Try to tell basketball fans at Centenary College in Shreveport, La. that Houdini was the world's greatest magician and they will snort in disbelief. They are convinced it's someone called N.C. Doubleay, who can make giants vanish before your eyes. In one performance that has had the Centenary campus buzzing for three years, ol' N.C.A.A., as he's familiarly known, slipped a few good-sized forwards up a sleeve, then—poof!—made a 7'1" center disappear and, for a finale, erased an entire college with one sweep of a bureaucratic magic wand.
As a result, Centenary's towering Robert Parish is a cinch for the Invisible Man of the Year Award, David McCallum notwithstanding. That is, if anyone can ever find Parish. He is one of the three or four best centers in the country, but don't bother to bring up his name to the NCAA. The response would be a terse "Who?"
Three years ago the NCAA had something called the 1.6 Prediction Rule, which qualified freshmen for athletics on the basis of a formula involving their high school grades and standardized test scores. Parish took a test that did not fit the formula, and Centenary converted his score to an equivalent that did fit, as it had with 12 other athletes in the previous two years. But that was a violation of regulations, a fact which the NCAA either had not bothered to tell Centenary about in the cases preceding Parish's or had not noticed, since none of the other athletes attracted the attention that Parish did. Shortly before Parish matriculated, the NCAA informed Centenary, a Methodist school, that he would be ineligible, but that the college's sins would be forgiven if it would lift the scholarships of the five players whose test scores had been converted. In essence, the NCAA was telling Centenary to obey the rules followed by its other member schools.
"But the rule doesn't say the scores can't be converted," argued Centenary.
"But it doesn't say they can," replied the NCAA.
"We refuse to renege on the scholarships," said Centenary.
"O.K. If that's how you want it, here's six years' probation," said the NCAA. And it began giving Centenary the silent treatment by excluding it from the weekly statistical summaries, the annual press guide and, of course, all postseason tournaments.
That's the grim part. Now the ironic part. The same week Centenary went on probation the NCAA revoked the 1.6 Rule. All five players, theoretically, then qualified for intercollegiate sports. No, said the NCAA, rules are rules, even if they aren't rules any more. Several months later the five players sued the NCAA in hopes of regaining their eligibility, but lost.
Only slightly daunted, Centenary, which has 700 students—easily the smallest enrollment among schools participating in major college competition—won 65 of its 81 games during Parish's first three years, including 25 of 29 last season. In those 81 games, Parish averaged 20.6 points and 16.5 rebounds. During the 1974-75 season he led the Invisible League in rebounds with 447; the NCAA's major college leader in that department, Furman's Clyde Mayes, had a mere 394. Parish also led the United States" team to a gold medal in this fall's Pan-American Games, even though, as an indirect result of his difficulties with the NCAA, he had not been recommended for a spot on the squad. His school paid his fare to Salt Lake City so he could try out. Once Parish made the U.S. team, he was unanimously elected captain.
All along, Parish has been turning down a lucrative escape route from anonymity—the pros. Professional scouts are certain he has the physical ability, but they cannot figure out whether his decision to remain at Centenary is a praiseworthy display of loyalty or an indication that he is ill-advised. Had he transferred to another school, the NCAA would have allowed him eligibility and he would have become one of the best-known college players.
"I didn't transfer because Centenary did nothing wrong," Parish says. "And I have no regrets. None."
Since Centenary's schedule includes no highly ranked opponents—most big-name schools are understandably reluctant to face the embarrassment of losing to a team that does not exist—Parish is not often challenged. So there is lingering doubt about how he would fare against stiffer competition. Says one pro scout, "The jury is still out as to whether Parish can win games for a pro team. He can definitely play in the pros and he's going to get a lot of money, but that doesn't mean he's going to be another Abdul-Jabbar."
Parish looked a little like Kareem in Centenary's season opener last week in Mobile against South Alabama, the country's highest-scoring major college team last year with 92.8 points per game. In an 82-68 victory he scored 22 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked four shots. Centenary diligently sent the statistics to the NCAA, as it has after every game the last three seasons. But no one seems to know whether or not the figures are recorded. If Parish plays as well as expected this season, it may be that the No. 1 pro draft choice next spring will be a man who never played a college game. Just ask N.C. Doubleay.