The National Junior College Basketball Tournament went on for so long on the drought-parched Kansas prairie last week that by the time it was officially over it seemed to have acquired a life of its own. Sometime between the opening game Monday morning and the final buzzer Saturday night, many of the nation's finest two-year college players scored a grand total of 5,373 points, committed 1,333 turnovers, took about a million of the most improbable shots you ever saw, hitting half of them, and played a lot of small d.
The tournament has been staged in Hutchinson, Kans. for 29 of its 30 years and is run by the American Legion post there. It is probably the only basketball tournament in America where you can see a halftime show consisting of three belly dancers in costumes that jangle like a trio of slot machines paying off, and then walk out into the street and be passed by an Amish family in a horse-drawn carriage. And where else but in Hutchinson could you find a troupe of grim-looking pre-adolescent girls—all under five feet tall—in jackboots, berets and armbands, goose-stepping their way across the 10-second line and into the hearts of a hundred former doughboys in glitter-trimmed overseas caps?
Hutchinson is a community of some 40,000 people, a considerable portion of whom are both over 60 and doggedly loyal to the basketball tournament. For many of them it is an annual social event, a kind of cotillion with sneakers and sweatbands. What they lack in hoop sophistication, they more than make up for in enthusiasm; witness one white-haired old lady who kept yelling things like, "Dance on his face, Flenoil!" and "Leroy, put the hurt on him, baby!"
This year 21 teams qualified for the trip to Hutchinson by winning regional competitions, and under the NJCAA's double-elimination format that meant that 35 games had to be played in six days. It was a killing regimen, with games starting at 11 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. the first five days. One fan who tried to sit through the whole thing was found lying in a ditch on Sunday morning, semicomatose and attempting to make a religious sacrifice of a Spalding basketball.
No less than 19 junior college stars are playing in the NBA at present, and because some of them—e.g., Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore and Tom Henderson—passed through Hutchinson on their way to no-cut contracts and megabucks, the JuCo tournament has become a regular stop on the recruiting circuit for four-year schools. This year's gathering included Head Coaches Dave Gavitt of Providence, Eddie Sutton of Arkansas, John Thompson of Georgetown, Norm Stewart of Missouri, Bob Boyd of USC, Jerry Hale of Oral Roberts, and quite possibly every assistant east of Guam who ever owned a leisure suit.
When these coaches weren't hovering around dressing-room doors, ready to swoop down on anyone over 6'5" who was rumored to have a soft touch, they were talking among themselves about the Drake belly-button defense, the Temple blue-double-stack-man-pop-out-red-overload-step-up offense and the do-or-die-zone-trap press. Maybe all the years of wearing double-knits has begun to affect their speech. Perhaps the FDA might be willing to dress some of its laboratory rats in double-knit jumpsuits, then wait and see if it causes brain damage.
Coaches like Boyd and Thompson concede that since freshmen became eligible for varsity play five years ago, recruiting of junior college players has been done from positions of weakness, not strength. "Ideally, you want a kid who's going to be with you for four years," says Boyd. "But when your needs are more immediate, as ours are, a JC player can be an asset because of his ability to step right in and play."
In the past, certain conferences—particularly the Big Ten and the Pac-8—have tended to look down their noses at the junior colleges. Michigan, however, has proved that a Big Ten team can win with a player like Rickey Green, who led Vincennes into this tournament two years ago. Indiana's Bob Knight, one of the last champions of this sort of snobbism, reportedly is looking at JC prospects after a disappointing 14-13 season. "A lot of coaches talk about how they're philosophically opposed to taking junior college players," says Thompson. "Well, I'm opposed to it, too, but I'm here."
One of the teams that Thompson and the rest of the coaches came to see was the College of Southern Idaho, which has a reputation as a launching pad for talented players. Ricky Sobers, Ron Behagen, Tim Bassett and Tommy Barker—all of whom are now in the NBA—played for Southern Idaho, and both Sutton and Hale coached there. Moreover, the Golden Eagles were the defending national champions, winners of 48 games in a row, and ranked No. 1 in the country coming into the tournament.
Southern Idaho was also typical of the schools represented in Hutchinson. Junior colleges have suffered from the notion that they are used by the four-year schools as warehouses in which to store subliterate athletes until, by some magic, the grades of these non-scholars rise to the 2.0 mark that separates the golden boys from the non-predictors. Often enough it works that way, a major college coach referring a player with murky academic credentials to a certain junior college, in hopes that at the end of two years he will get his piece of property back. More frequently, however, the junior colleges provide an alternative for players who have been ignored by the big schools during their last year of high school. Kim Goetz, a 6'6" forward at CSI who graduated from high school with a 2.7 average, wasn't recruited by the schools he thought were worthy of his talents. A natural shooter with some defensive weaknesses, Goetz went to Southern Idaho to work out the kinks in his game, and is now being wooed by Las Vegas, Arkansas, San Diego State and Colorado.
After defeating Lincoln Trail College 76-66 in the opening round, Southern Idaho came up against Independence Community College of Independence, Kans., a school with an enrollment of only 600, and here lack of experience against a full-court zone press proved to be the Idahoans' undoing. Independence's Pirates unleashed a fierce back-court defense, built a lead of as many as 17 points and ran away with a 74-66 victory.
Having pulled off the upset of the tournament, Independence Coach Dan Wall was confronted with the prospect of playing Lawson State Community College of Birmingham, Ala. The Cougars, an all-black team of blithe spirits coached by the inscrutable Eldridge O. (Offense) Turner, came into the tournament leading the nation in scoring for the second straight year. Every player on the Lawson roster is from Birmingham. Says Turner, "We just wait until Alabama and Auburn come in and take their pick. Then we take what's left over."
This year's leftovers included the aptly named Johnny High, a muscular 6'3" sophomore who wears yellow pompons on his game shoes and scores from inside and outside with equal facility.
In their first-round game with North Greenville, Lawson's Cougars took 120 shots—an average of one every 20 seconds—and won 137-90. "Our philosophy," says Turner, "is that if we can hold our opponents to fewer points than us, we've played good defense."
That sort of approach can produce excitement. About 10 seconds after the opening tip-off in its quarterfinal game with the Pensacola (Fla.) Pirates, Law-son fairly leaped to an eight-point advantage. The next thing Turner knew, Pensacola was up by eight. At halftime Lawson had sprinted back into an 18-point lead. It was the kind of game in which Pensacola Coach Richard Daly, down by 12 points midway through the second half, could turn to his bench and chortle, "Okay, baby, we got 'em where we want 'em now." It was the kind of game in which he was very nearly right. Lawson kicked away a 14-point lead but hung on for a 113-104 victory.
Coach Wall, who was taking all this in, decided that the only way Independence could stop the Lawson juggernaut was to send three men to the offensive boards and keep two back. This he did, shutting off Lawson's fast break for a 101-87 win and a spot in the championship game.
In the other bracket, San Jacinto of Pasadena, Texas and Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College were having a hard time getting anybody to take them seriously. Neither team possessed the flash of Lawson State or the quickness of Independence, but both were steady and capable. San Jacinto forced Ellsworth into a spate of critical turnovers, but with 53 seconds left held only a three-point lead. During a time-out, San Jac Coach Wayne Ballard begged his players not to dribble the ball between their legs as they stalled away the remaining time. They obliged, and San Jacinto slipped into the title game with a 72-71 victory.
What had shaped up as a grand finale between the scrambling, fast-break offense of Independence and the methodical, defensive-oriented Ravens never materialized. Both coaches so expertly imposed countermeasures to take away the opposition's normal game that what resulted was a frequently sloppy, sometimes subdued, but never dull conclusion to the week's activities.
Wall went to his bench early, and as they had all week, the Independence substitutes came through admirably. Thomas Louden, playing the point position on the zone press, forced San Jacinto into numerous errors, converting them into 12 points and seven assists. Wall was willing to concede 20 points to San Jacinto Forward Ollie Mack (he finished with 25), and gave Chester Giles the job of containing San Jac's 6'11", 220-pound center, Alton Lister. Lister wound up with 16 points and seven rebounds, but committed half a dozen or more crucial turnovers, and Giles was named the tournament's MVP. With four seconds remaining and San Jac down by two points Lister was called for traveling. Independence added a free throw and then ran the clock out for a 75-72 victory and the championship. When the buzzer sounded, Wall leaned over in his chair and wept into his hands. Whether it was because he had just won his first major title or because the long ordeal was finally over was anybody's guess.