Fresno, where's that?" is a familiar question to the long-suffering folks of the remote city in California's agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Over the years the locals have heard all the snide jokes about sidewalks being rolled up at night, and they have endured the snobbism of the big-timers from San Francisco and L.A. It's been rough, but lately they have been thrilled that the ball is bouncing their way for a change.
Actually, "thrilled" isn't quite a strong enough word—bonkers might be more like it—to describe how the townspeople feel about the basketball team at Fresno State, which two weeks ago cracked the Top 20 for the first time in its history. At week's end the Bulldogs were 15-1 and ranked 17 in the SI poll.
Playing more than a minor role in the rising fortunes of Fresno State are the team's boosters. Known as the Red Wave, they are one of the most rabid and dedicated groups of fans anywhere. Local stockbroker George Scheidt, for instance, is such an enthusiastic Bulldog supporter that he can't talk about the team without a film of perspiration forming on his forehead. He phones reporters around the country and tells them, "I've got a scoop for you. Here's the headline: THE RED IS STILL WAVING IN GRANT'S TOMB. Listen, I wish your imagination could comprehend what I'm tellin' you. It's fantastic...and I'm not untraveled." Members of the Red Wave follow the Bulldogs so closely they might as well be the players' biographers. Says Guard Donald Mason, "We know these people by name. It's a nice feeling."
Though he grew up in Los Angeles, Mason, like most of his teammates, had never heard of Fresno, which has 218,000 inhabitants, until the Bulldogs recruited him. And Coach Boyd Grant was so hesitant about accepting the Fresno State job five years ago that he telephoned on the day he was scheduled for his interview there and told officials he wasn't coming. They talked him into changing his mind.
Predictably, the country's powerhouses aren't interested in scheduling little-known Fresno State, which has a 94-30 record since Grant took over. "We cost coaches their jobs," says Scheidt. Athletic Director Russ Sloan claims he offered $65,000 guarantees to UCLA, Notre Dame and Indiana to visit Fresno but got no takers.
No one is eager to face the Red Wave, either. Dressed in scarlet from head to toe, the boosters jam into 6,530-seat Selland Arena, the downtown building nicknamed Grant's Tomb, where Fresno State has won 56 of 62 games under Grant and played only before sellouts the past 2½ seasons. Then, after a chalk talk from an athletic department member who analyzes the opposition so everyone knows just whom to yell at, several hundred of the Red Wave form the Human Tunnel, a corridor surrounding the court that the players run through en route from the locker room to the floor. "It's not hokey," says Forward Desi Barmore. "All that hollerin' and screamin' is enough to get anyone riled up."
But cheering is only a small facet of the Red Wave's activities. Fresno State fans think nothing of taking 30-and 40-hour bus rides to see their team play on the road. They are miffed that Lewis Cryer, commissioner of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, of which Fresno State is a member, has outlawed the Human Tunnel when the Bulldogs play away games, but they still often outnumber the home crowd. In fact, when Fresno State plays at archrival San Jose State this Saturday, some 85% of the 2,700-seat arena will be occupied by the Red Wave. Since September, Bulldog fans have been surreptitiously making the seven-hour round trip to San Jose to buy tickets to the game. "We got nearly all of 'em," says Scheidt. "Naturally, their ticket manager is going to lose his job."
Last year, when a 2,000-member Red Wave contingent traveled to Anaheim to watch Fresno State win the PCAA tournament, the victory celebration in a motel parking lot went on until dawn. Highlight of the evening for the boosters: carrying Perry Higgins, father of team star Rod, around on their shoulders.
The Red Wave also helps with such chores as fund raising and recruiting. Occasionally, the fans even charter buses to attend the games of high school and junior college prospects. They bombard potential Fresno players with letters imploring them to perform in "the raisin capital of the world." At last week's booster-club meeting a sheet of paper was distributed detailing information on a Chicago recruit. The fans were glad to hear that Thelma Higgins, Rod's mother, was home in the Windy City putting in a good word for Fresno State with the prospect's family. As for finances, commercials on Grant's weekly radio show advise listeners to change their wills and life-insurance policies to include Fresno State athletics—read basketball—among the beneficiaries.
The Bulldogs, however, are their own best advertisers. Last season they won the PCAA with a 25-4 record and qualified for the NCAA tournament. This year, after two conference wins on the road last week, 40-38 over UC-Santa Barbara and 43-40 over Cal State-Fullerton, Fresno State was tied with UC-Irvine for the PCAA lead and was well on its way to winning its second straight national defensive title. At week's end the Bulldogs were giving up just 44 points a game, best record in the country, and they hope to become the first since Santa Clara in 1960-61 to allow fewer than 50 a game. No one had scored more than the 57 Southwestern Louisiana did in December while handing the Bulldogs their sole defeat.
Fresno State harasses opponents with an ever-shifting assortment of man-to-mans, matchup zones and straight zones. The Bulldogs always attack the ball, and they are forever sticking their hands in the passing lanes. They are forcing 18 turnovers a game and allowing an average of just 40 shots.
The man who made the Bulldogs so stingy is Grant. "We worship his words," says Scheidt, mopping his brow. After each home game, the school band plays two songs: Jesus Christ Superstar for Grant, Another One Bites the Dust for the opposition.
"I sell defense every day," says Grant. "Once you experience it, you wouldn't want to play any other way. It's like the difference between giving and taking." Perhaps the best indication of how seriously Grant takes defense can be seen before games. Instead of beginning warmups with a layup routine as other teams do, Fresno State starts with one-on-one defensive drills.
Ironically, when he coached J.C. ball from 1974-75 through 1976-77 at the College of Southern Idaho, where he won a national title and 49 straight games, Grant's teams were among the highest-scoring clubs in the country, averaging between 85 and 90 points a game. But at Fresno State, where his deliberate offense is scoring 59.8 points a game, he makes do with less gifted players than the competition has. The Bulldogs are mostly high school leftovers and recycled talent. Barmore is playing for his third team in four years. Higgins, Fresno State's leading scorer (14.5 points a game) and rebounder (6.5), weighed only 175 pounds in high school outside Chicago—even though he stood 6'7". For most of his freshman season Higgins didn't have the endurance to play an entire game. Now he weighs 200 pounds, and several NBA scouts consider him one of the top half-dozen forwards in this year's senior class.
Though the Bulldogs seem to lack the manpower needed to win consistently, last week their tenacious defense once again proved to be too much for the opposition. In Thursday night's defeat of UC-Santa Barbara, Higgins scored 17 points. But on Saturday there were grim faces all around as Fresno State prepared for Fullerton. The night before, Higgins, floor leader Tyrone Bradley and reserve Guard Omel Nieves didn't return to the team's hotel until half an hour after Grant's 11 p.m. curfew. "I'm no dictator, but a rule is a rule," said Grant. He benched the three, and they were on the sidelines leading the cheers.
Later, outside the locker room, Dan Steinhauer, a Red Wave member, was all smiles. He had obtained Higgins' autograph for his 8-year-old daughter, Marie. "I drove all the way down here just to get it," said Steinhauer. Someone asked why he simply hadn't waited until the team returned home. Steinhauer was incredulous. "Have you ever tried to get his autograph in Fresno?" he said.
Then he and the rest of the Red Wave climbed into their buses and automobiles for the five-hour trip back to raisin country, knowing they had a retort to their least favorite question: Where's Fresno? Why, in the Top 20 and moving up.