The best amateur basketball player in the world was hopping around in white shorts in a high-school locker room. "We don't have enough jerseys to go round," he explained. "We'll have to wait until the B team comes off before I get one." Outside the gymnasium, a sold-out notice established the fact that inside was almost certainly the largest crowd ever to attend an amateur basketball game in the country. It was an international gathering, with penciled "no smoking" notices stuck up in several languages and spectators from all parts of Europe, Ceylon, India, Iran and Africa.
If this does not sound to you like America, you are right, but the basketball player in shorts happened to be Bill Bradley, who was gently warming up for the annual Oxford and Cambridge varsity match. The gym was that of the American High School on the Lakenheath Air Force Base, 27 miles from Cambridge, in England. And the majority of the 500 people packed in were English, which made it hard work for some. "All the way, Light Blue," gleefully shouted the cheerleading team of the high school, firm friends of Cambridge in their light blue shirts. "Oh, dear," moaned a young undergraduate, "they would be more appreciated by an American audience than an inhibited English one."
But bizarre contrasts provide the interest for what basketball there is in England. The score tends to be not worth remembering—that is, not after a game has been organized, a gym has at last been found to play in and, yes, the post-event party has been arranged. It is only a game—that is what everybody says in England, even the Americans who dominate the Oxford and Cambridge teams. A game is a game, but a party's a party, and basketball in Blighty moves in such a small world that it is, to say the least, difficult to develop fierce rivalries.
"Basketball in England," remarked John Wideman, the Oxford team captain and a budding young novelist, "is going round in circles, like aristocrats breeding. There is no new influx of blood."
March 14, 1966
The problems this creates are made only too evident by the present Oxford team. By any standard of measurement, it would do well against any other group of amateurs in the world and, with regular training, could certainly beat any other club in Europe. Although Bill Bradley would never say it, he is with a far more talented bunch of players than surrounded him at Princeton. John Wideman himself played three years for the University of Pennsylvania, and the Oxford team also includes John Ritch (6 feet 7), who played for West Point, and Merle McClung, last year's Harvard captain. Rarely, if at all, can these players get a good game and, what's more, they do not even have their own gym. The first gym in Oxford's history will be opened shortly. That is, it will be the first except for a "rumored" one, a dark and shady place where such arts as boxing and wrestling were practiced. Oxford basketball players, therefore, travel some 800 miles annually in order to work out at a local American Air Force gym. They have to transport themselves on things like 125cc. scooters, quite a sight with both Wideman and Bradley aboard.
More startling to Americans, perhaps, than lack of money and primitive facilities is the lack of interest on the part of the press, the public and the rest of the student body. According to Bill Bradley, "Somebody might say, 'When do you play again?' or 'What happened the last match?' "
Cambridge is fractionally better off in that it nowadays has a gym a quarter the size of a basketball court. It does not, however, have Rhodes scholars like McClung, Wideman and Bradley and, therefore, is more likely to have the inferior basketball team. Not that anybody has any idea how fortunes in the varsity match have swayed over the years. As John Wideman observed, "The records would probably be as hard to root out as some of Milton's manuscripts."
What Cambridge lacked in size—and Oxford had it all over its opponents in height—it made up for in divine character. Perhaps by oversight only, on its B team was a 37-year-old Roman Catholic priest named Fred Brenk, universally and popularly acclaimed as "a great six-inch jumper." Brenk played in the varsity ice-hockey game after only one practice and got a Half-Blue.
Then there was Steve Cohen, a qualified attorney studying international law at Cambridge and a member of the first team. Cohen was second to Gary Gubner in the shotput at the 1961 Maccabiah Games, and his claim to distinction in the world of athletics is that he is the only 5-foot-9 shotputter ever to throw the 16-pound shot more than 57 feet (57 feet 10¾ inches).
The tallest man on the Cambridge squad was Ron Schram (6 feet 5), who would certainly have played college basketball in America but for a knee injury in his sophomore year at Dartmouth. The next tallest man was John Simon. At 6 feet 1, he is known as "Big John" merely to distinguish him from another player, "Little John," or John Johnson (5 feet 8).
The captain of basketball at both Oxford and Cambridge, like the captains in the other sports, is himself responsible for coaching as well as deciding who plays. As the Cambridge captain, Schram felt that though his squad did not have a single man who played the game at college level in America, and included in its starting five a Finn and an Englishman, it might be able to throw the Oxford team out of gear with organization and fitness. "They can always bust you on paper," explained Steve Cohen. "But they've still got to beat you on court." To stack up the odds in their favor, as Cambridge's players put it, they bought new uniforms and warmup suits. "We're going to ham it up a bit," said John Simon. And they came onto the court, after Oxford, to the sound of a recording of Sweet Georgia Brown obtained by Simon's mother direct from the Harlem Globetrotters.
Oxford, sartorially a sad contrast—some of its players wore sawed-off blue jeans and one used swimming shorts—had an unadorned strategy. John Wideman said it was based on the simple premise that Oxford's players were "bigger, stronger, faster, and er...smarter."
The teams already had met four times this season, Oxford winning three and losing one, when it was without Bradley and Ritch. But none of those games really counted, for some reason only an Englishman would understand. This was The Varsity Match. "This game," remarked Bradley, who flew back from playing with the Italian Simmenthal team in Milan the morning of the event, "is the only one I care about."
"How many periods are there during a match?" asked a British onlooker.
"I find the game rather mechanical. To me they just seem to run up and score, run up and score," remarked Bert Moorhouse, a Cambridge sociology student.
"I've just been wondering about the football results—how Spurs got on in the Cup," said another.
Such is the battle basketball wages in England. Still, all present agreed they enjoyed the game. Nobody said it was outstanding, but Bradley did show, as an American said, remarkable "gallantry in his desire to set up shots for other players instead of himself," and any soccer player could also marvel at his ability to pass with breathtaking accuracy while looking the other way.
At the midway mark Cambridge was trailing by 16 points at 39-23. All the Light Blues could do was work the ball around fast and shoot from outside, and that's where the bulk of their score came from. The difference was essentially height allied to the Oxford players' better handling of the ball plus their ability to work plays and take real advantage of the rebounds. The final score of 76-64, considering all this, was as much a tribute to Cambridge as Oxford, which won. John Ritch of the Oxford team was the highest scorer with 21 points, and Bradley had 17.
This was not the time for much analysis, however, because a horde of dates were waiting to be escorted to the post-game dinner and party. As much organization had gone into the combined festivities as anything else. Cambridge had even offered, together with roast ribs of beef, to provide a date for the evening to any Oxonian. But the one request, from Bill Bradley, came too late. Cambridge is a city where the ratio of male to female students is 9 to 1. Dates have to be booked weeks ahead.
Never mind. There were such other things to consider as the breeding cycle of black-headed gulls. In the British National Championship final on March 19th, Oxford, one of the teams, will probably be without one of its players, Bill McGrew. Bill is a zoologist, and his studies will almost certainly require that he watch birds. Black-headed gulls will always be more important to England than basketball.