In the age of chummy, hands-across-the-globe internationalism, it is somehow O.K. that the most exciting college basketball player in the land is a 6'11" Yugoslav who avows Communism, speaks Italian and surrounds himself with American Mormons.
It is fitting, too, that the marvelous court antics of Kresimir Cosic ("Kreshi-mir Cho-sich in Mormon language," says his coach, Stan Watts) will not go unnoticed out there in the alabaster mountains of Utah. Last weekend more than 45,000 people journeyed into Utah Valley to watch Cosic and the Cougars of Brigham Young win a gem of a season-opening tournament by defeating Kansas State 78-72 and St. Joseph's of Philadelphia 73-72. Braving a bitter blizzard on Friday night that would have kept even Robert Redford off the slopes and snuggled in his cabin in Sundance, 18 miles away, 22,652 saw Cosic score 30 points and control 18 rebounds against the imposing front line of Kansas State. On the following night, another capacity crowd was present as the carefree Croatian had a much harder time of it against the Hawks' skillful center, Mike (Stick) Bantom. The two big men went at each other with a frenzy unique for such an early contest. Though Bantom had a bare statistical edge (32 points to 31, 13 rebounds to 10) he missed three important shots at the end of the game while Cosic was commanding the boards, and that ultimately was the difference.
The throngs that converged on Provo surely produced one of the largest two-day outpourings of basketball followers ever. They came as much to see the place where the games were to be played as the games themselves. It is called the J. Willard Marriott Activities Center—after the Mormon motel magnate—and it is a brand-new square blue and buff brick structure that ranks as the largest on-campus arena in the U.S. Because of the smooth, simple lines of the exterior, the place appears to be of moderate size (students have named it Fort Deception), but inside, the building inspires awe. It reaches 10 stories high, is three acres all around, and the roof weighs four million pounds. Under the roof are all the conveniences of any Marriott—except room service and, of course, Coke machines, which are barred by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints.
In truth, Brigham Young's beautiful new home was not fully ready for occupancy. The baskets were installed only two days before the first game. Away from the floor the building was still a skeleton, with unfinished locker rooms, incomplete heating and lighting and a temporary sound system borrowed from the football stadium. Outside lighting was scarce, landscaping was nil and everyone admitted the Marriott would not be completed until March when the NCAA Western Regionals are held in Provo. But workers rushed to get the place in condition and—despite the opening night storm that caused a 16-car pileup in drifts outside town—everything went smoothly.
The BYU successes that have brought about this wondrous arena are the responsibility of Watts, a bald cheery Santa Claus of a man who has come back from near death to coach his 23rd team at BYU. Last season, while his Cougars were on their way to their fourth Western Athletic Conference championship in nine years, Watts was stricken with cancer and given little hope of staying alive. He was on the operating table for 14 hours. Under intensive care for 17 days, he came out of sedation just in time to watch BYU lose to UCLA on television in the Western Regional.
"I felt like going back to the knife," Watts says. More seriously, the coach says he was at a low point in his hospital stay until a retarded child of six visited him with a kite and a package of Life Savers as gifts. "It's remarkable I'm still around here," he says, "but how could a guy miss with that poor little child praying for me with his kite and Life Savers."
This season, after an amazing recovery, Watts is 30 pounds lighter and, his friends say, looking better than ever. He plunged back into his tasks as athletic-director and coach, preparing what could be his finest team for early tests against schools from the other three time zones.
For an opening weekend the BYU classic held vast promise. Representing the West was University of Pacific with its 6'10" star John Gianelli, who would match up against the 6'9" Bantom in a battle of the most underrated big men on both coasts. Kansas State, a preseason favorite to win the Big Eight, had a host of returning musclemen determined to make amends for the confusion at Manhattan last season. And local fans were anxious to see BYU's backcourt featuring Bernie Fryer and a couple of good sophomores.
Still, it was not the strong field, nor the reincarnation of Stan Watts, nor even the new arena that captured the people's imagination. It was the magnificent Cosic who did that. A blithe spirit whose English is decipherable after two full years in the States, Cosic has a fine, curly bush for a haircut and the romantic, brooding features usually prevalent among those mysterious stars of foreign movies concerning affairs of the heart. He learned to play the game in the city of Zadar, an ancient resort community on the Mediterranean—"a basketball town," says Cosic. While playing in a European all-star game in Paris a few years ago, he roomed with BYU's Veikko Vainio, a Finn who encouraged him to come to Provo. In his sophomore season Cosic broke his hand early, but he survived to average 24 points over the last six games and make the Western Athletic Conference all-star team while establishing a court presence and personality that has been matched in recent college history only by Pete Maravich.
Cosic's zest for the game is something to behold. On the court he is forever clapping his hands, raising fists high, laughing, shouting, "Opa! Opa!" (I'm open! I'm open!), jackknifing for layups, dribbling through his legs, passing behind his back and joyfully firing all manner of shots from improbable positions and angles. One of his favorite numbers consists of a bounding, leaping hook shot from way downtown in the course of which he pumps several times high in the air, then releases the ball from somewhere around his socks. The crowd eats the show up.
Much to the chagrin of his coaches and the BYU guards, Cosic loves to lead the fast break. In practice, back-courtmen have to steal the ball from him to touch it; on occasion he and Fryer have come close to blows. But he is far from being a selfish player; his passing, in fact, may be the strongest point of his game. (Last weekend he was credited with 10 assists, but his teammates blew at least eight other layups after deft passes from the Yugoslav.) Naturally this is all so much Croatian hot dog (kobasica), and it drives some of the Cougars to fury. "I'd like to hit him with a two-by-four sometimes," says Fryer.
"No care," says Cosic. "This is way I always do. No. 1 thing is win. No. 2 is please crowd. If I don't play to crowd in Zadar, oh boy, they throw rock."
Before BYU's opener with Kansas State, Cosic demonstrated his supreme confidence during a team meeting. Disagreeing vehemently with Watts' plan to have him go outside against a 6'7" man, Cosic fairly shouted, "Who is this what I have never heard in my life 6'7" person can stop such as myself? Why every time that I cannot go inside basket where I can work over this little kid?" The team broke up, but some of the laughter was in derision. A few of the Cougars are resentful of the attention and publicity Cosic has received. "The rest of us make a mistake and the crowd gets on us," says one. "Cosic can fall on his nose and it's a standing ovation. Sometimes he hurts us with his circus act."
Against Kansas State, however, BYU was in trouble until Cosic went to work. With his team leading by only 46-45 with five minutes gone in the second half, Cosic banked one in off the glass from a sharp angle. After a turnover, he took a pass at the top of the circle while facing 6'3" Jack Thomas in a mismatch. Cosic cradled the ball, swooped it over the head of Thomas and behind his own head in one motion. While the bewildered Thomas looked for the ball, Cosic dribbled around him and through two other men for an astonishing basket. Moments later he took a defensive rebound, went behind his back on the dribble at midcourt and fired perfectly to Fryer for a layup. Next he threw a jumping 25-foot hook pass to Phil Tollestrup for another layup. BYU led by nine, and the Marriott was jumping, too. Cosic laughed all the way to the bench.
"He's a man among little boys," said Kansas State Coach Jack Hartman after the game. "The looniest guy with talent ever," said St. Joseph's Jack McKinney, who had to find a way to defend against him Saturday night. Bantom had overshadowed Gianelli 20 points to 10 in St. Joe's 64-58 victory (the Pacific center fouled out after playing less than half the game), but Cosic would be a different story. In the title game the teams stayed practically even until six minutes remained. Then Bantom wheeled inside for three baskets, and the Hawks led 68-64. Tollestrup countered with two buckets over the St. Joe zone, and when Cosic hit a long one from deep in the corner with 3:21 remaining, Brigham Young was ahead to stay. Bantom fanned on his three shots down the stretch, but the Cougars missed five free throws to keep St. Joe in the game. Only some monkey business with the clock prevented the visitors' best shooter, Pat McFarland, from setting up for a good shot at the end. Instead, his interception led to a desperation heave that went wide.
"Bantom as good as any," Cosic said after the game. "I not in shape, tired, no dribble. But St. Joe, they go places." Indeed the Hawk will be flapping high this season at the Palestra, while out in the Utah mountains Kresimir Cosic will he whipping those huge crowds into shape. At Brigham Young, oh boy, nobody throw rock.