This was the national championship of dunk—the schoolyard, get-down, in-your-face, gimme-five, fall-back-baby, sky-king, over-you-chump and bad-dude championship, the one that counts anywhere there is a netless basket with a bent rim and broken glass on the asphalt. Louisville was playing ball at Nevada-Las Vegas last Saturday night and on street corners across the country anyone who worshiped at the altar of the between-the-legs dribble was breathlessly waiting for the result.
Both teams were in the nation's Top Ten. Louisville, working on a 15-game winning streak, ranked third according to one poll. Las Vegas with 55 straight home-court victories was rated eighth. But on style alone, these were easily the two best teams in the country, the visitors being the self-anointed Doctors of Dunk, while the Runnin' Rebels of Las Vegas were the Captains of Kangaroo.
Naturally, the 6,257-seat Las Vegas Convention Center had been sold out for months. The governor of Kentucky, Julian Carroll, was exiled into the upper balcony, and many of those lucky enough to get standing-room tickets were queued up in an arena concourse, watching the game on closed-circuit television. Everyone else in Vegas, including most of the 1,000 visiting Louisville fans, was obliged to watch the game on a delayed telecast.
No one was disappointed. The game had the pulse and pace of a horse race as Las Vegas rallied from 17 points down at one point to win, drilling in outside jumpers with a second-half flourish that dropped the red-hot Cardinals 99-96 and left witnesses feeling as if they had been plugged into an electric outlet for 40 minutes. The winning points came at the free-throw line, two by sophomore flash Reggie Theus and another pair by senior Glen Gondrezick, who made his despite two disconcerting timeouts called by Louisville with 10 seconds left.
Gondo's heroics not only shattered a winning streak but also spoiled Cupid's bow. Louisville Coach Denny Crum had momentarily retired his leisure wear Friday night and, attired in a dark three-piece suit, got married in Vegas. The Crums spent their honeymoon at courtside, Niagara Falls being closed for the winter.
"Basketball is his life," shrugged Joyce Crum, who is no stranger to the game. She met her new husband while working as a secretary in the school's basketball office.
The game matched the nation's top two coaches in winning percentage. Jerry Tarkanian's record entering the game was 214-35 (.859), Crum's was 136-32 (.809). Neither coach has ever had a team that did not rate at least a cameo appearance in the Top 20. The two had met only once before, when both were junior college coaches in California. Crum kidded that he had agreed to play the game only on the assurance that Tarkanian's wife Lois would not harass him from the stands.
Besides providing a stern test for a Louisville team that Crum thinks might be better than the one that finished third in the 1975 NCAA, the Vegas game also was geographically ideal for Crum. It allowed his California friends and relatives to attend the wedding, an event he admitted made him more nervous than any basketball game. On Friday afternoon, he cracked, "I just took a hot shower so I wouldn't get cold feet." Meanwhile, Tark the Shark was as timorous as a goldfish at the prospect of meeting such an awesome opponent. Louisville's 6'11" center, Ricky Gallon, was passing his toughest course, class attendance; million-dollar baby Darrell Griffith, although only a freshman, looked like the best sixth man in basketball; star Wesley Cox had discovered new medication for his chronic asthma; and the Cardinals were averaging 92 points over a nine-game stretch.
"We may not get a rebound," said Tarkanian woefully, gnawing on his fingernails and plowing furrows into his forehead deep enough to plant corn. Tark has a penchant for wearing short-sleeved shirts, chewing towels at courtside and voicing undue pessimism, probably because the NCAA has cited the school for so many transgressions that it might change its name to the University of Nevada at Alcatraz. Said Tarkanian, "If we make all of our shots it should be an even game. We may not get a rebound. Louisville's got three guys who can jump up and change the light bulbs. They might play volleyball with us, tip it from side to side, then spike it in."
The Runnin' Rebels were aware that Louisville, in its last three games, had out-dunked opponents 20-0. "I'll kill somebody before I'll let them dunk on me," maintained Theus. "That's the most embarrassing thing in the world."
In fact, Las Vegas was so utterly embarrassed by the very idea that it out-rebounded the Doctors of Dunk 48-43 and Theus came off the bench early in the first half and scored on a flamboyant breakaway dunk of his own. So much for pessimism.
Las Vegas fans are among the most rabid and vociferous; Crum later estimated the Rebels' home-court advantage at "10 to 12 points." But early in the game the fans had little to cheer about. The speed of Louisville's Phillip Bond negated the vaunted Las Vegas press and allowed the Cardinals to penetrate. As they raced into a 40-23 lead with 5:19 left in the half, they had Tarkanian ready to swallow his towel.
But then the Rebels started to battle back. Las Vegas has played fitfully this year although it leads the country in scoring with a 106-point average and now has a 20-2 record. Various theories are offered for the team's malaise: the broken ankle that sidelined leading rebounder Jackie Robinson for the season; the current NCAA investigation; the fact that the club has so many transfers and rehabilitation cases that it could be called the Salvation Army; and team eccentric Lew Brown's disturbing habits, which have included bringing his dog to practice. But it was the 6'11" Brown's rebounding that turned the game around late in the first half. Brown was the match that lit the fuse, and junior-college transfer Larry Moffett was the dynamite. Moffett had 16 points and 15 rebounds as Las Vegas displayed an inside game for one of the few times this season.
The fact that three of Louisville's top players—Cox, Gallon and Griffith—got into foul trouble did nothing to hurt the Vegas comeback. The Rebels rallied savagely to trail only 49-43 at the half, and when they returned after the break they riddled Louisville's desperation zone as Crum tried to protect his endangered players with an umbrella defense that Eddie Owens and Sam Smith turned inside out with jump shots.
"We didn't expect them to make 25-footers," said Crum later. The players on both teams could have told him that it's easy when there are nets on the basket, the sun is not in your eyes and the basketball is round. Never was the aura of the playground more evident than in the final half when during a stretch of 13 minutes each team scored 39 points. With less than four minutes remaining, Louisville still led, 92-88. Then, within 18 seconds, team captain Robert Smith scored five points to give Las Vegas the lead 93-92.
First the 5'11" senior hit over Louisville's 6'7½" Larry Williams. Smith was fouled by Williams on the play and made the free throw. When the Rebels got the ball back, Smith swished another jumper to put his team ahead for the first time since the opening minutes of the game. A basket by Gallon gave the lead back to the Cardinals but then Gondrezick put the Rebels ahead to stay. And when Theus and Gondo made their pressure-packed free throws, Louisville's Doctors of Dunk were just another bunch of hotshots who had swaggered into the wrong neighborhood.
"We're not afraid of anybody," said Theus in a locker room where joyous fans were kissing and hugging the players. "We play to our competition." Then he took a big swig of champagne. Why not? Las Vegas had won the National Playground Championship.