Jacksonville, Fla., outglittered by Miami to the south and outbustled by Atlanta to the north, feels a need to be noticed. It wants tourists and investors to know that it has a river that flows north (the St. Johns is pretty but polluted), that it is "the most spacious city in America" (when the city limits are expanded to include the entire county) and that Singer Connie Haines comes from there (and has rarely gone back). Jacksonville, says a brochure, is "the commercial, financial, cultural, medical and urban heart of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia," including the Okefinokee Swamp.
It is also the home of Jacksonville University, a little-known fact of virtually no moment until last Saturday night when J.U., as its 3,000 students call the transformed junior college, stamped itself as something more than the world's tallest storyteller—or even the country's tallest major college team, which is how the school's publicists boasted about it all fall. With 7'2" Artis Gilmore at center, 7' Pembrook Burrows III at the high post and 6'10" Rod McIntyre at forward the Dolphins (their nickname is appropriate; the average dolphin is seven feet long) went north to Evansville, Ind. and did what they have been doing since the season began. They toyed with the opposition like so many porpoises tossing a ball around Marineland. They stomped Arizona 104-72 in the first night of the Evansville Invitational and then humiliated the home team 100-70 to win the championship. The Dolphins went into the weekend rated 13th in the AP poll and 19th according to UPI and emerged deserving a spot high up in the top 10 of both.
The Evansville game was the first of the season on a hostile court for J.U. and therefore something of a test. The Dolphins' first six games were played in the modern Jacksonville Coliseum or in aptly named Swisher Gym on the campus, and victory No. 7, against Arizona, was on what coaches these days like to call a neutral court. But Evansville, for years an outstanding small-college team that regularly counted major colleges among its victims, provided a chance to prove a point to the pollsters, especially since the Purple Aces had upset Purdue at Evansville not long before.
There was, too, a case of hurt feelings involved. If Evansvillians were miffed because some of their best high school players were recruited regularly by Purdue, they had triple cause against Jacksonville. Vaughn Wedeking, 5'10" and the state 440 champion while at Harrison High in Evansville, was at guard for the Dolphins. Greg Nelson, a 6'6" teammate at Harrison, was also playing for Jacksonville and, worst of all, so was Rex Morgan, who had transferred from Evansville after leading the freshmen to an undefeated season. He is the Dolphins' captain.
January 5, 1970
What made the Morgan situation sticky was that Evansville Coach Arad McCutchan refused to give him a release after his freshman season, so Morgan, whose home is in Charleston, Ill., had to play a year of JC ball before turning down offers from several Missouri Valley Conference teams and heading south. Morgan, in turn, complained that Evansville fed its players on brown-bag lunches, and he and some pals were caught wrapping Coach McCutchan's house in toilet paper.
Before the Jacksonville game McCutchan said, "We've got a chance, not a good chance, but a chance." He had, all right. His prize sophomore, Don Buse, held Morgan scoreless in the first half (Morgan had made 24 points the night before), and fans with long memories were loudly reminding Morgan that he was supposed to be an All-America candidate and perhaps he did not deserve anything better than a brown-bag meal. This pressure, plus Gilmore's foul trouble (he had three in the first half), sent the Dolphins into the locker room at halftime leading by only four points.
But a half was all Evansville could play with no starter taller than 6'5". Jacksonville soon went to a zone defense to avoid further fouls, outscored the Purple Aces nine to one and rolled on from there. Gilmore blocked six shots, scored 37 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Little Wedeking, who must feel like the male lead in Land of the Giants, scored 17 points for the second straight night, which hurt Evansville a little more since it had never even tried to recruit him. Gilmore was voted the tournament's most valuable player, and Morgan, who never did shake off Buse, at least got the satisfaction of doing his captain's duty and accepting the championship trophy while his old buddies from the Evansville freshman team looked on.
By any measurement, Jacksonville must now be considered a very good team. It leads the nation in average points a game (almost 107), average margin of victory (39.8) and doorways ducked through. En route to its 8-0 record it has beaten Harvard by 39 points, Mercer by 40, Morehead State by 54 and Biscayne by 65. The top scorer, rebounder (he leads the nation) and shot blocker (16 against Harvard) is, of course, Gil-more, who wears a Bill Russell beard and plays like Lew Alcindor. Put him in the middle with Pembrook III and you have, say the people at J.U., bragging again, a combined wingspread of 18 feet.
"If there's a better team in America I don't want to play them," said Coach Bill Harrell of Morehead. "Why, I don't think our neighbor [Kentucky] could come down here and beat this outfit."
About Gilmore, the beaten coach was rapturous.
"See that wastebasket there?" he said. "You know how easy it is to flip paper in it? It's just as easy for Gilmore to score. I've never seen a player—and I've seen Lew Alcindor several times—dominate a game like Gilmore." Besides his wastebasket drop-ins, Gilmore has a variety of other shots, the most impressive being a left-handed jump-hook-dunk. The goaltending rule forbids blocking a shot once it starts descending toward the hoop, and in Gilmore's case this means the second it leaves his hand. He just leaps until his size-17 sneakers are even with everybody else's shoulders and flings the ball down through the net. The only time he ventures more than a few feet away from the basket is when he is fouled and has to go to the free-throw line.
At the other end of the court he has that same shot-blocking ability that served Alcindor so well for three years at UCLA. His timing is good, although he once misjudged a shot and blocked it with his elbow, and he has a good sense of where the hoop is so that he can avoid goaltending calls. When he is not batting balls away, his mere presence in the key forces the opposition to shoot from longer distances and with a much higher arc than normal.
Gilmore is not a skinny, gawky freak. He has a good athlete's physique—with muscular thighs and arms—and his coaches insist he could play for them if he were a mere 6'5" or so. He is, in fact, taking a physical education course with a 6'5" teammate whom he often outperforms on the trampoline.
If Gilmore is sturdier than Alcindor, he is like him in many other ways, although education is not one of them. While Alcindor came out of a good private high school in New York City, Gilmore came from a poor, all-black school in Chipley, Fla., 80 or so miles the other side of Tallahassee in the Florida panhandle and just this side of nowhere. He was in the same school from the first through the 11th grades, and for a long time, since it did not have a gymnasium, the kids played on an outdoor clay court.
"Sometimes there would be barrels of fuel burning around the court so you could stand next to them to warm up, then go play some more," Gilmore recalls. "When we were done at the end of a day we were so tired we could hardly walk home."
Gilmore did not play his senior year at Chipley because he was too old at 18, so he moved to nearby Dothan, Ala., where the rules were more relaxed, and averaged 39 points a game. He spent two years at Gardner-Webb Junior College in Boiling Springs, N.C. before accepting a grant-in-aid from Jacksonville. He chose J.U., he says, because Coach Joe L. Williams treated him as a person and not just as an athlete. Gilmore speaks very softly, like a man who has been yelled at too many times in his life and wants to help get the volume back % down to normal.
Williams, a skinny, almost gaunt man despite his affection for thick milk shakes at breakfast, speaks almost as softly as Gilmore and at 6'3" is almost as tall as some of his chandelier pushers. He is from Oklahoma, the son of a Methodist minister, and 10 years ago was teaching English at a Jacksonville high school. He started coaching at a junior high and won a county championship, moved from there to a high school and won a league title, then went to Florida State as freshman coach, to Furman University as a varsity assistant, and at the end of the 1963-64 season to J.U. right on the bank of that northbound river. He was a clean-cut, well-mannered young man who would not make the new school look bad.
And he hasn't. In truth, things are looking so nice that even the downtown chamber of commerce folks across the toll bridge like him. His players do, too. He keeps a loose rein on them, sets very few training rules—except that they give 100% effort on his court—and occasionally he allows them to make up their own plays. He also lets them work out for themselves their pregame warmup routines.
Williams is taking special care of Gilmore, supplying him with tutors for both classes and basketball. The special basketball coach works on Gilmore alone, concentrating on all the special basketball problems and challenges that confront a man who is 7'2", 235 pounds and agile.
Gilmore has proved to be a serious student on all counts. "I want a degree from college more than anything I can think of," he says. "My family has had it tough and I want to work with underprivileged kids in playgrounds and recreation centers. I had dreams of being a major college basketball player and it's a lot better than I expected. I knew we'd have a good team, but I didn't know we'd beat teams by 60 points."
Artis Gilmore is the main reason for J.U.'s impressive statistics, but he has excellent support. Burrows, another Florida product who spent two years in junior college, did not get started in basketball until late in high school and still has some catching up to do, especially in building his endurance. With Gilmore underneath, he plays the high post and shoots fairly well from there. He also is the team's songleader, having introduced a little number called The Rooster, which he shouts out when the team is running laps at practice. The song is adapted from a version he learned at his high school in West Palm Beach.
The 6'10" McIntyre, from right there in Jacksonville, just like Connie Haines, was J.U.'s leading rebounder the last two years, and the 6'5" Morgan was the nation's 10th leading scorer last season. And there's more, including Wedeking, even though Coach Williams has only 14 grants to give out, six or eight fewer than most coaches have. Williams' chief assistant, Tom Wasdin, just loves to go exploring in places like, well, Evansville.
"Wedeking and Nelson were our first major recruits when we switched to university status, so I guess you could say everything started right there," said Wasdin. "I wish we could get the best boy in Evansville every year."
It was partly because of Wasdin's Evansville forays that McCutchan signed up the Dolphins for his annual holiday tournament. He reasoned that if he somehow could beat Jacksonville he might be able to stem the Southern tide. He reasoned, too, that his colorful Purple Aces were a plus. Not that they are purple. The team wears orange or white on the floor and robes of all different colors on the bench. The coach wears red socks, the fans dress in red and only the pompon girls are in purple.
"Colors are fun," says McCutchan. "I tell my teams that basketball should be fun." Well, this year's tournament was not much fun for Evansville, or for Fordham, the team that beat Arizona (82-74 in the consolation game), or Arizona, because Jacksonville was embarrassingly superior.
Joe Williams had said earlier in the season that he would not know what kind of team he had until the Evansville tournament, but after bashing the Aces into purple welts he still was not predicting a national championship or an undefeated season. "I think we've got a good ball club," he said. "Tonight I was looking to see how we'd react to pressure on the road. I'd say that we met a real tough situation and passed the test."
The players were less restrained in their locker room celebrations. Pembrook Burrows III gathered his choir in a sweaty circle for a spirited rendition of The Rooster, which Connie Haines never sang. It goes something like this:
Jacksonville has a rooster;
We put him on the fence,
And he crowed for the Dolphins
'Cause he's got good sense.
Hidey, hidey, hidey ho,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
Oh, what a team.
Jacksonville's got a team.
Indeed it does. But surely the Dolphins have some weaknesses, reporters asked Arad McCutchan during the tournament?
"They're very vulnerable," said the Evansville coach. "An 8-footer would murder 'em."