Talk about superpowers, make a mention of summitry, and the citizens of that frenzied basketball nation known as Kentuckiana automatically assume that you're discussing the Stars War between their hallowed Hoosiers and their beloved Wildcats, games always played close to the heart and not too distant from the top of the polls. Why, schedule one in a place that can hold enough folks—maybe Churchill Downs or the Indianapolis Speedway—and you might stir up enough fanatical energy to create another nuclear threat.
As it was, only 43,601 fans were able to squeeze into the next-best site, the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome, to watch Kentucky beat Indiana 82-76 in overtime on Saturday afternoon. But what they witnessed—a vicious, seesaw struggle of big plays that turned oh-so-subtly when the quietest kid on the floor made a bundle of little plays—will suffice until the next time these teams meet. In an even more proper setting. Say, the NCAA championship game.
Whether this was a preview of the Final Four or merely the windup of the so-called Big Four Classic was immaterial to such household names as Keith Smart and Dean Garrett of Indiana and Rex Chapman and Winston Bennett of Kentucky. Certainly none of them came close to duplicating the heroics of Notre Dame's David Rivers, who spent the opening session of the doubleheader thoroughly embarrassing Louisville—or whoever that fourth alleged competitor was. The six-foot-tall Rivers scored 32 points and collected seven rebounds in the Irish's 69-54 rout.
But in the second game, an unobtrusive fellow named Cedric Cortrell Jenkins, who is not another candidate for president but a 6'9" senior forward for Kentucky, fastened his name to the game in lieu of those of his more established peers. Smart and Garrett were in the process of missing 23 of 33 shots. Bennett—"our returning warrior" Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton had called the forward who sat out last season with a knee injury—was a stray Cat, crashing through screens and fouling out with 6:11 to go in regulation time. Chapman, the boy king, was heaving air balls of questionable merit. While all that was going on, all the stringbean Jenkins did was hum the Wildcats a purrrrfect tune: five of five from the field, four of four from the line, five offensive and five defensive rebounds and a couple of blocks and assists. This from a guy who had averaged a no-factor 2.1 points per game for his career.
December 14, 1987
Swoop is what they call Jenkins. Why? "As far as I can tell, it's because of my arms," Jenkins said afterward. Good guess, Swoop. Jenkins's wingspan is a pterodactyl-like 79½ inches.
In a game during which there would be 20 lead changes and 55 fouls, Indiana, with Rick Calloway on his way to 26 points, looked to have the better half of a 59-59 tie just after Bennett fouled out. Right, coach Bob Knight? "No," snapped Knight afterward. "What were they going to do, play with four?"
Remarkably, though, Knight made it through a Kentucky game incident-free. Wags suggested ABC-TV might have promised to lay a massive bonus on Knight if he and his team went the distance rather than walk out as they had early in the second half against the Soviet national team two weeks before.
Meanwhile, in a performance almost as surprising as Knight's, Kentucky reserve Richard (Master Blaster) Madison came in for Bennett—and stayed in. Madison's 6'7", 230-pound physique belies a rather wimpish attitude. In fact the Master hadn't blasted a soul since he enrolled at Kentucky three seasons ago. "A phantom," Sutton labeled him. But this day....
With 25 seconds left in regulation, the tenacious Chapman, who's only a sophomore, remember, and who scored 20 points despite missing 12 of 20 shots, had pushed the Wildcats to a 71-69 lead with a couple of floaters and two free throws. Kentucky center Rob Lock had a clinching one-and-one opportunity with just seven seconds left. "You want me to get the ball?" Lock had said to Sutton in the Kentucky huddle just before he was fouled. Well, Lock had made 8 for 8 free throws in the game. "I'd done this in my backyard, fantasizing the situation since I was a kid," Lock said. "Why should it be any different with 40,000 looking on?" He missed this one miserably. At the other end, Hoosier freshman Jay Edwards pulled Indiana into overtime by catching a rebound and with one second left sinking a jumper from the baseline to tie the score at 71-71.
With Indiana trailing 78-76 in overtime, the Hoosiers' Smart started to dribble-drive against Kentucky guard Ed (Bug Eye) Davender, who got his nickname back on the streets of Brooklyn long before he donned goggles to protect against a detached retina. He now refers to his insect motif as "my shtick," but on Saturday, Davender's shtick was 22 points and oppressive defense on Smart. With 40 seconds left, Davender bugged Smart until he momentarily lost control of his dribble, whereupon Chapman dived for the ball, grabbed it and in one falling motion passed to...none other than the phantom himself, Madison.
"I spun around, saw daylight and headed for the dunk," said Madison. "I figured this was going to be something spectacular." His open-court, Statue of Liberty throw-down at :34 gave the Wildcats an 80-76 lead. After Smart missed with a bomb, Madison ripped away the rebound. In other words, Hoosier disaster from the Master Blaster. And a roller coaster ending to a basketball carnival.
This first annual hoop-de-do was conceived some five years ago in the parking lot of Smitty's restaurant in Bloomington, Ind. It was there that Billy Reed, a revered newspaper columnist in Kentucky, suggested to Knight that a tournament among the four schools would be a grand idea. Last week, while paying homage to Reed's influence, Knight urged that credit be heaped upon himself for setting up the double-header.
"I figure 80 minutes of basketball is 40 more than normal," he said, tongue wagging through his cheek, "which more than makes up for the 15 I cheated the fans out of a while ago [against the Soviets]. I should get pats on the back. When this is over, I'll be 25 minutes ahead of everybody."
But seriously, folks.... The Big Four Classic does lift the Kentuckiana Kwartet to a level of enthusiasm only dreamed about in other precincts. The classic's name itself was fairly commandeered from Tobacco Road, where North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest used to get together for a tournament at this point in the season. "If this was a tournament between Christmas and New Year's, we'd have the premier event in the sport every year before the Final Four," said Knight. The problem with that idea, besides the fact that Kentucky and Indiana have holiday tournaments of their own, is that none of these proud teams would exactly cherish leaving Indy with two early losses, which would happen to somebody in a tournament format. So, for now, the four-year contract calls for a rotation in which the schools alternate out-of-state opponents in a one-day extravaganza. "I like the event this way—early," said Sutton. It gets people's minds off football. The focus returns to basketball. It's a splash."
And next year the schools will consider a proposal to set up the Hoosier Dome for 67,000 seats. "What would Naismith think?" said Kentucky's Lock about the whole shebang. "He'd probably try to cash in somehow."
On Saturday, it was the Cats who showed that this may be their season to cash in. When they can count on their touted freshmen, Eric Manuel and LeRon Ellis, they'll be a veritable load. "The more the merrier," said Jenkins, the pterodactyl swooping into some unfamiliar dialectic. "If everybody comes in and plays good, it's that much better a predicament for Kentucky." Which is a Big Four Classic closer no one should touch with a 79½-inch pole.