Place the name Wallace on a ballot, and Alabama will vote for it. Turn a football game into a bowl and Alabama will lose it. Take one of the bright new programs in basketball, set it down in pigskin-crazed Alabama, and it seems doomed to experience a miserable combination of both. The Crimson Tide gets plenty of votes in the polls. Then it gets beat.
In 1973 the Alabama basketball team lost at home to Kentucky when victory would have meant the Southeastern Conference championship. A year ago the Tide was defeated on its own court by Vanderbilt under similar circumstances. And last week 'Bama again had everything for the taking in Tuscaloosa: victory over second-place Kentucky, a 14-1 league record and a virtual clinching of the SEC title. Disaster struck once more.
Kentucky's star shooter, Kevin Grevey, who had been benched for what his coach called "gutlessness," returned from exile to score 12 points in the final 11½ minutes and led the Wildcats to an 84-79 victory.
The Kentucky upset rendered meaningless a remarkable performance by 'Bama Center Leon (Grandpa) Douglas, who had 34 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots, but almost no help from his teammates. Trying to take on the Wildcats alone, he was worn into exhaustion and finally had to leave the game. The 'Cats' victory also demonstrated the effectiveness of the Kentucky bench; reinforcements helped the 'Cats amass 17 more shots and 16 more rebounds than the home team and paced Kentucky's late rally, and the comeback victory threw the SEC race into a deadlock with three games to go.
The fact that both teams will wind up in this year's expanded NCAA tournament came as no consolation to the Tide. Coach C. M. Newton could only watch in bewilderment as Alabama blew two big leads by throwing the ball away, rushing shots and committing atrocious mental errors. 'Bama's fine senior guard, Charles Cleveland, got into early foul trouble, missed eight of 10 shots and was never a factor. Neither was anyone else except Douglas.
Called Grandpa because—natch—he is so young (20), Douglas whirled, spun, drove and banked the ball for his 13 baskets while impersonating a punching bag for 34 minutes. Time after time he got up off the floor and missed free throws. Grandpa took himself out with 1:30 left, 'Bama behind 78-75 and the game in the balance. He said he was too weak to continue. "I couldn't straighten my arm. I was whipped," he said. Even Newton could not fault him. "Leon was spent," the coach said. "I couldn't ask him to go back in."
Ironically, long before that, Kentucky Coach Joe Hall had refused to put Grevey back in. The 6'5" senior had played without distinction in the first half when the 'Cats fell behind 40-35. Then Hall let Grevey have it at intermission: "Gutless. Namby-pamby on defense. You're being intimidated and you're not helping us."
For the first time in his career Grevey did not start the second half. He sat on the bench as Kentucky fell behind 49-37. But freshmen Rick Robey and Jack Givens, who combined for 27 points, brought the Wildcats to within four. Grevey sat some more as Alabama moved out to a 60-51 lead. He returned to the floor with 11:31 to go. "I'm dumb, but I'm not that dumb," Hall said later. "We needed him."
Indeed, Kentucky did. After 'Bama scored to stretch its lead to 11, Grevey hit his first second-half shot, a 25-foot jumper. Immediately the Wildcats were visibly revved up and roared ahead 73-69 before Alabama made a nice comeback of its own, tying the game at 73.
On the Tide's next trip down the floor, Kentucky's Bob Guyette stepped in front of Douglas to pick off a pass, and on the ensuing fast break he somehow rammed in a shot while lunging backward toward the basket. Guyette also was fouled and went to the free-throw line to pick up another of his 17 points.
Then Douglas forced an ill-timed shot, and Guyette fired again. This time he launched an air ball, but Grevey raced in from midcourt, caught his teammate's shot knee-high under the basket and curled the ball in to make the score 78-73.
After an Alabama time-out, Cleveland scored on a rebound and Douglas blocked another Guyette shot, but that was the big fellow's last gasp. He wanted out, and with him went the game.
With 45 seconds remaining and the score 78-77, Kentucky worked the ball carefully until Grevey could get open. He wheeled in the lane, faked, went high in the air and lofted in the basket that meant the most.
As competitive as it has become, the Kentucky-Alabama rivalry is not of the you-kick-my-guts-in-before-I-cut-your-throat kind. The teams took turns sweeping the series the past two seasons. But even when the games were close, there was never an incident.
The friendliness began long ago with the coaches. Hall and Newton both played at Kentucky, and the 'Bama coach spent 12 years in Lexington, Ky. as head man at tiny Transylvania College. Hall became an assistant at UK during that time, and they saw each other often enough to build a jovial relationship.
Asked last week where 'Bama's weaknesses lay, Hall said, "They start with the dumb coach."
Newton countered with, "I figured we had that advantage."
Any attempt to stir up Alabama meets with stiff resistance anyway, because of the team's steely demeanor. After Kentucky's 74-69 decision over the Tide at Lexington, Robey said he was more impressed with Indiana than Alabama and that the Hoosiers' Kent Benson had been much more effective than Douglas.
"What do you think of that?" The Tuscaloosa News' Mike McKenzie asked Douglas, who had managed a measly 27 points and 25 rebounds against Robey and his substitutes.
"Awwww, nothin'," said Douglas.
"Doesn't that fire you up?" McKenzie inquired.
"Don't you want to eat Robey's lunch?" McKenzie pressed on.
"Awwww, nawwww. I'm gonna do that anyway," Douglas concluded.
In comparison, the visiting Wildcats were a highly charged lot. The Kentucky seniors kept calling the game "the last hurrah," and Hall worried about rebounding. " 'Bama has torpedoes for jumpers," he said.
"Alabama isn't that good outside," Grevey demurred. "We have to be as physical as possible. So what if we foul? They'll make their normal 60% from the line, and our reserves will wear them out."
That is exactly what Kentucky did. And it did it by being especially dominant in that elusive quality known as character. Alabama showed an unwillingness to take the game in hand when it had the opportunity. In the first half 'Bama had nine one-and-one free throw chances and missed the first shot six times. Of a possible 23 points at the foul line, the Tide made only eight.
Then there was Douglas' intimidation, Grevey's benching, the 12-point lead and all that pressure on the invaders. Still, the home team could not come through.
"I felt we had it won all along," said Guyette. "We've been there before."
So, alas, has Alabama.