Basketball as conducted in the state of North Carolina provides sufficient excuse for Yankees with four-year visas to play each other while the competing bands offer separate but equally enthusiastic versions of Dixie—so that the fans can go berserk in turn. It is a satisfactory arrangement for all, and it reached a climax exactly a decade ago when the University of North Carolina won the national championship behind a player with the fine old southern-planter name of Lenny Rosenbluth. The custom is now exemplified again at UNC by a couple of 6'3" All-America tobacco rogues who have come to Chapel Hill from the more sophisticated world of Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, and the more rugged one of Catasauqua, Pa.
Those two players, who have led the Tarheels to a 16-2 overall record, 8-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a ranking as No. 4 in the nation, are Bob Lewis and Larry Miller, or, as they are known, surreptitiously now, in the underground, the L&M boys. Lewis and Miller used to be openly advertised as such, but "usually reliable sources" report that other tobacco companies in the state—who have been known to give a dollar and a quarter to the university—felt this an unfair plug. University officials deny this, but where there's smoking, there's probably been some firing, and references to L&M have disappeared as suddenly as some of your favorite Red Chinese.
Lewis and Miller wear Nos. 22 and 44 respectively and dress in uniforms of baby blue, just like Elgin Baylor and Jerry West of the Lakers, who are always celebrated as the "best one-two punch in basketball." North Carolina's uniforms beat those of the pros, however, for they must be the only ones around that even have big numbers on the socks—very helpful if you are trained in reading the spots on the balls rolling around on a pool table. The outline of a little foot, toes and all, appears on the pants to show that these are the Tar Heels.
Lewis' uniform does not fit as snugly as those of his teammates. He is best described by his father, John Lewis, an electrical engineer, as "poor old skinny Bob." He eats well enough, but "the nervous energy just sort of runs out of me," he says, and his weight seldom goes above 175. His cheeks are hollowed, and his eyes are surrounded by great dark circles; since the eyes are precisely the color of the Carolina-blue ring that he wears, they shine like two mountain lakes in a dark forest. He even stammers a little, just enough to make him more appealing in his deceptively anxious way. Actually, his nervous energy comes out mostly as confidence.
February 20, 1967
Miller, if it is possible, is even more sure of himself, but then his faith is founded on more substantial ground. For if Lewis is the soft pack, Miller is a hard, flip-top box. He has cut his weight to about 200—which serves to make his muscles more revealingly awesome. When he came to Chapel Hill, he favored a motorcycle-rider hairdo—close on top, long sides brushed back (and he had clothes to match)—but now as a junior he wears a proper brushover collegiate cut. Miller is a lefty who parts his hair on the right; Lewis is right-handed and parts his hair on the left. They are also mama's boys, since Mrs. Virginia Lewis played semipro basketball and Mrs. Magdaline Miller played semipro soft-ball.
Last season, their first together, Lewis averaged 27 points a game, Miller 21, and together they helped make UNC the best-shooting team in the nation, but the team record was only 16-11. This year, as three good sophomores moved on to the starting team, Lewis and Miller changed their styles. With two real-live native Tar Heels coming in up front—6'10½" Rusty Clark and 6'8" Bill Bunting—Miller has not been required to concentrate so much on rebounding. Instead, working more from a corner, he has been able to exhibit an outside shooting touch that had not been on display since he was considered the best senior high school player in the country three years ago. His average has gone up to 23 points a game.
Lewis, shifted to the backcourt to team with still another sophomore, 6'3½" Dick Grubar, has undergone something close to a complete metamorphosis. He is not only playing a fine, conscientious defense for the first time but is taking only a dozen shots a game—six less than last year. He has, in fact, become so smitten with playmaking and the general joys of selflessness that by last week he was just about killing the team with his kindness. Dean Smith, the erudite young Tar Heel coach who majored in math at Kansas and reads theology for diversion, expected Lewis' average to drop when he moved to guard but, Smith says, "I haven't been stupid enough to try to turn Lewis completely into a playmaker." The statement hardly flatters Lewis' powers of intellect, since he seems to shoot these days only as an exercise in self-torture. In the Wake Forest game last week—which the Tar Heels were lucky to win in overtime—Lewis made his new average (17) mostly by drawing charging fouls. He took only nine shots. A few days earlier at Virginia he went up to shoot, spotted Miller underneath at such a late instant that when he switched and passed, the pass rimmed the basket.
After the Wake Forest game, which embarrassed Lewis and Miller, the two held a little conference and concluded what everybody else already knew—that if selfishness is one way to lose games, rampant altruism is surely another. So against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Saturday, Lewis promptly showed he was ready for a change by throwing up an impossible, cockeyed shot the first time he laid hands on the ball—just to show he could do it. Altogether, he took a more appropriate number of shots (13) than he had been taking, but the Yellow Jackets—who have won nine of their last 10—shot 58% and clung to the remnants of an earlier 14-point lead to win 82-80. Lewis and Miller were the only nonsophomores to play for Carolina, since two of the three top reserves, seniors Dick Gauntlett and Mark Mirken, had to stay home to take law exams. (In the last five years, 17 of the 27 Tar Heel lettermen have gone on to graduate school.) Lewis and Miller led the sophomores on the comeback against Tech but could never get the Tar Heels in front.
"I think Bob and I finally understand," Miller says, "that for the team to really go, we have to be right together. This is a good team, but we can carry a good team and make it a great one." Miller speaks that way, directly and positively. The word he keeps using, which is certainly appropriate for him, is "dominate."
"Too often," he says, "I relax and get carried by the tempo of the game, rather than dominating the tempo myself. I know I'm the kind of player who has the power to break a game open. I'm explosive, and I can dominate things."
Both the stars have been lax about taking charge since the Tar Heels' first loss, to Princeton. The wins have come harder, and strange flaws have cropped up. For instance, the foul shooting dipped to an appalling 21 of 39 vs. Wake Forest and is only 64% for the season. This is particularly embarrassing since their own mothers probably could beat them at it. Mrs. Lewis once sank 35 in a row.
Part of the problem has been that the Tar Heels have been too passive against zone defenses. The zones were, of course, inevitable, because the Tar Heels are so tall—Lewis and Miller are, in fact, the smallest starters—and the L&M boys are such outstanding one-on-one players that it is almost impossible for a rival team to match up against them both. Miller is an especially exciting driver, a sure (if not fancy) dribbler who convoys the ball when on the move and then supplies both the strength and agility to muscle in for the three-point play.
Lewis moves well all over the court, on offense and defense, even when reluctant to commit himself to a shot. "I'm really enjoying this season," he says. "It's so different. You know, before this year, I never even went into a game when I didn't just assume that I would score 20 points. I expected that of myself. If I only got something like 14 points, I'd go crazy. I'd start worrying what was wrong. I'd even stay afterwards and practice. Now, listen, I've always wanted to win, but I always wanted to win and score points. I was always thinking about that. But I wanted to prove something this year. Look, I've scored. I have scored. I scored 27 points a game, and that's a lot of points. Now I want to show I can do everything else."
Despite his leanness, Lewis has always played very well underneath the basket; he learned his basketball on the playgrounds, where survival demands playing one-on-one, inside and out. For many summers, day and night, he would be at the Chevy Chase Center or at St. John's academy (where he made All-America in high school), playing pickup games with players like Dave Bing, Fred Hetzel, Ron Watts, John Thompson, Tom Hoover and John Austin. A great jumper (though he needs one step to get his spring), Lewis could always hold his own in the extracurricular playground dunking contests. On one occasion he tied the 6'10" Hoover, matching his best—a two-ball stuff, one right-handed, one left-handed on the same leap.
A sociology major, Lewis has roomed with Gauntlett through all four years at Carolina, which he says is a record. He may also hold another with Bettejane Burrows, with whom he has gone for six years. They will be married on July 29. In a glib moment when they were both 18 and had a mere three years of going steady behind them, Bob promised Bettejane an engagement ring on her 21st birthday. Sure enough, on her 21st birthday last September, he was there to give her the ring. Then Lewis went back to school and started giving the ball away, too. "Everything is just so great," he says, the blue pools glimmering.
Both Lewis and Miller will play pro ball, but Larry's future is otherwise more uncertain. A business major with a penchant for sports cars, he has no plans for marriage. Also, unlike Lewis, Miller did not grow up in a highly competitive environment. Instead, he, well, dominated the athletics of Catasauqua, a suburb north of Allentown on the Lehigh River. He was a pitcher until he quit that sport, a quarterback until his parents refused him permission to play football. He still has a fondness for football, though, and in an unusual fit of despondency last fall Larry called up his father, Julius Miller, a Mack Trucks assembler and town councilman, and told him he was going to shift to football. The moment quickly passed, however, to the relief of Catasauquans who have thrived on his basketball exploits for years. Fourteen busloads of townspeople showed up in Chapel Hill to see him play as a freshman and this year the town rounded up $4,000 worth of advertising to get the Tar Heel games broadcast by an Allen-town radio station.
Miller, like so many powerful men—strong and silent among strangers—can also be remarkably expressive when he does talk about himself and his background: about Catasauqua and his family, parents who had to quit high school because of the Depression, his sister who went to work, then decided to go to college and worked her way through. Of himself: "You know, when I was a kid, I was really on the wrong side of the fence. I was in a gang. We'd steal a few things, wreck a few things. We were picked up by the cops a lot of times. I was near real trouble. I was getting very good training to be a gangster. I don't know what would have happened, but one day my father—I admire that man more than anyone in the world—he gave me a real licking. I was about 11, I guess. And then, about that time, I found basketball. That helped, too." By his senior year in high school, Miller was not only an honor student but class president as well.
On campus, as indeed throughout the state, the L&M boys are honored. Carolina is that way; the state is studded with Yankees who came to play ball and stayed to live. Chapel Hill itself (with Duke just up the road in Durham) provides the state with an academic community that may be unsurpassed in the South. UNC draws students from every state, has become a favorite choice of the New England preppies and even offers that ultimate mark of the cosmopolitan campus, a peace demonstration. It is held every Wednesday at noon. UNC also enjoys a reputation for good parties, though many of the Carolina coeds are a bit inaccessible, since they spend their first two years at the W.C. The W.C. is over in Greensboro. It is the Woman's College. At Chapel Hill most any Friday night, you hear: "Hey, y'all, let's g'ovah to the W.C." Altogether, Chapel Hill is, as Thomas Wolfe once said, "a charming and unforgettable place with a good flavor of the wilderness." The scene is such that UNC recruiting efforts are considerably enhanced just by getting a prospect on campus.
Another advantage is Coach Smith, who is kidded by his assistants—John Lotz and Larry Brown—as having exactly the perfect personality for talking to mothers of prospects. It is obvious why, for Smith is such a sincere, studious-looking man that strangers often naturally assume that he is Dean Smith by title, rather than by given name. His players stand in awe of his technical basketball knowledge. Game plans are accepted with the assurance that Smith has just returned from obtaining them on Mount Sinai. Even when he is relaxing, his colleagues maintain, in a corner somewhere deep in his brain there is a relentless search going on for an alternate way to break a half-court 2-2-1 trap match-up zone press with a chaser...just in case. The Tar Heels worked a last-second full-court play against Wake Forest. "That probably came to Coach Smith at 10 o'clock at night last July 8," Graduate Assistant Coach Charlie Shaffer said. "I'm serious." Indeed, the one criticism usually heard about Smith's coaching is that it is too bookish and sometimes fails to take into account such intangibles as game tempo or team momentum.
Smith, his prairie twang still unaffected by the soft accents around him, played on the 1952 championship Kansas team and was brought to Chapel Hill as an assistant in 1958 by Coach Frank McGuire. He became head coach in 1961 when McGuire left and the school went on athletic probation for recruiting violations. Only this year has North Carolina firmly arrived at the top again, and the fans sense it with fervor. "Remember '57 in '67!" the signs say, in the hope that "seven" will roll national championship again.
It is not impossible, but for now the more realistic aim is merely to win the conference title. Carolina has already beaten defending champion Duke in Durham, but the Blue Devils are coming back strong after a rocky start. Besides, the ACC still believes in double jeopardy; the real champion and NCAA representative is the team that wins the postseason tournament.
Certainly, even with the loss to Georgia Tech, even as they stagger to conference victories, the Tar Heels should be favored. But to win, the Carolina sophomores must continue to improve, Miller must keep driving hard, dominating, and Lewis, bless his well-meaning heart, must be just a teensy-weensy bit selfish.
In the Tar Heel locker room, there is just one little aphorism posted. It says: "The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team." Lewis and Miller are two stars who obviously believe that, but they still must utilize their vast skills to the utmost. Coach Smith might show them another thought from that Tar Heel alumnus, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote: "If a man has a talent and cannot use it, he has failed. If he has a talent and uses only half of it, he has partly failed. If he has a talent and learns somehow to use the whole of it, he has gloriously succeeded, and won a satisfaction and a triumph few men will ever know."
If both Lewis and Miller achieve that satisfaction, all of the Tar Heels will find the triumph in their wake.