was better than State's, but coaches' tunes change faster than won-and-lost records. Fred Taylor of Ohio State sat filing his fingernails so intently as he listened to this that it almost seemed he planned to scratch his way to victory. When his turn came he said everybody was talking about a Cincy-Ohio State final, but what if his team lost to Wake Forest? "Third place," he observed tartly, "is for the birds."
Ed Jucker, sitting tautly next to Taylor in a scene as warm and friendly as a summit conference, had a few nice things to say about his Friday night opponent, UCLA, but his mind was obviously on Ohio State. Those brash characters from UCLA, meanwhile, were the last to arrive. Gall, a couple of guards and a blistering attack had brought them some most unexpected success, but everybody knew Cincinnati would crush them. "I don't think we can beat Cincinnati at their slow-down game, and I don't much think we can beat them at our fast one either," said John Wooden, UCLA's coach, when he finally arrived. But that evening in a downtown hotel another coach made a nearly prophetic and certainly true observation. "You get to the semifinals on talent," he said. "But after that you are in the hands of God."
The next night Cincinnati fans firmly pinned on their "Hate State" buttons, Ohio State backers donned several thousand weird bibs that said "Go Go Ohio," Wake Forest men knotted their string ties right and 18,000 people repaired six miles south of town to a magnificent structure on the grounds of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center called Freedom Hall. It is so big that binoculars are recommended gear there. The nearly invisible ceiling is either gray metal or cumulus clouds. It is too high to tell which.
The Wake Forest-Ohio State game began to a crescendo of sound from the Wake Forest drum-and-cymbal section and the displaying of a fervent though ill-advised Confederate-type sign: "Yankee Go Home!" Bones McKinney would have fainted if the Yankees had gone home. All five of his starters were Northerners. It took just two and a half minutes for Jerry Lucas to put in three baskets, and Wake Forest could have taken its Yankees home right there. The Buckeyes' All-America forward, rugged John Havlicek, so thoroughly contained Wake's broad-backed All-America Len Chappell that he could only make five of his 13 shots in the first half. Wake needs much more from him to win. The Buckeyes took a safe 46-34 half-time lead, and the game was over. Almost.
It was with six minutes and 19 seconds left that disaster struck Ohio State. Lucas had jumped as a Wake player missed a shot, seen that OSU would control the rebound and started to turn his body as he came down. His left leg hit the calf of Deacon Center Bob Woollard. This threw him just a fraction off balance, and he landed on his heel instead of his toe. Compared to the constant smashing body contact in basketball, this was as harmless looking as a flick of a finger. But it caused a strain of tissues in Lucas' left kneecap. (Though he has a history of knee trouble, this injury was a new one.) He fell, tried to get up and couldn't, finally stood on one leg and hopped toward the bench in pain. It was a hushed and sad moment, for it was obvious that the hoped-for dream game, pitting Lucas and company against Cincinnati, was only going to be half a dream now. Lucas was taken to the dressing room. Half an hour later he was still stretched out there, a towel filled with ice cubes wrapped around his knee. A large crowd formed around the dressing-room door, and his wife, Treva, sent a message in. "Will he be able to play tomorrow?" she asked. "Will the sun come up in the east?" answered a determined Lucas.
The best team in Louisville
Meanwhile UCLA, set to start against Cincinnati, unveiled the first of its many surprises of the night in the form of three glorious coed cheerleaders who held the entire crowd's rapt attention as they did the Charleston, twist and an original of their own called the prance. ("Two juniors and a sophomore," said a UCLA man proudly. "Good," said a reporter. "That means the best team in the NCAA may be back next year.") Instead of watching the cheerleaders, the relatively small UCLA team made what is a mistake in any sport. It turned to look at its champion opponents while they warmed up. The sight of mighty Paul Hogue, 6-foot-8 George Wilson and those two excellent guards, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates, was too much. After five and a half minutes of play UCLA was still watching the Bearcats warm up. Cincinnati had scored every time it brought the ball downcourt. Hogue had three baskets in two minutes. UCLA had not gotten a single rebound. The score was 18-4. "The worst start I ever saw," said John Wooden later. Then, incredibly, Cincinnati began to blow its lead. UCLA's Gary Cunningham fired in one long jump shot after another, and Guards Walt Hazzard and John Green drove Yates and Thacker to distraction. Usually icy-careful Cincinnati did something it hasn't done within memory. It squandered a 14-point lead. By half time the score was tied. It was still stubbornly and thrillingly tied 70-70 with 10 seconds left to play when Ed Jucker called for a time-out. Hogue had kept Cincinnati alive by scoring the previous 14 Bearcat points.
During the time-out Ed Jucker ordered a play designed to get the ball to Hogue. Cincinnati couldn't manage it, however, so it tried the first option off the play. Thacker drove to the right side, jumped and sank a 25-footer with three seconds left. Thacker is not a good outside shot. He had missed all six shots he had taken up to that point. Yet he made the one that mattered—which is what Cincinnati has done all year. "That team [UCLA] is a lot better than anyone knows," said a relieved and wrung-out Jucker after the game. His team had played poorly, except for Hogue's 36-point effort, 20 more than his average. But the Bearcats beat the Wunderkinder from the West. Now Cincinnati and Ohio State were at last officially matched in the NCAA finals, and Louisville vividly celebrated the prospect. One rooter eventually sagged unconscious in an elevator at the Sheraton Hotel with a "do not disturb" sign attached tastefully to his chest, as he rode endlessly up and down to nowhere.
Louisville is acutely sensitive to leg injuries, possibly because so many horses suffer them. So the only question to be heard Saturday morning was: How is Lucas' knee? The Ohio State coaching staff had been working on scouting reports until 3 a.m., in the hope it was all right. Ed Jucker's staff had been doing roughly the same, on the assumption it was all right. It wasn't. Lucas limped through an eight-block morning walk. "Feels fine, feels fine," he said to countless well-wishers. "It hurts," he quietly told a close friend. "It hurts every time I straighten it." By midafternoon Lucas' room at the Sheraton looked like a miniature hospital ward. Two dour doctors were there, along with a trainer and a machine that makes a whirlpool bath out of a bathtub. On one table were tape and bandages. On another a small envelope of pills marked "PAIN." "He should be all right by game time," said an OSU doctor, Robert Murphy. The plan was to tape the leg so that it could not quite be straightened out into its most painful position.
When Lucas took the floor for the center jump against Paul Hogue on Saturday night his left leg was taped, nearly from his shorts to his sock. Yet he moved without limping. Still, Hogue was moving much better; like a man possessed, in fact. In the first two minutes he put in a hook shot, blocked a Lucas shot, then sank another hook shot. He was out to show he was better than Jerry Lucas. He tore the ball off the backboards, and the ones he didn't get, fired-up George Wilson did. Lucas came quickly back to score from 10, 20 and 12 feet, and with five minutes gone OSU led 11-8.
But the backboards belonged to Cincinnati. "We got only one shot for so long it was pathetic," Fred Taylor was to say later. "Cincinnati wanted the basketball so badly they fought each other for it." First slowly, then inexorably, Cincinnati began to pull away. On defense Thacker and Yates were giving the Buckeyes room in the center but keeping them from passing to the forwards in the corners. That is the pass that starts many offensive plays, and without it an offense loses its tempo. Soon OSU was doing what it had done a year ago against Cincinnati. Thwarted and perplexed on the offense, it gave up its own slashing style of attack and became hopelessly deliberate. "We must have movement" Taylor had written in the OSU scouting report. "We'll move the ball if we have to drop-kick it," an assistant OSU coach had said. In the last 10 minutes of the first half Ohio State's vaunted offense could score only three baskets against the Bearcats. Lucas, significantly, did not score at all in the final 15 minutes of the half. The Cincinnati offense, led by Hogue with 16 points, was functioning crisply, however. It was getting good shots and a neat strategic move was paying off. OSU's Havlicek, a strong rebounder, was being kept away from the backboard because the man he was guarding, Ron Bonham, had been told to stay well outside. The half-time score was 37-29 Cincinnati.
Ohio State started the second half by bringing in substitute center Gary Bradds, who is 6 feet 8, as a forward, and moving Lucas out past the foul line. Ordinarily Lucas could drive to the basket if Hogue tried to play him closely out there. Hogue came close once, Lucas didn't drive, and Hogue realized Lucas couldn't drive. Then and there the game was over. Cincinnati continued to control the ball beautifully, pushed out to an 18-point lead and, in the parlance of Churchill Downs, won breezing.
The second the buzzer went off Ed Jucker leaped from his chair and flung his hand skyward time after time with a single upraised finger showing the magic No. 1. Within minutes he was clutching the gigantic championship trophy to his chest while both he and the trophy were being held high by Paul Hogue. There was no chance Hogue would drop either one, for big Paul hadn't made a mistake all night. Cincy's hysterical fans, masters at raising bedlam, cheered wildly and were off on a well-deserved celebration that was to rip through the streets of Louisville until 4 a.m.
"We stopped their fast break," said Jucker when he was finally steady and on his feet again. "We stymied their feeding into Lucas. We got them to play a standing game."
"Does this prove it?" he was saying a minute later. "Aren't we the best? They can't overlook us anymore. They can't overlook the national champions two years in a row." Ed Jucker, the masterful coach of defensive basketball who in his only two years as a head coach had won two national championships, was half asserting these things, and half asking. For he can't seem to win a Coach of the Year award, his team doesn't get first-place status in a single weekly poll and his players aren't named to All-America teams. Now his night of greatest triumph had its shadow, too; the knee of Jerry Lucas.
At the moment Jucker was drowning in a sea of exuberant sound there was a desert of near silence in the nearby Ohio State dressing room. Over and over again Lucas was asked if his knee had bothered him. "No," he answered. "Not a bit. Not at all." Repeatedly reporters asked the same thing of Fred Taylor. "Luke says it didn't bother him," said Taylor. Then he would shift the questioning to applaud some part of Cincinnati's fine game. But the main question would come back, and the refrain was always, "No. No. No. Luke says it was fine."
The big question
But it wasn't fine, of course. The 700 basketball coaches talked of nothing else in downtown Louisville that night. They had seen Lucas start to limp late in the first half, and had seen the things he couldn't do—the drives, the cuts, the fierce rebounding that has made him college basketball's best player. And they saw he scored only 11 points. The real heart of the matter is, could Cincy have won anyway last Saturday night? The answer is yes. Ed Jucker's team is rightfully No. 1.
How does it feel to be No. 2? For an hour after the game the runner-up trophy sat on a hall table in the Ohio State dressing room, amid two dozen empty cola bottles, scattered orange pulp and peelings and a river of melting ice. Nobody looked at it. It was the last night of Jerry Lucas' college career, and it was a quiet one. "Third place is for the birds," Fred Taylor had said on Thursday. Second place seemed worse. It was only Cincinnati's Bearcats, the team that shook up Louisville, which had every right to smile.