The basketball freak was excited and a bit worried as he wedged himself into his seat last Thursday night at Cal's Harmon Gym. Almost 12 years before, at a game in Tempe, Ariz., he had gotten an early glimpse of the marvelously talented but little known Texas Western Miners, who went on to upset Kentucky in the NCAA final later that season. Almost 11 years before, in Owensboro, Ky., he had first laid eyes on the marvelously talented but little known Walt Frazier, who a few months later led Southern Illinois to the NIT title. There had been few such discoveries since, but his underground sources had told him to expect another in the Texas Western-Walt Frazier class this night in Berkeley: 6'10" junior Center Edgar Jones of the University of Nevada-Reno.
The sources had described Jones as Bunyanesque—or, at least, Waltonesque. It was said he is such a barrier on defense and such a dynamo on offense that the state of Nevada is considering renaming Hoover Dam in his honor. But there were denigrating whispers, too, which claimed Reno had signed Jones despite a high school transcript that was emblazoned with some very low numbers.
What worried the basketball freak was not Jones' rather poor prospects of making Phi Beta Kappa, but his even poorer prospects in this game. Two nights earlier, when the UNR Wolf Pack had chewed up Brigham Young 100-66, Jones had caught an elbow in the mouth. The blow removed one of his front teeth and loosened two others, which is an effective way to turn a Wolf into a devotee of Jell-O. A Reno dentist had put the tooth back in and secured it with wires and cement.
And Jones had a fractured bone in the middle finger of his shooting hand. He would be playing without a splint. And his nose, broken in his freshman year, had yet to be repaired. And Cal is a pretty good team; it had not lost in Harmon Gym in its last 11 games there.
December 12, 1977
To ease his concern, the freak remembered Jones' sophomore statistics (23.7 points and 13.1 rebounds a game—14th and ninth in the nation, respectively) and his rave reviews:
Pro scout Marty Blake: "There's no question that Edgar has the potential to be a first-round draft choice. He has all the tools. At times he's awesome."
Pepperdine's Coach Gary Colson, against whose team Jones had 91 points and 47 rebounds in three games last season: "He's the best college big man I've seen since Rill Walton."
Cal Coach Dick Edwards: "He's quite possibly the best center in the country. He is really a dominant player."
Reno Coach Jim Carey: "There's no doubt that in the 21 years I've coached, he's the best player I've had."
Despite his throbbing gums and unbendable finger, Jones lived up to his notices in the first half against Cal. He began by swishing two soft jump shots and then slammed in a dunk after barreling in from the right side. He soared for a rebound and, on the way down, dumped the ball two-handed into the hoop as if he were dropping a cantaloupe in a trash barrel. Then Jones hit a long jumper from out on the wing. The basketball freak did not dare glance away to check out the cheerleaders, because he was afraid he would miss Jones grabbing the top of the backboard and stomping the ball through the basket with his feet.
The trouble was that Jones' teammates were not contributing much, and while trying to stop Cal all by himself, Jones got into foul trouble. With 3:01 to go in the half, he got his fourth personal, and at halftime the Bears had a 52-38 lead.
Carey, who is in his second season at Reno, gambled by starting Jones in the second half, correctly figuring that the Wolf Pack had no chance of winning without him. The strategy worked, and Reno fought its way back to lead by three, before Cal again moved in front by one. Jones made a free throw to tie the score at 77 as time ran out.
At the start of overtime Jones controlled the tap and scored from underneath, and Reno never trailed after that. The final score was 89-81.
Playing more than a half with four fouls, Jones had scored 33 points, taken down 17 rebounds and blocked three shots. He was not nearly so fortunate Saturday night at San Diego State, where the Pack played its fourth game in six days and lost 113-88. Jones, denied the ball by a double-teaming defense, again got into foul trouble. When he picked up his fifth with 9:19 to play, he had only nine points and eight rebounds.
Jones was born in Alabama, where his mother was a high-scoring basketball player, but he grew up in Newark, N.J., where no one bothered to prepare him for higher education. He had no intention of going to college—he didn't even know what a JC was until a couple of years ago—and cut classes regularly.
Then, in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Bar-ringer High, he sprouted from a six-foot football player to a 6'6" basketball player, although he did not start playing for the varsity until he was a junior. Most of his high school glory came late, in all-star games. At the Seamco Classic in the Catskills he was a last-minute addition. His name was not in the program, and he did not start the game, yet he was named MVP over such future college stars as Bill Cartwright of USF and Bernard Toone of Marquette.
Suddenly a decidedly unstudious kid became college material. He had to go to summer school to get his "high school diploma," and then he headed for Reno, a recruit of Jim Padgett, the UNR coach at the time.
According to a resentful Jones, the NCAA did not start sniffing around until he became a star. The university insisted that according to the transcript sent by Barringer High, Jones had been graduated with a 2.0, or C, average. The NCAA investigators, although denied access to Jones' records by law, insisted that something was rotten in Reno. UNR was put on indefinite probation in September 1976. When the school relented and declared Jones ineligible, the NCAA changed the probation to one year.
But, as the NCAA now knows all too well, Nevada is an ornery state. Attorney Frank Fahrenkopf, a UNR grad and state chairman of the Republican Party, went to bat for Jones. Judge John E. Gabrielli, also a UNR alumnus, handed down an injunction forcing the school to let Jones play, which it did—with pleasure. Later, Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian, who is having his own troubles with the NCAA, successfully used similar courtroom tactics. To NCAA sleuths, it will be the equivalent of San Quentin playing Sing Sing when the two Nevada schools meet next week.
Carey went out last spring and gathered some fair players to give Jones support: Guard Johnny High from Birmingham and Lawson State JC in Alabama; Guard Mike (Fly) Gray from Detroit and Lincoln Trail JC in Illinois; Forward Michael Stallings from Brooklyn and Colby Community College in Kansas. High and Gray each hit 12 of 19 shots against BYU and are known as "The Fly 'n' High Show."
But nobody soared higher than Jones in the Cal game, and he was still aloft when he zipped into the Wolf Pack locker room after a postgame radio interview. "Hey, the dunk is the shot," he said with a grin that showed off his strip mine of a mouth. "I don't miss them. If anybody was asleep, I wanted to wake them up." So much for game analysis from the player who, some scouts now think, could be the first man picked in next spring's NBA draft if he decides to turn pro.
Said an equally elated Carey, "If there's anybody better than Edgar, show him to me. I'll match him with anyone, even when he's not feeling well."
Carey figured that UNR had already wowed the Western Athletic Conference (Brigham Young) and the Pacific Eight (Cal). Although he hardly dazzled the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (San Diego State), he was aiming to startle the Big Eight (Nebraska) and, finally, in the Probation Classic, Las Vegas.
"Hey, we've even got it on our stationery," he said as he left Harmon Gym. "THE NEW POWER IN THE WEST."