The towns they hail from are not yet on the Dairy Queen expansion list, much less the NBA's, and again they were all seeded with the clairvoyance of a Farmer's Almanac, but if the teams were overshadowed by the players in the nation's oldest and longest collegiate basketball tournament, there were some obvious reasons. One player, for instance, was 10 years older and six inches shorter than his replacement. Another was a superfrosh. Overshadowing everything, however, were the feats of Foots.
Foots is the nickname of Clarence Walker—Foots Walker, heh, heh—of West Georgia College, which won the 37th NAIA championship last Saturday night in Kansas City by bopping Alcorn State 97-79 in an All-Southern, All-Braves final. Walker, a 6'1", 172-pound guard with dazzling body control, coil-spring legs and internal radar when it comes to hitting either the bucket or the open man, surpassed his small college All-America reputation. He also delighted the six-day crowd of 72,082, the student body back in Carrollton, Ga. and the pro scouts who saw his magic.
En route to the tournament's Most Valuable Player award, which was a shoo-in, Foots scored 111 points and had 44 assists, playing virtually every minute. The title game was Walker's fifth of the week, but he scored 24 points, got 11 assists and said afterward, "I usually play all 40 minutes, so I wasn't worried about getting tired. I never come out. Right now I feel like I could go again in another one."
Alcorn Coach Davey Whitney also considered the wearying effect of the NAIA, which is not so much a basketball tournament as a six-day marathon, and he opted, in the final game, for the strategy he had considered trying in the semifinal against St. Mary's of San Antonio. "We thought about playing five sophomores as late as six o'clock this afternoon," Whitney had said Friday night. "We knew they weren't as tired as the fellows who had been playing. But I decided if I did that and lost, my name would be mud."
March 24, 1974
While Whitney did not start his five sophs against West Georgia, he did get them into the contest early in the first half. The strategy backfired by hurting Alcorn's guard rotation, and West Georgia relentlessly ran its fresh foes into the ground with no more trouble than it had experienced against the starters. During the last two minutes of the half, Foots Walker and his mates outscored Alcorn 10-0 for a 53-43 halftime lead.
Alcorn did close to within four points on three straight buckets by Joe Martin, but the team's talent for goaltending, which exceeded the finest hours of Ken Dryden, proved damaging. Called for that violation a fifth time, Alcorn was then burned when Walker countered with a layup before setting up Tom Turner, the team's leading scorer, for three quick field goals to put the game out of reach. In the last nine minutes Alcorn never got closer than 13 points.
"We knew we'd be all right if we stayed with our regular game," said West Georgia Coach Roger Kaiser, dapper former Georgia Tech and ABL player who sported white shoes and a denim suit through much of the tourney. "We felt with our press we'd give them some trouble and we thought we could run them because they crash the boards so hard they get tired."
West Georgia was seeded 14th going into the NAIA, but it soon became obvious that its lowly status was undeserved. Piling up more than 100 points in each of its first three games, Kaiser's club got its only major scare in Friday night's semifinal against second-seeded Kentucky State, a team that had not lost a tournament game to anything other than Georgia entries since 1970. Valdosta State knocked Kentucky State out in the first round last year, but Coach Lucias Mitchell had since recruited Gerald Cunningham, a 6'6", 205-pound forward whom he calls the best freshman in the country. Cunningham matched his coach's praise, leading the tournament in scoring with 145 points and topping the rebound charts with 61. He also scored 33 points and picked off 14 rebounds against West Georgia, but it was not enough to save his team's 24-game win streak.
However, Kentucky State did have its moment. Sparked by Walker and Jerry Faulkner, a 5'11", goateed fireplug who outjumped rivals a foot taller. West Georgia had moved to an 18-point lead with little more than 10 minutes left when the flow changed dramatically. During the next nine minutes State outscored the Braves 23-7 to make it 77-75 before Walker, exhibiting some of the finest dribbling and passing of the tournament, led a freeze that killed a full minute. Turner was then fouled intentionally on something resembling a gang tackle and the game ended with two free throws at 79-75.
Alcorn traveled a more hazardous road to the finals, one marked by mechanical errors and a penchant for fouling that regularly gave its opposition the one-and-one free-throw advantage early. Alcorn's most glorious adventure, however, was a quarterfinal matchup with Hanover (Ind.), that the Braves took 107-102 after a double overtime and an upsetting delay caused by a short circuit in the overworked scoreboard clock. That incident, against a cacophony of screams, whistles, horns and foot stomping, generated this public-address request: "Will the sound man bring a soldering gun to the scorer's table, please." Alcorn spent most of the unscheduled time-out collectively dancing up and down in front of the bench, keeping loose. The Braves were charged with six goaltending violations in that game, but they were not quite enough for Hanover.
Alcorn also got a frisky workout the next night from St. Mary's which, for crowd sentiment, had the player of. the tournament in tiny George Harris, a 5'7", 29-year-old guard who fought off the handicap of a groin injury sufficiently to win the tourney's hustle award. Harris, an eight-year Air Force veteran who served in Germany, Japan and England, played for DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City when one of his opponents was Connie Hawkins. Coach Ed Messbarger recruited him from Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio and has no regrets. "There's no question that he's a great team leader," Messbarger says. "With George in there, we play a one-guard offense and he's a steadying influence." Happily for Messbarger, Harris will return next season as a 30-year-old senior. Alcorn beat St. Mary's 76-71, the margin decided by free throws and a 47-33 edge in rebounds. Kentucky State then beat St. Mary's for third place 95-79, but the Rattlers took some solace out of winning the sportsmanship award.
But nothing matched the unrestrained joy of West Georgia and its tiny knot of fans who swarmed all over Coach Kaiser, Foots Walker and the rest of the club when the tournament had ended.
Walker landed in West Georgia after playing at Vincennes (Ind.) Junior College, where his teammate and roomie was Bob McAdoo, now the NBA's leading scorer with the Buffalo Braves. His abiding ambition is to follow McAdoo into the pros and his performances last week certainly did not hurt his chances of reaching the first plateau—getting drafted.
"I knew the pro scouts were here and were looking at me," he said, "but I didn't think much about it. I just tried to do the best I could and let the rest take care of itself." One night earlier he had said, "I sure hope I make it in pro ball. That's what it's all about."
Kaiser, albeit biased, thinks Walker is a cinch. "He wouldn't have to score a point for us to be a very valuable man," he said, "and I think he's an excellent prospect. Anyone who needs a guy to get the ball to the shooters will take him in a minute."
Indeed, Foots should be some helping hand.