What could possibly upstage the annual Kentucky-Louisville dream-scream classic? How could the ticky-tacky gibes between these ancient adversaries and their coaches be rendered so meaningless so quickly? Who in the wonderful world of basketball in the commonwealth could turn out to be so drastically uncommon as to transcend the rivalry itself—especially when the latest chapter turned out to be an old-fashioned, unforgettable 85-51 black-and-blue grassacre that the 'Cats laid on the Cards to the surprise of virtually everyone except....
Kentucky freshman Rex Chapman. Forget steroids. Chapman is college basketball's brand-new asteroid, a wondrous 6'5" planet unto himself, orbiting somewhere out there between the backboard, the three-point line and horizons of Stardust yet to unfold.
Poor Louisville, at home and already struggling pitifully (now 4-6) in defense of its national championship. The Cardinals should have been forewarned by a pair of 26-point marquee performances that Chapman dished out against Boston University and Indiana. Moreover, having recruited him heavily—it is said that Chapman, last year's Mr. Basketball in Kentucky for Apollo High in Owensboro, would have enrolled at the 'Ville had Joe B. Hall remained as coach at the state university—Louisville's Denny Crum must have been aware of the precocious kid's skills and savvy.
But this? Jerry West throwing in textbook-form three-point bombs practically without looking? (Once Chapman let loose from five-point territory.) Larry Bird half-court bounce passing and three-quarter-court hook passing on the break? Michael Jordan hotdog dunking and fake-and-pullback dribbling over and around his taller elders? Oscar Robertson absolutely controlling the contest? Not even Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton envisioned such singular domination from one so young. "I didn't think he could do it this soon," said Sutton. "He's unbelievable."
January 5, 1987
Seldom has an athlete merged a persona with a moment and created sheer magic—Joe Namath and the Super Bowl, Billie Jean King and Sex Tennis come to mind—as Chapman seems to have done with the three-point shot. (For an assessment of the three-point rule, see page 40). If he had arrived last year he would be just another fabulous phenom. This way, he's seriously approaching manger material. On Saturday in Freedom Hall the son of Wayne Chapman, an ex-ABA journeyman who is the coach at Kentucky Wesleyan, made 5 of 8 attempts from the half-moon line and, with an insouciance bordering on disdain, looked as if he wished he could fire off 80 more. And in his national TV debut, at that.
At least Chapman wasn't wearing swaddling clothes—although his allusions to the trinity could not have gone unnoticed: The rookie's game-leading 26 points was, of course, the charmed third time he had reached that career high; and not only does Chapman shoot and score threes, he wears the number 3 on his jersey.
As brilliant as Chapman could be, that's how surpassingly terrible Louisville was. The Cards shot 36.2%, their supposedly overpowering front line was outrebounded by wimpish Kentucky (41-33), and Pervis Ellison and Herbert Crook, averaging 35.7 points between them, were limited to four and six, respectively. Kentucky meanwhile played..."a perfect game? It was close enough," said the visitors' injured star forward, Winston Bennett.
Clearly, Sutton has structured his offense to take advantage of the new rule—"When a team goes zone, our perimeter people start laughing," says Kentucky's other sparkling frosh guard, Derrick Miller—and with Chapman and the chip shot, the Cats could contend for the national title. Stat to suck on: Kentucky made 11 of 17 three-pointers in the game (and only 10 of 16 free throws; figure that out), while Louisville has made only four all year. "If they play that well, there's nobody in the country they can't beat," said Crum.
That might be all Crum and Sutton will agree on in the next millennium. The Kentucky headman initiated pleasantries last week by calling the NCAA champs "the little brother," while insisting that Kentucky was "bigger than the Yankees or the Cowboys." Crum replied by suggesting that the Louisville program took a backseat to no one, and that it had done "far more than theirs [Kentucky's] the last six years, eight years, ten years. We've been to four Final Fours to their one in the last six years [actually seven]. We've won two national championships to their none. If his program is so good, he doesn't have to talk about it.
"Maybe we never will get as big as Kentucky," Crum added, "but we haven't been on probation like they have, either."
After Sutton removed that particular dagger, he had the last word. "My point was that regardless who is coaching...they'll still have to play catch-up, and it may take 50 years before they do. And that's if they do their homework. I'm older than Denny. I know Kentucky basketball has always been college basketball."
In fact Sutton needs to catch up on his own homework. He is actually a year and 10 days younger than Crum, but not as young as Chapman who, with the other infant and backcourt-rich Cats, staked a claim as Three Point Central on Saturday by draining 7 of 10 trifectas in the first half en route to a 14-point lead. The Cats permitted Louisville to edge within 10 at intermission and then scored the first 10 points of the second period to effectively end matters as Richard (Master Blaster) Madison took over down low—at least when Chapman wasn't roaring and soaring onto the premises. "One rebound hit me in the back," said the Blaster, who finished with 17 boards. "Things like that happened for us today."
And things like oft-maligned Kentucky center Rob Lock outscoring and outrebounding Ellison (9-4 and 7-4) as the latter wandered aimlessly around on an injured ankle. "Coach Sutton said this game was 50-50 with everything normal," Lock said. "Who ever thought we would play abnormal and win by 30?...Think of it. Our team dunking on Louisville."
And think of this—the three most jaw-dropping plays that Chapman made all afternoon accomplished exactly nothing. They were, in reverse order of their appearance:
A fantastic three-on-two fast-break bounce pass that James Blackmon failed to convert for a basket.
A driving hook dunk, using his 39-inch vertical leap, which was blocked by Ellison.
And a running jumper from at least three feet beyond the NBA three-point line that was etched on the court.
After that routine, Sutton called Chapman over for a quick sideline conference. "He told me I shot it too quick," revealed the kid his teammates call "Chapstick."
Not too far?
"No. Just too quick."
Afterward Sutton said that Sidney Moncrief (ex-Arkansas) was his best guard ever..."but he didn't start playing well until his seventh or eighth game. Rex has played exceptionally well from his first game."
"It's flattering," Chapman said of all the hosannas, "but if I start listening to that stuff, I won't get any better."
He can get better?
"In everything. Someday I won't be able to play this game anymore, and I want to get as much out of the game as the game has to give."
Which at this point looks like one or two more three-pointers, not to mention a couple of national championships.