They come out of a back room softly, padding peacefully along like a pack of wolves before it catches the scent. Then they line up in their orange and blue pullovers and their white wool pants and, with three lines bursting in from the side, practice jump shots and layups and spin shots and the other customary drills of the day. The action remains routine, and a strange hush hangs in the air like the quiet before a summer storm. After a while, they start tossing in hook shots from the far corners of the forecourt, and fall-away jumpers—falling away into the third row—and then come the sharp little one-on-one contests, here, there and everywhere. And then they are ready.
In a small, dimly lit gym off Corprew Avenue in the heart of the Virginia Tidewater, the Norfolk State Spartans are ready to play the best back-room basketball in America. And they are ready to challenge the world in that category of the game recorded as "points scored." Norfolk State is pretty tough in points scored. How about 121-82 over Hampton Institute in the season opener? Or 130-105 in a rematch with the Hamptons? Or—get this—140-105 over Maryland State? After their first four games, the Spartans led the NCAA college division with an average of 123 points, higher than that compiled by many pro teams and 19 points a game higher than UCLA, the university division leader. They also led everyone in field-goal accuracy with .611, the kind of figure coaches dream about.
Then the Spartans went up to Washington and met disaster. They won, but Howard University held them to under 100 points, and the whole Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association—which includes Norfolk State and 17 other Negro colleges up and down the Eastern seaboard—was shocked. "They walked the ball on us," says Coach Ernie Fears. "They walked the ball. But we get Howard back here next month. The scoreboard will move."
Fears is a large, muscular man who played at Florida A&M and later coached there and at Southern University after earning a master's degree from Ohio State. He knows the limits of his team and of the competition it draws, but the knowledge leaves him unafraid to make comparisons. "On a given night, when my guys are on, we could play a lot of people," he says. "Somebody told me UCLA led the majors in scoring, but even after Howard held us to 90, we were way ahead of UCLA. We'll stay ahead of them, too."
January 8, 1968
The Spartans have about two dozen shooters and one passer. The shooters are led by Robert (The Stick) Dandridge and James A. (Hooker) Grant, who play the wings in Norfolk's torpedo offense. The Stick averages 27 points and was shooting 72% from the floor until he had the bad night against Howard (14 for 25) and dropped all the way down to 67%. As for Grant, who averages 23, it is still a question at State whether he can talk, but he sure can hook. He has one variation of the shot that he likes to shoot on the tail of a fast break. He zooms under there, five feet from the basket, all set to lay it up. Then he stops, dribbles backward eight feet, falls away and hooks. "Oh you Hooker," the fans yell. The Hooker loves that play.
Norfolk State packs about 3,500 people into its gym, but they are required to have good vision. The court is illuminated by an odd, hazy glow that gives one the fascinating illusion of sitting inside a piece of bleu cheese. Each time a Spartan shoots and scores, which seems to occur every few seconds, a strange sound comes from the fans. It starts deep down in their throats, comes up like wind and thunder, and ends with a burst. "WHOMPF." it goes. "WHOMPF. WHOMPF." There are whompfs all night at Norfolk State. However, if you took away their passer, the Spartans would hear a lot less of that noise. The passer is Richard Kirkland, a 6' guard who weighs 150 pounds and may be the fastest man in College basketball. Kirkland grew up on the New York City playgrounds and went to junior college in North Carolina. He can shoot (his average is about 16 points), but on this team he doesn't have to. So he has a little rhyme that goes, "Whoever is free is the man I see."
One step after receiving the cutoff pass from a defensive rebounder, Kirkland is at full speed, afterburners smoking. He cracks the whip down the middle and, with Grant or Dandridge on his left and Charley Bonaparte or John McKinney or Mad Dog Culpepper on his right to fill the lanes, the Spartans have one of the finest fast breaks in college.
All of this was on display last week as Norfolk State won its own holiday tournament by beating Servlant, a local Navy team made up of "service to the Atlantic Fleet" personnel, 137-87 and Virginia Union 107-95. There were plenty of whompfs. and there will be many more this season. It is time the small-college raters discovered the Spartans in their back room.