Health spas, pumping iron and disgusting fitness being all the rage, it seemed only proper that when the key game in the conference of the big shoulders was on the line last Saturday, the fellow with the biggest shoulders of all muscled his team into the Big Ten lead. Purdue and Illinois, two surprise teams that had come out of nowhere to tie for first in the league with 11-2 records, had begun the afternoon at the Boilermakers' Mackey Arena playing basketball. But, after an even first half, Purdue center Jim (Here's the Beef) Rowinski puffed his cheeks, flexed his massive upper body a few times and turned a tense, brave battle into just another personal session down at the local Nautilus hangout.
It wasn't only Rowinski's 20 points and nine rebounds in the second half—he had 24 and 13 overall, both game highs—that were decisive in the Boilermakers' 59-55 victory, but also his defensive shutdown of the Illini's leading scorer, Efrem Winters, who had 15 of Illinois' first 29 points. Then Rowinski slammed the barbells on him. In the final 18 minutes the 6'9", 210-pound Winters could hardly see around Rowinski, much less score off him. Winters got his only basket during that span on a scrambling slapback of a rebound that even Rowinski admitted, "I might have tipped in myself." Then Rowinski, a 6'8" senior from Syosset, N.Y., added, "But we're not home free yet." Indeed, despite Saturday's victory, which left Purdue at 19-5, at week's end the Boilermakers were only a game up on Illinois in league play and 1½ ahead of Indiana (see box, page 22). "Remember," Rowinski concluded, "we aren't the biggest team around. Our biggest starter is six-eight."
Hold it. That's 6'8" and 243 pounds, with a 46-inch chest, 18-inch biceps and musculature reminiscent of the Sears Tower. In getting as big as he is, Rowinski completed an improbable before-and-after saga that includes not only his gaining 10 inches and almost 80 pounds since he was a high school junior, but also a remarkable transformation from a noncontributing reserve sluggo who shot barely 35% from the free-throw line as a college junior. That was last year. Now, Purdue coach Gene Keady calls Rowinski Mr. Beach; his teammates call him Steroid—only joking, Se√±or Samaranch—and many observers, noting his 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in a balanced, deliberate attack, are ready to proclaim him the Big Ten MVP.
With his soft brown eyes, baby face and languid manner, the off-court Rowinski gives off the vibes of a cuddly panda, but when aroused he's as likely to bend a backboard—or eat one—as bank a ball off it. Up close and personal—Arnold Schwarzenbasket. "I thought Row was actually going to puncture the ball on that one play," said muscular Purdue guard Steve Reid, a miniaturized Rowinski at 5'9", who had 14 points and nine assists against Illinois.
March 5, 1984
The Rowinski bombing run Reid referred to came with slightly more than 13 minutes to play, when Rowinski hook-yanked a gorilla rebound out of a crowd and hit a little slamup—that's iron-pumper's lingo for a layup—while being fouled. His conversion of the three-point play began a 12-2 Purdue run during which Rowinski scored seven points and controlled just about every rebound. It was a punishing display that left Purdue leading 48-37 and the Illini hiding under their exercise mats with only 5:09 left.
Then just as quickly Illinois' wondrous defensive star, 6'3" sophomore guard Bruce Douglas, began stealing and deflecting and intercepting everything Purdue threw in the air, and he single-handedly brought the Illini back into the fray. Four times in the last two minutes they cut the margin to a single basket. Three times Rowinski scored in reply, once after dribbling the length of the sideline to use up seven precious seconds. Then he nailed two foul shots—Rowinski is 76.8% from the line this season, a cool 41.3 percentage points better than last year—with 10 seconds to go.
After he clutched the final rebound, he hurled the ball viciously 50 rows up into Mackey and then got all soft once again. "In this league you got to play a Heckyll-Jive type of deal," Rowinski said, borrowing not from Robert Louis Stevenson, but from Men at Work, of which Rowinski could be an ex officio member. "On the defensive end, mean and ornery. Then when you go to offense you have to relax and stay calm to shoot well. It's a, you know, split personality thing."
What weren't divergent were the factors responsible for the Boilermakers' and Illini's unexpected rises. Just as surely as Purdue was supposed to be ravaged by the premature defection to the NBA of 6'10" center Russell Cross, Illinois was expected to falter without Derek Harper, the Big Ten's best guard in 1982-83, who also left school early for the pros. Preseason forecasts had the Illini no better than third or fourth in the league, while one poll placed Purdue ninth. But the Boilermakers learned to bear without their Cross during an off-season trip to Belgium and Holland, while the Illinois players journeyed to Yugoslavia, where they found not John Denver in a sheep barn but gold of sorts in the discovery that 6'4" sophomore Doug Altenberger would be a capable replacement for Harper. These ultimate road trips, with their bad gyms, hostile audiences, suspect refs, uncomfortable beds and buses and what-is-this food, steeled both teams for the rigors of the coming season.
While Big Ten co-favorites Iowa and Michigan State stumbled miserably—last week Hawkeye coach George Raveling suddenly departed the bench in the middle of a rare victory, possibly to book a flight to Miami, where he's rumored to be the choice to rejuvenate the Hurricane basketball program; Spartan coach Jud Heathcote may still be wondering when Magic Johnson will come back—the league's two new glamour teams stepped into the breach. New? Well, maybe not so new. For all of Indiana's renown and Knightrageousness, Purdue's victory on Saturday drew the Boilers dead even with Illinois for alltime conference leadership. In 79 years of Big Ten play, each school had won 589 games. Indiana was third with 573.
Both teams also overcame injuries before conference play began, and the confidence of each was considerably buoyed by an early-season surprise. In the Illini's case, the big booster was a two-point Christmas Eve loss to Kentucky, which at the time was considered the team of the millennium. Having lost 6'9" forward Anthony Welch to a stress fracture of his left leg four weeks earlier, Illinois coach Lou Henson had put 5'11" Quinn Richardson into the lineup, and the Fighting Illini fought Kentucky until the Wildcats' 62% shooting and last-second shot did them in. That game not only set visions of sugarplums dancing in the Illinois players' heads, but it also may have given Henson an inkling of the fact that his team could lead the Big Ten in defense and rebounding, despite a three-guard lineup and a 6'8" center. Douglas has spearheaded the D with his brilliant thievery, and center George Montgomery, who attributes his success to "double-jointed elbows," has helped control the backboards.
"I still can't figure out how we've done so well," says Henson, who wears a bizarre three-tone hair style and a constantly bemused expression. "I just know we work on defense, we have chemistry, and we play hard."
The Illini intensity is such that, Douglas claims, "We scare people. I can see it in their eyes. Teams tighten up and give up the ball because we sustain our defense for 40 minutes. Derek [Harper] taught me this: Think defense to the point where you dictate what the offensive player does."
Douglas stole the ball eight times on Saturday in a dazzling follow-up to Illinois' 16 steals in its 76-52 blowout of Purdue at Champaign in the teams' first meeting, on Jan. 21. "That day we were in cement," Reid says. "They kept stripping us, grabbing every loose ball. Illinois really stuck it in our faces." As the Illini have stuck it to others. Fact is, before Saturday, Illinois was two opponents' buzzer-beaters and one overtime loss away from an undefeated season.
The Boilermakers overcame their loss of Cross by turning to an erstwhile skinny walk-on from Long Island who found love, happiness and his destiny in the weight room and pumped himself up to...Super Row, the Polish Prince of Pecs. As that wimpy, sand-in-the-face high school junior, Rowinski was unceremoniously cut from the Syosset varsity. He went to West Lafayette mainly because his father was a Purdue alumnus and his sister, Sue, an Olympic aspirant in rowing, was already enrolled there. For two years Rowinski practiced with the scrubs. Then in 1981-82 he got into a few games, only to sustain a stress fracture in his left leg. He started lifting weights to stifle the boredom of a recuperative redshirt season. All the while Row had been growing, but now he started bulging. Rippling, actually.
Last season he saw limited action behind Cross, but when this season began—whoosh! a phone booth, please—Super Row emerged to plunder both Northeastern, the sleeper from New England that at week's end was 21-4, and home-standing Fresno State in something called the Sun-Met Classic. Those two victories, paired with the next two—over Louisville and MAC leader Miami of Ohio—sent Purdue out of the box in a hurry: 4-0 over opponents who have since won a combined 80 games.
"I like character guys," says Keady, now in his fourth season at Purdue, after spending two years at Western Kentucky. 'You got to be a character guy to play for me." The Big Ten champions-in-waiting are slow, overachieving and a mishmash of transfers, no-names and even one Mormon church elder, Curt Clawson, who came to Purdue "because I wanted to beat Bobby Knight." But they do have the monster walk-on, Rowinski, and now they are in command of their own fate.
"I really can't see the light at the end of the tunnel yet," said Keady on Saturday, "but our fans sure can smell it." Given Rowinski's bone-crushing buckets as well as his popping pecs, Purdue fans can probably hear the light as well.