On the eve of their game last Saturday, University of Dayton Coach Don Donoher and his Michigan counterpart, Johnny Orr, were exchanging lies at a small dinner party in Dayton. Another guest walked up to the coaches and said, "May the best team win." "Oh, don't say that," moaned Donoher. Eighteen hours later, his fears were confirmed.
In winning 66-61 the Wolverines did not exactly chew up the Flyers but they showed that they are more than a match for even a very good club, which Dayton is. And by winning on the road, even though playing at less than its peak, Michigan also showed that it might well fulfill the most optimistic preseason predictions of its partisans—that the Wolverines would be a challenger for the Big Ten and, even, the national championships. "Yeah, I can see that," says Michigan Center Phil Hubbard. He and everyone else saw it earlier in the week, too, even in defeat. At Louisville, whose Cardinals are bona fide contenders for any title you want to name, the Wolverines had lost, but barely, 86-84.
The danger in predicting such heady status for Michigan is that it rests entirely on Hubbard's shaky left knee. Without question, the gloriously quick, 6'7" Hubbard has all kinds of talent. As a freshman in 1975-76 he led Michigan to the NCAA finals and then helped the U.S. Olympic team win a gold medal; as a sophomore he paced the Wolverines to a conference title and earned a starting berth on the American team in the World University Games. "He was the best player in the country from end to end of the court," says one of Orr's assistants, Bill Frieder.
Then, in a game against the Soviets in Sofia, Hubbard hurt his knee. "I went up for a rebound and two big guys came down on my back," Hubbard says. "My leg gave out. Next day it swole up." He rested for several months.
On the first day of practice at Michigan in October 1977, Hubbard's weakened knee crumpled as he tried to tip in a missed shot on a fast-break drill. "Rest a few minutes," said Orr, hoping the injury was minor. But it wasn't. Cartilage was torn and the operation needed to repair it knocked Hubbard out for the season. Orr called his staff together. "Boys, we just went from the top to the bottom," he said. Not quite. Michigan had a 16-11 record, very creditable in view of the circumstances, and finished in a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.
After the Dayton game, the Wolverines were 3-1 against one of the toughest early schedules in the country. When reporters ask Orr how Hubbard is, he says, "Fine, just fine." When Hubbard is asked, he says, "Fine, just fine." But privately, both temper their enthusiasm. "He knows the things he used to do," says Orr, "but he can't do some of them now. Not yet. Before, his greatest asset was his quickness. Now, at least for a while, I think it will have to be his intelligence."
Following the action in Dayton, during which he was far more of a factor than his 17 points and 13 rebounds might indicate, Hubbard had his knee wrapped in ice as usual. "Sometimes it's a little sore," he said. Regardless, is the real Phil Hubbard back? "Naw," he said, "but I'm on the right road." Hubbard insists his knee is not preying on his mind, and his surgeon. Dr. Gerald O'Connor, feels that is the crucial first step to full recovery. "So much depends on attitude," O'Connor says. "A player has to have confidence in his knee after an operation like that." Phil's uncle, Nate Hubbard, says of the injury, "We don't cry over spilled milk. I told him what you've got to do when it's spilled is evaporate it."
Against the Flyers, it was clear that the process of evaporation is not yet complete. Midway through the first half, Dayton's Richard Montague took off on a breakaway with Hubbard at his heels. But Hubbard couldn't stay with Montague, so instead of risking injury and a silly foul by leaping furiously, he let Montague go. At the start of the second half, Hubbard got the ball at midcourt and tried to drive for the basket, but unlike the way it was in past years, he wasn't fast enough to get by his man. Two minutes later, however, his shortcomings seemed to vaporize when he hit a field goal with an off-balance, behind-the-head, twisting shot. And in an otherwise atrocious second-half offensive performance by the Wolverines that left them with only a 60-57 lead with 2:23 to play. Hubbard made two quick—make that very quick—moves that got him loose for a perfect 20-foot jumper. It was the game's deciding shot.
Hubbard can be decisive for Michigan just by being on the court, because opponents remember the old Hubbard, too, and they play as if they're afraid he will revert at any moment. And though Hubbard is still a step slow, he nonetheless plays with his old abandon. He crashes the boards, bullies the opposition, plays aggressive defense, participates in every fast break—all with barely controlled fury.
While a man of Hubbard's ability does not need much help—even he says, "I don't want to depend on others when I can do it myself"—his effectiveness is being enhanced by the presence of Mike McGee, a sophomore forward who considers his effective shooting range anything up to one mile. He's averaging 28 points a game, compared with Hubbard's 21, and a few of his high archers have yet to come down. But other aspects of his game, especially defense, are not nearly so lofty.
McGee was not heavily recruited, even by Michigan. "After all," says Orr, "he came from Omaha. Omaha!" That city may not be a trove of great basketball players, but as a freshman McGee proved he was a treasure, finishing second in the Big Ten in scoring with 21.8 points per game. "Having a player with Mike's ability means they can't sag on Phil," says Orr. And Hubbard, even somewhat slowed, can't be handled all day by just one defensive player.
To take advantage of both players, Orr frequently calls for a two-man offense, which doesn't exactly thrill the other three Wolverines on the floor. In it, McGee and Hubbard pick for each other under the basket while their mates concentrate on getting them the ball. "Those two are vicious under there," says Orr. They are, and opponents are just going to have to get used to seeing Hubbard and McGee running down the court slapping hands after yet another offensive dazzler. Hubbard, who is no more shy than McGee about shooting, says, "I have never seen a bad shot. I mean, I make a move and take a shot. How can that be bad?"
McGee and Hubbard hang out together off the court, too, and the other day at a Dayton motel Phil was complaining about flashcubes costing $1.86. "They should cost $1.56," he griped.
"You're a miser, man," said McGee.
"I'm going to get rich that way," announced Hubbard. More likely his future financial status depends on the condition of his knee. Playing with his left leg heavily taped from thigh to mid-calf is not going to endear Hubbard to the scouts from the NBA. He and Orr wonder if the tape is necessary, because it limits mobility, but both understandably hesitate to go without it.
Which is just about the only hesitancy Hubbard has ever had about basketball since taking it up in the fourth grade and quickly discovering one thing: "I was better at it than all the rest of the kids." During his junior year at Canton, Ohio's McKinley High, his team was 26-1; when he was a senior, it was 23-2. His coach then, Bob Rupert, now head coach at Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland, says, "The one thing you know for sure about Phil is he will be good this game and better the next." How does Hubbard view himself as a player? "I'm fair." Come on, Phil. "Well, I feel I can play with almost anybody when the time comes."
That's more like it, because he certainly can. Even if all his quickness doesn't come back, he's still too fast to be handled by most teams. Musing over what it's like to coach a player of Hubbard's abilities, Orr recalls the time his predecessor, Dave Strack, hollered down the bench, "Cazzie, Cazzie." "Heck, Cazzie Russell had been gone for two years," says Orr, "but coaching will do that to you." Orr knows what it's like to have spent one season when he couldn't summon Hubbard; for sure he realizes that even if Hubbard—and Michigan—don't make a full recovery and win a championship or two, matters have taken a turn for the better.