California's system of higher education is the largest and best in the nation. On top are all nine of those University of California branches, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and, soon no doubt, UC Twenty-nine Palms and UC Weed. Then come the 18 state colleges—San Jose State, Fresno State and so on. And finally the 85 junior colleges, two-year schools known euphemistically as "community colleges," some with enrollments as high as 14,000. A student can go to a JC for one or two years to make up grade or subject deficiencies and transfer to a four-year school. If he completes the two years he gets an Associate in Arts degree. But, all this superfluous academic stuff aside, the real patriotic duty of these generally good junior colleges is to act as way stations between high schools and universities for the nation's dumb athletes—especially basketball players.
Well, perhaps not dumb in all cases, but lazy, underprivileged or late-blooming—or all three. Anyway, the JCs of California are doing their duty better and better each year. Shaler Halimon, from the Detroit area, played at Imperial Valley JC and is now a genuine All-America candidate at Utah State. Carey Bailey left the state of West Virginia to play at Long Beach City College and is now back home, starting for West Virginia University. Newark's George Reynolds played two seasons at Imperial Valley, then slid right into Houston's starting lineup and helped the Cougars upset UCLA in the Astrodome. Nevada Southern, featuring John Trapp from Pasadena City College and seven other JC alumni, handed Oklahoma City University its first loss this season. The list, from USC's high-scoring Bill Hewitt (Mt. San Antonio JC) to Cal's 6'11" Bob Presley (Mt. San Jacinto JC), goes on and on. "They play outstanding basketball in California," says Houston Coach Guy Lewis. "The JC programs there and in Texas are the best overall in the nation as far as I'm concerned."
In the midst of all this basketball talent swirling in and out of the state, one coach, a stubby Armenian named Jerry Tarkanian, stands out like a traffic cop in a neon uniform. With homegrown products and imports, with white boys and black, he has won four straight state JC championships and is well on his way to another one this year. He will be co-coach of the first JC team in the Olympic trials, at the end of this season. When he was at Riverside City College (east of Los Angeles) his teams won three titles. They would have won four, but in his first year there Riverside lost in the final game of the state tournament by one point. From the players Tarkanian had at Riverside, Bob Rule is now starring for the Seattle Super-Sonics and seven-footer Larry Bunce plays for the ABA's Anaheim Amigos. Tarkanian found Fred (Lucky) Smith playing for a Riverside playground team, turned him into an All-Stater and sent him on to Utah State (Smith quit there and is now averaging more than 20 points a game for the University of Hawaii). The sixth man on one of those Riverside teams, Joe Stephens, is now a starting forward at North Texas State.
Last season Tarkanian moved to Pasadena CC, which had a 6-22 record the year before, and, with the aid of several new jumping-jack sharpshooters, he coached the Lancers to a 35-1 record and his fourth consecutive state title. One of the newcomers was Willie Betts, who flunked out of Bradley after the first semester of his sophomore year and was urged by his coach, Joe Stowell, to make up his grades at Pasadena. Betts had been a starter and a Missouri Valley Conference standout, but he probably was only the third-best man in Pasadena's front line. Now he is back starting at Bradley.
Tarkanian didn't worry too much about losing Betts because 6'8" Sam Robinson is back this year and what baskets Sam can't make and what rebounds he can't take aren't worth making and taking. More than 50 major colleges are after him, and last Friday night in the Lancer gym he showed again why he is so popular. Pasadena met Compton JC, and both old rivals had 7-0 records in league play. But it was plain after the first few minutes that Pasadena should be playing in the NCAA's small-college division. Tarkanian's first seven or eight men can stuff the ball (still legal in California JC play), but skinny Robinson didn't need to. He merely took turnaround jump shots from anywhere within 20 or 30 feet of the basket and scored 29 points as the cheering section and band combined to belt out "Soul, Soul, Soul, We Got It" and other JC classics. Compton was stopped rather easily by Tarkanian's specialty, a 1-2-2 zone defense that seems to permit only wild 50-foot casts.
Robinson was by no means the whole team. At least seven of Tarkanian's boys are major-college prospects. Tap Nixon, from Newark Prep in New Jersey, is only 5'11" but he can stand flat-footed under the basket, leap up and stuff. He's a substitute. Henry Saunders, a 6'7" center from right there in Pasadena, was undoubtedly sent from Krypton as a baby. And, says the coach, you should see the team that beat Pasadena early in the season—Hancock JC of Santa Maria, Calif. Why, Hancock has a 6'10" kid from Washington, D.C., and a 6'4" kid from Steubenville, Ohio, and two wizard freshmen from Dayton, Ohio and South Bend, Ind., and....
Nearly all the California JC hotshots today are Negroes, boys from the big-city slums. It is a cinch most of them would not be in any sort of college if it were not for their desire and ability to play the game. Their routes out of the ghettos are sometimes as circuitous as jungle trails and twice as hidden. Take, for instance, the aforementioned John Trapp, MVP in three tournaments for Pasadena CC last season. Big John played high school ball in Highland Park, Mich. and was graduated in June 1963. He went to Voorhees JC in South Carolina in 1963-64, then returned to Michigan and worked. In September 1965 he turned up at Mt. San Jacinto JC in Hemet, Calif. but stayed less than a month. Part of the Trapp family moved to Riverside in the spring of 1966 and John enrolled at Riverside CC but was not eligible the first season. He was made a manager by Tarkanian and went to the state tournament with the team.
Trapp no doubt would have stayed at Riverside except that Tarkanian moved to Pasadena. So the Trapp family moved again, to Monrovia, a city in Pasadena's district. John played for the Lancers, and his 6'8½" younger brother, George, came out from Detroit to play for Monrovia High and was Player of the Year in the California Interscholastic Federation. This season John is starring at Nevada Southern and little brother George is just behind Robinson in scoring at Pasadena.
The commissioner of Pasadena's league sniffed all along the Trapp trail and found that Tarkanian had used "no undue influence" to recruit him. In fact, when the commissioner's office quizzed John's family, his father said, "I would move to the ends of the earth to have my son play for Mr. Tarkanian."
Of course, California has plenty of its own slums that produce Negro basketball stars. Each JC is restricted to boys living in its district, but it is common for whole families to move, most of the time after surreptitious urging by coaches or boosters.
Sidney Wicks, a powerful 6'9" rebounding machine, went to L.A.'s Hamilton High. After he was graduated, his family moved to the suburb of Santa Monica and he is playing at Santa Monica CC right now. He was not a good student in high school, but the chances are bright he'll make the B average necessary to go on to nearby UCLA as a sophomore instead of as a junior. Tarkanian's own ace, Robinson, was twice All-City Player of the Year at L.A.'s Jefferson High, not far from the Watts riot area. His family moved to Pasadena and the commissioner again found "no undue influence."
Tarkanian is a Pied Piper of Negro youngsters not only because he is the best JC coach in California and maybe the country, but also because he and his wife Lois take a genuine interest in the players' welfare. Jerry is a combination confidant and disciplinarian, and Lois, a speech and hearing consultant for a county school district, is a part-time tutor. Working in the den of her home, with four kids-of her own running around underfoot, she tutored Bradley flunkout Willie Betts in English and helped Robinson complete a remedial reading course.
"I had a lot of personal problems," says Betts, "and I talked to Mr. Tarkanian about anything that bothered me. You could go to him. He was something like a father. And he knows what's going on on the basketball floor."
It's a combination other coaches are finding mighty hard to beat.