Is it possible to begin a college basketball season without raising hosannas to Bill Walton and his UCLA Bruins? Well, no. So here's to Bill—Kick him in the knee, rah, rah, rah. Sting him with a bee, sis, boom, bah—and to Coach Johnny Wooden and all the other Bruins on the 10th anniversary of the origins of their reign. May they have no more.
May they, rather, appear as cameos in the following scenario: On Dec. 1 in Los Angeles Tom McMillen puts down his Kierkegaard, Lefty Driesell punches a hole in his locker and Maryland defeats UCLA. On Dec. 15 in St. Louis Tom Burleson knocks his head on a rafter, David Thompson scores 400 points and North Carolina State defeats UCLA. In February Bobby Jones makes a shot of over three feet, Dean Smith substitutes 15 men at one time and North Carolina has beaten both Maryland and North Carolina State on the way to winding up an undefeated regular season. In March the Atlantic Coast Conference concludes its most successful year ever as four teams are put on probation for embezzlement and two are suspended for mail fraud. Finally, at the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, UCLA is dethroned once and for all by the ACC. As Coach Tates Locke waves his whip and chair, hush puppies cascade from the rafters and 15,000 overalled dung shovelers shout their school's frantic slogan, "I-P-T-A-Y, I-P-T-A-Y [I Pay 20 a Year]." Clemson wins the championship.
Perhaps that moment next spring when the NCAA title is decided in the Carolina pines will not be the end of the UCLA tyranny. Maybe, instead, it will come earlier against archrival Southern Cal, or Oregon or Stanford, young teams waiting with bared teeth in the Bruins' own conference. It might even end against Notre Dame, the team that last beat the Bruins back there in, what was it, 1918? and may remember how to do it again if husky freshman Adrian Dantley can make the starting lineup. But if history be a guide, when UCLA falls it just as likely could be the Atlantic Coast Conference that will be there waiting.
Despite the swollen claims of supremacy generated by the ACC's own publicity organs and, conversely, the mocking derision the conference receives from professional skeptics—Southern Cal's Bob Boyd says, "As a group our little teams in the Pac Eight year in and year out would kick the ACC's rear end"—the truth lies somewhere between.
Wherever that is, it must be conceded that for colorful teams, imaginative coaches, smart players, kinky incidents, blatant outrages, spectacular coat-and-tie getups, enthusiasm, noise, old-fashioned bitterness and downright exciting basketball, top-to-bottom the Atlantic Coast Conference leads them all.
Let us dispense with the simple facts that during the 20 years the conference has been in existence with its postseason tournament, only 13 times has the regular-season champion (and best team) escaped double jeopardy and won the tournament; that of those 13 teams, only 10 were eligible for the NCAA tournament (North Carolina State was on probation in 1955, 1959 and again last year); and that of those 10, nine won the Eastern regional while nothing short of a four-overtime defeat stopped the 10th (Canisius beat N.C. State 79-78 in 1956).
Let us toss off the statistics showing that since 1962 the ACC has won the Eastern regional and advanced to the Final Four eight times (more than any other league except the Pac Eight—where UCLA has been the representative 10 times). And that in the four years the ACC did not win the East, it may have been because the regular-season champion (and best team) did not even go—i.e., last March when N.C. State sat home again while Maryland advanced and, with Center Len Elmore playing on one foot, lost to Providence.
Let us not even mention the past appearances on the national scene of four schools located within a 90-mile slice of North Carolina's Tobacco Road. Or the unbeaten 32-0 North Carolina team of 1957. Or the All-Americas and the Top Ten teams. Or last year's symbolic achievement when at one point ACC teams were ranked two, three and four in the land.
Let us throw all of this away. What should be pointed out is how the ACC has girded for UCLA.
Though league representatives have twice lost to the Bruins in the NCAA finals (Duke in 1964 and North Carolina in 1968), which was the last team to beat UCLA in the Final Four? Which was the last team to—get this—embarrass UCLA? It was an ACC representative on both counts. In 1962 Wake Forest defeated the Bruins for national third place. And in 1965 Duke beat UCLA back-to-back 82-66 and 94-75, which means that during one lost weekend in Carolina the Bruins lost as many out-of-league games as they have in the seven years since. Indeed, against UCLA the ACC is 3-5. USC's Bob Boyd is 2-14.
All of this, along with $12.95, will get you a piece of beef jerky down at the grocery when UCLA starts truckin' again this winter. But it is interesting to note that if anybody in any one year has been prepared to stop the Bruins' ritual slaughter it is the ACC in 1973-74.
First there will be those early-season clashes between UCLA and Maryland and North Carolina State that should provide opportunities for action and not just talk. Then there will be the Eastern regionals and the NCAA finals to be held in the ACC strongholds of Raleigh and Greensboro. In between will appear players, plans and possibilities galore.
At Maryland, besides McMillen and Elmore and the omniscient Driesell, there is John Lucas, the best left-handed black tennis player in college (and one of the best basketball players in back-court). He steadies a dangerous, veteran lineup.
At North Carolina State there are the tall Tom Burleson and tiny Monte Towe, who will move in lockstep with several burly forwards and a couple of talented junior-college transfers as the Wolfpack attempts to duplicate its 27-0 record of last year.
At North Carolina, joining the splendid Olympian Jones and Mitch Kupchak of the World University Games team, there are tall and able Ed Stahl and the best freshman class in school history, including a fellow named Walter Davis who is destined, says one coach given to superlatives, "for instant superdom."
At Virginia and Wake Forest there are Wonderful Wally Walker, back from the deck of the Cuban brawl in the World University Games, and Tony Byers, a smooth and serpentine operator in the pro mold.
At Clemson there is a new 7-footer, Wayne Rollins of Cordele, Ga., who turned his back on Kentucky among others just to play in the ACC. And at Duke there are some old (tradition), some new (Coach Neill McGeachy), some borrowed (time) and a lot of blue.
Above all, in the ACC and the state of North Carolina there is hope; and from the dusty potholes off Route 150 out of Boiling Springs to Room 206D of Sullivan Hall on the North Carolina State campus hard by the capitol, hope is David Thompson (see cover).
His name is just David Thompson. Mostly, just David. Unlike other paragons of truth, beauty, virtue and the 42-inch vertical leap, there are no snappy nicknames or capitalized initials for headlines' sake. No Dazzlin' Daves or Titanic Thompsons. Just David. Oh, the North Carolina State publicity office thought it over a few times, but nothing seemed to fit. Then there were the fans who shouted to him down at the Georgia football game in Athens—they called him "Dr. Rise,"—but that passed, too. Happily.
As his littlest teammate, Towe, says, "When basketball people around the country say David, everybody knows who they mean." Thompson himself acknowledges the simplicity. "I don't need any other names. David is enough."
It would be nice to report that David did not become the exquisite player he is by emerging from poverty as so many black athletes have. But he did begin this way. He was the youngest of 11 children and he started school a year early because his family was too busy picking cotton to watch over him. He sang in the church choir, played with goldfish in the graveyard pond, helped his father build a modest house with his bare hands and practiced the proper things with the basketball on a red clay court long after the stars had come out. His home is at the end of a rutted dirt lane that winds around a cemetery halfway between Boiling Springs and the mill town of Shelby in the western part of the state. His father Vellie is 61 years old, a janitor who works the late shift down at the fibers plant; his mother scrubs the floors at Shelby High School.
Two brothers and two sisters still live at home, but there are always more people than that around to tax the environs. The house is not complete. Neither are all the cars out front—only the flowers are. Mrs. Ida Thompson somehow finds time to indulge her touch on the planters and trellises that fill the yard. Botanical splendor thrives amid indigence. Towe calls David "our flower child."
Vellie Thompson is a deacon at the Maple Springs Baptist Church. "Chairman of deacons," he says. He raised his children to respect the Lord and defer to elders. When guests came over, David was ushered to his room; he did not ever talk much, to strangers or anybody else. When his brother wanted to use David's ball to play with older friends, David gave up the ball. Then he ran away to hide and cry.
After school consolidation in 1967 young Thompson played on the jayvee at Crest High School up the highway. He was called Head by his schoolmates—not out of any respect for his academic standing but simply because David had a large pate (the nickname has not survived in Raleigh). David rejected a bid by Coach Ed Peeler to come up with the varsity that first year, but in his sophomore season he started on the big team and scored a lot of points. Still, his shy modesty was painful to behold. When the older players felt he was hogging the ball, David gave it up again. When his father told him to never mind and keep shooting, David did that, too. "He took courage and went on," Vellie says.
Peeler does not remember "more than a few words" out of Thompson for the next three years. When the recruiters started coming around, this became a problem. Eddie Biedenbach, the assistant coach at N.C. State, says the first few times he went to the Thompson home he never got past the screen door. David came out. Biedenbach talked; David listened. Norman Sloan, the Wolfpack head coach, says that when he met David the youngster said so little Sloan was positive Thompson disliked him.
"I never meant to be rude," Thompson says, "but I don't really like to get close to people. If I don't know you I don't open up."
But David was kind, gracious, bright, cooperative, humble and just a prince of a young man. Typically, one of those vicious recruiting hassles that seem SOP in the ACC resulted. North Carolina thought it had David all the way. Duke was around. Gardner-Webb, the school in Boiling Springs, moved in fast. N.C. State was always there, however; Thompson signed a grant-in-aid with Biedenbach in the parking lot of Crest High. Sloan kicked up his heels on a golf course when he heard the news.
"Looking at schools, I saw Tommy Burleson, you know 7'4", a nucleus and a guy who could get the ball," Thompson says. "Carolina didn't have a big man around. I figured at State I would have a good chance at the NCAA."
So it was judged harsh irony when an accumulation of small violations during the recruitment of Thompson and, earlier, Burleson, got State a year's probation last season. (Duke, too, incurred a like penalty for actions involving Thompson.)
The Wolfpack was undaunted. And when State beat Carolina in December with the vastly improved Burleson taking all the rebounds and the gnomelike Towe controlling the contest even as Thompson was experiencing a bad night, the team knew how good it was.
On Super Bowl Sunday the whole world found out about Thompson. Playing at favored Maryland, he already had scored 35 points on an assortment of daring maneuvers and marvelous shots inside and out. With the score tied at 85 he broke from the corner and glided up the foul lane. Suddenly he was in position under the basket as Burleson fired away in the dying seconds. The shot bounced off the front rim, but all alone up there, almost too high to get into the TV picture, was Thompson. He had done his rise routine with hardly anyone aware of it; he simply hung up there for awhile, grabbed the ball as it came off the iron, cradled it and dropped it in for victory.
It was a breathtaking move by a man barely 6'4" but one surely typical of his spectacular yet controlled flowing style of play the year long. Thompson went home to his dirt court at the end of the school year and reappeared last summer in Moscow as the absolute star-spangled hero of the U.S. victory over Russia in the World Games.
By this time it was not stretching credibility to note that a 19-year-old junior could actually be a combination of Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving, at once casual and cataclysmic. An ABA coach refers to Thompson's "joy in playing the game; the ability to lose himself in the team concept and make everyone around him better." A rival college coach says Thompson "plays 6'11". If anybody can keep a team in the game with Walton and UCLA this is the guy."
What Thompson does, really, is play within himself, never wasting effort or abandoning intelligence. This restraint sometimes appears to mirror (and may be a result of) his cautious personality off the court. He looks to be hiding his true skills as one might conceal strong, violent feelings.
"David is so much better than everyone else he must get bored easily," says North Carolina's Jones. "Yet he never plays bored. He does just enough to get the job done at his own pace. You can't stop him; he can only stop himself. Sometimes I think he is teasing us, playing down or something. The first time we played him he made a beauty, and I said 'nice shot.' He turned, smiled and said 'thank you.' I think he might have winked."
All last season, which Thompson went through encumbered by tape supporting torn cartilage in his right knee, critics referred to his lack of lateral motion, an erratic dribble and careless shooting judgment. Now his knee is repaired; he is moving freely, running better, playing defense better, driving with abandon, jumping higher. (Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics says, "On a scale of five we rate Thompson's outside shooting 10.") Also, at 19 he is just starting to fill out. He is heavy-boned and has gained 10 pounds since last season. He is up to 200 even.
"I got pushed around last year," he says. "I'd jump for a rebound and end up way out from under the basket after the bruisers got through with me. Now I feel I'm a lot stronger. I can hold my own. I'm goin' to be poppin' some."
As good as Thompson is, the Wolfpack would not be a force without the blending talents of the huge Burleson and the miniature Towe, both of whose services were in doubt not too long ago. Burleson had been arrested for breaking into a pinball machine and his eligibility was in question until he was let off with a $100 fine. (Now he is kidded as "Tall Tom Dillinger" by some teammates.) Towe, on the other hand, was of such small stature (5'5½") that Sloan once advised a friend who recommended the dwarfish one to the Wolfpack, "You got the wrong team. It's Florida State that runs a circus."
Currently, however, with a giant, a midget and master of the midway, N.C. State is the one under the big top.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has become college basketball's foremost carnival due largely to the efforts of, appropriately, another N.C. State ringmaster. His name was Everett Case, and he arrived in Raleigh as head coach in 1946. Back home in Indiana, Case had never played the game but had been an admired high school coach at the age of 18. Even then he recruited tough; it was said as Case moved from town to town he transferred the good studs with him.
Case was suave and sophisticated. He bought his clothes in Chicago, had them tailored in New York and vacationed in Las Vegas. He owned a lucrative restaurant chain and scored heavily in the stock market. But he quickly became a folk hero among the dirt farmers of eastern North Carolina because he recruited exciting players, coached a fast-break style and competed and won against the best teams in America.
Case had a strategist's mind and a promoter's heart. He originated tournaments—the Dixie Classic with the "Big Four" colleges in the state playing against four outsiders. He forced the construction of enormous Reynolds Coliseum to be completed. He treated the rival teams in nearby Chapel Hill and Durham like junkyard hounds.
In his first 10-year period at State, Case won six Southern Conference tournaments, three ACC tournaments and six Dixie Classics. During that time his teams never won fewer than 24 games in a season and several times the Wolfpack was ranked No. 1 in the country.
Unmarried, unfettered by hobbies or responsibility, Case lived a golden time in Raleigh. He entertained coaches and writers into the wee hours at his large house in Cameron Village. He employed houseboys and had five apartment-style units installed for visiting friends. He initiated parties, was known to take a cocktail now and then and enjoyed full celebrity status.
Then, in 1960, it was over. On a December night, as Case watched nervously from the bench, his Wolfpack mysteriously blew a 26-point lead against Georgia Tech and barely escaped defeat. No State team had ever collapsed like that before. Case smelled a rat, and he was right. When the scandals hit, they broke him. He was never the same, and in 1966, mercifully, he died, leaving most of an estate of half a million dollars to be divided among his players. The trusted ones. He asked to be buried on a hill overlooking Route 70 where his team would always pass to play Duke. "I want to be where I can wave goodby," he said.
What Case had established was enthusiasm and a fanatical interest in college basketball. He forced the Big Four campuses to match him. After State had defeated Carolina 15 straight times, the Chapel Hill school brought Frank McGuire down from St. John's in 1952. McGuire immediately established his underground railroad from New York, and his Gotham street kids beat Case's Hoosier farm boys the first time the teams met. It took McGuire only five more years, in fact, to groom his team to go all the way to the national championship.
In 1957 the Tar Heels were led by Lennie Rosenbluth, whom Case had run off from a tryout camp a few years earlier. They also had a Kearns, a Cunningham, a Quigg and a Brennan, and by their defeat of Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in Kansas City they threw the college game into a melting pot. "I never thought I'd see the day when the state of North Carolina sat up all night to watch four Micks and a Jew chase a black man across the stockyards," one man said.
That year Carolina completed what still may be the most memorable season a college team ever had. The Tar Heels won 24 games away from home. They won four overtime games. They won 13 games by fewer than 10 points. They finished the year by defeating Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals in three overtimes and Kansas in the finals in another three. Governor Luther Hodges sat on the bench; his constituents watched on TV at home in ecstasy.
When the team returned to North Carolina hours later 10,000 people were there, and the Raleigh-Durham airport just about collapsed. Now McGuire was king of the state. Though both sides deny it, this meteoric rush undoubtedly fostered the feuds, fights, name-calling and antagonistic resentments that have marked the Carolina-State series to this day and created bitter battlegrounds all through the ACC.
N.C. State was on probation and Carolina was soon to arrive there as Case and McGuire fought for power. On occasion the two coaches would meet for Sunday chats, but this relationship was mostly for show. The acting president of the state university system once had to call them together and reprimand them "for trying to tear the system apart."
McGuire began to lose his mass support in 1959 when he pulled his starters in the final of the ACC tournament and let season co-champion State rout the Tar Heels 80-56. With State on probation, Carolina was already assured of an NCAA tournament berth. McGuire said, "The game didn't mean anything." In 1961, this time with his own champion Tar Heels on probation, McGuire again thumbed his nose at Case by declining to play in the ACC tournament at all. It was his final act as coach. McGuire left Chapel Hill that spring.
Into the 1960s the scandals forced cutbacks in the athletic programs at State and Carolina. There was a rush to fill the vacuum. Bones McKinney, who had been a famous player at both state schools, took over as coach down the road at Wake Forest and constructed a fine team on the burly shoulders of Len Chappell. Vic Bubas, who had been a player and assistant under Case, switched to Duke. He brought in Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins and finished in the top 10 six years in a row. Later Dean Smith, who had resurrected the sport at Chapel Hill, had a run of three straight Eastern championships. McGuire resurfaced at South Carolina with John Roche and other New York characters right out of A Clockwork Orange. Lefty Driesell came into Maryland recruiting his heart out, and he got McMillen away from Smith in the recruiting cause cél√®bre of the decade. Sloan, another player under Case at N.C. State, hurried back to his alma mater. In 1968 he beat Duke 12-10 and then nudged his way past Smith and Driesell by landing Burleson and Thompson. The battles were joined all over again.
Today with more and better players, regal indoor stadiums, vast recruiting budgets and promotional brochures that publicize everything but the players' favorite uppers, the ACC is more brutal than ever. Very few head coaches leave the ACC to work elsewhere. "It would be like going to the minors," says McKinney.
Animosities linger. Clemson's Tates Locke once told his players of Driesell, "Just get me to the last two minutes even and I'll outcoach this SOB from there." Smith and Driesell should not be invited to the same party. Smith and Sloan should not be invited to the same city.
"We aren't little boys running around sticking our tongues out," says one coach. But too often the pressures, stakes, egos and conceits of trying to stay ahead make them act like boys.
Solid citizens are not immune to such feelings. One of N.C. State's leading contributors regularly calls a Raleigh radio talk show and publicly refers to Smith as Nickel Nose. "I have to laugh," says Smith. "I didn't think State guys were that clever." Around the league Sloan's past transgressions into the realm of fury are cited and he is called Stormy Normy, the Human Panic.
Graduates of the four North Carolina schools live, work and play next door to each other. When a man's team loses at night, he loses at the office the next morning. Even children become pawns.
Last Christmas Eve, as Sloan was leaving candlelight services, he was stopped by a State alumnus who introduced him to a 9-year-old boy, an ardent Carolina fan. Peace and love were in the air. Silent Night could be heard from inside the church. As Sloan reached out his hand the boy shrank back in horror. "Ugh," he said, "I don't even want to touch you."
It is into this atmosphere that the national tournament will come next March. If anything has a chance to pull the ACC together in common bond, probably it is the prospect of one of its teams defeating UCLA. Maybe Maryland can do it. Perhaps North Carolina can. Inevitably, N.C. State has the best chance.
As Burleson says, the Wolfpack can succeed if he plays Bill Walton "medium" and David Thompson has a "super" game. Towe says anytime you have Thompson on your side you have an advantage, that against UCLA David will be terrific.
A few days ago Assistant Coach Biedenbach was showing the ACC highlight film to an audience of students on the State campus. The movie showed Towe spinning like a yo-yo, Thompson ramming through defenders and Burleson towering over everybody. Afterward, one kid loudly asked, "How you goin' to stop Walton?"
The whole room turned and looked up, up at Burleson. Then it exploded in laughter. Except that the man next to Burleson did not laugh. His name was David. Just David. He winked.