In the talented chorus line that is college basketball's Top 20, Notre Dame isn't just another pretty face. The Fighting Irish are long on ability and short on cute. Right now Coach Digger Phelps wishes everybody would go away and forget about his unlovely team until he can make it beautiful.
For himself, he'd like to forget last Saturday, when Notre Dame took its No. 5 ranking and 8-1 record into the Milwaukee Arena and lost to Marquette 54-52 on a running, leaning desperation bank shot by Glenn (Doc) Rivers with one second to play.
For the five weeks before that Notre Dame had been thumping one and all, led by the master of disaster, 6'6", 220-pound Kelly Tripucka. "He's like a fullback in football," says Phelps. "He goes out and gets you three yards and three yards and three yards, then all of a sudden he gets you seven yards." Assistant Coach Pete Gillen adds, "He's got a court presence, a kind of dignity, and most people either love him or hate him for it. In that way he's a great deal like the team he plays for."
The Marquette fans certainly didn't care for Tripucka, who led the Irish with 18 points, booing him persistently. They did ease up near the end when Tripucka, suffering from stomach cramps, had to leave the game with 4:49 to play and the score tied at 50. He adjourned to the dressing room for four minutes, telling the referee, "No màs, no màs," or something like that, as he left. Tripucka was able to return for the final 37 seconds, just in time to witness Rivers' shot, which must have further unsettled his stomach.
January 19, 1981
Tripucka's emergency departure was all the more unfortunate because Phelps, for once, hadn't been using his revolving-door substitution policy. Forward Orlando Woolridge and Guard John Paxson each played 39 minutes against the Warriors, Guard Tracy Jackson went 33 minutes, and Tripucka probably would have gone the full 40 had he not developed cramps.
Phelps' shuttle system has never been popular with Notre Dame's players, least of all Tripucka. He averaged only 27.8 minutes of floor time as a sophomore when he scored 14.3 points a game and made the U.S. Basketball Writers 10-man All-America team. He got 30 minutes a game as a junior (18 points and third-team UPI All-America) and was back down to 28.3 before the Marquette game. The starters became so disenchanted with what they see as Phelps' penchant for overcoaching that they called what turned out to be a raucous three-hour team meeting following a 63-55 loss to North Carolina State last season. "Everyone took off his coat and spoke his piece," recalls Tripucka. The meeting obviously didn't make a lasting impact on Phelps, who continues to overcoach, but it did reopen lines of communication that have helped the Irish this season. "Before the situation could ever get to that point this year," Tripucka says, "we'd have already taken care of it. That's one of the things that makes this team good."
A fine example of just how the 1980-81 Irish have been able to keep their differences ironed out occurred during half-time of their 67-61 upset of then-No. 2 Kentucky. With the score tied and Notre Dame running the clock down for the last shot of the first half, Tripucka suddenly bolted for the basket and threw up an off-balance prayer with 10 seconds remaining. Phelps wasn't pleased. Several courtside observers said later that they thought Tripucka had a new name, so often did Phelps repeat the words, "Jesus, Kelly!"
"Digger came running onto the court after me at halftime," says Tripucka, "and he kept saying, 'What are you doing?' I told him to forget about it, because I don't like to dwell on mistakes. But he got angry, and he harped on it again in the locker room." Tripucka, characteristically, didn't back down. "Forget about it, will you?" he said again, his voice rising now. "We're going to win this game. I just want to play." Phelps had the good sense to let the subject drop, and Tripucka came out of the dressing room so steamed up he finished with a game-high 30 points. "It was a good thing," he says of the brief shouting match. "We were communicating, getting our thoughts across to each other."
If the Irish seem like many a large family—forever feuding, bawling each other out and then making up—well, they're just following Tripucka's example. The senior tri-captain who was Notre Dame's top scorer (19.7 points per game at the end of last week) and rebounder (5.6) as well as one of its leading free spirits, grew up in a family that was so demonstrative he didn't start talking in a normal tone of voice until he was in high school. "We weren't the Waltons and it wasn't all lovey-dovey," says Randy Tripucka, Kelly's mother. "There was a lot of hollering and shouting."
Kelly is the son of Frank Tripucka, who started at quarterback for Notre Dame in 1948 and then went on to play in both the NFL and the AFL. He and Randy grew up in Bloomfield, N.J. and went to high school there, and after they were married, they settled in Bloomfield to raise a family. First came the twins, Heather and Tracy (a boy), who were followed by five boys. "For someone who wanted all girls, it was great," says Randy, really meaning it. "We 'always had girls' names ready, though, and when the boys came we went ahead and used them anyway." Tracy, who is now an assistant basketball coach at the University of Utah, set scoring records at Lafayette. Mark ("He would've been Michelle") played quarterback at the University of Massachusetts; Michael Todd ("He was going to be Michelle, too") stands third on the Lafayette career scoring list; T.K., for Timothy Kimball ("He would've been Kimberly"), played hoops for Fordham and, at 6'9", 240 pounds, is the biggest Tripucka; Kelly followed in his father's footsteps at Notre Dame; and Christopher ("That was going to be Christine"), who is 18 and a safety, flanker and place-kicker for the West Essex (N.J.) High football team, recently kicked the decisive field goal in the state championship game in Giants Stadium. Heather, by the way, once scored 56 points in an intramural basketball game. She was born about five years too soon for girls' interscholastic competition.
Frank Tripucka put up a backboard in the yard and installed lights so play could continue until 11 p.m. most evenings. "My thing was, don't sit around the house doing nothing and end up getting yourself in trouble," Frank says. "I never pushed them, but I wanted them to get involved in something. Some fathers will teach their kids to bat a ball or to shoot baskets, but I never did that. I just gave them the equipment and let them play."
As the Tripucka boys got biggger, the games got rougher. Occasionally one of them would say to the other, "Excuse me, brother mine, but I discern you have quite by accident perpetrated a foul against my person." Or something like that. It was all quite lovely. "There wasn't a game that didn't end up in a fight." says Kelly. "My brother Mark would usually instigate the trouble because he was the smallest and the strongest. Mark sort of scared me. He'd beat us up and punch us like he hated us. When we'd start fighting, my father would come off the porch with a baseball bat or an iron rake, and while we were all trying to scatter, he would whack everybody."
"You couldn't reason with that many boys trying to kill each other," explains Randy.
For a long time, Kelly was always the last one chosen for pickup games, and he and his brother T.K. looked out for each other. "Everybody always wanted to do better than the brother before him," says T.K., who is an insurance adjuster in New Jersey. "But around our brothers, Kelly and I stuck together because we got beat up together."
Trying to be better than his brothers was second nature to Kelly, but the possibility that he might fail to measure up to them never weighed on him. "I never really thought of pressure," he says. "I don't know why; I should have. When my brothers were already successful and I was in high school, people would look at me and say, 'Is he going to be another Tripucka?' " Kelly went to the semifinals of the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition twice but never had much interest in pursuing football. He was an all-state soccer player and turned down several college scholarship offers in that sport. He set Bloomfield High records in the javelin, high jump and shot. In the final game of his high school basketball career, he scored 52 points in the state semifinals. He was a Tripucka, sure enough.
Kelly wound up at Notre Dame after the usual intense and bizarre recruiting campaigns, including one visit from Bobby Knight in which the Indiana coach forgot himself and porked out on chocolate-covered ice-cream bars, eating almost an entire box of them in a single sitting. Phelps got Tripucka by appealing to his sense of tradition, but Digger couldn't win the boy's mother. Randy never really liked Notre Dame, and she dislikes Phelps for the way he handles her son.
Tripucka was just one of Phelps' outstanding crop of recruits in 1977. Jackson came through the Notre Dame pipeline from the Washington, D.C. area, and Woolridge was discovered on the edge of the bayous in Mansfield. La. Woolridge was averaging 13.8 points a game on 64.3% shooting at the end of last week, which isn't bad for a guy who was only being recruited by a few Southern schools until his cousin, Willis Reed, mentioned him to Phelps. The 6'9" Woolridge admits his name is a mouthful, but says his old nickname is inoperative. "In Louisiana they used to call me Tree," he says, "but once I got up to Notre Dame I found out I was just a shrub."
Jackson, who is 6'6", was Notre Dame's supersub as a sophomore and started at forward as a junior. This season Phelps shifted Woolridge from center to forward, where he's a proficient enough shooter from outside and extremely explosive when he gets near the basket, and moved Jackson from forward to shooting guard. Jackson struggled in the Irish opener at UCLA, a 94-81 loss, but was 6 for 6 against Kentucky and 9 for 11 in Notre Dame's 94-65 romp at Villanova early last week.
The Irish rebounded from their setback at UCLA to win eight straight games, including important victories over Indiana and Kentucky. "People forgot about us after UCLA," says Phelps, "and that was good. The three seniors have put a lot of things together since then. They dictate the mental state of this team. For us to be good, two of those three have to play well."
Notre Dame is a methodical, almost plodding team at times, but when it can control the tempo of a game, it's among the best in the country. Against UCLA and again at Marquette last week, the Irish were clearly out of their normal rhythm and paid for it. "When we just take our time and execute, we're awesome," says Woolridge. "But we aren't quick enough to run with teams like DePaul and UCLA." One position at which the Irish are particularly vulnerable to an opponent who can move around a bit is in the pivot, where 6'11", 240-pound freshman Joe Kleine and 6'10" sophomore Tim Andree split time. Last Saturday, Marquette's Dean Marquardt, who was averaging 2.2 points a game on 37.0% shooting, hit all six of his attempts from the field to lead the Warriors in scoring with 15 points.
What makes Notre Dame's lack of a consistent running game seem peculiar—and at times frustrating to watch—is Woolridge's obvious ability to get out and run a fast break like a guard and the presence of the gifted Paxson in the backcourt. Nobody talks about Paxson much, probably because he doesn't score in double figures yet, but there isn't a more able penetrating guard around. "If Isiah Thomas [of Indiana] is considered the best guard in the country," says Marquette Assistant Coach Rick Majerus, "then Paxson should be second." He may, in time, become the best player the Irish have.
For the moment, that role belongs to Tripucka, and it would be unlike him to give it up without a fight. He reduced his weight from about 235 by giving up beer for two months this fall. "I was a moose, a linebacker." he says. "I thought if I lost the weight it would help me handle the ball better, but I can handle being heavier if I have to. The way I play, bulk really helps." But it obscures an interesting aspect of his game. For all his brutish strength, he's shooting a deft 54.7% from the field and 79.6% from the line for his college career.
Tripucka has spent the past three summers playing with his brothers in the Jersey City Collegiate League and going to the beach for a few weeks in Southern California just to hang out and look at girls. Last summer he entered two bar contests for best-looking legs, finishing first in one and second to a woman in the other. He picked up $75 in prize money overall for his gorgeous gams and impressed one of the women contestants so much that she asked nervously if he would be exhibiting his prodigious pins at a contest in Hollywood the following week. "I told her no, that I wasn't entering beauty contests for a living yet," Tripucka says.
Tripucka and the Irish have another beauty contest on their minds, one that will tell them whether they're just another pretty face or not. It's called the final four.