Is it the same game in Orono, Me. and Stockton, Calif.? Can Kansas or Western Kentucky win the national championship? How good is Winston-Salem's Earl Monroe, college basketball's top scorer? To find answers to these and other questions, Frank Deford (below) traveled 8,500 miles in six days. His report follows.
Richmond, Ky., Feb 20
The week began in Richmond. The game was Eastern Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky, and you can't get any more Kentucky than that. I had driven there through a cold drizzle, Interstate all the way, from Lexington. Wherever I go in what is called the heartland of America, I am told not to fret because "there is Interstate all the way." I have heard this so often that I am convinced that if the road to hell were made Interstate before heaven became that accessible, most Midwest Americans would gas up and join the devil.
Richmond, Ky., Interstate all the way, is where the Bluegrass meets the foothills of the Cumberlands. It is an unassuming little county seat, with high TV roof aerials, an abandoned movie theater, the Helpy Selfy Launderette and a colonial courthouse with the posted admonition: "Do not talk to prisoners through windows." Eastern, which just gained university status, lies at the edge of town. It has suddenly exploded to 8,000 students and has a 21-story men's dormitory under construction. Western is in the same family way. They both began in 1906 as the Eastern and Western Kentucky State Normal schools, and they have been playing each other almost since that time. Western is ahead 75-29 in the series now, and beats most others in the Ohio Valley Conference even more regularly.
March 6, 1967
It used to be that in basketball the national anthem was a simple prelude to the action. But, as Eastern showed, an anthem now is approached with all the organized fanfare of a 1930's Dick Powell musical. First there was a drill team, chucking each other rifles and banging them, and at one point screaming "Kill" in unison. Then, marching, came 21 of the school's best-looking coeds, a regular beauty battalion. A gorgeous, long-stemmed blonde named Suzie Donoghue barked the orders. Then there was an honor guard, and finally, a rather anticlimactic anthem.
Western had beaten Eastern 112-71 earlier in Bowling Green, but now, before the packed home crowd, Eastern hung on almost to the end before losing 71-62. The Hilltoppers' Smith brothers—Dwight and Greg—made the difference. In the locker room, having won another OVC title, Coach John Oldham sought out his starters and then, one by one, embraced them.
E. A. Diddle, the old man who coached Western from 1923 to 1964 and won 754 games all over America, came in to see his boys. Uncle Ed was still carrying one of his famous red towels and his red tie had COACH emblazoned on it. "Look here, coach," Oldham said, turning Diddle's cheek. "Why, you've got some lipstick on."
"Sure I do," Uncle Ed said proudly, as happy as if this team were still all his. "Now you go right put there, Coach Oldham, and get your own sugar."
Winston-Salem, N.C., Feb. 21
There was some snow in Dixie this morning, but the plane took off and chopped me over the Alleghenies—it is never "bumpy" any more on planes, just "choppy"—into the Piedmont, to Winston-Salem, N.C. The State College there has a student body almost all Negro, and the entire team is colored. This gave me the opportunity to witness a basketball phenomenon—Negro players sitting on the bench. The way it is these days, a Negro is offered a scholarship only if he is certain to be a star, and the white boys sit on the bench. Those Negro players who are only just as good as white boys never get out of the playgrounds.
Earl Monroe, 6'3" and a loose-jointed 182 pounds, came into the office of his coach, C. E. (Bighouse) Gaines. Earl will graduate in June with a major in elementary education and a minor in English. He is averaging almost 44 points a game with an undefeated team from a school that has only 400 male students. The pro scouts have all come down to scrutinize him, and the local kids have made him a hero. Earl smiles sheepishly as he talks about four years ago, when he did not want to go on to college from John Bartram High in South Philly, preferring to scuffle by as a shipping clerk at $60 a week. Luckily, his mother and a Winston-Salem grad named Leon Whitley kept after him, and a year later Earl finally got to Coach Gaines. Tonight, if he scores 42 points against Livingstone, Monroe will become one of a handful of men in the history of college basketball to score 1,000 points in one season.
The game had been moved from Whitaker Gymnasium to the Coliseum, because all of a sudden a lot of white people in town wanted to see Earl Monroe score points. They came to see him, and they stood for the Winston-Salem alma mater when the collegians rose to sing it. But it was no game, really; the Rams swamped Livingstone 115-77. Earl drove and scrambled on fast breaks, but mostly he just popped them up, freeing himself as adroitly with a screen as by his own one-on-one play. He is for real, and now it was getting close. Swish, swish, swish—30 feet out, 20 feet from the right, and again, just a little closer. Coach Gaines held up a finger. One more point to go. But everybody knew.
Earl got the ball. Impatiently, he fired—and missed. But he got the ball back, and this time he sank it—25 feet from the left. Swish. They stopped the game and gave him the ball. Afterward, after he had gotten his 53 with an average sort of Earl Monroe game (23-46 from the floor, nine assists, 10 rebounds), he started to hold his left wrist and grimace. He had fallen on it early in the game, and it might have been sprained or even broken long before he became one of the few to hit 1,000 points in a season.
Orono, Me., Feb. 22
Now my trip turned into real live saga stuff. I had to go from Winston-Salem to Orono, Me. to Stockton, Calif. in 32 hours. I told myself I must be the first man ever to try that. I was a trailblazer of the skies. Turn on the lights, Perth, Australia.
It was somewhat disillusioning, then, to find that it was warmer in Orono than it had been in Winston-Salem. But this was quickly balanced by delight in the fact that it had snowed six inches the day before and was to snow 15 inches more only hours after I left. Why, I was toying with the weather; I was alone with General Eisenhower, fearlessly selecting June 6, and finding the one day of respite from nature's wrath. As I escaped at the next dawn for California, I looked back smugly at the onrushing blizzard. You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man.
Still, yesterday's snow covered Orono, and the fraternity boys were all out working on ice sculpture for their winter carnival, The Schussboomer. Certainly, few were present to sing The Stein Song and see the Black Bears beat Colby 88-80 and clinch the Maine Intercollegiate title. The real crowds were over in Bangor at the high school tournament. Maine, like the nation, is mad for basketball. Through the long winter nights in all the tiny towns that have, perhaps, five male students—all related, all players—there is little else of interest but the snow and the only game in town. The university, however, offers no athletic scholarships and the good Mainers go south to play. Four of the top six Bear scorers are 6 feet or less. Colby was hardly bigger. To suddenly encounter a game where there was no goaltending or even the likelihood of it was strange indeed.
There was something else this game demonstrated, something usually so apparent that it is overlooked—the effect of the home crowd. This one, issuing hardly a murmur, was of no consequence until Captain Terry Carr, a dean's list engineering student who is generally recognized as the best bridge player on campus, broke a 66-66 tie with a three-point play that gave him his 1,000th career point. Suddenly, the fans stirred. They rose and cheered, roaring with a whole new spirit that seemed to carry the team with them. In an instant it was 73-66, and Maine was never again headed.
Stockton, Calif., Feb. 23
My body clocks all disoriented, I was driving through the warm passes of the San Joaquin Valley toward the University of the Pacific. Stockton lies midway between the vineyards of Lodi and the chicken country of Modesto, but the town is not immediately suggestive of champagne and eggs benedict. The Pacific campus is lovely, but I left it to go downtown and commiserate with that saddest form of basketball life, the visiting coach. In this case it was John Arndt of Loyola of Los Angeles, who is one of the warmest and wittiest men in his profession. He was found nude, shaving in his motel bathroom.
Arndt must mind his cosmetics. In the off season he is a TV bit player—usually a gangster or an Indian, though more recently he has moved into the space field, in such things as Star Trek. Arndt emerged a few minutes later, fit to be killed, in a tender-green sports coat. "The only two things in my life that I haven't kept track of," he said, "are the number of basketball games I've seen and the number of times I've been killed on TV."
The end was swift for Arndt that night, too, as his Lions shot themselves out of the game by hitting only 28% in the first half. The win all but clinched a second straight WCAC title for Pacific. It used to be that California basketball concentrated almost exclusively on the principles of defense and ball control. The California pattern game was as distinct as other regional brands of play a few years ago. This trip showed that such local differences have largely vanished. Referees' interpretations seem to vary more by geography than playing styles. (Reactions to referees' decisions are still boorish and unimaginative everywhere.)
Except for Guard David Fox, Pacific is a slow, heavy-legged team—physical in the sweaty vernacular. The star is Keith Swagerty, who seems as much a throwback to another era as the Stockton Civic Auditorium, which was, presumably, fashioned out of leftover spare parts from various old Loew's movie theaters. Swagerty is 6'7", 235, with a butch haircut, orange-striped socks that droop about his shoes, and shorts that bunch up. At first sight, all the experts pooh-pooh Swagerty. What everybody wants today is guys who can jump. Jumpers, in fact, are not good enough. They went out of vogue in favor of "leapers," who, in turn, have been superseded by the ultimate—players who can "climb glass." All Swagerty does is get the ball—32 times against Loyola, 21 in the first half when all the Lions together grabbed only 18 rebounds. Swagerty also made 27 points, enough for him to break Bill Russell's career scoring record for the conference.
Ogden, Utah, Feb. 24
The tournaments bids, NCAA and NIT, had been offered the day before. Nobody invited anybody in the Big Sky Conference. Nobody ever does. It is the newest large-college league in the NCAA, but the NCAA seems embarrassed about it. The best Sky team has been Weber State, 16-5 so far, and still in the running for another title. Maybe, Coach Dick Motta thinks, maybe the NIT will still call. But he doesn't really think so: "They're a profit tournament. Who's ever heard of us?" The trouble with Weber State is that when people do hear of it, they still don't know it. Weber is pronounced Weeber, the result, as close as can be ascertained, of a couple of Indian scouts who were sadly unproficient at both spelling and pronouncing "Weaver." Believe me, that's all of that story you want to hear.
Weber/Weeber is in Ogden, Utah, the Golden Spike Empire. This is not because of vampires, but because the first transcontinental railroad tracks were linked nearby. Only five years ago the school was a junior college, but now it has 8,000 students and a basketball team recruited from junior colleges all over the country. This is the way you "build a basketball program"; top high school players rarely take a chance on a new school. Motta has personally contacted every junior college in the country—all 536 of them.
He started to talk about the ability of some of his players but suddenly stopped himself. "Oh, what's the use?" he sighed. "It's getting so that we don't talk about ourselves much anymore. You know, nobody believes us anyway. And these kids we're trying to recruit, what will they say when they find out the Big Sky got turned down again? Oh, it's so frustrating," he went on, attacking a paper clip, "just give us a chance. It's unathletic. And it's....it's un-American." He smiled at his own words.
He keeps his good humor, but it is sad that whoever the champion is, it will be the only one in the country with no chance to compete further. Besides, if Weber was a little ragged in beating Montana 96-77 this night, the team showed that it is at least as good as several that have already been tendered bids. The NIT, at the least, could add a Cinderella entry if it would take a chance on the Big Sky champion. I even felt a bit guilty that I was able to leave Ogden, but I had to catch a night flight to Omaha to get a nap there before going on to Kansas. There was one consolation, as stated in my second Canon of Modern Travel: the weirdest scheduled flights have the prettiest stewardesses. The first Canon is: be suspicious of all hostelries that feature vibrating beds, and of all eating establishments that give aliases to hamburgers.
Lawrence, Kans., Feb. 25
Of all schools, considering every facet of basketball, Kansas probably is preeminent and the proper place to end my wandering. Kansas has an overwhelming tradition; it has the coaches, the players, the recruiting, the interest, even the cheerleaders. (Too many schools now select cheerleaders on a political basis—one from each sorority, for instance. There is no more justification for this than there would be for selecting ballplayers by fraternity. Let's keep politics out of cheerleading. Kansas has one man who chooses cheerleaders. He is in the Alumni Office and no one knows why this qualifies him for judging cheerleaders, but he is obviously so able at the task that his job is secure. Kansas cheerleaders are the best in the land, more beautiful even than their closest competition, the girls from several of the California schools. Unfortunately, all of the Californians, every last one, look exactly as if they were trying out for the ingenue role in the latest Frankie Avalon picture.) But now I see time is in again, so let's go back down on the floor.
Kansas, a young team getting better, had no contest this afternoon in slaughtering Missouri 90-55. The game served mostly as a showcase for the talents of Jo Jo White, a great player who is terribly underrated because, I presume, he does not score enough but only passes, rebounds, guards the opposition's best and generally runs the game. The most responsible judgment of White came from a pro scout who told me: "Besides Alcindor, Jo Jo is the only sophomore in the country who could play in the NBA right now."
Another man there was marveling over Jo Jo White. He is 81—six years older than the game itself. He coached Adolph Rupp, and his coach was Dr. James Naismith, who invented the sport. (Dr. Naismith was also the only losing coach Kansas has ever had, a case of "Physician, heal thyself" if I ever heard one.) Dr. Forrest (Phog) Allen sat and talked about basketball this afternoon, there in the field house named for him, and he talked about how even from the first the game was always a little ahead of the people around it. "I told Jim Naismith," Dr. Allen said—and immediately I was lost. Jim Naismith! It was as if he had said: "So I told Jim Monroe, now about this Doctrine..."
"I told Jim Naismith," Dr. Allen said, "that I was going to be a coach, and he said, 'You don't coach this game, Forrest, you just play it.' And I said, 'Well, you can teach them to pass at angles and run in curves.' " Dr. Allen smiled through crisp blue eyes and, with a sprinkling of Scripture, he amplified that for me. "All through the land," he said, "no matter how small the town, a basketball gym became like a city hall, like a community meeting place. That's part of it, and the game. It's artistic, fast and clever. It has action and scoring. That's what people want. And then there's the emotion. There's so much that I don't think people can ever appreciate it in the right way. There's just so much emotion."
Once, Dr. Allen asked Dr. Naismith what he thought of it all. "The appeal of basketball," Dr. Naismith said, "is that it is a game easy to play, but difficult to master."
"You mean," Dr. Allen replied, "just like life?"
"Yes, anybody can piddle at it, but to master it—yes, just like life, Forrest," is what Jim Naismith said. I wondered if he would have stayed for the freshman game. It was just ready to begin.
New York (Start)
HIRED CARS 6