Nov. 27, 1978
Nov. 27, 1978

Table of Contents
Nov. 27, 1978

Florida Bay
College Basketball


Class. You can't beg, borrow or buy it. If you go out looking for it, you'll never find it. Class isn't the money you make, the clothes you wear, the car you drive or the house you live in. It isn't the way you pronounce your vowels, cross your legs or fold your napkin. It isn't the people you know or the places you go. Class either is, or it isn't.

This is an article from the Nov. 27, 1978 issue Original Layout

Consider the 10 young men pictured on pages 42 and 43 in the salon of the McCormick Mansion in Chicago, which now houses Lawry's restaurant. Each of them is a sophomore basketball player, and together they make up one classy class. If you think they look fine in their starched collars, immaculate white waistcoats and patent leather pumps, you should catch them some night in satin shorts and sneakers. You should see them jumping and running, switching and driving, passing and dribbling, shooting and dunking. You should see them playing, and then you will know what class is all about—at least on a basketball court.

They do not come along very often, these classes with class, but when they do, the balance of power in basketball is invariably and dramatically affected. Coaches' jobs are saved, arenas are filled and new champions are crowned. In keeping with this tradition, these 10 sophomores have already left an imprint on college basketball. Only one of their teams had a losing record last season. Because of the group's proven performance and its even greater potential, it is already being mentioned with some of the great classes in basketball history (see box on page 50).

Let's take the achievements of the top five. It is more than coincidental that following 14 previous postseason failures, Notre Dame reached the final four of the NCAA tournament with Kelly Tripucka at forward. After all, Tripucka was the Most Valuable Player in the Midwest Region. Duke put Gene Banks at forward and leaped from a tie for last place in the ACC to second in the NCAA. Who had ever heard of Iona before Jeff Ruland started jumping center there? Last year the Gaels finished 17-10 playing a murderous schedule, and they now look like the best Eastern team north of the ACC. Kansas Coach Ted Owens was a candidate for unemployment until Guard Darnell Valentine quarterbacked the Jayhawks to the Big Eight title. But none of these four had as profound an effect on his team, or on college basketball, as did Michigan State's gangly guard, 6'8" Earvin (Magic) Johnson. A schoolboy legend in Lansing, he went to East Lansing and turned the Spartans from a 10-17 loser into a 25-5 Big Ten champion. As the Michigan State highlight film tells it, winning basketball returned to Jenison Field House "as if by magic."

The other five selections from this illustrious class are frontcourt men Albert King of Maryland and Cliff Robinson of USC, guards Danny Ainge of Brigham Young and Jeff Lamp of Virginia and Center Herb Williams of Ohio State. It would also be honorable to mention four others: Michigan's All-Big Ten Forward Mike McGee, Utah's All-WAC Center Danny Vranes, Florida's leading scorer Reggie Hannah and Villanova's Alex Bradley, who was among the Eastern Eight's top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.

Kentucky Coach Joe Hall, whose team would probably be highly ranked this year if he had successfully recruited Ruland, calls this "one of the best classes in many, many years. I just hope they don't turn pro too soon, because if they're available for the 1980 Olympics, we'll be good."

Michigan State's exuberant Johnson feels even more confident than Hall does. "We'd have a great team," he says, envisioning an Olympic lineup of the top five sophs. "We'd have a killer in the middle [Ruland], a dude to shoot [Tripucka], a power forward to bang heads [Banks], a quick guard [Valentine] and me—I'd be running the show." Dig it.

Several of these players are in an Olympic development program, and the others are likely to get their first crack at international competition within the year. Johnson, Valentine, Banks, Robinson and Vranes played on a young American team at a tournament in the U.S.S.R. last summer. The coach on that trip, Bill Vining, a veteran of 24 years at Ouachita Baptist and of numerous international expeditions, says, "I can't remember a U.S. squad with this many quality youngsters." Despite their youth, the Americans reached the finals before losing to the Soviets.

Johnson's availability for the Moscow Olympics, not to mention his junior and senior seasons at Michigan State, depends on when he turns pro. Kansas City General Manager Joe Axelson says, "Johnson could start for anybody in the league tomorrow." Searching for someone to run the Kings' offense, Axelson wanted to draft Earvin No. 1 last spring, but Johnson decided to stay in school at least one more year. Kansas City chose Player of the Year Phil Ford of North Carolina instead, but Axelson still calls Johnson "the most exciting college player I've ever seen. I can't believe God created a 6'8" man who can handle the ball like that."

Nor can many other people. Johnson seems to be Cousy, Maravich and Meadowlark Lemon rolled into one fancy passer. Last year Purdue Coach Fred Schaus called him "the finest freshman I've ever seen," and Michigan Coach John Orr declared, "It took the Spartans 30 years to get up there, and if he goes away, they're going right back down."

Orr may have been a little off in his arithmetic, Michigan State's last Big Ten titles having come in 1957 and '59, but Spartan Coach Jud Heathcote recently said, "Orr's probably right. Earvin is a superstar. He's the best player in the open court today, better than Maravich, Thompson, Westphal or anybody you want to name. If he stays in college all four years, he will be remembered as the player who put the effectiveness of the pass back into the game. Cousy showed people the value of the pass on the fast break. Earvin is showing what it can mean in the entire offense. His court vision is tremendous."

Although Johnson averaged a highly creditable seven assists a game last year, in other respects he seemed to be just another good player. He had 17 points and eight rebounds a game and shot a mediocre 46%. But these numbers do not measure his ability or influence. Opponents have learned that they may be able to outrun, outjump, outmuscle or out-shoot Johnson, but it is almost impossible to beat him. Facing the basket from a 6'8" perspective at the top of the key, he not only sees the flow of play better than anybody, but he also seems to sense precisely what the best next move is. Then he reacts.

"In Earvin's case you don't talk about the points he scores," says Heathcote, "but the points he produces. Not just the baskets and assists, but the first pass that makes the second pass possible. He's conscious of scoring himself, but it isn't an obsession with him. He doesn't worry about getting his average every game."

By "controlling, not dominating" play, as Heathcote puts it, Johnson became the Spartans' Most Valuable Player, a unanimous All-Big Ten selection and the only freshman named to a major All-America team. He was also the only freshman to play for the U.S. in last spring's senior-dominated three-game series against Cuba, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. Before this season, Heathcote made Johnson Michigan State's co-captain, because "this could be the last season he's here."

Johnson may not know where he will be playing next year, but he is sure of what he will be doing: gliding down somebody's court, weaving in and out of traffic, frustrating his defensive man, checking the left and right lanes, waiting, waiting, waiting until just the right moment, and then—presto!—there it is, around his back, through his legs, side-arm, overhand, whatever sleight of hand it takes to get the ball to the right man in the right place at the right time.

"My whole game is court sense," Johnson says, "being smart, taking charge, setting up a play or, if I have to, scoring. I've tried to pattern myself after George Gervin and Dr. J. I don't shoot the way they do, but they're both big, and they handle the ball and they're smoooooth. That's what I really like, how smoooooth they are."

Johnson's own brand of smoooooth began developing as he watched games on television. "My father would point out things to me, like Oscar taking a smaller guard underneath, or the pick and roll," he says. "By the time I started playing organized ball, if the coach asked whether anybody knew how to do a three-man weave or a left-handed layup, I was the first one up."

Johnson took every opportunity to practice what his father, a Fisher Body worker, preached. He would shovel snow off the outdoor courts in the winter and play past dark in the summer. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes he'd go one-on-one, sometimes it was a pickup game where pride and maybe even a few dollars were at stake. While he was still in junior high school, he occasionally played in the Michigan State intramural building with Spartan star Terry Furlow. "The first time I just came to watch, really," he says, "so when Terry picked me I was scared. Then he started calling me his main man and bragging on me."

Johnson began perfecting what he calls his "hoopsy doopsy" style at the Main Street School, where the baskets are only eight feet high. "It was always packed with guys wanting to play," says Johnson, "so the only way you could hold the court was to win. That's why we went for the drives and the sure two instead of the outside shots."

When Johnson took his game out of the neighborhood, he was just as devastating. While visiting relatives in Rocky Mount, N.C. one summer during high school, he went looking for action at a local playground. As often happens to insatiable players like Johnson, what he found was a challenge from a 20-year-old player who was a local hero, second only to a Rocky Mount native named Phil Ford. The game was made, 15 baskets, and the bet was laid, $20. Obviously, the dude from Michigan was either very good or very dumb. The answer seemed clear after the hometown guy ran off six hoops without Johnson scoring. But the North Carolinian scored only two more after that, and Johnson doubled his money while almost doubling the score. "He was really upset," Earvin recalls. "He even tried to get his friends to lend him more money so he could play me again, but they wouldn't do it." The Rocky Mount boys had seen enough.

This sort of thing could never have happened in Lansing, of course. By the time Johnson graduated from Everett High his game—and his fame—were established. He had become the first three-time all-state player in Michigan history and an attraction of staggering dimensions in his hometown. People would gather by the hundreds to watch him perform on an asphalt court and by the thousands to see his tricks on hardwood. Once, when Everett played rival Eastern High at Jenison Field House, all 9,886 seats were sold, and the TV rating in the Lansing area for another Everett-Eastern game was just a bit shy of what it had been for that year's Super Bowl. After his senior year, when Johnson returned from a tournament in Germany, banners welcomed him home at the airport, most urging that he play at Michigan State. When he made his announcement, it drew more Lansing media attention than an earlier visit by President Gerald Ford. The grateful response in town and on campus was such that Spartan attendance doubled, turning every home game into a sellout.

Considering the buildup, Johnson and his teammates were on the spot last season. But not even the most optimistic-Spartan fan envisioned that State would win quite as often as it did. "I didn't expect anything like what happened," Johnson says. "One of the reasons I had come to Michigan State was that I love to be the underdog and rise to the occasion. But after we beat Minnesota in our first conference game, I remember going back to the dorm and telling my roommate, 'Man, I think we can do it. I think we can win the Big Ten.' "

If that 87-83 victory over the Gophers told Johnson something about the conference, it told the conference even more about Johnson. He was the best player on the floor that night, scoring 31 points, pulling down eight rebounds and dispensing four assists. Johnson had arrived and the Spartans had arrived with him. At the end of the season they were in first place, and Earvin was first in the league in assists, tied for third in scoring, fifth in free-throw percentage and tied for sixth in rebound average.

Johnson would have made almost any college team successful, but only at hometown State could he have created the commotion that accompanied the Spartans' revival. He has handled it well, because for all the class he possesses on the court, he has just as much off it. "I want people to think of me as a student," he says, "but I know I'm a student in a special category. I mean, I'm a student in the classroom, but around campus I'm Earvin Johnson the basketball player. I can hear people whisper when I walk by. 'Hey, is that Magic?' And I've heard little kids on the playground say, 'I'm Earvin, I'm Earvin.' This is why I'm careful about how I come across to people. I don't want them to think I'm conceited. When you're the main attraction, you've got to watch out."

When you're Earvin Johnson, you'll always be the main attraction, even in a class with class.



Discussion of this season's superb sophomore class inevitably brings to mind some of the extraordinary groups from previous eras. For your consideration—and perhaps consternation—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has selected the outstanding class of the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s and early '70s. Although the emphasis was placed on the players' collegiate accomplishments, their later careers were also taken into account. Each class is listed according to the decade it entered college.

The most controversial aspect of the selections may not be who was included, but who wasn't. Many great players were not chosen because there were not enough other exceptional performers in their classes to make their years truly classy. Thus you will not find here the names of Russell, Chamberlain or Alcindor—or even Robertson and West. For years many fans have assumed that the class that entered college in 1956 and included Oscar Robertson and Jerry West was the finest ever. The main reason for this thinking was the awesome performance of the U.S. team in the 1960 Olympics. Actually, only four of the 12 Olympians were members of the Robertson-West class.

There should be no controversy, however, about the most distinguished class of the 1920s, because five 1927 freshmen became members of the Naismith Hall of Fame. And two of them, guards John Thompson of Montana State and Charles Hyatt of Pittsburgh, were chosen in 1970 for the Helms Foundation's 10-man, all-time team. Thompson and classmate Frank Ward have the added distinction of playing on what Helms called, in 1960, the greatest team ever—Montana State's 1929 club that finished 36-2.

This class also includes two Hall of Fame players best known for having coached their alma maters to national titles: Branch McCracken of Indiana and Bud Foster of Wisconsin. A third Big Ten player—and the fifth Naismith inductee—was Stretch Murphy of Purdue.

Another alltime All-America, Hank Luisetti of Stanford, heads the class of 1935-38. Luisetti was twice Player of the Year, but he is better known for having perfected the running one-hand shot. Notre Dame has two members of the '30s best team, 1936 Player of the Year John Moir and Paul Nowak. The other all-stars include Mike Bloom, who led Temple to victory in the first NIT, and conference scoring champions Jewell Young of Purdue, Bonnie Lee Graham of Mississippi and Fred Pralle of Kansas.

The outstanding class of the 1940s was the one that played from 1946 to '49. With Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones, Kentucky won the NIT in 1946, was runner-up in '47 and won the NCAAs in '48 and '49. These three, along with three other members of Kentucky's fabulous squad, were also on the gold-medal-winning 1948 Olympic team. The gold lost some of its luster when Beard and Groza pleaded guilty to shaving points at Kentucky in 1949.

Some other notable players in the 1946-49 class were Ed Macauley of St. Louis, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame; Vern Mikkelson of Hamline, who is in the NAIA Hall of Fame; Vern Gardner of Utah, the star of the team that handed Beard, Groza & Co. its loss in the '47 NIT; and Tony Lavelli of Yale, the Helms Player of the Year in '49.

Heading the top freshman class of the 1950s are Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, who performed at Ohio State from 1959 to '62. Lucas was a two-time Player of the Year and a member of the 1960 Olympic team, along with a classmate, Terry Dischinger of Purdue. Even with Lucas and Havlicek, the Buckeyes lost two national title games to Cincinnati, which was led by Tall Paul Hogue.

This class also included five other players who are considered the best performers ever at their schools: Zelmo Beaty of 1962 NAIA champion Prairie View; Chet Walker of Bradley; Dave DeBusschere of Detroit; Billy McGill of Utah; and Len Chappell of Wake Forest.

Points, and lots of them, makes the class of 1967-70 very special. Led by Pete Maravich of LSU, seven of its members scored at least 2,000 points in their three-year careers. Maravich, Calvin Murphy of Niagara and Rick Mount of Purdue were three-time All-Americas, which did not leave many kudos for such other top backcourt men as Charlie Scott of North Carolina and Nate Archibald of UTEP. There was talent in the frontcourt, too, with Dan Issel of Kentucky, Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure, Dave Cowens of Florida State and Rudy Tomjanovich of Michigan.

The classiest class of the early 1970s (1971-74) really needs no introduction, because most of its members are currently in the NBA: Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes of UCLA, Maurice Lucas of Marquette, Marvin Barnes of Providence, Bobby Jones of North Carolina, Billy Knight of Pittsburgh, John Drew of Gardner Webb, Phil Smith of San Francisco, Brian Winters of South Carolina, John Shumate of Notre Dame and Tom Burleson of North Carolina State.