Everything is going according to form at the University of Tulsa's shoot-around before practice officially starts. Senior Guard Phil Spradling is playing one-on-one with his wife, Shari. Liz Hooper, a teammate of Shari's on Tulsa's women's team, is playing H-O-R-S-E against freshman Forward Vince Williams. From time to time Liz looks at the opposite foul line, where Paul Pressey, her boyfriend and the star of Tulsa's men's team, is shooting free throws. Pressey has been in a foul-shooting slump lately, which is why he's chatting with a sociology professor named Peter Adler. Dr. Adler has become something of a team guru with his theories on momentum and positive thinking.
If it all sounds rather like Love Boat Goes to the Gym, don't think this team isn't serious. A few minutes later Pressey, Williams and Spradling are in the middle of a full-court passing drill, using an 18-pound medicine ball and a 15-pound "water ball," which is a regulation basketball pumped full of water. "I kind of like these old-fashioned drills," says Coach Nolan Richardson.
He likes the results, too. After last Saturday's 77-64 defeat of Indiana State at the Tulsa Assembly Center, Tulsa was 19-4 overall, 11-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked sixth in the SI Top 20. The Hurricane seems to be a cinch for an NCAA bid, even if it doesn't earn the automatic bid that goes to the winner of the MVC tournament.
But Tulsa isn't taking anything for granted. The Hurricane lost to Drake 56-55 last week on one of the most unusual shots in history. Tulsa was trailing 54-53 with 11 seconds remaining when Hurricane Center Bruce Vanley rebounded a missed Drake free throw. A Bulldog player then pulled the ball out of his hands with such vigor that it bounced off the floor and up into the basket for the winning points.
Nevertheless, Tulsa remains a legitimate Final Four contender, if only because key operatives know the sweet smell of tournament success. Two years ago four of the players were performing for Richardson at Western Texas College, a junior college in the small, oil-rich town of Snyder on the southern plains. Western Texas went 37-0 and won the national junior college championship. When Richardson was hired at Tulsa, which had a 43-83 record in nearly five seasons under Coach Jim King, he brought Pressey, Spradling, Forward David Brown and Center Greg Stewart with him. Presto! Instant franchise. Tulsa went 26-7 and won the NIT.
That was only one aspect of The Great Snyder-to-Tulsa Airlift. Hooper, the point guard for Western Texas' winning women's team, transferred to Tulsa to follow Pressey, whom she will marry this summer. So did Bonnie Bloodworth, Brown's girl friend, as well as two other Western Texas players. Katie Fisher and Joyce Plagens. Shari Teal, who became Shari Spradling last June, followed the next year. "The other girls warned me, but I came anyway," says Shari, Western Texas' alltime leading rebounder and scorer. In contrast to the men, who found fame in the big time, the women found a program in disarray. The team had a part-time coach and a losing record—which it still has.
"It's been kind of tough," says Liz. "I take my basketball seriously, just like Paul. But all in all, considering what Paul's done, it's been worth it. I want him to accomplish as much as he can."
Because of Pressey's ability to cover a guard, a forward or a center. Richardson claims he's the finest defensive player in college basketball. He may be. He led the nation with 96 steals last season and had 67 through the Indiana State game. He's a fine passer, too, averaging 3.4 assists from the forward position, where he has played most of the season. His mid-range shooting isn't exceptional—he averaged 47.6% from the field and 57.9% from the line last season—but he has improved to 55.3% and 66.0% this year. He's scoring only 12.8 points per game, best on a team that boasts six players averaging between 12.8 and 10.2. but, like Ralph Sampson, he's not a player you judge by numbers alone. He's a winning player. And despite being an in-between size for the NBA—6'5"—he's considered a likely first-round draft choice.
Against Indiana State Pressey showed every dimension of his game: 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting (three of his field goals off alley-oop feeds from senior Point Guard Mike Anderson), seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and only two turnovers. And, oh, did he play defense. With 10:40 to go in the game, Indiana State's strong 6'9" center, Ken Bannister, scored his 31st point. A few minutes later Richardson put Pressey on Bannister man-to-man. Bannister didn't score the rest of the way. During one sequence, Pressey blocked Bannister's turnaround jumper, nearly blocked his errant follow shot, and then grabbed the rebound.
Eight years ago in his hometown of Richmond, Pressey was a candidate for no one's draft list, just your basic directionless street kid. Pressey remembers his mother, Mary, taking him to a man's funeral and saying. "That's your father." He quit school at 15 and returned a year later. Which meant he was 19 as a senior and, under the rules, ineligible to play at Wythe High School. "I didn't get into a lot of trouble with drugs or anything like that, but I was just killing time, hanging around, being lazy." says Pressey. Lazy in everything but basketball, that is. Out on the playgrounds he realized he loved the game too much to give it up. Because he had no high school diploma, his only route to college was a General Educational Development test. He passed the GED and went to Western Texas to play for Richardson, then on to Tulsa.
"Some people back in Richmond can't believe this happened to me," says Pressey. "They say. 'Man, if you can make it, I know I can make it.' I'm just fortunate the Good Lord tapped me on my back and told me to do something. I don't know where I'd be now if He didn't."
And nobody knows where Tulsa would be without Pressey. Certainly his consistency at both ends of the court is the Hurricane's major asset. Pressey's natural quickness and his long arms have been invaluable on defense, particularly when he plays the point in Tulsa's 1-3-1 trap, but he's put in some hard work, too. He and his older brother, Bobby, erected a basket in the backyard of their Richmond home that was actually the rim of a 27-inch bicycle wheel. "Anything would go in if you just got up there," says Pressey. "The idea was to keep the other guy from getting it up there. My brother used to kill me, but we never ever called a foul."
Pressey appears to be almost nonchalant on defense, but he's not. His arms and natural instincts do so much of the work that he doesn't have to scurry around frantically to be effective. At times Pressey waxes passionate on the subject of defense. "I honestly don't think anybody in the world hates for his guy to score on him as much as I do," he says.
If Tulsa beats the odds and goes all the way in the NCAAs, Richardson and his gang of four (assuming Brown recovers from a knee injury) would have an unprecedented 1-2-3 sweep—national juco title. NTT title, NCAA title. That isn't considered a strong possibility except, perhaps, in Tulsa. And though the junior college refugees have been an overwhelming success in town, none has forgotten Snyder. Texas, where it all began.
Especially Spradling. "Could anybody find what I found in Snyder?" says Spradling. "I found a great coach. I found a great bunch of teammates. And I found a great wife."