From the moment he arrived at Marquette three years ago until the third game of the current season, Earl Tatum, a shy poor boy from Mount Vernon, N.Y., has been a watched pot that refused to boil. Refused, in fact, to rise above room temperature. While his coach, Al McGuire, called him "a black Jerry West" and the most talented player I've ever coached," Tatum averaged less than 10 points a game. To resemble West, he needed more than a twang and a turtleneck; he had to make his jump shot far more consistently.
Glimpses of Tatum's talents, the long rainbow of a jumper, the lofty leap for rebounds, the quick-handed steals, were seen outside the practice gym only occasionally. Those rare moments merely served to remind Marquette fans of unfulfilled promises, but none of them were more disappointed than Tatum himself.
After scoring 17 points during the Warriors' first two games this season, Tatum decided to quit. His mother had been evicted from her apartment and she needed him at home. And even though he is a rarity among Marquette players, a senior who will graduate with his class, he also was worried about his studies.
Tatum packed his boxes—suitcases are a luxury he cannot afford—and lay down on his dormitory bed to think it out one last time. "Does anybody know I'm here?" he asked himself. "Am I doing anything?" As he continued this self-analysis, his counselor, a Jesuit priest, knocked on the door. The priest's appearance may have been providential or it may have been ordained by the coaching staff. Tatum does not know, but he listened, then went to see McGuire.
February 2, 1976
If Tatum still planned to leave, that was a mistake. One should never tell McGuire what he does not want to hear. "Earl, don't be stupid," McGuire said. Earl was not stupid. He unpacked.
"I thought about where I'd be a few years from now if I quit," Tatum says. "People would see me on the playground and say, 'There's Tatum. He could have made it. He isn't a black Jerry West. He's just black.' "
The fact is that none of Marquette's players performed well in the season-opening victories over St. Joseph's of Indiana and Northern Michigan. The Milwaukee Arena crowd even booed them during the second game. With four starters back from last season's 23-4 team—Guards Lloyd Walton and Butch Lee and Forwards Bo Ellis (6'9") and Tatum (6'6")—McGuire expected to make a serious run at the national championship. But at the time the Warriors were seriously crawling.
Tatum aroused himself and his team in the third game, scoring 18 points in an 80-58 victory over Drake. He was still starring last week, as Marquette, No. 2 in the UPI poll, stretched its record to 14-1 with a 76-62 defeat of Creighton and a 92-64 blitz of Fordham.
At a school where 20-point performances are as rare as 20-foot jump shots, the broad-shouldered, loose-limbed Tatum is making both routine. His average is 19.7, including a high of 35 in an overtime loss at Minnesota. He had 21 points and 15 rebounds in a tough 79-72 victory at DePaul, and scored 18 against Creighton, six of them in a 10-point burst that broke open the game. And he was not the only Warrior to play well. Lee, the team's second-leading scorer with a 15-point average, also had 18 and made five steals. Ellis, coming around after a plodding start, had 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. Walton, perhaps the best penetrator in the country, dealt off 12 assists to tie a school record. The fifth starter, 6'10" junior college transfer Jerome Whitehead, contributed 13 points and six rebounds. "I can't be cute about it anymore," McGuire said. "We've got a shot at winning it all."
The Warriors have their usual quickness and defensive aplomb—opponents are averaging just 60.2 points a game. But this team also has unusual versatility: muscle from Whitehead, depth in 6'8" freshman Bernard (Looney) Toone and improved shooting, both from the foul line and from Tatum outside. Marquette has also shown an inclination to break out of its deliberate offense and look for the fast break.
One aspect of Marquette basketball that will never change is its penchant for the unusual. The team posed for its publicity pictures this year in costumes borrowed from a repertory company. The results were glossies of basketball-player-sized kings, knights, pirates and dandies. And once again there is a Warrior known as much for his idiosyncrasies as his performances during games. Toone, a freshman in every way, smiles, chews gum, argues with McGuire, collects fouls and plays bad defense. McGuire can be a forgiving man, except when he thinks ability is being squandered. "God doesn't give you talent so you can sit on it," he says. For this reason McGuire feels God demands that he run Toone a mile before every practice. "You've got to understand that Al was an overachiever as a player, and he can't stand to see Bernard waste all that ability," says Assistant Coach Rick Majerus.
Toone possesses the kind of confidence that Tatum has always lacked. It did not bother McGuire when Tatum said the coach had "lead in his head" earlier this year. McGuire likes spunk, and coming from Tatum, it was a rare form of self-expression. A loner by nature, he is also becoming less reclusive. Ellis says that Tatum is now willing "to sit around and lollygag with us."
Tatum's teammates have always had high regard for his basketball talent, even when other people did not. "He's the only person I've ever seen whose shot doesn't hit the rim," says substitute Forward Ulice Payne. Walton is Tatum's catalyst, often passing to him when McGuire might prefer Walton to shoot. "If scoring makes Earl happy, I'm going to see to it that he scores," Walton says.
There is considerable logic to that, since Tatum is the most complete player on the team. He takes a masochistic pleasure in skidding across the floor for loose balls, and he received three ovations within a minute during the Creighton game by blocking a shot, springing for a rebound, then canning his jumper at the other end. Every time he cranks up from 25 feet, there is a buzz of anticipation that grows to an uproarious crescendo as the ball ripples through the net. If he misses, Tatum will grimace, shake his head and raise his hands helplessly. "The man thinks he has to be perfect every time," says Whitehead.
As far as McGuire is concerned, Tatum is almost perfect. "Earl's better than David Thompson," he says. "He just hasn't been able to show it because of the style we play. If he goes to a pro team like Boston, he'll be sensational."
As with many other players, Tatum is relying on basketball to get him and his family out of their economic straits. He shined shoes as a kid and acted as the lookout while friends stole soda bottles for the deposit money. Until the NCAA this year disallowed the $15-a-month laundry stipend, he sent part of it home to his mother. And he used to carry his clothes in a paper sack on road trips until the sponsors of the Milwaukee Classic gave everyone gym bags last season.
Tatum still recalls the day McGuire first called him "a black Jerry West." "He was at my high school recruiting me," he says. Two days later Tatum agreed to go to Marquette, and four years later he finally is showing some signs that the prediction may come true.