The center is 6'10". The forward is 6'10". The guard is 6'9". The coach waves a red polka-dot towel and breaks out a comb to neaten his wavy locks during time-outs. The co-captain is a television celebrity. The team leads the NCAA in spinarounds, curlicues, throw-aways, mix-ups, turnovers, Brillo-in-spired hair arrangements and YMBJ defense (as in You Must Be Joking). It plays inside an electric-red pavilion and in front of a live golden cougar. Annually, it is college basketball's brightest circus. Guess who?
Say Houston and you win a brand-new belted, vented, pleated, epauletted, plaid and check, windowpaned, autographed and embroidered sport coat in 37 different brilliant shades from the wardrobe of Coach Guy V. Lewis himself. That goes along with an all-expense-paid trip to the nearest padded cell, which lately has seemed more of a necessity than a luxury for those watching Lewis' exciting crew of towering athletes. In taking 20 of their 23 games this season, they have scored 74 points in one half, pulled in 88 rebounds in one game and committed 38 turnovers in another.
As invitations go out to the NCAA tournament this week, Houston will be at the top of the list of independents, prepared to enter the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine years. The Cougars are about as good a bet as UCLA to appear in the showdown of the final four late this month because they have only to win a first-round game at Wichita in order to get back home to Hofheinz Pavilion, where they will host the Midwest Regionals.
It is in the scarlet Hofheinz—a unique, parabola-slung hatbox of an auditorium with a deceptive ceiling that appears to barely clear the nearest Afro—where opponents really see red. In Hofheinz noise and flying objects compete for equal time; Shasta, the cougar, snaps and snarls; and Houston wins—57 of 58 times in the past four years. It was in Hofheinz last week that the Cougars renewed their young but bitter rivalry with Jacksonville by stunning the Dolphins with a final shot and then knocking them out with a clock that nullified the visitors' own final shot. It was a savage and uninhibited affair that Houston won 76-75 when Jerry (The Judge) Bonney threw in a one-hander with four seconds left. No more than six points had separated the teams all evening and Jacksonville was not dead, even after Bonney's basket.
Amid the delirium that followed. Jacksonville hurled the ball downcourt to Leon Benbow, who streaked in all alone and laid it in the basket at the buzzer for what could have been a Dolphin victory. In Jacksonville, it would have been. In Houston, it was too late.
"I didn't expect him to give it to us," said Jacksonville Coach Tom Wasdin of the timekeeper's decision. "If I were him I'd have ruled for the hometown, too. Who wants to get booed in church and have his tires slashed?"
The Houston victory was only the latest in a schedule that truly has been deep in the heart of Texas. Among Houston's 26 official games this winter. 18 are at home and only five are out of the state. But even without its home-court advantage, Houston is frightening. Its imposing size harks back to the Cougars' two NCAA semifinalist teams of 1966-68 led by Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney. These teams changed the traditional deliberate style of Houston basketball, and Lewis welcomed the change. Since then he has recruited for firepower, and if his players shun most of the accepted forms of guarding, so be it. Eight of his Cougars have gone into pro basketball and two to pro football—one of whom, 265-pound Tackle Bob Hall of the B.C. Lions, he once labeled "not aggressive enough."
The present Houston edition features Louis Dunbar, a gold-toothed sophomore guard from Minden, La. whose hairdo makes him look not so much 6'9" as 9'6"; Dwight Jones, an Olympic team member who alternates between center and forward and sometimes seems to lag at both; and several other imposing fellows collectively known as The Big Bunch. The latter go over 6'9" per man and, as they begin filling up the territory—flapping arms, waving hands and causing confusion—opponents may be excused for hallucinating. "We cut down on the places you can throw a ball to," says Lewis.
Jones normally starts on the frontline with 6'10" Maurice Presley and 6'8" Steve Newsome, while Dunbar is in the backcourt with Bonney, the team's TV personality. When 6'9" Sid Edwards or 6'8" freshman David Marrs fills in, The Bunch becomes extra big.
Early in the season Lewis figured he had two jewels in sophomores Dunbar and Presley, but he had nowhere to put them. After Dunbar shot 0 for 7 and Presley was almost as bad in a road loss to Seattle, Lewis found a place. He would start them. In the very next game at Colorado, Presley went to center, Dunbar to backcourt and together they helped bring off a victory. Dunbar played the entire contest and scored 28 points. In later games the Louisiana Man exhibited poise, ball handling and direction from the guard position while pacing the team in both scoring (with a 21-point average) and smiling. Already he has been selected by the Indiana Pacers in the ABA's non-secret secret draft.
The son of a 280-pound deputy sheriff, Dunbar plays with strange jerking, mechanical motions. The game looks extremely difficult for him—as if his next shot might be his last because some vital part, an arm or a leg, had fallen off and hit the floor with a clank. But Dunbar survives. He calls his style "unfluid," and so it is.
Dunbar's unselfishness and fresh attitude have produced an atmosphere that was missing last season when the two Dwights (Jones and the departed Dwight Davis, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers) refused to get along. Lewis, it is said, went through several bottles of hair dye trying to keep the gray away in his most painful year of coaching.
"All I did last season was hang around and counsel," says Bonney, the team leader who has been a regular for three years. "I'd do some counsel work with one Dwight, then with the other. Then Dunbar and Presley come in here and all they care about is winning. Em co-captain now, and I got nothing to do."
Off court Bonney has plenty to occupy his time. A grade-school pal of heavyweight champion George Foreman, Bonney is a serious student in prelaw. He has a segment of a half-hour variety show on weekend TV. To avoid ruffling vanities, none of the team has been on Bonney's show yet, but the Cougars may soon appear as a group.
The team could have used a lot more togetherness Saturday night against Jacksonville. Previously, the schools had played twice—exchanging last-second victories, complaints and insults—but this was the most invigorating contest yet.
Jacksonville's Wasdin, who has molded his young team into a solid, patient unit and turned Center Butch Taylor into the most improved big man in the land, planned to press the Cougars. Early on, Dunbar was swallowed up by the Dolphins' smaller Benbow, while Jones and Presley went to sleep underneath and Jacksonville took the lead. Luckily, Newsome kept bailing out the Cougars, scoring 15 of Houston's first 17 points.
But as time went on Dunbar began to assert himself and Bonney and Sid Edwards came off the bench to help bring the Cougars back. Behind 70-66, Edwards hit two free throws, Newsome scored a layup and Bonney drove for the basket that put Houston ahead 72-70. With 24 seconds left, Taylor—who had 29 points, 16 rebounds and outplayed every one of Houston's giants—stole a pass from Jones and was fouled. He made the first free throw to give Jacksonville a 75-74 lead, only to miss the second and enable the Cougars to quickly set up for a final shot.
Houston setting up, however, is a Chinese fire drill. Dunbar fooled with the ball outside for precious seconds, Jones stumbled around inside and finally Bonney got open. There went his hop-push shot. ("I never had a jump shot," he said. "Jumping takes too much effort.") There went Jacksonville's Benbow. There went the clock.
Afterward Wasdin screamed, Taylor had to be restrained from attacking the timekeeper, Guy V. Lewis went off chortling in his newest jacket, a white-on-red brocade with diagonal patterns. "Can you believe my two centers go 1 for 12, two points combined, and we still win?" he said. "This is crazy."
No, this is Houston.