Almost simultaneously last Saturday night, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and near the banks of the Wabash in West Lafayette, Ind., Calvin Murphy and Rick Mount, respectively, American folk heroes before they ever got out of high school, started their college varsity basketball careers. Both were surrounded by the kind of hoopla and razzmatazz that used to be associated with the launching of great oceangoing liners. No one would have been too surprised if champagne bottles had been broken over their heads before they ran out onto the courts for the first time. Murphy, the 5'10" guard from Norwalk, Conn., had averaged 49 points a game with the Niagara freshmen. He could actually dunk the ball; he twirled a baton at home games of the Buffalo Bills. Mount, the blond, 6'4" guard from little Lebanon, Ind., had averaged 35 points a game for Purdue's freshmen. He was All-Indiana three straight years in high school and the state's Mr. Basketball in 1966.
Such heralded debuts easily could have turned into disasters, with the huge puffs of publicity punctured and leaking phony reputations all over the place. But Murphy and Mount, both playing in losing causes, proved on this special Saturday night that their high repute was merited. Their mamas will have to lay in new supplies of scrapbooks.
The amazing Calvin scored 41 against Long Island University. Rick hit 28 against national champion UCLA as he and his talented teammates came within a silly millimeter of upsetting the Lew Alcindor-led Bruins. And he did it with an awkward metal plate in one of his all-star low cuts.
On the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, the combination of Mount's debut, the appearance of Alcindor and Co. and the unveiling of the $6 million Purdue Arena attracted a horde of writers and broadcasters from the big cities and the alfalfa fields. There were reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the Bluffton News-Banner, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the La Porte Herald-Argus and so on, right down, or up, to the Lebanon Reporter (of course)—30 papers in all, plus live color TV to Indianapolis and L.A., four radio broadcasts, a legion of photographers and four cameramen filming for TV news shows. All 14,123 seats had been taken for the season, including almost $9.000 worth by Lebanon people, some of whom had never missed one of Rick's games. With all the clickety-clacking, whirring, play-by-play yakking, band music and cheering, it was a wonder John Purdue didn't wake up in his grave over by University Hall.
He would have enjoyed the spectacle. Rick Mount came out on that stained-gray maple floor and you could see those happy Lebanese over in section 13 counting his warmup shots, right up to 27 out of 46, most of them long jump shots. Very few people in the world throw in long jumpers like Rick Mount. Calvin Murphy maybe, and a few fellows in the pros. Pleased as the home folks were to see The Rocket, as some call him, playing for Purdue, 39 miles from Lebanon, they worried about Rick's handicap.
Mount injured himself on October 27, at the end of the second week of practice, breaking the fifth metatarsal bone, attached to the little toe of his left foot. If it had been his right hand that was broken, Coach George King would have thrown himself off the top of the Veterinary Research Animal Housing Facility, which, contrary to campus rumor, is not where the football players live. Rick's foot was put in a cast, and he missed more than three weeks of practice.
It is common for such an injury to cause a victim pain for six to nine months, meaning Mount will be bothered all season and beyond. When he returned to workouts, the Purdue trainer and a local orthopedic surgeon supplied him with an aluminum innersole that took away about 90% of the foot's flexibility and kept the mended metatarsal from "wiggling around." Mount hobbled up and down the court like a semicripple and lost much of his spring, but in experiments without the metal plate he could not last five minutes even in simple drills.
Coach King prepared his team beautifully for UCLA. Because Mount had missed so much practice, he installed a simple offense that provided perimeter shots for Rick and two fine juniors, Herm Gilliam and Bill Keller. Rick made 11 of 27, and Gilliam, the best all-round player on the floor, made 10 of 17. On defense, King had his 7' sophomore, Chuck Bavis. and 6'6½" Roger Blalock play in front and in back of Alcindor and ordered them to keep the ball away from him at all costs. They did a good job; Lew received very few passes. A zone defense helped Mount, who could not backpedal. He would have been helpless playing man-to-man. Also, the Boilermakers applied their own version of UCLA's feared full-court zone press, forcing 10 Bruin turnovers in the first half.
Rick was red hot at the beginning, and UCLA's senior forwards, Mike Lynn and Edgar Lacey, both returning after layoffs of a year, looked rusty. They did not zoom to the boards for the rebounds. UCLA Coach Johnny Wooden pulled them out of the game and did not put them back in until near the end. Before they knew it, the Boilermakers led 33-26. That seven-point margin was the farthest UCLA had been behind in 31 games, or since Lew joined the varsity.
The Bruins, led by Guard Lucius Allen, regained the lead by half time and went ahead by as much as 12 in the second half before Purdue, accompanied by the loudest din since D-day, went on an astonishing streak during which it outscored UCLA 15 to 4. Mount hit a jump shot to make it 68-71, and Gilliam scored on a right-hand hook against Alcindor to make it 70-71. The mighty Bruins, who were supposed to waltz undefeated to three consecutive NCAA titles, were on the ropes.
With less than a minute left, Mount was fouled. UCLA's Lacey made a vehement gesture to the referee and got slapped with a technical. Rick was to take the regular foul shot first. If he made the first he would have a try for a second. He missed, which folk heroes are not supposed to do. Zero points instead of a possible two. But he made the free throw for the technical to tie the game, and it was still Purdue's ball with 29 seconds left. Who should take the last shot? The Rocket, naturally. He dribbled to the right corner, with Bill Sweek guarding him closely, and took a jump shot with 14 seconds left. It missed, and just before the buzzer Sweek, who had been the ball-stealing hero of UCLA's overtime win against USC last season, sank a long shot to win the game 73-71.
At Niagara, Coach Jim Maloney had drilled his players just as carefully, though somewhat differently. For a good part of every practice day they would stand around the key like toy soldiers on parade. They lined up two by two on either side of the lane, and then, click-click, they would crisscross or come together or spread out or set the pick and go to the board. Like wind-up men they would practice the one-four offense in preparation for Murphy's debut, first lining up to wait for Calvin's move, then marking time and, in cadence, moving with him. It was a beautiful idea—sharp, precise drill-team basketball. Calvin was going to lead the country in scoring with drill-team basketball.
Of course, Calvin Murphy will never be a drill-team man. His game is run and run and bombs away, and last Saturday he burst upon college basketball running, bombing, dribbling and jumping all over the Niagara student center. There was just one hitch. Niagara lost 84-79.
The outcome was not that much of a surprise. LIU had won 20 games last season before turning down an NIT bid for a trip to the NCAA College Division Tournament instead. The Blackbirds are a poised, extremely well-coached team, with two outstanding players in Guard Larry Newbold and Center Luther Green, and they may very well be the best team in the New York metropolitan area this season. For his game with Niagara, Coach Roy Rubin figured on Murphy getting his points. He wanted to stop the rest of the Purple Eagles. Unfortunately, except for Murphy, the Eagles played like Purple Dodos.
Though weak on the boards and never really getting its fast break to move, Niagara took a 39-38 lead at the half, with Murphy hitting for 17, mostly from outside. Now, outside for Calvin is not your everyday outside. It is more like outdoors. Most of his baskets were from 25 feet or more, and he had LIU frantically switching defenders and defensive alignments.
But in the second half Rubin settled on a combination two-three matchup zone defense with all the front men helping out on Calvin. It didn't do much good, for Murphy went into his human gyroscope act, spinning and whirling over every foot of the court. He scored from all distances and angles, once firing off balance from the hip to give Niagara a 10 point lead at 59-49. LIU, however, had Newbold slow everything down and, with Green destroying Niagara's 6'8" Manny Leaks underneath, came back to tie. Murphy hit his 36th point with eight minutes left to give Niagara its last lead of the game. But he was able to shoot only five times after that, a curious circumstance that was hardly his own fault and one that may have determined the final result. In the Niagara locker room, after shooting 18 for 35 with six rebounds and seven assists, Calvin Murphy sat down and cried for 10 solid minutes. The emotional vent was undoubtedly opened by a lot more than the score. Circumstances over the past few months had combined to exert pressures on Murphy far beyond those normally associated with superstar beginnings.
Last summer Murphy's freshman coach, Ed Donohue, who had grown closer to him than anyone in the community, was fired for reasons not satisfactory to Calvin or his teammates. The incident caused talk that the university, a Roman Catholic institution founded by the Vincentian Fathers, would now tend toward discriminatory recruiting practices. Student activists began calling for the end of suspected race quotas, to alter an enrollment that now shows six Negroes out of 2,500, and last week a professor's article in the school paper chastised both the students for desiring Negroes only because they wanted a winning team of "black Eagles" and the administration for "evasive responses."
Calvin Murphy does not like to show it, but all of this was beginning to bother him. Added pressure and perhaps fatigue were provided by reporters and photographers, who followed him everywhere for two weeks. Friday night Calvin passed up a campus concert by the Lovin' Spoonful for a steak dinner downtown. His natural effervescence was being curbed by oncoming tension. He was asked, seriously, how many points he would be satisfied with. "I'd like for us to win and for me to get 40," he said. "I just don't think I'd like anything under uuhhh, say, 25. Yes, 25. I don't think I want to be under 25." Forty-three the school paper had said; 45 another diner said. "Sounds decent," Calvin Murphy said.
The next evening, with 4½ minutes remaining in his first varsity game, Murphy scored from deep in the right corner to tie the game at 74. He had his 40 points, but with time running out and Niagara in trouble, his teammates mysteriously forgot about him. Murphy got to touch the ball three times from then on, and there is nothing decent about that.
So which sophomore, Murphy or Mount, is better? Murphy is no doubt quicker and probably is better all-round, but he does not have to share the shooting on his team all the time. Critics say that all Mount can do is shoot. Sure, and all Sonny Jurgensen can do is pass. If Rick keeps bombing the baskets despite his handicap, his metal plate might someday be engraved and enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, right next to Calvin's baton.