The only thing South Alabama senior forward Terry Catledge has eluded more successfully than opposing defenses this season has been publicity. At the end of last week Catledge was the fourth-leading scorer in Division I with a 25.9 points-per-game average, ranked ninth in rebounding with 11.2 per game and stood close to last among the nation's best players in press clippings. Rarely has so much gone wrong for a player so right. To wit:
•Wrong Conference. Catledge won the Sun Belt Conference's Player of the Year award for 1983-84 and, barring a disaster, will win it again this season. But nobody cares much about the Sun Belt. Most fans think of it only as the place of exile for former UCLA coach Gene Bartow and as the home of the Monograms—Bartow's UAB plus USA, VCU, WKU, UNCC, JU, USF and ODU. That's Alabama-Birmingham, South Alabama, Virginia Commonwealth, Western Kentucky, North Carolina at Charlotte, Jacksonville, South Florida and Old Dominion, which used to be the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary before it changed its name to sound more like a whiskey and less like a TV miniseries.
•Wrong School. South Alabama, a 9,500-student commuter school in Mobile, has shown remarkable apathy toward its basketball star as well as its team. On Dec. 6, while the Jaguars were beating Central Florida 83-68 before 1,552 in 10,000-seat Mobile Municipal Auditorium downtown, the student government sponsored an on-campus dance.
•Wrong Uniform. You may have known that Catledge averaged 19.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season, but presumably U.S. Olympic coach Bob Knight didn't. The only Sun Belt player he invited to the Olympic trials was South Florida guard Charlie Bradley. Still, Catledge does get to wear a red, white and blue uniform with USA emblazoned on the front, but so does every other South Alabama player.
•Wrong Nickname. Catledge is a four-wheel-drive kind of player. At 6'8", 230 pounds, he's physical enough to climb to the basket with two or three defenders climbing on him. Obviously, Catledge's nickname should be Truck, but Leonard Robinson of the New York Knicks already owns that one. So Catledge is known as Cadillac, as if one could conjure up the vision of a Coupé de Ville with a gun rack mounted on the back.
The NBA brass knows Catledge well enough so that he should be the first Sun Belt player in five years to be chosen in the opening round of the pro draft. "I like his presence on the court," says Portland Trail Blazer general manager Stu Inman. "He's got a power forward's body, but if you're looking for a power forward just to rebound, guard big people and get the ball out on the break, he's too good with the ball. He's developed a fine outside shot. He can go inside. He doesn't seem to work hard and he comes up with 10 rebounds."
The hard work comes when opposing coaches try to map out ways to stop Catledge. Old Dominion coach Paul Webb is a firm believer in man-to-man defense, but he knew before his conference opener on Jan. 2 against South Alabama that he didn't have one man who could stop Catledge. Nonetheless, the Monarchs started out in a man-to-man. On the Jaguars' first two trips down the court, the ball went inside to Catledge, who hit a pair of short jumpers. Old Dominion switched to a zone and, with two and three men sagging in, "held" Catledge to 21 points in an 86-84 ODU win.
North Carolina at Charlotte had less luck. "The better the low-post player, the more you should play behind him," says 49er coach Hal Wissel. "Some feel you should deny him the ball, but if you go to a complete front, he'll kill you on rebounds." So Wissel's defense played behind Catledge, who scored 36 points and collected a conference-record .26 rebounds in an 89-62 USA romp.
When Catledge wants the ball, his face lights up as if it were covered with neon makeup. His eyes flash, his mouth drops wide open and his eyebrows arch more than his sudden jump shot. Catledge, 21, still has a lot of his hometown of Houston in him. That's Houston, Miss., not Texas, a town of 3,700 in the northeast part of the state that he describes as "backwoods."
"The only thing to do was play sports," he says. "We don't have any McDonald's, nothing like that. We have one drive-in and five traffic lights—four that work." When Catledge wasn't playing basketball or baseball, he was bending over the tables at A.J.'s Pool Hall. Now he shoots pool as well as he shoots hoops. And when he wasn't shooting pool, he did what the kids in Houston usually do for fun—he went to Tupelo.
Neither Ole Miss nor Mississippi State showed much interest in Catledge when he was at Houston High. A bird dog tipped off Drayton Miller, then a South Alabama assistant coach, who ventured to a state tournament game in Booneville to scout Catledge. "I flew into Memphis and rented a car," says Miller, "and I'm flipping around the radio trying to find some music. All of a sudden I hear, 'Houston drives up the court, Philly steals and scores!' I thought it was an NBA game, so I flipped it off. I get to Booneville and the game is in the middle of the first half. It's Houston, Mississippi against Philadelphia, Mississippi.
"There are two really physical kids in the game. On Houston, Terry Catledge, and on Philadelphia, Marcus Dupree. Marcus might have been a helluva football player but he wasn't much of a basketball player. Terry got 45 off of him. He shot from all over the court."
Catledge signed with South Alabama in April 1981—but not because he wanted to. "He'd never been away from home, not for a night," says his mother, Bobbie Jean, who runs a day-care center in Houston. Catledge went to Mobile that summer, where he got a job building fences. What he really built was a serious case of homesickness. By August, he was back in Houston and soon enrolled at Itawamba Junior College in nearby Fulton, Miss., thinking he could still change his mind and return to South Alabama before school started in late September. "He called me one night about midnight and said, I made a terrible mistake,' " says Cliff Ellis, who coached the Jaguars for nine seasons before moving to Clemson last year. Catledge indeed did return to South Alabama in September, but the NCAA considered him a transfer and he lost a year of eligibility.
After playing mostly in the low post for Ellis for three years, Catledge has been given more latitude by new Jaguar coach Mike Hanks, who installed the passing, screening offense he learned as a graduate assistant to Knight on the 1976 NCAA-champion Indiana team. "I want to be versatile," Catledge says. "Coach Ellis didn't really want me to take the outside shot and I didn't want him to be upset. I feel more comfortable now."
The same goes for Catledge's life off the court, though he still has about him the air of the country kid in the big city. But occasionally, Catledge lets on that he's no bumpkin. Just ask him about his nickname.
"When the girls ask me why I'm called Cadillac," Catledge says, "I tell them it's because I'm long, black and lovely." Maybe he's no Truck after all.