It would be 12 long weeks before they would come together, emerging—as the final teams always seem to do—through trial, torment, talent and, mostly of course, sheer perseverance. But under that warm Hawaiian moon in late December they were linked only in conversation as Joe Williams sipped his cocoanut chi chi drink. "I know I've got a dog schedule, but I also know I've got a good team," he said of his Jacksonville Dolphins, who were in the Islands for a vacation and, as an afterthought, a few games. "The guards are solid, we've got the superheight and, dammit, I know we can play with anybody. All I want is a chance."
That same evening Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville's 7'2" center, sat and stroked his goatee as he heard the news from the mainland: on the West Coast, UCLA, the Aquarius of the age in college basketball, had struggled again and just slipped by Princeton. On the East Coast Bob Lanier had scored 50 points in Madison Square Garden as St. Bonaventure won the Holiday Festival. Gilmore thought about all of that for a moment and looked up smiling. "So," he said. "Bob Lanier. That dude must really be something. And UCLA one point over the Ivy League. This is turning into a very interesting year."
Indeed, as Gilmore and everybody else connected with the sport was to observe in its first full season free of that common ache and pain known as the Alcindor Syndrome, the meanderings of the basketball have been alternately weird, heartbreaking, exhilarating and fascinating as it bounced its way to College Park, Md. for the finals this week of the NCAA tournament. There, hard by the nation's capital, the showdown will come when Jacksonville, St. Bonaventure and UCLA are joined by New Mexico State for a group exercise which, for once in Washington, can hardly be said to represent the heartland of America. All four are from the edges of the country, two from cities on the brink of the oceans and two from towns just a fast break away from Canada and Mexico.
That one of the teams does not come intact with all of its arsenal is a serious disappointment to those who suspected—with reason—that this would be the closest competition among the final four in years. Unlike most other seasons, this one had produced four teams for the championship with size, speed, good shooting, individual stars, team play, fine coaching and nary a dark horse or a fluke among them. The Eastern final especially was to be an intriguing matchup of towering postmen, Gilmore vs. Lanier, a veritable Thunder Road.
Then suddenly it was not. For as anyone already knows who has not been blinded by a stray eclipse or rendered deaf and dumb by his friendly neighborhood bomber, St. Bonaventure's graceful, ubiquitous Lanier will not be a participant in College Park. With 9:39 to go in the Bonnies' 97-74 rout of Villanova in the Eastern regional final, Lanier was accidentally buckled from behind by Villanova's Chris Ford, who had tripped going for a rebound, and the Big Cat went down. Lanier continued playing, but after 34 seconds, he called time out, walked to the bench with a slight limp and told Coach Larry Weise, "I can't move." Lanier had torn the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, and that night he went home to Buffalo on crutches for an operation.
"This puts a crimp in the festivities," said Mike Kull in a Bonaventure dressing room shocked into silence following the game. The atmosphere was all the more somber because the Bonnies knew that their teammate's college career had come to an end on a meaningless play, long after St. Bonaventure had wrapped up the regional. The rest of the contestants in Columbia, S.C., in fact, could have just as well mailed in their performances rather than show up, so dominant was St. Bonaventure last weekend.
As any local citizen would—and did—tell you, the only team which might have tested the Bonnies was there all along, watching from the sidelines. Bumper stickers proclaiming "Dump the ACC" and signs ranging from "To Hell with the Asinine Conference of the Country" to more colorful obscenities showed the visitors, especially South Carolina's conqueror in the ACC tournament—N.C. State—where community feelings stood. St. Bonaventure was exhorted by everybody from airport baggage-handlers to movie-house cashiers to "kill" State. Some dormitory residents went so far as to hang out "Go Bonnies" banners.
"If I was State, I wouldn't even show up," said Lanier on Thursday afternoon. "Bull," said Gene Fahey. a teammate. "The marquee of their hotel says 'Welcome, N.C. State.' Our sign says 'Franks and Beans—Eighty-Five Cents.' This is ACC country."
Still, what with the Franciscan fathers of St. Bonaventure, the Augustinians of Villanova and the Vincentians of Niagara all on hand, the Bible Belt ACC country had never seen such religion. "At a tournament like this you find out who's closer to God," said Fred Handler, the St. Bonaventure assistant coach.
In the first game Villanova stayed closer to Calvin Murphy than to the Deity and ran away from Niagara 98-73, while N.C. State had no answers for Lanier as St. Bonaventure won 80-68. These developments set up what should have been a close rematch of a game earlier in the season, when Villanova handed the Bonnies their only defeat, 64-62, on a disputed play near the finish. But this time Lanier, with help from his smaller but quicker forwards, Matt Gantt and Bubba Gary, took the boards away from the Wildcats early on and the game was over by halftime.
Before his premature end, Lanier was asked how he would go about beating his own team. "I'd front me, surround me and gamble on us missing from outside," he said. "When you cut off the pass to the corners and collapse inside, we're hurting."
This sounds suspiciously like what Jacksonville would do, though of course the Dolphins do not play defense as mortal man knows it. However, just the presence of Gilmore and his shot-blocking prowess—laterally, he is as mobile as Lanier, just as quick and three inches taller—probably would have cut off half of the effectiveness of the Big Cat inside. That could have been enough for Jacksonville, with superior personnel through the rest of the lineup, to win. Without Lanier now, St. Bonaventure is no closer to God nor to the final game in College Park.
In the Mideast Regional at Columbus, Ohio, Gilmore contributed 54 of the 848 total points scored by Jacksonville, Kentucky, Iowa and Notre Dame. But in such an assemblage of bazooka gunners, the first defensive move should have brought a standing ovation—and Gilmore was one of the few men to make such a move. It came shortly after he and Kentucky's 6'8" star, Dan Issel, had traded baskets to open their teams' battle for the regional title. Issel started a drive into the lane, went up for his shot and was practically decapitated when Gilmore slammed the ball away. Psychology or no, the game may have turned right then, for Issel was visibly shaky the rest of the afternoon.
The Dolphins, sparked by Chip Dublin, who came off the bench to score 19 points, led 72-60 before Issel began to assert himself with nine straight points. But as he moved downcourt to set up on offense with 10 minutes to play, Issel slammed into Vaughn Wedeking for his fifth foul and went to the bench in tears. Kentucky gamely fought back to within two points with slightly more than a minute to go, but Rex Morgan's one-hander and his two free throws saved it for Jacksonville 106-100.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville barely escaped from the clutches of Iowa when Pembrook Burrows rebounded Wedeking's 25-footer with three seconds left to win 104-103. Presumably, the Dolphins' good fortune was emanating from Joltin' Joe Williams' white double-breasted sports coat—a 36th birthday gift from his players that Williams purchased especially for the NCAA tournament. "I tried to get an outfit Artis would like," said the new scourge of men's wear.
Though the Dolphins won the strongest regional, they have yet to face a good defensive team in the tournament, and their inability to protect the ball at the end of both victories in Columbus may be a portent of things to come against the winner in the West.
New Mexico State's burr-haired coach, Lou Henson, does not have a white sports coat, but lately he has gone to buckle shoes and plaid slacks in order, as he says, "to conform to my team." His brilliant one-on-one guard, Jimmy Collins—who led the Aggies in their victories over Kansas State 70-66 and Drake 87-78 for the Midwest Regional championship—says Henson may "break out a pair of bell-bottoms any day now. I believe he can't grow hair, but lately he's been trying to come out in other ways."
Four weeks ago New Mexico State came out with red and white buttons declaring Numero Uno, but their prospects for that magic number looked extremely dim late in the game with Kansas State. The Wildcats, taking 27 more shots and 14 more rebounds than the taller Aggies, came from 18 points behind to grab the lead before Henson went to what Drake Coach Maury John smilingly referred to as "his Jimmy Collins offense." Automatically, as it happened, his teammates cleared out a side for him, and Collins scored nine points down the stretch as New Mexico State pulled away.
Drake, which had abandoned its Zombie Jamboree defense ("back-to-back, belly-to-belly") for a 1-3-1 zone to defeat Houston 92-87, figured to contain the Aggies' size with the same zone. But their man-to-man worked more efficiently, and they played New Mexico State even for 10 minutes in the title game. Then Henson inserted sophomore Milton (Roadrunner) Home who, to the marvelous cheers of "Wooooo...beep-beep. Wooooo...beep-beep" from 100 State fans up from Las Cruces to Lawrence, Kans., dribbled rings around the Drake defense and put New Mexico State permanently in command by 10 points. In a complete reversal of his sorry performance against Kansas State, the Aggies' 6'10" Sam Lacey dominated the boards while Collins, Home and little Charley Criss combined for 53 points from the backcourt.
"The only thing that will scare us is a club with three soul brothers eight feet tall," said New Mexico State Assistant Ed Murphy before the regional. However, to meet Jacksonville, which has two brothers seven feet tall, the Aggies will have to get by UCLA—their nemesis the past two years when NMS, trapped in the Western Regional, slowed the ball down and lost. "This year we think our running game will give us a chance to win," says Henson.
The Aggies' backcourt is quicker than UCLA's. If their guards can withstand what certainly will be some sort of pressing game by the Bruins and not fold up their gun arms at the same time, New Mexico State can win. History, however, dictates that the big games are won underneath, and there UCLA would seem too strong and swift for even such a physical aggregation as the Aggies.
In the Western Regional at Seattle, the plot thickened in the beginning and toward the end, but when the drama was over UCLA—that ageless heavy—had won again. "Long Beach doesn't like us, Washington doesn't like us, nobody likes us," said a Bruin cheerleader. "Yeah," giggled an unconvinced friend. "All we do is win."
The Bruins' first opponent—Cal State Long Beach—came to the Northwest the same way it had entered the big time in Los Angeles, as the new kid in town just itching for a shot at the bully down the street. Coach Jerry Tarkanian, a whirling dervish sort, counted on Sam Robinson and George Trapp, both 6'8", to neutralize UCLA's big men inside a 1-2-2 zone, but admitted he was "scared spitless" at the prospect. From the beginning, it was a backyard squabble in more ways than one—many of the Long Beach players have faced the UCLA players during summer games at 109th Street in Watts—but the 49ers, who had the nation's longest winning streak (19 games) were never in it. Henry Bibby. the Bruins' talented sophomore, made five long baskets over the zone while the UCLA defense cut off Cal State's strong board game, and the bully won easily 88-65.
Two days later Seattle newspapers gave Utah State, which had beaten Santa Clara in the final seconds 69-68, no chance against UCLA. "The task is Herculean," wrote one reporter. "In fact, Hercules himself might blanch at the assignment." Coach LaDell Andersen's Aggies did not blanch, but in the end they were destroyed 101-79.
As they make their way to the finals once again—this time as the only conference team remaining in the playoffs—the Bruins are different in every way from the three-time defending national champions. Bibby is their leader, the coolest Bruin of all, as were Walt Hazzard and Mike Warren, sophomores before him. But their strength is in speed and execution up front where Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Center Steve Patterson pose innumerable problems—even for an Artis Gilmore.
In that ironic meeting that seems inevitable—John Wooden against the Big Man—the Bruins' coach would probably be forced to use a zone, which he abhors. He beat Oregon State with it earlier in the year, but it looked bad against Oregon, and UCLA lost. Still, one wonders if John Wooden will ever lose when it counts.
A few weeks ago he sat at his desk in Los Angeles and pulled out a sealed envelope. Inside were his predictions, made at the beginning of the season, on the outcome of all UCLA games. He makes these selections every year and does not open the envelope until the end. He was asked if, in the three years of Lew Alcindor, he had picked any losses. He said yes.
"Did you pick the loss in the Astrodome?"
"No," he smiled.
"Did you pick the other loss [to Southern Cal]?"
"Anybody who predicts an undefeated season is a fool," he said.
The thought prevails that John Wooden picked UCLA to lose a few again this season. It is safe to say he did not predict that any of those would happen in College Park.