WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7,1982
When Frank Gihan, a p.r. whiz and hoops connoisseur from the Bronx, got involved with the McDonald's All American Game five years ago, he thought it would be a joyful experience. And for the most part, he says, that's what his association with the country's No. 1—or No. 1A—high school basketball all-star game has been.
He recalls that, "On the day before the 1979 game in Charlotte, North Carolina, we took these giants like Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie out to the speedway and they stuffed themselves into the cockpits of 200-mile-per-hour racing machines. Antoine Carr gets in one and his first question is 'Where's the radio?'
"And last year, in Wichita, we were leaving the children's hospital after making a group visit there, and we couldn't find one of the players, Manuel Forrest, anywhere. We looked all over the place, and I was really beginning to get worried, when we finally found him in this tiny room, crying his eyes out over these terminally ill kids he had just seen, blessing his own luck."
But Gihan's sharpest recollection is of a different nature entirely. "The gauntlet," he says softly. "I'll always remember it as the gauntlet. In Oakland, in 1980, at the Coliseum Arena. The players were on their way out to the floor. On both sides of the tunnel were these coaches. They were like madmen, screaming, 'He's mine! Get away from him!' and 'I saw so-and-so talking to him! I want my shot at the kid! Fair is fair, dammit!' " The scene still provokes a long sigh and a look of disbelief from Gihan. "For me, emotionally, that was the worst," he says.
Now even the most brazen coach knows better than to defile the McDonald's showcase so openly. The players invited to this spring's game, to be played at the Horizon here in suburban Chicago, share quarters with their high school coaches on two floors of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Phone calls are screened, and all of the players' time is accounted for in advance on Gihan's heavily laden clipboard. "What we fear most," Gihan says, "is that the NCAA will rule a player ineligible for all postseason play in college because of something that happens at our game."
Consequently, the players do a lot of grumbling. "So this is what prison is like," mutters one.
"Yeah, right, precautions, but why do we have to stay and play out here in the suburbs?" asks Johnny Dawkins, a 6'1" guard and honor student from Mackin High in Washington. "I thought we were going to be in Chicago." He gestures toward the plain surrounding O'Hare International Airport. "Sure doesn't look like Chicago to me."
Bob Geoghan, executive director of both the McDonald's Game and the Capital Classic, the other big high school all-star game, thinks such complaints are akin to those of smug seniors at commencement who belittle gowns and mortarboards. "It'll hit them later on in life," he says. "They'll look back and be glad they were here."
Geoghan and Morgan Wootten, the renowned coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., came up with the idea for this game, and both believe such high school all-star events, of which there are scores of varying degrees of prestige, are rites of passage. From small-town gyms to big-time arenas. From local acclaim to national fame. Of course, that passage can also lead to disappointment and frustration. But in the hotel lobbies, teeming with players, parents, girl friends, coaches, hangers-on, nobody thinks about that.
THURSDAY, APRIL 8
NILES NORTH HIGH SCHOOL
The West team features the homegrown Illinois elite, 6'3½" Bruce Douglas from Quincy and 6'10" Efrem Winters from King High in Chicago. Douglas and Winters finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in voting for Illinois' Mr. Basketball title. Both are headed for the University of Illinois, which also recruited Messrs. Basketball No. 5 and No. 7; Doug Altenberger of Peoria and Scott Meents from Herscher. For the Illini, this is an unparalleled haul. In Illinois it has long seemed that if Bobby Knight did not skim the cream for Indiana, DePaul stole the churn.
But Illini Coach Lou Henson hasn't come to this suburban gymnasium to gloat. His recruiting is by no means finished. Letter-of-intent day is still a few days away, and the commitments that Henson is holding are not yet signed, sealed and delivered. Feelings could still be hurt; were he not here this day his absence might well be misunderstood by coaches like King's Landon Cox and Quincy's Jerry Leggett, and their players. It may seem petty, but this is the sort of thing that college coaches spend sleepless nights worrying about. They are salesmen, and if the right players aren't buying, the coaches' x's and o's, no matter how brilliantly arranged, are worthless.
"These players, as good as they are, don't necessarily mean you'll win," says Henson. "They give you something to fight with, but great players are everywhere now, and a lot of them won't even go to all-star games. There are no guarantees. Not even here."
University of Georgia Coach Hugh Durham is attending 6'3" Guard Donald Hartry of Milledgeville, Ga. from a respectful distance. He had four former McDonald's All Americans in his starting lineup this past season, but the Bulldogs still finished a disappointing sixth in the SEC. "All-star games can hurt a player worse than anything," he says. "On a college team you can't have five guys out there trying to score points. But they get all this attention for scoring such-and-such points in high school, and they think this treatment is what they'll always get for being a"—he chews on this last word—"star."
"That kid there," Durham says, nodding toward Winters. "I've only watched a couple of practices here, and I would have to wonder if he could accept a role where he wasn't being featured."
On the West team, Winters will be featured. He and 6'8½" Kenneth Walker from Roberta, Ga., whom Durham lost to the University of Kentucky, and 6'6" Eldridge Hudson from Carson, Calif., will lead the West's inside game, but there's no time to think about that now. Gihan is here, motioning let's roll. The tour of the Johnson Publishing building is at noon, and after that, at 2:30 sharp, there's a bus ride around "Chicagoland."
The driver on the tour says he knows the way to Muhammad Ali's house. He's much more impressed by this fact than the players are. They want to know whether bussy can find 102.7 on his FM radio dial.
The scenic tour cannot help but include the fringes of Chicago's low-income housing projects. "You can get a game out here until midnight any night of the week," Cox assures the uninitiated from such faraway places as Portland, Ore. and Oyster Bay, N.Y. "You can let Efrem off at any corner."
The bus squeezes through the streets by Hyde Park and the campus of the University of Chicago, where both basketball and football were deemphasized many years ago. At one border of the university there is a metalwork sculpture of a mushroom cloud and a stone honoring Enrico Fermi. There certainly is a lot to see in Chicago. Efrem Winters is the first to fall asleep.
FRIDAY, APRIL 9
NILES WEST HIGH SCHOOL
For every player at a game like this, there's an assistant coach who claims to have the kid all sewed up, another who thinks he still has a shot at the player, and a third who's given up any hope but says the kid probably wouldn't have worked out anyway. These assistants—young, charming, dogged—have been stalking their prey for months, at high school games, on the phone, in living rooms. The reward for an assistant who prevails over his rivals is a gangly adolescent with quick feet and a soft touch. Collect enough of these blue chips and you can cash them in for a head coaching job.
"I really don't like these all-star games," says Rick Majerus, a Marquette assistant for 11 years and Hank Raymonds' likely successor as coach of the Warriors. "The players are pampered too much; it's too much too soon. And the things that are happening, well, it's like the man said, 'You're only as honest as you can afford to be.' "
Or as critical. Majerus, reservations and all, is here to keep an eye on Kerry Trotter, a deadeye marksman from Creighton Prep in Omaha. Marquette star Glenn (Doc) Rivers is also here for support.
FRIDAY, APRIL 9
HYATT REGENCY O'HARE
Except for the game itself, which benefits Ronald McDonald House and Athletes for Better Education, the most essential two hours of the week are the banquet. By now most of the people who are supposed to be here have shown up: the coaches, John Wooden and Morgan Wootten, Sonny Hill and Billy Packer, the basking parents.
Henry and Beulah Winters sit at the rear of the hall, watching honor bestowed on the 13th of their 14 children. Gihan knows that any gift to game participants worth more than $15 is an NCAA violation...but there are ways around that. The players receive rings, gym bags and jackets for being McDonald's All Americans, not for participating in the game. The MVP of the game will get a handshake from Wooden. Honor enough.
Efrem Winters' jaw is as unpronounced as a newborn's, and he has the hands of a musician. He speaks rarely, even to his friends. As for outsiders, they'd better be able to deduce a lot from watching Winters play basketball if they want to learn anything about him. "This game? It's an honor to be here," he says. "But then again, it's just another game. I was out there two, three hours a day for years. Those were my big games."
Henson hopes there will be others. He's sitting at a table with Cox, King High principal Joseph Lee and Tony Yates, the former University of Cincinnati star and now the Illinois assistant credited with the Winters coup. This is a night of contentment for Henson. When he sees Reggie Woodward, yet another Illini recruit, entering the hall, he smiles and starts to motion Woodward over, but then checks himself. NCAA rule: A coach shall have no more than six contacts with a prospective student-athlete. Henson turns away.
Packer is tonight's M.C. He reminds the players that seven of the 10 starters in the previous year's NCAA championship game were former McDonald's All Americans. He tells them of their predecessors already in the NBA. But his most revealing story, whether he realizes it or not, concerns Michael Jordan, the North Carolina freshman whose jump shot with 17 seconds to play had beaten Georgetown for this year's NCAA title. Jordan had also won last year's McDonald's Game with 30 points, including two free throws at the end. Packer says Jordan's mother was very upset when Michael didn't receive the McDonald's MVP recognition. "I tried to tell her not to be upset," Packer says, "that it wasn't the end of the world, that there would be other days. Then, after the NCAA final, I saw her and said, 'See, Mrs. Jordan. Things work out in the end.' "
But do they? Even the most starry-eyed kid in the audience should recognize the flaw in Packer's arithmetic. There will always be only one last shot of the season, yet there are 25 of these players, and more besides them. What are the odds of getting, much less hitting, that last shot? If "things working out" hinged on that, most of these players would be disappointed.
SATURDAY, APRIL 10
Cox eyes the two men standing off to one side at the teams' photo session. "Trying to catch somebody here doing something wrong, that's all they're doing," he says of the NCAA's eyes and ears at this game, David Didion and Mike Glazier. They are enforcement representatives, although Glazier says, "I can't arrest anybody, if that's what you mean." What they can do is report any violations they come across. So far, they haven't come across any at this game. "And things are so difficult to prove anyway," says Didion. "We need proof. Cash leaves no trail."
"Our best sources on violations are the coaches themselves," says Glazier. "If Digger knows anything more, I sure wish he'd tell me about it."
Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame coach, who admitted recently that he had turned in two alleged malefactors a year ago, is a marked man these days. At a dinner earlier in the week honoring DePaul Coach Ray Meyer, someone remarked that Phelps hadn't been able to make it because he was "off at the Crusades." That is the prevailing attitude among the coaches who are on hand for the McDonald's Game.
"All this is old news, really," says Phelps, sitting courtside as the players have their pictures taken with Wooden. "As for these games, most of the kids have been to camps before, so it really shouldn't hurt them at all. It's a bonus for them."
Wooden, after a cursory meeting with Phelps, says, "Look, when you try and recruit a nice young man—and by and large they are all nice young men—and you lose him to another school, sometimes the inclination is to think, 'Hey, somebody must have cheated. The young man and I had gotten along so well.' "
SATURDAY, APRIL 10
In the preliminary to the featured McDonald's Game, the heavily favored Chicago City All-Stars lose to the Suburban All-Stars 99-76. This game fits the standard high school all-star game pattern, with lots of wild shots and confused play. Alonzo Skanes, a 6'2" guard from Dunbar High in the city, is disappointed afterward, feeling he didn't play particularly well. "This was a good opportunity for me," he says. "I'll probably stay home and go to Loyola, someplace like that." But the stands are full of Big Ten eyes, and Skanes doesn't go unnoticed after all; he later signs a letter of intent with Minnesota.
In the feature game, the crowd of 15,834, the largest in Illinois prep basketball history, gives its loudest cheers to Winters—after the announcement he's going to Illinois. Winters doesn't start, but the West, behind the rebounding of Walker and the smooth guard work of Willie Cutts of Bryant, Ark. and Montel Hatcher of Santa Monica, Calif., controls the early part of the game.
The East has a huge—and powerful—front line. Benoit Benjamin, a seven-footer from Monroe, La., ripped the rim from the backboard at the team's first practice. Billy Thompson,' 6'8", from Camden, N.J., is the most sought-after player in the country. Brad Daugherty is a seven-footer from Swannanoa, N.C. Besides the competition on the court, there's ragging off it. When Benjamin says that the first thing he's going to do when he gets home to Louisiana is kiss his girl, Thompson tells him good-naturedly, "Hey man, who won't?"
Daugherty, gentlemanly and sweet 16, has stories of recruiters who tried to go too far; such tales are passed around like point-average quotations among the players. The illegal inducements are a strange but not always true mark of esteem.
With less than five minutes to go in the first half, Winters, who has been tentative since coming off the bench about three minutes earlier, sweeps across the lane and tries a jump hook. Thompson blocks it. Winters regains the ball and shoots once more, and Thompson blocks him again. Winters grabs the ball a third time and rams home a dunk. This seems to give him confidence, and his play becomes more eloquent in the ensuing moments. He scores eight more points before the half on two dunks and two whispering 18-footers from near the top of the key.
The victim of Winters' outburst is Tim Kempton, the 6'9" redheaded class president from St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Kempton, Notre Dame's fine recruit, soon realizes that his only way of surviving against Winters is to bump him, crowd him away from the ball. Winters reacts to this pressure with an elbow delivered precisely to Kempton's sternum. Kempton, more startled than hurt, backs off and says, "Hey, what are you doing?" Winters says he knows what he's doing. "Get off my back," he tells Kempton. Later, Kempton will say, "It's all part of the game." But it's one he had to come to Chicago to learn.
Winters is a good teacher: 19 points, ' nine rebounds and the handshake from Wooden. West 103, East 84.
"Feels nice," says the besieged Winters afterward, before he mouths the obligatory "just another game." "Vindication for us," says a beaming Cox, whose high school team hadn't qualified for the state tournament. "I am proud of my boy," says Beulah Winters. "I am always proud of him."
FRIDAY, APRIL 23
The McDonald's Kentucky Derby Festival Classic, to be played tomorrow night, lacks the glamour of the McDonald's All American Game, but in Kentuckiana, basketball is a revered pastime, whatever form it assumes. No one knows this better than Max Rein, Wade Houston and, now, Billy Thompson. "The two most important things to these people are their church and their high school basketball team," says Rein, the director of the basketball portion of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
Houston is merely an onlooker at the proceedings, but as the first black player at the University of Louisville (1963) and the man credited with recruiting Thompson for the Cardinals, he has contributed his share to the festivities. As the most heralded high school player in the country, Thompson is the main attraction of the Derby Classic, an event that could certainly use one.
Houston started hanging around Camden when an old college chum spotted Thompson, then a 10th-grader, at a camp in the Poconos. He made sure virtually all the Louisville basketball alumni gave Thompson, a call. "Even Muhammad Ali tried to call him twice on our behalf," Houston says.
"Thirty-five head coaches visited my home last summer," Thompson says, and they came not only because he's 6'8" and even more hawkish than Connie Hawkins—"Who is that?" Thompson asks—but also because he's an honor student and a model of stability, such as it is at 18. As a senior he averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds per game while leading Camden High to the New Jersey Group IV championship.
Thompson is lounging beside the pool at the Executive West hotel. He has a pow of a smile and a face that should be boyish at 40. He also has very long legs and huge hands.
"I had looked forward to seeing all those men in my house, like Bobby Knight and [UCLA's] Larry Farmer," he says. "I wanted to talk to them, but mostly to listen. My father wrote letters to all of them after I made my decision."
The Derby Festival has scheduled slam-dunk and one-on-one contests tomorrow morning. Thompson isn't crazy about the idea. "I don't mind competing," he says, "but if I lose, I know people will say, 'Billy can't play like we thought.' They don't understand. One-on-one, or one game, or one shot isn't what makes a team or a player."
Perhaps not for Thompson, and that is good. But for Baskerville Holmes, the mysteriously named senior from Westwood High in Memphis, the situation is different. "This is my only all-star game. Big one," he says. Holmes, bound for Memphis State, doesn't look very smooth. But, as Rein says, "the last time someone suggested a player from that area, I turned him down. Player turned out to be named Keith Lee."
"That's what makes these games good," says Clarence Turner, Thompson's coach, "as long as they're held after the signing date. But Billy's parents sometimes get upset with me when people ask if he's the greatest I've had and I say no, just one of the greatest. Hell, I may not even see another player like Billy Thompson. He's the finest all-around player I've ever coached. But why should I put that extra 15 tons on him? There's 20 tons on him already."
SATURDAY, APRIL 24
It costs a half dollar to see this morning's livestock show at the Kentucky State Fair and Exposition Center's Freedom Hall. About 1,400 people turn out for the Kentucky-Indiana vs. U.S. All-Stars Slam-Dunk and One-on-One competitions. The extra $700 will enhance Rein's financial statement, a document that will be scrutinized by the NCAA.
The Derby Classic didn't receive approval from the NCAA until late March, and Rein says that's going to murder his gate. It had already been wounded by Rule 3-9-(A): No more than two all-star games per player between the end of high school eligibility and entering college. Most of the more prominent Kentuckiana schoolboys chose the two-game series between the states to be played in June. The two outstanding players from Indiana, Guard Roger Harden from Valparaiso High and Forward Ken Barlow from Indianapolis Cathedral, will play in June, as will Todd May, Kentucky's would-be Mr. Basketball—would-be because a player must appear in the June series to win the award for either state. Harden and May have signed with the University of Kentucky, Barlow with Notre Dame.
Proceeds from the Derby Classic, which is being played for the 10th time, go to the Derby Festival (a mélange of horse races, participant sports and county fair goings-on), and Rein says that one year those proceeds made up 28% of the entire festival budget. "Three years ago the fire marshal had to lock the door, so many people came," he says. Crowds of more than 16,000 were the rule. Last year, with the two-game rule in effect and Kentucky-Indiana's team diluted, the game drew 12,000. This year, Rein hopes for seven.
Another NCAA rule: No more than 60% of the gross receipts from an all-star game may go to the game's operating budget. The other 40% must go to charity or educational use. "We chose the Kosair Charities," says Rein, "but I don't think the NCAA realizes how hard it's going to be to run this thing on 60 percent and still make something for the charity."
"They've had some financial problems down there," says Rich Hunter, the NCAA's director of finance. "We approve somewhere around 200 high school basketball and football all-star games each year, so we have some idea of what we're doing. The Derby Classic hadn't met the charitable and educational criteria until late, and that's why it received late approval."
In search of a better bottom line, Rein brings on the one-on-one and the dunks. It's ludicrous to even stage the one-on-one contest, because it celebrates the aspect of the game that, the players eventually will find, gets them nothing but trouble. Nevertheless, Louisville will accept this as Thompson's opening statement and he knows it.
During the warmups, pockets of black men in the crowd loudly critique the players, all of whom, they feel, are less talented than Billy Thompson. Life might be hard for them outside but here they are judge and jury. "Aw, ain't nobody gon' give you no $10,000 for that ol' move," one says, taking up a personal assault on Robert Henderson of Lansing, Mich. Henderson is playing despite an injured leg, "because I really wanted to come," he says. The other old fans begin cachinnating—one unforgettable cackle is heard above the others—at anyone who dares flub a dunk or miss too many jumpers in succession.
One-on-one is grueling work, especially between players of this caliber. Thompson has to play four rounds of six-point games to reach the finals on the U.S. end of the court, and the leader in each game must win by two baskets, or be the first to 10.
Kempton, the redhead from Long Island, faces Thompson in the U.S. semifinals and shows he learned his Chicago lessons well. He bangs on Thompson, blocking his shot once to the oohs of the crowd. But Thompson prevails 10-8. The U.S. final pits Thompson against David Wingate, a 6'5" swingman from Baltimore's Dunbar High. Any player from Dunbar, either the best or the second-best high school team in the country last season, depending on which part of greater Baltimore you're from (the other pretender to No. 1: Calvert Hall of Towson, Md.), would be enough. Wingate, however, is not just any player; he scored 31 points when Dunbar won at Camden 84-59 in February.
Wingate is double-quick, with several evasive dribbles and knifing moves to the hoop, and his outside shot is unerring. Next season he will bolster Georgetown's already formidable personnel. But Billy wins 6-2.
Now Thompson, the U.S. winner, must play 6'1" Bubby Mukes of New Albany, Ind., winner at the Kentuckiana end. By now Thompson is quite tired. He gets the ball first, wends his way into the lane and travels.
"What's wrong, Thompson, them big feet in your way?" yells a fan. Black men aren't the only ones cachinnating now.
"Come on, hot dog!"
Mukes isn't Wingate, but he's a battler. He blocks Thompson's shot and scores. Thompson scores, steals and then travels. The game see-saws. Finally, Mukes fails to convert the game-ender, and he gets no more chances inside. Thompson stays inside now, home, gathering himself up to prove that even at this aberrant game, at this aberrant hour, he's the best—or, at least, better than Bubby Mukes. 11-8.
Of course, the crowd knew it all along.
"We luuuuuuv yuuuuu!"
The dunk contest is next, and even though the Kentuckianans are minus their top three stars, they do have three impressive leapers. All of them are white. Two of them, Tim Tipton of Louisville's Fairdale High and Brian Shepperd of Somerset, Ky., are going to Auburn. Joe Karr of Laurel County, Ky. will attend South Alabama. All three can easily accomplish the 360-degree dunk that Darrell Griffith popularized in these parts. If there is such a thing as "white man's disease," the cure for it has been found in Kentuckiana. Thompson's coach, Clarence Turner, who's black, watches the 6'7" Tipton leap, whirl, extend to his full height and fill the ring to his elbows and says, "It must be more than just a recreation for them, too."
The ball cannot be more gracefully dunked than the way Tipton and the 6'4" Karr have done it. Karr even throws the ball off the floor and catches the backboard ricochet with one hand before mashing it down. Thompson has been saved for last, and he must give the fans what they expect, which is the unexpected. He must be ingenious. His first two dunks are space-shattering, but so have been the others. He knows—everyone knows—he must do more.
Thompson asks for a second ball, and the crowd knows what he means.
"Yeah, Billy. Yeah!"
Standing close to midcourt, Thompson holds a ball straight out at each side, then windmills his arms and starts his run. This is no simple stunt, especially when the performer is tired. He glides up, and even though his normal lift isn't there, crump! crump! both balls go down. Thompson lands heavily, gravity and fatigue sucking at his knees. But he's so young, and in 10 seconds he's renewed, standing erect and looking around for hands to shake, palms to slap. Pow! Enough?
Enough. For today. On the way out of Freedom Hall, there's a lot of talk.
"Hey, you, take off that Auburn jacket, this is Billy Thompson Country! Louisville all the way next year! The B.T. Express!"
"He'll have to learn how to play team ball. That selfish stuff'll get him nowhere."
"He's so great."
"He's a prima donna."
"He's a thoroughbred."
"He's a jerk."
"I got his autograph!"
The players have a 12:30 bus to catch for Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby Trial takes place today, but Thompson declines. He goes to his room to lie down. The game is less than eight hours away. His own Kentucky Derby trial hasn't ended yet.
SATURDAY, APRIL 24
The game isn't really a competition—everyone seems to know and accept the fact that the U.S. All-Stars are going to beat the locals—but a showing off of Thompson, the star freshman-to-be on Louisville's only big league club. If not for Thompson, many of these same people would have gone to watch the Louisville Redbirds of the American Association in their season-opening home stand, or been satisfied with couch and television after the long festival day of hot-air ballooning, mini-marathoning and thoroughbred racing.
The U.S. Stars win 144-85. Holmes, who will see Thompson again in the Metro Conference in years to come, scores 18 points while seeming to have scored eight. Tipton has found at this level there's lots of company above the rim, but still scores 14. Wingate scores 25 points, shooting 12 for 15, and gets 13 rebounds.
"We'll survive," says Rein, optimistically, though the crowd was less than 5,000. He must submit his 1982 financial statement by Aug. 1 and turn in his renewal application by September, or the NCAA will rule that his show cannot be sanctioned. "I tell you," he says, "no matter what, the people think the ball was first bounced somewhere between here and Indianapolis. And that's a fact."
Thompson is named the MVP for his 27 points, nine rebounds. four assists and two blocked shots. He takes his trophy, which is worth considerably more than $15 and, therefore, is technically awarded to Camden High, to the locker room through waves of fresh converts—and a few fans who still doubt him.
"Learn to pass, hot dog!" says one bystander.
"I don't hear the people in the crowd," Thompson says, his face belying his brave words. "They don't know me. They aren't out to help me. I'm the one who knows what I have to do here."
No longer just a high school all-star, Billy Thompson's rite of passage is now complete.