Up and down the western rim of the breathtaking Wasatch Mountain range, each one hard by a peak of its very own, they sit: four picture-postcard Utah universities that in recent years have turned a missed jump shot or a lost rebound into vices that rival smoking and drinking.
Southernmost among them is Brigham Young, the official school of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints—"the Y" at Provo, where Stan Watts had developed some outstanding teams until lately, when the Cougars have been undecided whether the opponent would throw them a man-to-man defense, a zone or a grenade. The Mormon doctrine, excluding as it does blacks from the priesthood, has brought about some harsh times at the Y but has not curtailed construction of a 22,500-seal arena (due for completion late next year) that will be the largest new on-cam-pus facility in the United States.
Up the valley and into the Weber Basin is, of course, Weber State—"We" as in gee—which has created all sorts of excitement since stepping out of the junior-college ranks and doing things like dominating the Big Sky Conference, appearing in three NCAA tournaments in a row, giving one of its coaches, Dick Motta, to the pros (the Chicago Bulls) and looming as a force again this season with powerful Willie Sojourner back for his senior year.
Remaining among the schools on the hills are the two sisters of the state university, Utah and Utah State, resplendent in new gymnasiums of their own and beckoning the national polls and anyone else to come visit.
Naturally, it was right here that the heart of college basketball tradition could be seen in the opening moments of the season last week; here where intersectional battles and even a heated rivalry were fought; here where, considering all the snow, it seemed appropriate for Sergeant Preston to shout, "On, King!" But, sadly, it was here, too, that the wonder teams of the Wasatch became a couple of early victims of their own publicity.
Utah had this first-week tussle with Utah State coming up, but before Mike Newlin and the runnin', gunnin' Redskins could come stampedin' off the shores of Great Salt Lake with that fast-break heritage and all those national tournament appearances behind them, and before the Utah State Aggies—85 miles to the north in Logan over the icy trails of the Sardine Canyon—could lay in ambush for anyone questioning the claim that their stars, marvelous Marv Roberts and neat Nate Williams, are not the best set of forwards in the land, something very strange happened. Both Utah teams lost—at home—and looked erratic losing.
First, let it be known that the opponents were not—as some opening week visitors look to be—refugees from a dog pound. Ohio State, West Texas State and Southern Cal came calling, which is what made the whole week so attractive and what took some of the luster off the weekend game between Utah and Utah State. For, after defeating a fine young Ohio State team 95-89, the Aggies were upset by West Texas State on Wednesday 81-78. The next night in Salt Lake, Utah dropped its opening game to explosive Southern Cal 90-81.
Finally, with all of the nonsense out of the way, Utah and Utah State had at one another Saturday night and, when it was over, those mountain folk watching on their televisions throughout the region discovered that one of their teams, at least, was alive and kicking after all. With Roberts outscoring Newlin 26-23 and the taller Aggies dominating the boards, State ran away from Utah in the second half and finished with a 94-77 victory. Williams seemed asleep much of the game but the Aggies' 6'10" sophomore, Lafayette Love, picked his team up whenever Utah got close, and that was the difference.
The passions aroused in the clash provided just one example of the intensity with which Utahans are taking basketball these days. All of the new arenas going up are responsible in some measure, but the basic interest has always been there. Recently clamor has arisen for a tournament in Salt Lake City involving the four schools, but so far Utah and the Y have not deigned to accept tiny Weber as an equal. Nevertheless, Utah State will play the Wildcats for the first time on Feb. 23 in a game that doubtless will invoke all the frenzy of the home-and-home contests when the other three schools play each other.
Attention this season is focused on Utah and Utah Stale because of their high national ranking and because of the presence of Newlin on one campus and Roberts and Williams on the other—three of America's most exciting players. There is also the sneaking suspicion that the balance of power in the area may be shifting for the time being to the independent Aggies. Since LaDell Andersen left Utah, where he was an assistant for five years to Jack (the Fox) Gardner—and prior to Saturday night—he had split 18 games with his former teacher and taken the Aggies to four NCAA tournaments and one NIT. Counting Saturday's victory, he has beaten Gardner the last four times they have met.
Andersen has had some good players on the Logan campus, including Cornell Green and Shaler Halimon. Before he brought in Roberts and Williams he had also experienced one of the game's memorable tragedies. On a cold February evening in 1965 Andersen was driving home from a game in which his finest player, a personable, baby-faced All-America senior named Wayne Estes, had scored 48 points. Suddenly the coach came upon flashing red lights, an automobile accident, knocked-down power lines and the supine form of his star player covered in blankets. Estes, after investigating the accident, had walked back to his own car, brushed his head on a telephone wire and been electrocuted instantly. Daily now Andersen passes a glass case in which Estes' uniform, sneakers, trophies and honors are enclosed, and he still shakes visibly when he talks of that evening.
For the present Roberts and Williams are truly a pleasing pair to have on the same side. The former is 6'8", a finesse player who shoots well from outside and is one of the best passers in college. Despite a tendency to laziness, he has averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds in his two years on the varsity. Williams, who is three inches shorter and five months younger, relies more on muscle and power for his points (21 a game last year). No selfishness seems to have intruded on the relationship between the two. "It was never a challenge when Nate came to the varsity," Roberts says. "It's a pleasure to play alongside him and get everybody off my back."
"I feel that when we're in trouble, Marv should put the ball in the air," says Williams, who nevertheless is more the beneficiary of the arrangement because of Roberts' passing ability.
Both men came to Logan from ghetto backgrounds. Roberts from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Williams from Oakland, where he grew up as one of seven children, worked in the rail yards at night to support his family and once lived in a room with no lights.
Roberts has felt the sting of what he calls "cats who jump off the bandwagon." The day after the West Texas game, perhaps his worst performance ever, he was walking downtown when a student passing in a car yelled out, "Roberts, you're a bum. You stink."
Over in Salt Lake City, Mike Newlin knows how Roberts felt. "He shouldn't be upset at that," said Newlin, a native Californian who admits to being a hot-dog on court. "That's what Utah people are like, I fall down a lot to protect myself. I never get hurt. I know the people swear at me, they hate me. I get less hassle on the road than here. People in Utah aren't afraid to tell you what they think. That's why I never go to classes the day after a game. I don't want to be susceptible to them. I hide." A pro-sized guard who has been the MVP in the Western Athletic Conference for two years and is now a Rhodes scholarship candidate, Newlin seems to have a preoccupation with foul shots. He ranked seventh in the nation last year and against USC last week missed once. "I won't miss any more this year," he said. "I guarantee it."
In his two previous trips to Logan, Newlin had a) two years ago missed a one-and-one opportunity that would have given Utah the lead with six seconds to go and b) last year fouled out of the game with 16 minutes left. Utah lost both games.
"We won't lose this time," Newlin said Friday night. "Everyone is aware we won't. I guarantee it."
Despite his guarantees, Utah State took a 50-38 halftime lead Saturday, due mostly to the work of Love and another good sophomore, Bob Lauriski. The Redskins cut the margin to seven points in the second half but then dropped back again. Mysteriously, Gardner removed Newlin from the game with nearly seven minutes left. The Redskins were behind by 15 at the time, but most observers felt they were still in it. "Newlin was tired," said Gardner. "I don't know why we gave up," said Newlin, who also missed a foul shot. "I don't know how I missed. The crowd was counting my bounces at the line [he takes up to 14 dribbles before putting the ball up]. I wasn't concentrating. I still love to play away from home. This game isn't over. It continues next month." By that time Utah and especially Utah State—a young and improving team with vast potential—should be ready to welcome out-of-staters in again.