If we can please the preachers at Walla Walla and, with the same program, please the wild men of the mountains, we surely ought to please the multitudes of the world.
—JAMES DeMOSS, patriarch of Oregon's beloved DeMoss Family Lyric Bards, circa 1880
And now, a century later, comes another parochial band rambling out of the Great Northwest to spread its gospel, which happens to be defense, and to play its music, with lyrics that admonish everyone never to take a bad shot. But are the multitudes of the world paying attention? "Nobody knows what we look like," says Oregon State's star center, Steve Johnson. "Nobody knows our names."
Well, you can call them Beavers. After all, that's their official moniker.
Or you can call them believers and receivers, seeing as they're positively convinced of the efficacy of that all-but-lost art known as "passing."
February 9, 1981
Or you can even call them geezers. Five seniors are playing together for the fourth season, and the coach is working in his 30th.
But you don't have to call the wonderful Oregon State basketball team that nobody respects except the voters in the polls—and they aren't entirely sure—"Johnson" anymore.
It is the special irony of Oregon State's immaculate 17-0 season, which continued apace last week as the Beavers crushed UCLA 81-67 and then resorted to their cobweb defense to turn back Southern Cal 55-48, that while word of the team somehow has managed to slip out of the green glades of Corvallis, allowing the Beavers to reach the top of the rankings, the only individual's name that has made it across the Continental Divide is that of the 6'10½", 235-pound Johnson. But, truth be told, for all his scoring totals, field-goal records and dazzling hooks, Johnson is but a second line of offense.
Oregon State first establishes its outside game, rather than the inside, as tradition dictates, because Coach Ralph Miller has passers who can thread a pumpkin through an inner tube and shooters who can knock down the baskets from anywhere within the drenched confines of the Willamette Valley.
Few outside the Pac-10 can identify these operatives—Ray Blume, Mark Radford and Lester Conner are foremost among them—because the Beavers' marvelous 27-4 season in 1979-80 ended prematurely with an upset loss to Lamar early in the NCAA tournament and also because Oregon State has .never been on a major-network national TV game. This video slight will be corrected when the Beavers play St. John's in Uniondale, L.I. on Valentine's Day and at UCLA on March 1. So watch closely. The unselfish, quick-witted folks in the backcourt will spread the floor, whirl the ball around the horn like berserk infielders turning triple plays and then suddenly shoot the lights out, forcing the opposition to focus its defense on the perimeter. Then it will be time for Johnson to go to work inside and...well, who were those masked men?
Against UCLA Johnson scored four baskets in the first half but finished with 27 points. Against Southern Cal he got four points in the first 11 minutes but went home with 25. When Oregon State defeated Washington 97-91 in overtime, Johnson had 30 of his 38 points after the intermission. A late starter? No. It's the Beavers' plan to open things up with slingshots and then close the show with their cannon.
Johnson cannot jump or rebound and he would have a hard time guarding Pop-eye—he has fouled out of 47 games in his 105-game career, including four this year. But after he has sealed off his defender with what may be the most massive rear end in the history of the game and gotten the ball in his hands, Johnson is an automatic scorer. Teammates make light of his physique by walking around with a basketball stuffed in the seat of their shorts; they call him "The Big Behind" even as they acknowledge his status as their meal ticket. In turn, the threat of Johnson's velvet touch with the hook and his vast array of inside moves often liberate his teammates for shining moments.
Johnson scored three points against California and Oregon State won by 27. He played 10 minutes against a solid Rhode Island team and the Beavers won by 48. In their most notable conquest to date—a 71-67 victory at Arizona State—they pulled ahead with their resident lumberjack, reserve Center Bill Mc-Shane, replacing a foul-plagued Johnson.
Last week, the same kind of stuff. Against UCLA the senior guards, Blume and Radford, divided 20 shots while combining for 33 points. Against USC Blume was content with four points, Radford with four steals. The new swingman, Conner, merely had eight assists against the Bruins and six steals (yes, folks, another Lester the Molester) against the Trojans.
"You have to honor Oregon State's outside people because they initiate the whole show," says UCLA Coach Larry Brown. "Their passing is so exquisite that everybody gets set up for open, easy shots by everyone else. If they find some rebounding, this could be a great team."
Oregon State's weakness—at 6'4", Conner is the team's second-leading re-bounder behind Johnson—has been hidden because there just aren't too many misses to rebound at the offensive end of the court. And at the other end, the Beavers' out-front defenders often take care of matters before the ball goes up on the glass.
You want stats? The Beavers will give you stats. Defensively, they've forced 20.8 turnovers a game and averaged nearly nine steals every time out. Only once—against Southern Cal—have the Beavers appeared fairly human by shooting less than 50%, possibly because the game followed by only 40 hours their inhuman 69.4% shooting against UCLA.
For the year, Oregon State had shot 57.3% from the floor, tops in the nation; if the Beavers maintain that pace, they'd set an NCAA accuracy record. This would fit nicely with Johnson's individual numbers. If he keeps up the 76.3% season average he had at the end of last week, he'd break his own NCAA record of 71.0% established last season, and his 67.3% career figure would erase the mark set by a fellow named Bill Walton.
Still, it's the neglected art of passing that sets Oregon State apart. "The Orange Express," locals call the team. The Clockwork Orange is closer to the truth, the Beavers' well-drilled patterns being so precise that surely there's no more entertaining team in the land to watch. Oregon State averages 24 assists a game and had 36 (on 39 baskets) in its 103-55 trouncing of Rhode Island. Afterward the Rams interim coach, Claude English, called Oregon State "one of the great passing teams of the era. I've never seen one as good at any level."
The Beavers appear to have virtually no knowledge of what a dribble might be. "You think you're a dribbler? You'll sit the pines," says Blume. In addition, any Beaver using a bounce pass may get one of Miller's chain-smokes extinguished in his eye. Even Oregon State's uniform socks—long, knee-high white hose that Johnson calls "our spatters"—are designed with the passing game in mind: a visual aid by which a player can be easily spotted cutting through the pack. The team's style is all very European, or as Miller points out, "1940s basketball." He insists nothing really new has entered the game since then.
As a collegian at Kansas, Miller was a hook shooter and playmaker for the legendary Phog Allen. As a coach, he built powerhouses at Wichita State and Iowa before moving to Corvallis in 1970. Now 61, all craggy features, a scowling cocked head—the better to listen with his one good ear—and a slim, brown More cigarette dangling from his lips, Miller looks like an aging James Co-burn cooling out after an action take. Now he has the team of his dreams—one giant hooker surrounded by what seem like dozens of little playmakers passing and cutting and never letting the ball touch the floor.
This Oregon State team was painstakingly put together. At first Miller's stern, unstinting ways took some getting used to. Johnson, a Californian who had run away from home in high school, didn't think the coach liked him. Blume, a self-described "radical troublemaker" as a youngster, was originally scared of Miller and wanted to go back home to Portland. Radford also felt out of his element.
The current group of seniors—minus Johnson, who sat out the 1977-78 season with a broken foot—made their college debuts in faraway North Carolina, losing three games by a total of 77 points. "The beginning of learning the team concept," Radford says of that lost week. Later those Beavers rallied to finish second in the Pac-8 and began calling the old, intimidating coach "Ralph." They broke the ground for the likes of Charlie Sitton, this year's crusher of a freshman forward, who's already first name all the way: "Whatever Ralph says is normally what goes. I learn something every day from Ralph."
Last season when Oregon State won the league it had all the requisite shooting, the back doors and chemistry, but the Beavers seemed to lack emotional fiber, a toughness in the crunch. And the easygoing Johnson was troubled by disagreements with his parents and his soon-to-be in-laws. Last March Johnson married Janice Inman, the daughter of the Portland Trail Blazers' director of player personnel, Stu Inman. Later a son, Marques, was born. Now Johnson can joke about the situation. "My wife asked me, if we had a daughter, what I would think of her going out with a white fellow," Johnson says. "I kind of laughed and told her, 'Well, he'd have to be awfully cool.' "
Following his team's collapse in the NCAA tournament last spring, Miller needed defensive reinforcements. The first was the 6'8" Sitton, a farm kid straight off a tractor in the wheat fields of nearby McNinnville. Norman Rockwell would've loved him. Sitton wears a John Deere cap and says things like "I visited a lot of schools but I always wanted to be a Beaver."
For all Sitton's rural trappings—Blume calls him "Charlie-boy from Sitton Mountain"—he's as smart a freshman defender as Miller has ever seen. Oh, yes, one more thing. Sitton will knock the living daylights out of people; he's a discreet savage on a delicately tuned finesse team. UCLA's Brown calls him "the next David Meyers."
Probably the most important addition to this year's Orange Express, however, is Lester the Molester. A late bloomer from Chabot J.C. in California who never made the first team at Fremont High in Oakland, Conner arrived in Corvallis as a scorer. What he has turned into is the Beavers' best passer and defender.
"Having Conner on your bench is like having George C. Scott do a bit part in your movie," Washington State Coach George Raveling said before Miller moved Conner into the starting lineup last week. Blessed with slithery tentacles and the cunning of a burglar, Conner glides about the floor as if wearing ballet slippers and raises positive hell with the opposing backcourt. It was Conner's astonishing lateral quickness that convinced Miller to install him at the tip of the 1-2-2 zone that completely shut down UCLA. Then against USC he came up with those six thefts and caused half a dozen other turnovers with harassing scare tactics. "The other people's eyes go glassy when they see him now," says Oregon State Assistant Coach Lanny Van Eman. "They want no part of the Molester's area."
Conner's versatility gives the Beavers many added dimensions. Now, for example, the steady Blume, who used to play point guard, has moved to wing to concentrate on scoring, while Jeff Stoutt, the closest thing on campus to a designated shooter, has gone back to the deep bench, from which he tends to explode to the rescue.
"Johnson gives them the points they need and Blume holds them together," said St. John's Assistant Coach Carmine Calzonnetti after scouting the Beavers. "But Conner is the one who makes them so difficult to play against."
The seniors' noses aren't bent out of shape yet, but they may be soon. As reservations have come in for the Beavers' postseason banquet, nine out of 10 boosters have asked to sit at Conner's table.
The new boy may have taken over in the locker room even before he made his lasting impression on the court. He perfected an imitation of Miller's gruff growl that's so authentic, unknowing teammates were walking off" court at his command. A few weeks ago as Miller was opening the team's gift, a brown blazer, following his 500th career victory, Conner called out: "It's a year's supply of More's, Ralph."
Miller probably grumbled at that. "This is some bunch," he said last week. "I can't even show them game films of themselves. All they do is clap."
Oh, well. You can't have everything the way it was in 1940, huh Ralph.