In a small, shut-in community near the southern border of Illinois dwells a remarkable basketball player who can with equal proficiency shred a net with a jump shot and solve a linear equation. His name is Mike Glenn and he is the greatest thing to hit Carbondale since Walt Frazier.
While the Rickey Greens and Phil Fords get all the ink, Glenn plays in comparative obscurity at Southern Illinois University. One reason is that Glenn was a player without a conference until SIU was admitted to the Missouri Valley last year. SIU finished second in the standings, but Glenn was named the Valley's Player of the Year.
Glenn's jump shot may be the best in the country; as a sophomore he sank 61% of his field-goal attempts to lead the nation's guards, and he is just as adept in the classroom. A math major, he has a 3.45 grade average. In his spare time, Glenn, who knows sign language, does volunteer work with deaf children.
Carbondale is a small rural town with a population that just about matches the university enrollment of 24,000 students, and there is a certain amount of enmity between a populace dressed in overalls and a school where the all-night party was a required course. In fact, years ago, when coal mining was the principal occupation, Carbondale was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Says a farmer dressed in baggy pants, a thermal jacket and a yellow baseball cap, "It used to be that people thought the only good black folks 'round here were whites with coal dust on their faces." Says SIU Coach Paul Lambert, "I think there used to be a racist element."
January 31, 1977
Nowadays, Glenn is a kind of folk hero. Mostly he keeps to himself, sometimes spending as much as four hours a day in the school library. But whenever he is about the town, he is certain to be approached by a fan who wants to talk basketball or ask for an autograph. He has the kind of charisma that inspired one agent to suggest he skip his senior year and enter the NBA hardship draft, promising him a movie contract as part of the deal.
When Lambert recruited Glenn, a high school coach at Atlanta told him, "Get excited. You've just signed the best shooter in the country." "I didn't get excited then," says Lambert, "but since then I have. People say he has a Jerry West-type jump shot. I know he has refined shooting to an art. A lot of guys have the physical ability to be great shooters, but where he has the edge is in his shot selection, probably because of his science and math background. He is a very calculating type of person and he can analyze the defense."
The notable thing about Glenn is not that he is averaging 21 points a game or shooting 58% from the floor this year, but that he is doing it mostly from long range. He rarely drives, and consequently is fouled so little that he did not shoot enough times to qualify for the national free-throw title last year (Glenn sank 49 of 54 free throws, a percentage of .907; the Division I leader made 71 of 80 for a .888 percentage). Most of his shots come from 20 feet. "It leaves his hand and you're surprised when it doesn't go in," says Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. "Many scouts say, 'All the guy can do is shoot.' Hey, that's really the name of the game." Former NBA player Jim King, now the coach at the University of Tulsa, agrees. "As far as I'm concerned," says King, "Mike's the greatest shooter in the country."
"Mike takes shots you are normally glad to see an opposing player take," says Joe Stowell, the coach at Bradley. "Only he hits them." So much so that Lambert constantly has to prod his other players not to turn and head downcourt whistling the school fight song as Glenn cuts loose. "Mike'll hit five in a row and his man will stop and look at him," says Mel Hughlett, a senior forward. "Then he'll hit five more and the guy'll just give up. He'll quit."
Glenn's shooting touch was acquired as a child growing up in Cave Spring, Ga., near Rome. His father taught at the Georgia School for the Deaf and coached the basketball team; Mike spent most of his time in the gym. At home he played every day against his older brother, Charles, on a goal set up in the backyard, and cried when he lost. At night he would practice, then the next day again challenge his brother. Finally he beat him. Finally he beat everybody. "I'd be disappointed if I couldn't shoot after all that work and effort," says Glenn. "Every summer, it'd be 90° outside and I'd be in that gym playing mind games. I guess I beat Walt Frazier at least 100,000 times one-on-one with last-second shots. First I started with books on shooting. Then I practiced without the ball, just getting the form down and strengthening my wrist. I can't tell you the nights I lay in bed just flicking my wrist at the ceiling. Right now I think I'm about at the maximum. I just try to keep my touch because I don't think I can get much better at it."
In the last eight years Glenn can remember losing only one game of "horse," the universal game of shooting, and that was in high school. "I can't find a reason to drive," he shrugs. "If you get a step you can shoot the jumper, so I wind up shooting the jumper. I've heard that pro scouts don't think I have the speed. I'm not worried. I think I can play with any guard in the NBA right now. I'm confident."
Glenn was a recruiter's dream when he came out of high school: president of his class, a good student, Player of the Year in his state. North Carolina's Dean Smith told Glenn that he had wanted only one other player as much, and he was Bob McAdoo. But Glenn and his friend Corky Abrams had made a pact to attend school together, and SIU agreed to take them both. When Lambert called at the Glenn home, Mike used sign language to tell his father, "I like this guy."
It was not the only time Glenn rebuffed Dean Smith. Last summer he turned down an invitation to compete in trials for the Olympic basketball team, which was coached by Smith. Instead he stayed in Carbondale and took a special math course and worked with deaf children at a nearby camp. "I find it fulfilling," he says. "Just like my father. He's had offers to teach at many other colleges but he'll never leave. He finds his work rewarding. I did, too, just seeing the smiles on their faces. Wherever I am, I'll find out where the deaf school is and visit."
Glenn chose Southern Illinois not only because Abrams came. He has been a fan of Walt Frazier since Frazier led Southern Illinois to the NIT title in 1967. One of his biggest thrills came when the Knick star visited his old school one summer and Glenn defeated him in a series of one-on-one games. Frazier said, "Mike Glenn will make the people of Carbon-dale forget Walt Frazier."
Glenn is 6'3" and slightly built; soft-spoken, relaxed and almost laconic. In a game he rarely comes out shooting, aware the other team is usually psyched to shut him out. This, in turn, lulls opponents into carelessness. "I like the team concept," says Glenn. "I like to be there if they need me, but a guy just coming down and taking a lot of shots, that's the type of thing that can destroy a team." His coaches wish he would shoot more. "If Mike weren't such a darn smart player he'd take a bad shot every once in a while and he'd average 30 points a game." says George Iubelt, an SIU assistant.
A shooting star often breeds jealousy, but Glenn's teammates, if anything, yearn for him to be recognized. Chicago is 340 miles away, St. Louis is 100 and Glenn occasionally must feel as if he is in a publicity vacuum. But he is the last to complain. He is a conservative, reserved young man. The other day he was asked about his rather plain style of dress. "I wouldn't feel like I was being myself in a big hat and high heels," he answered after some thought. "It's all just a masquerade anyway."