Dr. Dunkenstein. A broken Scooter. The pig Latin boys. A guy with a tearaway thumb. Why, if it isn't Louisville, harbinger of winter, loser of the big one, stranger in its own town and all-round enigma of college basketball. Yes, indeed. In a season already marked by so many injuries, suspensions and upsets that you can't tell the players without a forged transcript, the Cardinals have managed to hang right in there amidst the madness by employing some of their annual routines. Such as:
•Losing the heart of their defense, the exciting sophomore Scooter McCray. Cause: a torn cartilage in his right knee, suffered in the third game of the season.
•Positively exposing the weaknesses of haughty, then-second-ranked Ohio State's stale, non-running philosophy while pressing the Buckeyes into oblivion, 75-65, in the sixth game.
•And traveling halfway across the world to a tournament in Hawaii only to fall apart themselves, as evidenced by a 19-point first half in which the Cardinals shot 7 for 28 on the way to a 77-64 defeat at the hands of another enigma, the Fighting Decembers of Illinois.
January 14, 1980
"Hey, Derek Smith," Louisville Coach Denny Crum called out to one of his zillion good sophomores the other day. "Your size 15s are too big. You don't need all that feet. What say we chop off one of your toes and give it to Wiley?"
Inasmuch as Wiley Brown, another sophomore, needs a second thumb rather than an 11th toe, that suggestion was tabled. So Crum flew off to do the color for a Metro Conference TV game in St. Louis, then got back in time to coach his own team against dangerous Kansas State in what turned out to be the Cardinals' 10th victory in 12 games, 85-73. But who could've known that Crum would show up to coach or the Cardinals to play? You can never be sure at Louisville.
In the past eight seasons, or since the fun-loving, gin-rummy-playing Crum came roaring out from under the wing of UCLA's John Wooden to take charge of the Cardinals, Louisville averaged 23 victories and reached the NCAA final four twice—and, it is widely believed, had the 1975 national championship in the bag. The best free-throw shooter in school history had a one-and-one that would have clinched a semifinal win over UCLA and put Louisville in the finals with all the adrenaline flowing against the then-too-raw and much-hated Kentucky Wildcats. Instead, Terry Howard missed that opportunity, UCLA survived in overtime, and Wooden went on to win his last championship.
Have Crum and the Cardinals ever really recovered? In three of the four seasons since that debacle, strong and multitalented Louisville teams have done nothing so much as crumble at the wire, losing (in chronological order) four of their final six games, five of their final eight, and then, last year, five of their final eight again. In a fourth season-ending collapse, in the 1978 Midwest Regional, some puzzling Crum defensive strategy enabled DePaul's Dave Corzine to score 46 points—"layup city," a Louisville man called it—in a 90-89 upset. This so shocked the citizenry that Corzine's performance still hasn't been entered in the Louisville record book.
Ironically, Louisville's home court, fabled Freedom Hall out at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, may be partly responsible for the Cardinals' sorry swan songs. They can't use the state-owned building much in February and are forced to play most of their late-season games on the road. "They put everything in there from tractor pulls to cockfights," says Crum.
A lack of freedom in Freedom already has hampered this season's Cards, who were unable to get in a single practice on the floor before their opening game. And, come this February, Louisville will play six of its final seven regular-season games away.
The city's business community and Julian Carroll, who was the Kentucky governor until last month, supposedly got behind an effort to build a new arena for the school, but now that another man inhabits the statehouse, the fear is that the bills for first lady Phyllis George Brown's smiling lessons will take precedence over any new sweatbox funds. Not to mention the fact that the local school is probably still only second in the hearts of local fans. "Is this a Kentucky town or a Louisville town?" the Courier-Journal man said, repeating the question. "Just ask Digger Phelps." Phelps brings his Notre Dame team into Freedom Hall to play—and lose to—Kentucky every December, and 10,000 or so of those putative Louisville fans traditionally show up just to watch the 'Cats run through their morning-before-the-game practice.
Intrastate frustrations aside, Crum has always been a calm, easygoing sort with a California laid-backness that, critics say, extends to his teams and results in their bland, unemotional performances in the crunch. "I learned from Coach Wooden not to yell and scream at players," says Crum. "If you get the right kind of kids who want to win, they should push themselves."
But Crum admits he has been tougher on this season's team, owing to what the voluble Smith characterizes as "our amazing youngness." When veteran Bobby Turner failed to earn enough credits to remain eligible and then McCray got hurt, Louisville was left with only one starter from last year, the aforementioned Dunkenstein, otherwise known as Darrell Griffith. Thus, practices have been harder, the coach sterner, and the Cardinals have been making up for a lack of height and experience by pressing full court for 40 minutes of every game.
"This is a different type team than any of the others I've played on," says the 6'4", high-jumping Griffith. "We're smarter, closer. There's more energy. We laugh more. These kids will not give up."
Brains and fundamentals—normally in short supply on Louisville squads—have been supplied by Smith, a "sleeper" recruit out of tiny Hogansville, Ga., and by McCray's replacement on the front line, 6'7". 220-pound Rodney McCray, who, despite possessing what may be the most gigantic rear end in the sport, is affectionately known as Scooter's "little" brother.
When McCray, S., was injured at Tennessee, McCray, R., stepped in to lead all rebounders with seven in Louisville's 77-75 surprise win. Griffith scored 32 points against the Vols, while all Smith did was make seven of eight shots.
The 6'6" Smith, lean and barely out of swaddling clothes—he started school at four and thus was only 16 upon entering college in the fall of 1978—has the range of an archer, and he has shot 62.5% over his 1½ seasons on the varsity. He will be a star. Partial to the "bald slicker treatment" down at Means' Barber Shop, Smith claims his shaved pate "lightens my top for better rebounding."
On the other hand—Brown's right one, to be specific—Louisville's other sophomore Georgia forward was more severely burdened when, as a child, his gangrenous right thumb had to be removed by surgery. Now, despite wearing an orthoplast mold of his left thumb and surgical glove to cover it during games, Brown is averaging 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds a game, while communicating with Smith in pig Latin.
Smith-to-Brown on the "ob-lay" is a favored maneuver as is, of course, the "ack-bay oor-day," which the pair has pulled off several times with a verbal signal that has thoroughly puzzled the opposition as well as the Cards themselves. "I don't know, what the hell they're talking about," says Griffith.
The fate of this funny, enthusiastic Louisville crew ultimately rests on Dunkenstein—or Dr. Dunk, or just plain Griff—as everybody has understood it would each year since the All-America moseyed down the road from nearby Male High School to be "the next David Thompson." If Griffith hasn't exactly accomplished that, he has led the Cardinals to three NCAA tournaments and is now enjoying his finest season, finally demonstrating some defense and working under control on offense, in lieu of his past spectacular dunking forays every time down the court.
How much Griffith means to Louisville was clear last week against Tulsa when he knocked off the school career scoring record and then left the game with three fouls in the first half. Immediately, the visiting Hurricanes outscored Louisville 13-2 to take a 33-28 lead before Griffith returned and, accompanied by long-shooting Poncho Wright, paced the home team to a 78-58 rout.
Against Kansas State last Saturday night, the Cardinals exhibited more versatility. While Griffith and Smith were suffering through a combined 4-for-14 shooting slump in the first half, Thumbelina Brown took over and in less than seven minutes scored nine points. Brown finished the period with 16 as Louisville took a 39-30 lead. Kansas State made a late-game run, but by that time Smith had broken loose for five baskets and Griffith for nine, some of them defying belief as well as gravity.
After his 27-point, six-assist, five-steal performance, Griffith insisted he was "conscious" all the way, but that he still couldn't understand pig Latin. "We finally got a sustained effort for a whole game." said Crum. "We can be as good as anybody. All we need is to be consistent and steady."
Or, as they say along the Louisville front line, "eddy-stay."