When a man grows up in a one-room flat over a tavern, depending on welfare checks for food, he doesn't want to hear how hard it is to beat Kentucky. When a fellow is abandoned by his father practically at birth and raised by a religious zealot preaching imminent doom to her son, he isn't likely to sympathize with some space-head forward begging out of games because of verbal taunts. When a coach spends the early part of his life shining shoes, peddling papers, driving the bus, gandy-dancing, hauling concrete, washing windows, running in the streets and being conditioned to believe "the sky is never blue; the grass is never green," you could hardly expect him to be overwhelmed if his basketball team makes a run at the national title.
Now just a minute, Dale Brown. What is this? Afternoon soap or prime-time basketball? As the World Turns? Or Tigers on the Trail?
At LSU there is always a bit of Brown floating around the gym along with the points and rebounds. Says Dr. Martin J. Broussard, the head trainer of LSU's 23-1 steamroller, "Has the man told you about the cardboard in his shoes yet?"
As a matter of fact, Coach Dale Brown has just now recounted, for perhaps the fourth time in 36 hours, how as a youngster he used to crawl on his hands and knees under the seats of the old Strand Theatre in Minot, N. Dak. looking for empty popcorn boxes to stuff into his shoes because the soles were all gone and the wolf was at the door.
February 23, 1981
Now that he's basking down there at Baton Rouge among the gentle bayous and dripping willows in laid-back Loozee Ana—with his team perched ever so smartly near the top of the rankings—Lord, how far away those empty days in North Dakota must seem.
But do they really?
"Have I heard his life story?" says senior Forward Durand (Rudy) Macklin. "I can give it back to you word for word, by heart."
But on to this season's story. The marvelous LSU team has a solid corps of seniors led by the lefthanded inside dervish, Macklin; a great freshman class featuring a leggy studhorse, Leonard Mitchell; and a bottomless bench—sixth man Willie Sims nearly has been immortalized by being introduced at home games in the LSU Assembly Center ("The Deaf Dome") right along with the starters. These Tigers are the culmination of nine long, hard years of sweat and strain and salesmanship by Brown. Last week, after Macklin had scored 32 points as the team defeated Alabama at home and Georgia on the road, LSU had won 22 straight games and was bidding fair to become the first team in 25 years to go unbeaten in Southeastern Conference regular-season play.
Kentucky—vaunted, much despised Kentucky—was long ago put away by 14 points, making it six out of the last eight for LSU over the Wildcats in the past four seasons. Tennessee—Top 10 Tennessee, those slowdown killjoys from Knoxville—was beaten by 17 (seven straight for the Tigers in that rivalry). Both teams were at least three games behind LSU and virtually out of the league race. So at last LSU reigns supreme in deep Dixie. Still, Brown battles on with evangelistic fervor—the underdog, the no-name, the tragedian.
Dale, this is the late Jack Bailey talking. Do you want to be "King for a Day?"
Brown says: "I'm a nobody. I have no heritage. I'm an easy whipping boy. Is it any wonder we're the bad guys, the outlaws, that everybody is against us?" (Shades of the Oakland Raider gospel according to Al Davis.) Then, suddenly, "But I'm not Captain Queeg. It's just that my fuse goes off when I think people are being downtrodden, intimidated. My mind runs to Dachau."
At rest, Brown is a wit and a charmer, a connoisseur of fine wine, a bon vivant. He has traveled the world and he can turn a basketball phrase. "Thwart the cutting channels," he will holler at practice. But the volatility and controversy attached to his courtside ways—"You should have been a Kamikaze pilot in the Japanese navy," his wife, Vonnie, an ethnic-dance teacher, once told him—has overcome all that. What's more, his driven, hardscrabble personality has tended to overshadow the very team he has toiled so hard to develop.
Once in a game at Lexington, Ky., Brown screamed at the ref, "You've taken away everything else, here's my wardrobe." Then he ripped off his jacket and threw it out on center court. Not just on the court. On the Kentucky state map at center court. There went the refs and the fans. Once in a press conference Brown accused Kentucky of "brutalizing" the game; when asked if his own team was without sin, Brown demanded of a writer, "Have you ever masturbated?" There went the media. When Brown won his first SEC title in 1979 he wildly signaled for a championship banner to be lowered from the rafters even before the pennant-clinching victory over Alabama was finished. ("A quarter-century crawling on my hands and knees in the desert and I'm gonna wait 38 seconds for water?" he says now in defense.) There went the coaches. 0 for 4.
It wasn't astonishing that when Brown was named SEC Coach of the Year at the end of that season, he got the award under the stands at the league tournament because, LSU officials say, the league feared the announcement would inflame the hostile crowd in Birmingham.
Even this season, as LSU has virtually toyed with the opposition under a comparatively calm Brown, the critics rage. The coach has had to spend much of the time defending the virtue of his marauding hordes, especially of Center Greg Cook, the glowering "Cookieman" whose checkered career hasn't exactly been all chocolate chips. In addition, Brown has a running feud with Tulane Coach Roy Danforth, who, feeling the score had been piled up in a 1977 game (final: LSU 120, Tulane 88), called Brown "the worst s.o.b. I've ever coached against." Says Brown: "That punk. I could have laid him out with one punch."
What of the prophet in his own land? After an emotional pregame ceremony in Baton Rouge this year in which Brown, as only he could, recounted the courageous saga of Mark Alcorn, an LSU guard who has cancer of the lymph nodes, some furious fans wrote in to complain that the ceremony hadn't included the national anthem.
But has Joe Btfsplk now come out from under his cloud to find health and happiness on the LSU bench? "I believe a man controls his own destiny," Brown says. He gave that credo a heckuva shot in the Midwest Regional final between LSU and Louisville last March. A Tiger basket goes in at the final gun. The ref signals no good. Brown storms the scorer's table and stays there demanding that the basket be counted, demanding his rights, demanding justice, long after both teams have left the floor. The score remains: Louisville 86, LSU 66. A 20-point knife job.
"When the ship goes down, the admiral stays on the deck," Brown says of that incident. "We got our butts whipped, but I wasn't going down whimpering like a dog. We made that basket. We deserved it. We're not stars. There can only be so many Howard Bakers, Kenny Rogerses, Paul Harveys. But we want respect. If I don't make commitments like that, I might as well go back to pity in that one room in North Dakota."
Ah, but now the Tigers have the stars. Moreover, the dazzling LSU record confirms that the team has matured over the past two campaigns, both of which closed with LSU being eliminated from the NCAAs by the eventual national champion—Michigan State, then Louisville.
The difference in this year's edition, however, isn't merely in the growth or depth of the Tigers. They ran off 16 straight points in that regional final against Louisville to lead by eight at one juncture; arguably they had as much talent as any team in the land. What they had then was one talent too many, specifically DeWayne (Astronaut) Scales, who has since landed, psychological baggage and all, on the more compatible planet of the New York Knicks.
At LSU, Scales was more than an enigma—monstrous dunk artist to disruptive force in record time. His changing moods and unsettling influence—"He didn't deliberately try to hurt us, but it turned out that way," Macklin says—so unnerved Brown that Scales might as well have been the male Sybil. Brown restructured all the team rules.
"It was Gaslight over there for two years," says one LSU supporter. "And Brown played Ingrid Bergman's part. Scales drove him whacko. He drained the spirit out of everybody."
Brown vowed it would stop, which is probably why Scales had no choice but to go hardship. This year, free of the weight of Scales, Brown warned the team there would be no flexibility, saying, "If you don't perform, the guillotine comes down." Brown actually talks like this.
"We had to build a tradition here," says Brown, who is in the process of improving the LSU record for the sixth year in a row. "But now that's done. We're taking no more gambles, no academic risks, no personality problems."
The implications are obvious. LSU's reputation as black-hatted renegade—"For four years we were hated everywhere we went," says Assistant Coach and former player Jordy Hultberg—stems from a proliferation of characters whom, his enemies like to think, Brown recruited off post-office walls. These were bizarre citizens whose mere physical appearance seemed to make them notorious.
Brown's first "name" player at LSU was Kenny Higgs, an epileptic with a goatee and a permanently surly expression. "We'd rather have a leper here than an epileptic," a sweet Kentucky fan shouted at Higgs. Such things precede riots. The Tigers also employed nomads playing on their fourth college team, fellows with bald heads and no eyebrows, 'bow specialists (skilled in the elbow-to-the-chops move), an assistant coach who looked for all the world like Elvis Presley wailing in King Creole, and, of course, Scales, who was out of either Dallas or Uranus for all anybody could figure out.
Cook is very much a part of that tradition. A 6'9", 226-pounder from Roselle, N.J., Cook has been described as a "thug" in more ways than Sylvester Stallone ever dreamed imaginable. Authorities have exonerated him of accusations of fighting campus police and theft in the dormitory. "Where's your stripes, Cookieman?" the folks at Vanderbilt still scream. After Cook lit a fire in a dormitory wastebasket this season ("A silly prank by Cookie," Brown said), the coach drew the line. No more earrings. No more matching hat-and-sunglasses ensembles. No stereo boxes. And Cook was suspended before the team's season-opening trip to Alaska.
"People think if you wear an earring you're a gangster," says Cookieman. "I just like diamonds. It must be the way I look. I don't smile on the court. I mean I could be a gangster if I wanted and, you know, go out and take care of business. But I don't let it get me down. I just chill it."
This is the logical progression of the verb "to cool." Actually, cold is primarily what the LSU veterans were in the second game of the season against Arkansas at the Great Alaska Shootout.
That night—or was it day?—Brown's vision of another championship contender was considerably blurred when the Hogs oinked ahead by 18 points. So the coach risked all. He benched the seniors, played the kids and watched as LSU scrambled back to within three points. His assistants urged Brown to get Macklin and Ethan Martin, et al. back in to go for victory, but Brown refused. "God Almighty could have been by my side advising that," Brown says, "but they weren't going back."
After the Tigers lost 86-76, Brown stayed awake in the Anchorage darkness for hours, finally knocking on hotel doors and talking to his men about defeat and dedication and all the rest. The next day the seniors, chagrined and angered, yet exhilarated at the same time by the performance of their backups, led Georgetown by more than 20 points before coasting to a 76-67 win. "I don't think teams ordinarily learn from losing," Brown says. "But we learned from that loss."
In the 11 weeks since, LSU hasn't lost a game, and the hydra-headed Tiger attack has had six different leading scorers. Sims, a New Yorker and third-generation Jew who starred at the 1977 Maccabiah Games, where he was known as "The Black Jet," scored 22 points in 25 minutes against Kentucky. Martin is the sloe-eyed floor leader, of whom it has been noted that if Georgetown's Sleepy Floyd is asleep, this guy is Rip Van Winkle. The clever, quick-handed Martin steals the ball all over the lot on defense and directs things from the point on offense, but the Tigers don't have to depend on him entirely because there's also freshman Johnny Jones.
"The Bullet," as Brown calls Jones after the fashion of "the Pistol," LSU's faded legend, Pete Maravich, happens to be able to pop off the pines at any moment without much change in the LSU pace. Alabama was leading LSU by 12 points in the second half at Tuscaloosa before Jones went in, got three baskets and three steals, then departed, with the Tigers on the way to a 59-56 victory.
In the forecourt, Scales' departure surely did much for the development of Macklin. Sims, who was Scales' roommate, says DeWayne was always jealous of Macklin, LSU's first star frontcourt player since Bob Pettit—until Rudy broke an anklebone and had to sit out most of the 1978-79 season. Only now, as team captain with added responsibility, are Macklin's inside scoring and vicious offensive rebounding skills coming to fruition. Over the last six games he has averaged 21.7 points and 12.7 rebounds. "The Louisville game haunts us," says Rudy, a Louisville native. "It will continue to haunt us until we get back to the regional."
For all of Macklin's heroics (and his legacy should endure because Mitchell seems to be his younger, stronger, potentially better clone), LSU's best all-round player is a little-known sophomore swingman named Howard (Hi-C) Carter. Hi-C played in 70 straight winning games for Baton Rouge's Redemptorist Senior High without receiving more than passing glances from the flesh hunters.
Now he is 6'5", 230 pounds of versatility, handling roles from center on defense to hit man in LSU's devastating 2-1-2 and 3-2 spread delay offenses, whose primary option, no matter how many minutes pass, is to get Carter isolated one-on-one. When that happens, school is routinely out.
"I've always questioned Howard's one-step quickness," says LSU assistant Rick Huckabay, who coached Carter in high school. "He just doesn't have it. But you let him get in motion, get two steps, and everything good happens." Earlier this season Florida's Vernon Delancy made mention of Carter's girth. In reply, Hi-C—the Tigers' best defender—held Delancy to four points in the second half while contributing game-high stats of 25 points and 15 rebounds himself.
"Once you start getting publicity, you can't go out and mess up," Carter says. A new mark of the new Tigers is that Carter also says, "But Sims, everybody knows he should be starting. Who should sit down? Myself."
Sims, who has been through all the stormy weather at LSU and is now averaging 10.2 points in 20.6 minutes of playing time, smiles at that. "You get us together and this time it's a team" he says. "We don't hug like last year but we mean more to each other. The coach is mellowed out now, too. There's not so much intensity. In the past he had us in the NCAA finals before February. We had motivational T shirts—THE BEST PART OF ME IS WE. He had us playing so physical. 'Anybody goes up the middle, make 'em see the lights in the ceiling.' That kind of stuff. Dwight Anderson of Kentucky went up the middle against us and came back with a broken wrist. LSU is more finesse now. We're more likable. We're older. We've been through a lot. We're ready to go all the way."
LSU is such an experienced, confident, comfortable crew this time around that its formerly rope-tight coach has cast aside his demagogue's oratory, at least temporarily. He unwinds into the kind of funny storytelling character of another ski-nosed entertainer, Bob Hope. Ever the showman, Brown, before the Kentucky game, instructed the Tigers to "relax, look at the people in the stands and what they're wearing. Enjoy the spectacle. Feel the sensuality of all this." After which LSU went out and treated the proud 'Cats like practice fodder.
"Of course I'm easing up," Brown says. "These guys know who they are now. I'm not overmotivating anymore. I've let the venom drip away. I'm at peace."
When the coach really wants to loosen up, he'll even interrupt his periodic fasting to join the Tigers at their training table. Training table in Baton Rouge includes file gumbo, shrimp Creole, jam-balaya, crawfish ètouffèe and assorted other delicacies of the Cajun country. After all, nobody at LSU should have to eat popcorn. Or wear empty popcorn boxes ever again.