It was supposed to be a giant coming-out party for four regional teams loaded with fresh young talent, but it became a coming-out party for giants—three 7-foot freshman phenoms. And when the basketball competition of the National Sports Festival III ended in Syracuse, N.Y. last week, America had a new center of attention—Stuart Gray of (oh, no, not again) UCLA. Gray easily outshone Patrick Ewing, who is headed for Georgetown, and Greg Dreiling, who is bound for Wichita State.
But let them introduce themselves. Stuart, you were the MVP of the tournament and your West team was the only one to win all four of its games.
"I graduated from John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, California, a suburb of L.A. It was a hard decision, picking UCLA, so many of my family being Cal alumni and all. But my father's on the faculty at UCLA, so that helps. I've lived in a lot of different places, and I really didn't begin to take basketball seriously until I moved to the Los Angeles area, just before I entered the 10th grade. Guess I've got the hang of it, sort of. I averaged 31 points and 18 rebounds per game last season at Kennedy."
You're next, Greg.
August 9, 1981
"I'm 7'1", which gives me an inch on the other fellows here. I graduated from Kapaun-Mt. Carmel High School in Wichita, Kansas, and Wichita's where I'm going to stay. O.K., I know there's an NCAA investigation going on that may mean less TV exposure and no tournament games. That's the trade-off I made. With the kind of personnel we have I think we can go all the way...if we get the chance."
"I lived in Jamaica until 1974 and graduated from Rindge & Latin High in Cambridge, Mass. I don't like to talk much, and anyway, my coach at Georgetown, John Thompson, says I can't be interviewed until after January."
The preceding remarks are hypothetical, but the stir the three 7-footers created at the Sports Festival was for real. They came together, 253 inches of young centers, the hopes and dreams of three Division I universities riding on their substantial shoulders, the hopes and dreams of dozens of other schools perhaps destined to be crushed under their giant footsteps. Singly, they're not extraordinary. Not yet. But collectively they're unprecedented. "I don't think I've ever seen three pivotmen of this caliber come into college at the same time," says Gene Smithson, who will coach Dreiling (pronounced dry-ling) at Wichita State. "To have three players like this coming in at one time is extraordinary," says Harlem Globetrotter scout Ernie Thuring, who is also the player personnel director of the DPI Summer Pro Basketball League in Los Angeles. "None of the three puts it all together right now," says Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, "but...." The implications are obvious. "The amazing thing about it is that each one is a little unique in his style of play," says Wyoming's Jim Brandenburg, who coached Gray's West team to the gold medal. "Each has a chance to dominate in his own way." But only Gray was dominant in Syracuse. He tied the East's Earl Jones in scoring with 73 points, led Dreiling and the South's Mike Wacker in rebounds 37-32 and had just two fewer blocked shots than Ewing (9-7).
Though he has been scrutinized as closely as any high school basketball player since Lew Alcindor, Ewing came into the Festival as something of a mystery. Could he possibly be as good as his clippings? And what was he like personally? His high school coach, Mike Jarvis, had limited his contact with the press, and Thompson, his coach on the East team, as well as at Georgetown, has done the same.
Thompson was right there when Ewing met reporters after games, and Ewing answered most questions in monosyllables. Thompson wouldn't allow him to be interviewed privately. His play on the court was often disappointing, too, for someone who came in trailing reams of newspaper copy behind him. He scored 41 points in his four games and had only 23 rebounds, the same number as the West's Ralph Jackson, a 6'2" guard. But statistics can be deceiving in all-star games, particularly in the case of a player like Ewing.
"Pat Ewing's history isn't to put up big numbers," says Jarvis. "Pat's history is to win. He plays the game differently than most, by concentrating on defense first. And his teams have won about 99% of the games he's been in. That's not an accident." It's not an accident, either, that many shots attempted against Ewing's teams take strange courses to the basket—impossibly high parabolas that never come close, off-balance bricks that have no chance. Shooters must think: Where is he? Where's Ewing? That's why it's impossible to compute the effect of Ewing's presence on a basketball court from stats. He's far ahead of both Gray and Dreiling in shot-blocking ability, and certainly the most apt comparison that has been made about Ewing is the one with Bill Russell.
It took him just 10 seconds of the first game, against Dreiling's Midwest team, to block his first shot. (It wasn't Dreiling's.) Characteristically, Ewing quickly blocked another. He would flick away one shot and appear to be out of position. So another would be taken, and again Ewing would be there. His most telling block came in a game the West won 93-83. Gray backed down the lane and spun away from Jones, the 6'11" sophomore from the University of the District of Columbia, a Division II team, who was guarding him at the time. Even as Gray started his move, Ewing left his man, John Revelli, and materialized so quickly to smother Gray's scoop shot that Gray didn't even know he was there. Revelli picked up the ball, drove, and Ewing blocked his shot, too. His shot-blocking prowess is the product of timing, leaping ability and long arms. But most of all it comes from his sense of playground priorities: Nothing you do is more discouraging to your opponent than shoving a shot back in his face.
Surprisingly, Ewing isn't yet an outstanding defensive rebounder. And at 230 pounds he doesn't have the muscle of Gray (250) or Dreiling (240), the classic establish-position, butt-out, elbows-protruding defensive rebounders. But he'll get stronger.
On offense, Ewing has a long way to go, too; certainly the most burdensome comparisons for him are those with the young Alcindor. Ewing isn't exactly playing with paddles, but he frequently loses the ball when pinched inside. He has a good shooting touch, but both Dreiling, who can bang it from 12 to 15 feet while facing the basket, and Gray, who has a nice turnaround inside, appear to have more feel for the jumper. And Ewing evidently has no hook shot, which is something Thompson might go to work on right away. At Syracuse Ewing also displayed a tendency to lose his bearings while playing with his back to the basket; four times during the Festival he stepped out of bounds while making a move to the hoop.
But Ewing can make the big offensive play, which complements his shot-blocking at the other end of the court. For example, he'll pick up a loose ball at midcourt, take two or three dribbles and jam, as he did against the Midwest in the opener. In short, his game is "transition," as the scouts like to say. "End line to end line, nobody can run like he can," says Jarvis. "I don't think I've ever seen a player of his size go up and down the court like that," says Dreiling. "He's like a racehorse."
In contrast, Dreiling, though not ungraceful, is a plow horse—big, muscular. With him it's set up down low, get ready, then heave ho. Gray is a Clydesdale—galloping, sometimes plodding, up and down the court, powerful, dependable, relentless. Ewing is a racehorse—sleek and proud, fierce in his own way, but better off in the open where he can maneuver, find his own spaces to control the game. "Greg will try to muscle you more than Pat," says Gray. "Pat will give you that one-foot distance, but if you turn around and shoot a jumper he'll put it right back. At this point, I guess Pat is a little tougher to play because I'm used to contact, which is the way Greg plays."
When things close in around Ewing, however, he doesn't just stand around, and he is gaining a reputation as King of the Elbows. He threw several at Dreiling when they opposed each other in the Capital Classic high school all-star game in Landover, Md. in March, a battle that continued at the Festival when Ewing wanted to square off with Dreiling after some contact near the sideline. It would be naive to cast Dreiling as the innocent in all of this, but he does keep his head better than Ewing.
"At times his temper has been his ally, and at times it's hurt him," says Jarvis. "But, mostly, it's helped, because it has been the trademark of his intensity. It's the thing that has kept him going, that's motivated him."
Some question Ewing's motivation, however. His temper notwithstanding, the standard for effort and determination at the Festival was set not by Ewing, but by Gray. Midwest Coach Lute Olson of Iowa sees it this way: "One of John's [Thompson's] strengths is getting his players to give full effort. And when Patrick has that, he'll have everything."
Gray, the son of an Army officer, was born in the Canal Zone. The family soon moved to Fort Gordon, Ga. for nine months. Then it was Fort Lewis, Wash, for six weeks, Watsonville, Calif. for a year, Oakland for a year, Washington, D.C. for two years, Fort Leavenworth, Kans. for a year, then back to Watsonville for a year, then to Fort Benning, Ga. for three years. Next came Mannheim, West Germany—a real basketball hotbed—for four years, before Col. Peter Gray (height: 6'5") and his wife, Valerie (6'1½"), brought Stuart and his brother Roger (6'7") to the Los Angeles suburb of Sepulveda. Col. Gray, who is still on active duty, served in Vietnam, was on the infantry school faculty at Fort Benning, Ga. and was deputy commander of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command for Europe before being assigned to his current post as professor of military science at UCLA. He and his wife both graduated from the University of California at Berkeley (Valerie also has a master's degree in urban planning from UCLA), and Roger is at Berkeley now. Several of Stuart's relatives also attended Cal. But Gray chose the road less frequently taken by Grays but more often taken by college basketball immortals.
"I really considered Cal strongly, along with Stanford and Iowa," says Gray, "but what it came down to was the coaching program and the school itself. Plus I'm a little tired of moving around. It's nice to be going to school near home." Gray had a little boost from another incoming freshman with the lilting name of Nigel Miguel, a 6'6" guard who was a teammate of Gray's at the Festival. "I first met Stuart when he was in 10th grade, and he wasn't even a starter," says Nigel Miguel. (Both names must be used on all occasions. You don't mess with poetry.) "But you could tell he would be great. There was just something special about him."
Indeed, there is something special about him even though there's nothing special about him. Put a letter sweater on him and you've got a character right out of Happy Days—a fellow named Stretch, with an easygoing manner, a shy smile and a 3.5 cumulative grade point in high school. And political fuddy-duddies can breathe easy. This isn't a Waltonesque revolutionary in the making. Still, he's not interested in his father's profession ("Even if he were, nothing would fit," says the Colonel). At UCLA he plans to major in economics.
The surprising thing about Gray is that his game is so polished for someone who spent four formative years (sixth through ninth grades) tossing it up with Army brats in West Germany. Of the three freshmen, Gray has the best inside game, the best hands, the highest sustained level of physical effort, the best grasp of the game. Here's Gray in action: At halftime of the championship game at Syracuse, against the South, he experimented with a jump hook from the left side, a difficult shot for a righthander. "Before the tournament, Coach Brandenburg suggested I work on it," Gray said. "I had never used it before." Twice in crucial situations in the second half he nailed the jump hook from that side. He also hit all 10 of his free-throw attempts and was 6 of 9 from the field in a 109-97 win.
"Right now Gray plays so hard that I don't know how much more he can hone his skills," says Thuring. "He's further along than the others. The thing about him is that he's so smart. He doesn't overshoot his hand." That's fortunate, because more of his college team's immediate need falls on Gray than is the case with either Dreiling or Ewing. "Having no true center last year was what caused most of our problems," says UCLA's Jackson. "Last year the guards had to come in and rebound, arid we couldn't really get our break going like we wanted."
If Dreiling were a farm product, he'd be an ear of corn—a nice, fresh, Midwestern ear of corn. Husk him and what you see is what you get: a classic, set-up, low-post man. Nice touch around the hoop. Un-nice attitude that the area around the basket belongs to him. Intelligent and keeps his head. Gets the ball out on the break. Can't match Gray or Ewing at getting up and down the court (he runs almost gently, as if avoiding land mines), but he will someday. Says Smithson, "I guess there's a question about his running ability because we'll play a transition game. But I think he'll be able to go with it." Dreiling doesn't have the polish of Gray or the flash of Ewing around the basket, but he still shot 75% from the floor in high school. In the Festival he was sixth in scoring with 57 points in four games and second, along with Wacker, to Gray in rebounds with 32. His team won only one game, splitting a pair with the East. Meanwhile, the East's victory over the Midwest accounted for its only win.
Most of all, Dreiling is the freshman phenom who wears his loyalty on his considerable sleeve. Born and raised in Wichita, he started following the Shockers in high school, and he's been close to them ever since. He's not alone in that loyalty. His 6'6" sister, Theresa, is a starter on the women's team. Dreiling was even more convinced that Wichita State was for him when Smithson became coach in 1978. "I saw he was a man of action and really wanted to get things going again," says Dreiling. But midway through Dreiling's senior year, after he was already committed to Wichita State, the NCAA took an interest in the way Smithson had gotten things going, like reported cash payments to players.
Dreiling thought about it while his high school coach at Kapaun, Bill Carter, played devil's advocate. "Coach Carter really made me aware of the worst," says Dreiling, "that the school could be on a four-year probation. He emphasized that the chances are very, very good." But, finally, Dreiling reaffirmed his decision. "There's no way I'm going to transfer, no matter what happens," he says.
And there they are. Menchildren from three different parts of the country, joined in time by chance. Dreiling and Gray have become close friends. In different ways, they both handled the attention given them at Syracuse well. But it was painful to watch Ewing struggle through the interviews, to watch apprehension darken those round, deep-set eyes when reporters moved in on him.
He's young and still has much to learn. But, like Gray and Dreiling, he knows so much already.