The NCAA finals will take place in Atlanta about 90 days from now, but the outcome came close to being determined last April at a kitchen table in the sleepy little community of Canton, Miss, when 6'10" schoolboy star Rickey Brown did not put his signature on a scholarship agreement with either Michigan or Kentucky. Had Brown done so—and he was seriously considering bestowing his talents upon one or the other—the NCAA could have packed its big trophy off to either Ann Arbor or Lexington and forgotten about this year's tournament right then and there. The already powerful Wolverines or Wildcats would have been home free.
Instead, Brown's decision to play for Mississippi State has made this a season to be jolly in Starkville. By listening to his parents and staying close to home, he has given the long-suffering Bulldogs—eighth in the Southeastern Conference last season—a top-notch pivotman for the first time since the departure of Bailey Howell nearly 20 years ago.
In his fourth varsity game, for example, Brown demolished Southern Mississippi with 32 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots as State won 96-72. When red-hot Texas hit 17 of its first 21 shots in the second half, MSU trailed by 15 points. But Brown eventually hit three consecutive jumpers to tie the game in regulation time, then swished two more in overtime to give the Bulldogs a 91-89 victory that made their record 7-0. Brown leads the team in scoring (21.3 points), rebounding (13.4) and shooting percentage (.551) and is the main reason why State, too, has begun to dream of a trip to the wide-open 1977 NCAA finals.
For its many-splendored freshman, that would be a homecoming of sorts. Brown lived with relatives in Atlanta for three years so he could play high school ball in the big city and learn tricks of his trade he would never have picked up in Canton. As a senior at Atlanta's West Fulton High, he averaged 28.9 points and 19.8 rebounds. The scouting services agreed that he was a superbly coordinated scorer-defender. Weighing only 210 pounds, all he lacks is breadth; he is built along the lines of Bob McAdoo and seems headed for similar achievements. Brown's offense consists mostly of jump shots at this point, but he can turn and fire from the foul line or dribble laterally and bank one in off the glass with equal ease. He does not play volleyball with offensive rebounds as yet. But there is nothing docile about the way he works for position in the 10- to 15-foot area, nor is he bashful about waving his long arms to show that he wants the ball. He runs like a forward and dribbled nearly the length of the floor to score after a steal against Southern Mississippi.
Brown is the leader of what appears to be the finest class of big men to emerge from high school since freshmen regained their eligibility four years ago. His talented contemporaries include Louisiana State's Durand Macklin, who was upstaged by Brown's 21-point, 22-rebound performance in an all-star game in Louisville last spring. Macklin, who is only 6'7", pulled down a school-record 32 rebounds in his varsity debut against Tulane. Brown's teammate in a Georgia all-star game was Tennessee's 6'9" Reggie Johnson, who had a perfect 7 for 7 shooting night against UNC-Charlotte that included the game-winning basket just before the buzzer. Even with Johnson in the lineup the Vols were beaten by Duke, which got 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots from a 6'11", 255-pound moose named Mike Gminski. Other standout freshmen big men are South Carolina's 6'9" Jim Graziano, who made 11 straight shots against Harvard to tie a school record, 6'11" Roosevelt Bouie of Syracuse, Purdue's 7-foot Joe Barry Carroll, 7-foot Jawann Oldham of Seattle and Washington State's 6'11" Stuart House, who, like Brown, was heavily recruited by Michigan.
Brown's decision to go to Mississippi State still stuns a number of the coaches who chased after him, including the Wolverines' Johnny Orr and the Wildcats' Joe Hall. Rickey says he would have enjoyed playing for Michigan, but is still shivering from the 20° weather he encountered in Ann Arbor in March. Besides, Michigan already had a chromatic cat in the lineup named Rickey Green. Mississippi State's next-door neighbor Alabama was never in the running, which is consoling to box score readers since 'Bama starts its own center named—you guessed it—Rickey Brown. For a long time Kentucky had the inside track ("I mean I had seen Mississippi," says Brown), until an unusual turn of events helped decide the issue during Rickey's official visit to Lexington on the last weekend of the SEC season.
As fate would have it, Kentucky's opponent was Mississippi State, which hasn't won in Lexington since 1967. The condescending attitude of the hometown fans seemed to play on the sympathies of the Wildcats' young visitor, who found himself pulling for the Bulldogs. Brown had made several friends during his visit to Starkville two weeks earlier, and with an 86-79 lead in hand with 1:24 to play it looked as though his buddies were going to spring a big upset. As it turned out, Kentucky roared back to win 94-93, but Rickey was not impressed. It was the Mississippi State players he chased after when the horn sounded, finally catching up with Forward Ray White just before he reached the losers' locker room.
"Nice game," was all Brown could think to say when he noticed the look on White's face, yet the remark must have helped soften the Bulldogs' defeat. When White saw the chance, he took Coach Kermit Davis aside and said, "It was a tough one to lose, but I think we're going to get Rickey. I saw him after the game and he was about to cry."
Bulldog Forward Gary Hooker, a cool-headed skeptic from New York City, figured he wouldn't get excited until he saw what kind of college player the kid was going to be. "What do I think of him now?" says Hooker. "Well, he wouldn't look like a country boy back in New York City, if that's what you mean. He can dribble the ball, and he's got that touch. All in all, I can't say I've got any complaints with Rickey Brown."
That's easy for Hooker to say, but the rest of the SEC will soon be screaming bloody murder.