To any kid who wants to play serious basketball, summer is a time for expending honest sweat to smooth out the rough edges of his game. The off-season polishing has now reached the point where the best high school players travel a sort of Grand Prix tournament circuit. Last week's stop was the Amateur Athletic Union's Youth National Championship at Boca Raton, Fla., and most of the leading drivers, dipsydoers and dunkers showed up to do battle.
Fourteen state and city teams checked in for the tournament co-sponsored by the City of Delray Beach recreation department and staged in the air-conditioned Boca Raton High School gym. The event was open to players 19 years old and under who had not attended college, and except for a stray junior college whiz looking for an offer from a big-name school, most of the players were just-graduated high school seniors. Starting last Wednesday, they played noon and night, if not morning, weeding out the limp and lame in a round-robin format winding up with Sunday finals.
The much-recruited Albert King of Brooklyn was present, sharpening the classy game that has University of Maryland fans already lining up outside Cole Fieldhouse. So was Earvin Johnson, who is headed for Michigan State. Notre Dame recruit Kelly Tripucka, Marquette's Oliver Lee and Tennessee's James Ratiff all were present, plus at least a dozen other youngsters who can resuscitate college basketball programs.
The tournament was played under international rules with a 30-second clock, a setup that, given the temperament of youth, was like throwing oil on a refinery fire. The winning teams ran up an average score of 119 points per game and on Wednesday night the Wenatchee, Wash. team pumped in 154 while beating New Jersey. It was fitting that when asked to explain his team's offense, Detroit Coach Quinton Watkins said it was "simplified," apparently meaning that after each player was assigned a position, it was simply every man for himself. Sure enough, the official scorers complained that they couldn't keep up with the action, and those 30-second clocks, which retail at $550 a pair, turned out to be expensive pieces of metal sculpture that hardly ever buzzed.
Top teen-age stars are as much at ease making a good play in Boca Raton as they are in Minsk. Since the senior prom, many of them have played in all-star games from coast to coast, as well as in a tournament in Germany where the U.S. team whomped some opponents by margins of more than 50 points. "I've got more uniforms and medals than Idi Amin," says Earvin Johnson.
In the polls for top high school player last season, Albert King was the early leader, but Johnson, as well as Philadelphia's Eugene Banks (bound for Duke), had closed with a rush. "Albert King is definitely one of the best," said Johnson after scoring 48 points in Detroit's 131-127 victory over Washington, D.C. Wednesday afternoon. "But I have not seen it yet where he can dominate a whole game."
Seeing's believing, but King dominated the whole AAU tournament the past few years. This was his third appearance, and his New York Riverside team had won the last two tournaments, with King earning Most Valuable Player honors both times. No wonder a small band of King fans showed up to admire him, including one fellow who drove all the way down to Florida in a Brooklyn taxi-cab. Their enthusiasm was tempered this summer, however, because King is working on his team game, passing off the ball, setting picks and offering his body for sacrifice.
"I just play according to the situation." he says. Consequently, a crowd of 1,800 was disappointed when King scored only 22 points in Riverside's opening 79-68 win over New Orleans. When he got just 14 in a 108-84 defeat of Buffalo on Thursday, the muttering grew louder. As it turned out, King may have been a bit too selfless. Against Florida's Gold Coast club Friday night, he played only seven minutes in the first half, resting a tender left knee, and New York fell behind by 13 before he whooshed back into action and pulled his club into a 51-51 halftime tie.
Riverside trailed 108-98 with a little over three minutes left when King went to town. He scored 14 quick points, including six in seven seconds when he stole two straight inbounds passes, bringing New York to within two points. King's heroics were not enough; Riverside lost 120-116 and was eliminated. Still, all those mutters had turned to cheers. "He can score 80 if he wants," said teammate Larry Washington. "He ain't got to prove nothing. He's already done all the damage he could in high school. He's No. 1."
Part of the appeal of the AAU tournament is that many of its coaches consider it a hobby. Ernie Lorch, Riverside's head coach since 1962, is a corporate attorney with one of those firms that have five last names. Detroit's Watkins is a fireman, and Wenatchee, Wash. Coach Ed Pariseau is an apple packer whose company donated $9,000 to make the Florida trip possible. The excursion was a family affair, because one son, John, played guard, wife Evie provided cheerleading, brother John served as assistant coach, and daughter Marianne served as the team statistician. "A Pariseau loves two things: apples and basketball," says Marianne. (A one-point, last-second loss to North Florida upset the Pariseau applecart.)
A few teams traveled overland to the tournament, but most of them raised enough money to fly. "If we don't fly, I'm not here," said New Jersey's Kelly Tripucka, the 6'6" forward from a family of athletes. His father, Frank, was a quarterback at Notre Dame and later played in three professional football leagues—the NFL, AFL and CFL. Four of Kelly's brothers played college sports, and a basketball-playing sister, Heather, scored 61 points in a game. After Tripucka was hampered with fouls in the opening game, he scored 30 and 41 points the next two nights.
Joining Florida Gold Coast in the semifinals were Detroit, Seattle and North Florida, a club with three prep All-Americas: Oliver Lee, Guard Wilmore Fowler (Kansas) and Center Reggie Hannah (Florida). Notable in the team's effort was an early-round 140-69 smashing of Dayton.
Detroit considered itself the tournament favorite, an arrogance to be sure, but befitting the team personality. The Motowners brought a tape player to the bench and listened to music whenever the action got boring. When Reserve Guard Edgar Merchant began mailing in jump shots from so far away that they needed zip codes, he paused while running back upcourt to slap the palms of each of his teammates on the bench. Coach Watkins said he did not believe in curfews and had his team under a "control situation," explaining that when they stayed out until 4 a.m. at local discos, it was perfectly all right because they were with him.
The Boca Raton fans took to calling Earvin Johnson "Windex," because of the way he cleaned the glass. True, Johnson sometimes plays like he attended the Campanella Russell School of Defense, but offensively he can do what he wants. In the opening semifinal game against Florida Gold Coast Saturday evening, the graceful 6'8" forward dribbled the ball upcourt through a maze of players like Bobby Orr, shot well from the outside and scored 36 points as Detroit roared to a 132-113 victory.
In the other semifinal, Seattle found that North Florida had too much brawn and brains, the latter exemplified by the fact that they held team meetings. Seattle's 7'3" center, Petur Gudmundsson (Washington), who was discovered in Iceland by Husky Coach Marv Harshman, was opposed by Hannah and James (Popcorn) George (University of North Carolina, Charlotte), who explained that he gave himself his nickname because "I pop and sizzle." About the most spectacular thing Gudmundsson accomplished was banging his nose against the backboard in the second half. North Florida won as Ruben Cotton came off the bench with 27 points for a 110-97 victory.
Detroit approached the final game as if it were going to take place on a playground. The team went disco dancing till close to Sunday's dawn, then boogied past North Florida 96-90 in the afternoon. Earvin Johnson scored 25 points, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player and hit the road for the circuit's next stop.