Somewhere in Southern California, among all the offshore oil rigs and parked cars, there is another basketball team with an alphabet name and some solid credentials. For dependability and success, everybody likes UCLA. For fun and mystery they go for CSCLB.
According to rival coaches, the 49ers of the California State College at Long Beach are not all that hard to find. They are the ones with hands out, heads down, in trouble, on WANTED posters and behind bars. The 49ers don't have skeletons in the closet, it is said, they are the skeletons in the closet.
This is all exaggerated nonsense but just the sort of thing expected from people who get beaten as much as the opponents of Cal State, Long Beach do. Coach Jerry Tarkanian, the friendly Armenian, cheats no more or any less on scholarships, grades, schedules, recruiting and game tactics than do others connected with big-time sports. What hurts is the remarkable success he has had with minority athletes. He has, well, that touch, and not only do his teams shoot, they rebound and defend far better than college boys are expected to. They are big, strong, mean-looking, and they scare, like the Triffids of science fiction.
Tarkanian, whose starters average an imposing 6'7", has been looking for a backcourt leader all season. Who did he come up with? Mothra? Wolfman? Richard Speck? Charles Manson? No. He just moved his versatile Ed Ratleff to the point, where he could run the offense as well as lead the scoring.
For a short period of time this development did not work out so well, and Long Beach lost a couple of games in its secluded conference, the Pacific' Coast Athletic Association. "When the refs think you're gangsters, you don't get any breaks," Tarkanian says.
Going into last week, fear of similar performances had made the coach even more nervous than usual. He shouldn't have been. Beaten on the boards in their last four league games, the 49ers Thursday rebounded with fierce, determination while destroying San Jose 88-51. Two days later they avenged an earlier loss to Pacific with an 86-62 victory when their double punch of Ratleff and 6'6" Chuck Terry led a second-half spurt that put the game away. The victory gave the 49ers a 21-3 record, a two-game lead in the PCAA and virtually assured them of a spot in the NCAA playoffs for the third consecutive year.
The league—like the school itself—deserves less anonymity. The basketball programs at the seven member schools have far outgrown the playing facilities, which feature cramped suffocation pits of wooden bleachers and no backrests. The teams that they spawned, though, are not made of junk. This season San Jose State defeated California of the PAC Eight. San Diego State beat Nebraska of the Big Eight. Pacific slaughtered Washington. And Cal State, L.A., one of the weak teams in the conference, ripped apart Southwestern Louisiana.
Most of this might have gone unnoticed were it not for the breakthrough made by Long Beach in the West Regional last March when the 49ers had UCLA staggered before Ratleff fouled out and they lost, 57-55. Tarkanian has won 92 games since arriving at CSCLB in 1968, yet it wasn't until the middle of last season that his 49ers received national recognition. Even Long Beach, with 29,000 students, ignored the new coach. Given neither private office nor private secretary, he found himself almost without private funds when the school refused to reimburse him for a fiat tire suffered while driving his players to a game. Tarkanian's future, as a result, may lie elsewhere, perhaps at Arizona State. If he leaves, Ratleff surely will go, too, most likely to accept one of the startling pro offers being dangled at him last week.
Before they go, though, the two lame ducks would love another shot at UCLA. Their aim would be straighter were it not for illness and personnel problems. Terry, who has had a touch of mononucleosis all season and lost 18 pounds, finally broke a year-long shooting slump last week when he scored 44 points while playing his good defense.
Other players have not been so fortunate. One, in the midst of his own 16 for 61 shooting famine, criticized Ratleff for gunning. Some others have grumbled about playing time. "We got too many dudes who can do it," says 6'11" Nate Stephens, in a capsule analysis. "We got to stop hating each other."
One dude the 49ers have been careful not to hate is 6'8", 245-pound Leonard Gray, a transfer from Kansas. Extremely quick and aggressive, Gray is an intimidator of no small measure. Since becoming eligible at midterm, he has averaged 14 points and seven rebounds. Also, he has fouled out three times in six games with a set of moves normally associated with an executioner. Recently, against San Diego State, the big man went into the air to halt a layup. Though he cleanly blocked the ball, he also blocked his opponent's face, stomach and legs and nearly buried him in the floor, where smelling salts were administered. "Leonard is my pride and joy," says Tarkanian. "He brings instant happiness when I watch him. A very vicious rebounder."
In the 49ers' 1-2-2 offense, Gray sets up in a low post opposite the wandering Stephens, who has been through so many campuses that one local journalist calls him the Marco Polo of basketball.
During his redshirt year, after transferring from Creighton, Stephens lived up to advance notice by being, as Tarkanian puts it, "a miserable goof-off." He was involved in a fight with Ratleff, avoided classes with a passion and became so enthralled with sleep he was in danger of fading into extreme catatonia. It is particularly difficult to keep Stephens awake when it rains. "When I hear raindrops," says Stephens, "it's nice and cool and dark outside. I'm in Slumbersville. Ain't nobody getting me up." Over the summer, however, Tarkanian got Stephens a position as a garbage collector "to build up his arms," and ever since, says the coach, "Nate has done everything we've asked of him." This has included averaging 13 points and 11 rebounds a game and, last week, holding in check Pacific's John Gianelli, who humiliated him in their first meeting.
"I really go hard on him," says Tarkanian. "I wonder if he likes me. Ask him if he likes me." Forget Nate; the question is, does Leonard Gray like him?