Oklahoma. Land rushes, oil rushes and fullback rushes. I never met a football man I didn't like, or an oil well. If it can't block, tackle and get down and grunt like a fatty in a buffet line, Okies claim it's probably weird. Their legends come in shoulder pads, or sayin' interestin' stuff like ol' Will Rogers did. Great game, Bud. Certainly is, Chris.
Oh, there have been a couple of baseball players from the state. Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Johnny Bench. And genuine cinema stars like Van Heflin and James Garner. Yet old Henry Iba is the only man who ever interested them in basketball very much, and he's been gone a while now.
But the times, they are a-changin'. Oklahoma now has not one but two outstanding, legitimate, potential All-America basketball players for the first time since the invention of television. Together they are the hottest pair since Little Fauss and Big Halsy went through the area, and have about the same dimensions. The puny one is Willie Biles of Tulsa, a 6'3" guard who likes nothing better than a meal of vegetables and ice cream topped off by a 40-point night. The big 'un is 6'9" sophomore Alvan Adams out of the University of Oklahoma. He does magic tricks both on and off the court and opponents wish he would make himself disappear. The two sensations have Oklahoma folks running out to tack up a basket on the backyard derrick.
The two of them started their season's serious operation last Friday night in Oklahoma City in the Big Four doubleheader at the Myriad Center. The bill was a basketball extravaganza between the state's four major universities, and B&A gave every indication that they were going to have another big year. In between yawns Adams scored 12 points and had 13 rebounds, and Oklahoma had an 87-68 victory over Oklahoma City. Alvan spent the summer playing against the Russians and the Chinese and he admitted that the return to college competition was a bit tedious, although his passing and defense were still up to the standard that made him Big Eight Player of the Year in his freshman season. Biles, meanwhile, was trying out a novel image last week, and, like a suit of new clothes, it will need alterations. Willie scored 19 points but Tulsa sputtered to an embarrassing 72-54 loss to Oklahoma State.
Although similar in appeal, Biles and Adams are separated by a chasm of diverse cultural and environmental backgrounds. Willie Biles, one of 12 children, was raised in a small black community on the southeast fringe of Memphis, Tenn., and likes to remind people that he was the only athlete from his high school ever to go away to college and stay there. He never learned to enjoy the rich taste of steak, part of the reason he is considering becoming a vegetarian. Even today steak makes him sick.
Biles is best typified by that comical creation of Cheech & Chong's underground humor, Basketball Jones, who wants nothing more than to hit the open man and get a pick at the free-throw line of life. Last year Biles showed up for practice with shortly cropped hair. "Keeping an Afro neat takes a lot of time," he explained. "I didn't want to take the time away from basketball."
Adams is an honor student who graduated at the head of his 900-member high school class in Oklahoma City. He is wavering between a career in basketball and one in medicine. At least one pro basketball general manager has called him "the best college freshman I ever saw," and the Utah Stars drafted him and dangled a big contract at the end of last season. In his debut with the Sooners he scored 34 points and set a school rebounding record with 28 and went on to be second in the conference in rebounding, also averaging 22 points a game. He shot 55% from the floor, and after he broke his wrist and had to sit out the final five games he moved to the sideline as the team's radio color man. His teammates call themselves The Adams Family. A group of local high school students clusters in the stands at home games wearing red helmets and lettered T shirts. They are Alvan's Army.
On a night before the Big Four doubleheader, their commander-in-chief was outside when a shooting star streaked across the sky.
"Maybe that's the new comet," someone remarked.
"No," Adams corrected. "The comet Kohoutek won't be visible until the end of the first week of December. You will be able to see it through the 15th of January, with best visibility just before sunrise, and at times its path will stretch across one-sixth of the sky. The comet is composed of vaporized gas...."
"Uh, thanks, Alvan."
Watching him on the floor you might wonder what sort of juice Alvan Adams runs on. Perhaps he is an escapee from Westworld, or made by Mattel. He never shows any emotion; he didn't even after he suffered the broken wrist against Missouri last February. Earlier in that game he had been knocked unconscious. Opponents always double-team him, and frequently he looks like a statue with pigeons roosting on it.
Adams' demeanor, like Biles', is so low-key that other teams must feel an urge to check his pulse. "If he has any weakness, it's that he finds the competition too boring at times," says Joe Ramsey, who stepped in as OU coach after Lester Lane suffered a fatal heart attack in September.
Against Oklahoma City last Friday Adams' modulation was set at such a low pitch that he took only one shot in the game's first 11 minutes.
"I just wasn't ready for the game," Alvan admitted. "Riding down here on the bus I noticed that I wasn't nervous about anything." A few nights before, in an exhibition game with Yugoslavia's touring national team, Adams scored 30 points against Kresimir Cosic, an outstanding player during his college career at Brigham Young.
Frequently Adams is downfloor to finish off the fast break, and against Oklahoma City his defensive timing was so sharp that he blocked several shots. Like Biles, Adams is a pure shooter. In high school he hit 72% of his shots, the kind of statistic that reads as if the player were shooting practice layups.
Adams, with the coordination and grace of a sprinter, is a highly versatile athlete. He was on his high school tennis team and was engrossed in baseball until he grew too tall to bend over for ground balls. He plays golf, is a movie fanatic—favoring Clint Eastwood Westerns—likes soft rock music in the fashion of Cat Stevens, dabbles in magic and card tricks and has a 3.5 academic average coupled with an aversion to studying. "I'm not a brain," he protests. "I can just cram and memorize better than most people." His biggest abnormality is that he wears a size 17 sneaker on one foot, a size 16 on the other.
When Adams arrived at Oklahoma, his big ambition was to make the varsity as a freshman. So he wound up the team's leading scorer and rebounder in all but four games, and Oklahoma finished at 18-8. There is a new basketball arena under construction to replace the dismal 4,700-seat current facility (using Adams in the OU Old Field House is like displaying a diamond in a brass setting) and the Sooners are talking about chances for their first Big Eight basketball title.
With Willie Biles, Tulsa also is thinking big. Last year he was the first Missouri Valley Conference player in 13 years to average more than 30 points, hitting at a 44-per-game clip in the final six games. Before Oklahoma State last week, Biles guessed that with the addition of junior college transfers Zack Jones and Grasshopper Smith, plus the return of All-Conference Center Sammy High, he would not have to score as much.
Biles' new concept of himself did not do much for the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa came to town swaggering and ready for a big victory and went away chagrined. The ignominious performance was best characterized by their statistics from the free-throw line: four for 15. "I felt so bad shooting the ball that I almost wished I wouldn't have been open so much," Biles moaned.
His shooting style is decidedly unorthodox—legs splayed, body lurching forward, the ball released off his palm instead of fingers—but definitely efficient. "I can shoot better with somebody on me and when I'm off balance," he says. "I just aim right over them." In a game against North Texas State last year he had a stretch where he made 20 of 25 shots. With Tulsa trailing by 18 in the second half against Drake, Biles made eight of nine shots in the last five minutes and Tulsa won by a point. He won another game with a last-second shot against St. Louis. For these and other extraordinary feats he has earned the nickname Ice Man.
"It doesn't matter how you guard him," says Sammy High. "Everybody did a good job on him last year. But it didn't make any difference. Against North Texas he went up, I heard a slap when they hit on him and then a swish when he hit on them."
That seems to be the style in Oklahoma. Sticks and stones may break their bones but Biles and Adams will probably beat you. People never knew basketball could be so much fun.