The group he ran with, a South Bronx gang called the Gladiators, lowered him from a roof into a grocery store with an intent to rifle a cash register 22 years ago. He runs with a new bunch now, and when they raised him high to cut down the net after his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets beat North Carolina 57-54 in Atlanta's Omni on Sunday to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, another memory of Bobby Cremins—something midway between those two extremes—leaped to mind.
In 1970, when Cremins was 22 and hadn't yet become a natural for a Grecian Formula 16 ad, he was a senior guard at South Carolina playing in his last ACC tournament. The Gamecocks had breezed through the regular conference season with a 14-0 record, but those were the days when NCAA tournament bids weren't given out like handbills on a New York City street corner. When a John Roche pass intended for Cremins was tipped away on the game's most crucial play, 0:22 from the end of the second overtime, South Carolina lost the ACC title to North Carolina State 42-39 and had its season ended. Cremins disappeared, hiding out with a friend in Asheville, N.C. for two weeks.
Now he was in the final once again—Coach Cremins this time around—and all he did was beat Dean Smith's Tar Heels for the third time this season, a feat that no team had pulled off since N.C. State's national champs did it in 1974. So Cremins's fly was open the entire second half. Hey, Bobby was concentrating on other things.
Tech went into the Omni as a conference tri-champion, along with the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack. It was the first time three teams had shared the regular-season title in the conference's 31-year history. Never before had a team gotten a piece of the championship with even four losses, and Tech had five to go with its nine victories. Duke, despite winning all 13 of its non-conference games and having a league-best overall mark of 21-6, drew nothing better than the fourth seed at Atlanta and the right to open against Maryland, possessor of probably the most respectable 23-10 record and most brutal schedule in the land. Talk about parity; the ACC had it but good. When Tech, then in first place, played Virginia, then in last, on Feb. 16, the Cavaliers were actually favored—and won. The ACC had become the Anyone Can Conference.
Never deep to begin with, Tech was left with only eight players after 6'6" Duane Ferrell, Tech's third straight ACC Rookie of the Year, tore a ligament in his right knee early in the Jackets' 55-48 opening-round defeat of Virginia. Three of the survivors—raw freshman Antoine Ford, 144-pound John Martinson and Jack Mansell, a 33% shooter—had contributed little all year, so the task of winning three games in 51 hours fell to a club that did justice to the implications of the nickname Ramblin' Wreck.
Center Yvon Joseph is a 6'11" former killer-blocker on the Haitian national volleyball team. "I am a 27-year-old man," he said after the title game, in which he made the first of a one-and-one with :52 left to give Tech its ultimate lead. "I never see a basketball until I am 23. But my experience—my experience in life—makes me sink free throw."
John (Spider) Salley, from the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, arrived in Atlanta three years ago as a 6'9", 185-pound flake. He's grown up to be a 7-foot, 224-pound flake. "When I went to see him in high school, he didn't want to play," Cremins says. "He was like a hypochondria [sic]." On Sunday, Salley was the savior who came up with two clutch offensive rebounds. He put one of them back with 1:16 left to tie the game at 50, and grabbed the other to save possession after Joseph's miss on the back end of that one-and-one.
Guard Henry (Bruce) Dalrymple came of age on the street corners of Harlem, but was dispatched to a private school in St. Johnsbury, Vt. by a concerned youth league coach because, as Dalrymple puts it, "I was wild in the streets." His frenzy is now controlled, though Cremins will sometimes say he mistrusts him. "That's because he used to be like me," Dalrymple says. "Sometimes he tells me to do one thing, and I do something else." Dalrymple, a terror on the offensive boards, didn't make even the second-team all-ACC. "Bruce," says Salley, "got jerked."
Mark Price, the 6-foot floor leader from Enid, Okla., has the best first step for a white man since Neil Armstrong, and an automatic jumper off the dribble. He came out of high school sharing his state's player of the year award with a guy named Wayman Tisdale but had to look beyond Oklahoma for a coach who believed in his talent. Cremins promised to build his program around this kid who not only looks like a choirboy, but actually is a tenor soloist at the Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta. Ga. "The one thing Mark asks of Coach Cremins," says guard Craig Neal, who's religious himself, "is that he not say G.D."
All Cremins asks of Scott Petway, a 6'6" forward from Chicago with a bright red Elvis pompadour and rockabilly musical tastes to match, is that he play good D and stick the open J. His teammates call him Petrock; his coach calls him the Chicago Hood. Despite conceding four inches to Carolina's Joe Wolf, Petway held Wolf to four points in the championship game. He lofted the lob that Salley slammed home to tie the game at 38 with 11:27 remaining, after the Tar Heels had built an eight-point lead, 38-30.
"We've got a Haitian, two New York City thugs, an Okie and a '52 gangster," Dalrymple says. "But on the court, we unite." Indeed they do. And that devolves from Cremins, who may be an unproved strategist and frenetic game coach but is a master motivator. "My philosophy is based on love and discipline," he says. "The challenge for a coach is finding the fine line."
Cremins came to Georgia Tech from Appalachian State in 1981; his predecessor, Dwane Morrison, went off to become J.C. Snead's caddie on the pro golf tour. Tech's fortunes were so miserable that it hardly mattered that Cremins's last job in the big time had been at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria—as a bellhop. "My first year we were at Carolina and one of my players put the ball in the wrong basket," Cremins says. "I looked around and it was like a cocktail party. People were laughing. It was a circus, and we were the act."
With Ferrell down—he's expected back for limited action in the NCAAs—and Neal a redshirt after injuring his wrist early in the season, the Jackets have become The Incredible Shrinking Team. "Fatigue's no factor," Salley insists. "We've been playing all our lives in the park. You play 'til you can't see at night. I'm not an old man yet. We don't do drugs. And we get plenty of rest."
Tech did get a break in the semifinals when Duke forward Mark Alarie aggravated a hip pointer in the first minute and was through for the day. The Jackets went on to win the battle of the foul line (23-10), and thus the game, 75-64, causing Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski to seethe. "There was more body-checking out there than in a hockey game," he said. "I've gone with the gag rule all season, but the season is over now. The officiating today was a disgrace to the conference."
Joseph didn't think the Devils were so righteous themselves. "Last time they pushed me around," he said. "So I tell, 'Gentlemen, we better play.' " Problem was, Cremins thought Joseph and Salley weren't playing, at least not after the intermission. With Tech up 34-30 and barely two minutes gone in the second half, Cremins yanked both in favor of Ford and Mansell. A minute passed, then another. Worried, Tech assistant coach Perry Clark suggested that Cremins put them back in. "They're not ready yet," Cremins said flatly. Finally, after Joseph had done a little lobbying of his own, Cremins sent Joseph and Salley back to the action. Four minutes had gone by and Duke was no closer than 40-38.
Dalrymple got the same treatment in the second half of the title game, when Cremins invited him to contemplate the fact that the Tar Heels' Steve Hale had just burned him with an uncontested jumper. But Dalrymple hardly needed chastening. In 114 minutes over the three Tech victories, he shot 19 for 32, scored 43 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, dished out 14 assists, made 11 steals and committed just four turnovers, while running down every loose ball within hailing distance and generally making a mockery of the MVP award, which went to Price. "Bruce is the catalyzer," says Joseph, who's an engineering major. "You put acids together, but he is the base on the team."
"I know Mark won't mind me saying this," said Cremins, who watched Price make four free throws on two one-and-ones in the last 22 seconds Sunday. "But Dalrymple was my MVP."
Four years after going through an 0-14 season, five years after joining the ACC and 15 years after their coach suffered that heartbreaking tournament championship loss with another school, the Yellow Jackets have won the august league's grand prize.
"Frank McGuire's probably sitting back with his Scotch and water," Cremins said of his legendary former South Carolina coach, "and he's probably saying, 'That little s.o.b. finally did it.' "