John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, that scoring champ of letters, was a flaccid adult. Yet whenever he picked up a basketball, he felt rejuvenated. "That old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings," Updike wrote in Rabbit, Run. "It feels like he's reaching down through years to touch this tautness."
Reach down, if you will, to 1970, when Pete Maravich averaged 44.5 points a game for Louisiana State. No collegian had ever scored so many points in a single season, and none has since. The '70 national scoring title, Maravich's third in a row, prefigured the impact he would have on the pros. But no college scoring champ after Pistol Pete left a mark on the NBA until 1985, when Wichita State's Xavier McDaniel, with the Seattle SuperSonics, made the All-Rookie team.
The dozen shooters who led the land over the 14 seasons between the Pistol and the X-Man make up college basketball's lost generation. Each is but an esoteric footnote to the NBA's draft list or record book, yet together they span an era in which the college game metamorphosed from a quaint regional pastime into today's cabled, coast-to-coast obsession.
Some of the former champions have names that befit scorers: Freeman Williams, Marshall Rogers, Zam Fredrick. Others have felicitous nicknames: William (Bird) Averitt, Dwight (Bo) Lamar, Harry (Machine Gun) Kelly, Johnny (Reb) Neumann. The rest defy recollection. Who outscored David Thompson, Adrian Dantley, Larry Bird, Mark Aguirre and Michael Jordan? The answers are, respectively, Larry Fogle, Bob McCurdy, Lawrence Butler, Tony Murphy and Joe Jakubick.
November 20, 1989
Few played for big-time schools, and those who did were at places with no basketball tradition, or at least a dormant one. Most found pro camps too constraining: "I never got a chance to show what I could do" is a common complaint. And a handful thrived in the shoot-'em-up ABA, only to run up against the tougher standards and crueler numbers games that prevailed in the NBA. (To be sure, Williams scored in double figures for several seasons—with the Clippers. As we said, none made it with an NBA team.)
Today, some are ashamed not to be found in pro ball, Kelly so much so that he preferred not to be photographed for this story. By contrast, Murphy, a contemporary of Kelly's, counts himself lucky to be driving a United Parcel Service truck and making $17 an hour.
Others have chosen the expatriate life. Year after year Williams found his peculiar notion of a good shot—"If I had to watch Freeman Williams play 82 games," an NBA general manager once said, "I'd open a vein"—in demand everywhere from San Diego to Manila to Istanbul. Fredrick has gone back to Europe for each of the past eight seasons. "I didn't even know they played basketball in Europe when I left college," says Zam, whose mom fancied Efrem Zimbalist Jr., star of TV's The FBI. Today Zam knows better and speaks fluent Italian.
One of the earliest of these Sultans of Scoring, Fogle, found that his dimensions and inside skills lent themselves best to the downsized CBA, where he put in a few fine seasons only to struggle to find a life for himself after basketball. The last of these champions, Jakubick—whom the University of Akron's sports-information office flogged for All-America honors by distributing a hastily arranged photograph of him with Rodney Dangerfield—is still lighting it up, as a marketing representative for Ohio Edison.
The other half-dozen, plus Kelly, are profiled below. When they die, each should be lowered into the grave in a box-and-one. But until then, their lives pose this question: What happens to a man who on the cusp of adulthood can perform the most esteemed act in his sport better than anybody else and then suddenly isn't asked to do it anymore?
What happens, it turns out, is many different things. EVERY TWO WEEKS THE OTHER BIRD ON the Boston Celtics' payroll visits his lawyer near his parents' home in Hopkinsville, Ky., and collects a check for about $1,500. Checks have greeted William (Bird) Averitt, 37, every fortnight since that day in 1978 when the NBA waived him goodbye. They will keep coming until he's 53.
Averitt never played a game for the Celtics. In fact, after leaving Pepper-dine, he put in only two undistinguished seasons in the NBA, following three decent ones in the ABA. But when John Y. Brown and Irv Levin pulled off their bizarre franchise swap in 1978, Averitt's contract, a shrewdly drafted document with lots of cash deferred, went from Buffalo to Boston. Even as his pro career sputtered, Bird became one of pro basketball's Merger Millionaires, set for life.
That life is now shared with his girlfriend, Monica, and their eight-year-old daughter, Moneisha. His parents, Julian and Mary, live nearby in the house where he grew up. It's hard by the vacant lot where, playing touch football on a hot day, little William once stripped off his shirt to cries of "Birdchest!" The lot isn't vacant anymore, but Averitt still has that avian torso. He could be 18, might be 25, couldn't be a day over 30.
"I'm a grandfather," he says, grinning. "Three times." Averitt has an impossibly even temper and ready smile. But then he got on with the most difficult of coaches (the Kentucky Colonels' Hubie Brown) and the most genial (Pepperdine's Gary Colson). As he flips through a scrapbook, you stop him at the photo of himself on the couch of his college dorm room, with room-and teammate Budweiser Hawkins seated beside him, Budweiser has a brother named Falstaff and a sister named Virginia Dare (after a brand of wine), and thus at first he got most of the suite's press notices. Then Bird, as a 6'1" freshman, twice went for 44 against the UCLA frosh team that included Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes, and even Bud couldn't match that.
The next season, 1971-72, Averitt broke most of the conference's varsity scoring records, only to be exiled to second-team all-league. "They said I was erratic," he says. "Could only go to my left." He averaged 39.1 in conference games as a junior, and the coaches realized he could hardly be faulted for not going to his right when he had no reason to. Chastened, they voted him MVP in 1972-73.
Late in '83, when Averitt was settled in California, his father had a stroke. Bird went home for the first time in seven years. A second stroke persuaded him to stay in Hopkinsville.
"After playing so long, I really don't miss the game that much," he says. "Figure I started when I was six, so I've got my 30-year pin. I liked the attention, but it was the competition I liked more than anything. And I don't miss out on that at all because I'm doing other things." Without workday worries, he keeps busy haunting Hop-town's softball fields, bowling alleys, tennis courts and pool parlors. A game's a game.
Such is the merry life of the Bird, home to nest—for now, anyway.
Exactly what took place 11 years ago on that November afternoon in Italy is subject to varied recollections, but this much is certain: Johnny Neumann was playing his usual incendiary game. He had scored effortlessly and often for his team, Cant‚Äö√†√∂≈ì√Ñ of the Italian League, which led handily in the second half. He was shooting free throws when, according to Neumann, someone in the rowdy crowd insulted his mother.
At this point Neumann, never one for tact, hiked up his shorts and patted one of the pearly white cheeks of his derriere. He played for a few more minutes and then was removed by his coach. As he left, he pointed toward the scoreboard, rubbing in his team's advantage.
Italian sports fans have rioted at less, to be sure. And Neumann—the original Rebel Without a Conscience, the first collegian ever to go hardship—has done many audacious things in his time. His entire life changed in 1971, his sophomore year at Mississippi, when he scored 40 points a game. With two games left to play that season, he went pro, ostensibly to help his family. His father, Robert, a truant officer in Memphis, had suffered a heart attack. Signing an ABA contract with the Memphis Pros for a reported $2 million seemed the right thing for Johnny to do.
The upstart league and its barnstorming spirit suited Neumann much better than Ole Miss. The threads, the cars, the entourage—Neumann lived a life that would make Leon Spinks's seem derivative. Memphis was the first of seven pro teams in the U.S., and a raft more on the Continent, to gamble on Neumann's maddening potential and unpredictable ways.
Today Neumann doesn't want to talk about the past, which he considers distorted by the media's caricatures of him. "They said I was wild," he says. "I admit I was outspoken, and when I heard something wrong I would answer back. But I wasn't at all as the press described me. They couldn't criticize me as a player, because I was good. So they attacked me for driving a Ferrari. They thought I was arrogant because I was earning money." Of course, Neumann once knocked on the door of a Memphis sportswriter to show off a new car he had bought.
But Neumann doesn't want that stuff dredged up again, because the guy the Italian fans once called Crazy Horse is now a father and a coach. His first coaching job was as a player-coach in West Germany in '81. A year later he became coach of the CBA's Maine Lumberjacks, soon renamed the Bay State Bombardiers. "He has the ability of any coach in the NBA," says John Ligums, who owned the Maine/Bay State franchise. "Technically, fundamentally, he has a tremendous feel for the game. The problem with Johnny Neumann is, as a human being he's a slug. If you looked up the word 'irresponsible' in the dictionary, his picture would be next to it."
Ligums fired Neumann in the midst of the 1985 CBA playoffs. A few weeks after being let go, Neumann was on the phone to him, wondering if Ligums would recommend him for a coaching job elsewhere in the league. Only if you take and pass a drug test, Ligums said. Neumann, who denies the entire episode, said thanks, but no thanks—only to call back several weeks later and agree. When the test results came back, there wasn't a trace of heroin or a hint of cocaine. But the lab doctor found high concentrations of marijuana. Ligums phoned Neumann to get some sort of explanation.
"I was really nervous about taking the test," Neumann said then. "So I had a couple of joints to relax."
Neumann soon wended his way back to Europe, signing on as a coach in Belgium, where he met Christine, a devout Belgian girl who would become his third wife and bear their daughter, Leslie. But Neumann's father, never the same after that 1971 heart attack, was ailing, and before the season ended Johnny joined his parents near San Francisco, where his father died in 1987.
Johnny had been selling cars in the Bay Area for about a year when the call came. PAOK Salonika, one of Greece's two traditional powers, wanted him as their coach. And through nearly two seasons with PAOK, Neumann seemed a changed man. Voluble as ever from the bench, he nonetheless drew few technical fouls. PAOK's fans found him engaging, and management had no problem with his comportment. He faithfully gave God the credit after PAOK victories, of which there were plenty.
Then, last season, Neumann took his team to Yugoslavia for a game in the inter-European Korac Cup competition. By any account the work of the two officials, an Italian and a Soviet, was erratic. PAOK got hooked throughout the game. In overtime, Neumann, furious about a missed call, ran out and pushed the Italian referee to the floor. FIBA, basketball's international governing body, banned Neumann from coaching in international competition for two seasons.
"I was wrong," he said later. "I'll never do that again. But I think there'll never be a game called like that again. I make mistakes, but I go on from that."
Neumann is still in Greece, happily married and coaching the Pagrati team, although he is unable to lead them in international competition. He'll go on from that, but where?
Dial 233-beer in lafayette, la., and you're put on hold. You're serenaded by Anheuser-Busch jingles, and then Dwight (Bo) Lamar's secretary comes on the line to tell you that he's out, but can she take a message? Please ask Mr. Lamar to call back, you say. Collect.
And he does call, happy to talk about how in 1972 he led the nation in scoring at Southwestern Louisiana. "It just happened," he says. "The way the offense was designed, we put the ball up a lot. It wasn't just me."
He scored the most. His senior year the crowd sang Dwight Lamar, Superstar while the band played Jesus Christ, Superstar before Ragin' Cajun home games. Faintly blasphemous, that. But USL was one of the original outlaw schools, and Lamar's dandified style—the domed Afro; the zippered purse he toted around (a "pouch," he insisted); the purple leather jacket his wife, Peggy, first espied him in at a fraternity party—gave him the look of a Cajun capo.
Time has tempered him. Nostalgia often makes former players exaggerate, but Bo does his reminiscing skeptically. What of the legendary defender who, bamboozled by a Lamar 360, ran straight to the locker room? "That never actually happened," Lamar says. Nor were the parabolic jumpers he threw in really 30-footers: "I still don't know anybody who can shoot a jumper consistently from 30 feet. Even 25 feet."
He had three prosperous seasons in the ABA—with the San Diego Conquistadors and the Indiana Pacers—but faded in 1976. "I tried for a couple of years after that, and then it was either keep chasing that dream or settle down and start another career," he says. "Very few people get to play pro ball, so I'm fortunate that I did for so long. And there's a lot more to life than that."
Back in the bayou country, he tried working in recreation, then insurance and then the oil business, which is Lafayette's lifeblood. Seven years ago he hooked on with the Schilling Distributing Company, delivering cases of beer. Today, a couple of rèsumè rungs later, he is a sales manager.
Not long ago Lamar's youngest daughter, Sherolyn, 13, sized up her father. "They say if you can 'pinch an inch,' you're overweight," she said. "And Daddy, I can pinch a mile."
That got Bo, now 38, playing ball again, for the beer company's team in a local rec league. He doesn't score much, just forces the pace to a tempo an Agin' Cajun would find comfortable. "Some of the guys are as young as 18 or 19," he says, "but I push 'em hard enough."
He's not a gabber, but talking is a big part of Lamar's life now, especially chatting up clients. Questions clearly aren't an imposition. "Enjoyed talking with you," he says as the conversation winds down. "In fact, enjoyed it so much, I might even pay for the call next time."
During two seasons ('81 to '83) of running and gunning for Texas Southern, Harry (Machine Gun) Kelly led all scorers in the land. "Ah, Harry Kelly," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting services. "To paraphrase Will Rogers, he never met a shot he didn't like."
The Gun insists he was a self-loader, getting a lot of his shots off the glass. "People said all I did was shoot," says Kelly, who is 6'7". "But I took pride in my rebounding. I'm the only guy to get over 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his college career."
Credit the nickname to his dorm director. Blame forces beyond Kelly's control for his lack of notoriety. While he was a TSU Tiger, an even more gaudily monikered bunch called Phi Slamma Jamma was convening frat meetings at the University of Houston, just down the street. Kelly, one wit offered, could have opened a one-man chapter of Ima Shoota Jumpa. Yet most of his baskets came in the low-profile Southwestern Athletic Conference, where a point well made isn't necessarily a point well taken. "The basket's the same height, the game's played by the same rules," says Kelly, who can't understand how the products of SWAC schools can stock NFL rosters but get passed over by the NBA.
With his behind-the-head jumper, the Gun could carry that chip on his shoulder and still score aplenty. But after the Atlanta Hawks released him in 1983, he passed up the CBA, Italy and the Philippines and finally despaired at "all these loopholes and politics and things you can't control." In the spring of '84 he married his pregnant girlfriend, Terrie, and took a job with the city of Houston reading water meters.
"Meter readers don't do anything that'll get us hurt," he says. "If someone's got a bad dog in the yard, we just pass. Let the supervisor handle it. Punch in 'bad dog.' " People would sometimes spot him, still an athletic figure even in his meter-reader blues, and ask whether he used to play ball.
But that hardly happens now, which is fine by Kelly, because he feels compelled to explain why he isn't playing anymore, and that brings up the subject of failure. "Getting cut by Atlanta was the first time in my life I really got depressed," he says. "But I'd never tasted big-time success. If I'd made it and then gotten cut, it would have been a lot harder to bounce back."
Harry Jr., 5, has already destroyed two Nerf hoops, and that makes his father look forward. "When my boys grow up, I'm going to recommend the Big East or the ACC. That's where the exposure is. There, you end up going pro averaging 15 a game."
When Lawrence Butler was two, he was left with his grandmother, a domestic who lived in the riverside hamlet of Glasgow, Mo. "We shared everything," he says. "We had to."
They shared Nancy Butler's thin wages and stout principles. Even as he led Glasgow High to 65 straight wins, Lawrence went humbly from class to class, toothpaste and toothbrush sticking out of his pocket. His grandmother had raised him to brush after every meal, and, by god, he was going to.
Butler crossed his grandma on only one count. "She worked hard all her life," he says, "and the way she felt, playing games was no way to become somebody." Yet making what he still calls the "Big Court" consumed him. "When I left home, pro ball was all I had on my mind. Making some serious money and halfway paying my grandmother back for what she had done for me."
He made his way to Idaho State, detouring through a junior college in Texas. Butler was strong and swift, as certain to be a pro guard as anyone in the class of '79, but Pocatello (pop. 45,000) intimidated the young man from tiny Glasgow (pop. 1,300). "People were coming at me from every direction," he remembers. "I decided the less people I knew, the better off I was."
Yet the role of scorer somehow validated him. "I got addicted to playing in front of big crowds," he says. "I couldn't stand in front of five people and talk, but I could play in front of thousands and somehow open up."
The very night Butler sprang for 41 in a defeat of UNLV, Larry Bird was held to four. "That's what won it," he says of his 1979 scoring championship. "In his last game Bird had to score 67 to overtake me. I saw it on TV. He scored 49, and I was sweating."
Midway through that season Butler's grandmother died of pneumonia. "When she was living, I always wanted to be something special for her," he says. "After she died, it was like, why? If I made the Big Court, I couldn't share it." He came within minutes of making it too. He tried out with the Chicago Bulls, and as the team was about to leave for the West Coast on its first preseason swing, Butler noticed his gear had been packed. Trainer Doug Atkinson even congratulated him on making the club. Moments later he was fetched from the shower and told the bad news—he hadn't made it after all. "After that, I just never did recover. I never felt good about myself after not making the Big Court."
So Lawrence Butler protests. Yet he has every reason to feel good about himself. He has settled in Slater, a short drive from Glasgow past thick cornfields. Though he and his wife, Blanche, are divorced, she and their daughters, LaShanna and LaTosha, live in nearby Marshall, a few miles down the road. Butler works with retarded children and adults in Marshall. He has a mentally ill brother, Roosevelt, 90 minutes away in Kansas City and sees him every month or so. "I want to learn as much as I can about that type of person, because one day I want to take Roosevelt in here with me," Butler says. "Maybe I can help him on a one-on-one basis."
Lawrence Butler never made it to the Big Court, but a small town has made something of him.
Until Jakubick won his scoring title in 1984, Bob McCurdy had the perfect icebreaker for his first meeting with a client. "Sales," says McCurdy, now a vice-president of Katz Radio, the nation's leading radio advertising firm, "is nothing but positioning and selling." This is positioning:
"You know your hoops?"
"You get this one right, you can have my Mercedes."
Go ahead. Shoot.
"Who was the last white guy to lead the nation in scoring?"
And, as they say, it counted. After that, selling was easy. The McCurdy family Mercedes remained safe, and the handful of college basketball fans who had heard of Bob McCurdy was augmented by one.
McCurdy, for you uninitiated, won the scoring crown at Richmond in 1975, playing his entire senior season on a foot shot up with cortisone—which ultimately might have scared off the pros. "Not playing in the NBA helped me in business, because psychologically I still had something to prove," he says. "And in sales you vent competitive energy every day."
He had entered school as the Vietnam War wound down, and he awoke from a four-year reverie to find an entirely new cultural climate. Suddenly the gym rat who had cut college classes to shoot hoops realized his English degree was of little use. "I was almost incoherent when I got out of college," McCurdy says. "Here I was, hoping to be a businessman, and I couldn't even talk basketball." He hired a tutor to drill him in statistics, and he endured the barbs of friends who wondered why this putative degree holder would lug a vocabulary primer to the beach. Yet within a few years, McCurdy had signed on with Katz, and today, with a salary well into six figures, he oversees 14 regional offices and more than 100 employees. Five mornings a week he leaves his wife, Cindy, and their four kids at their Westport, Conn., home and grabs the 6:03 for Manhattan.
A couple of years ago McCurdy read somewhere that Bradley's Hersey Hawkins had become the first scoring champion since Oscar Robertson to average as many as 33 points on 23 shots a game or fewer. McCurdy could only laugh, for he had averaged 32.9 points on less than 23 shots a game. Then he thought for a moment. (Positioning!) Rework that information, pose it as a question, and the answer is: The Big O, Hersey Hawkins and Bob McCurdy.
Something to remember, if you ever want to win a Mercedes.
Marshall Rogers jealously guards the scrapbooks of his career at Pan American University, down on the Tex-Mex border. Their musty saffron pages are more than a dozen years old, but Rogers's life is limned by press clippings even today.
From the police blotter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1987: Rogers is stopped in a Walgreens in downtown St. Louis on suspicion of shoplifting. He resists a security guard trying to handcuff him and is later convicted of assault.
A piece in St. Louis magazine, November 1987: Rogers speaks of voices that tell him what to do and of how he sometimes obeys, sometimes quarrels with them. "The regime," he calls his disembodied masters. "Pope John Paul, Queen Elizabeth, King Arthur and Hercules."
A Denver Post story, March 1988: Rogers tells of the regime addressing him through his TV set; of the biblical Samson, his natural father; of the other Marshall Rogerses living around the world, including one above a gym in Moscow. The Post reporter plays a game of one-on-one with him. Rogers insists that long-range shots count for five points and arches one perimeter jumper after another sweetly through the net.
Nearly two years later, one-on-one is still all Rogers plays. "That way, no one can double-team me," he says. He's on edge, a man tailed by his own paranoid fantasies. For the past five years he has lived in St. Louis with his mother, Fannie Mae, who must have once been so proud of her son. Rogers was named scholar-athlete of Sumner High School's class of 1971. He earned his degree at Pan American and went on to teach history and math briefly at two St. Louis high schools. He even returned to Edinburg, Texas, to take graduate courses at Pan Am after his short time with the Golden State Warriors in 1977. Then "they" turned "the machine" on him. Messed with his mind.
It's a facile and formidable mind, but hopelessly preoccupied with the past. "My highest scoring game was 58," he says. "School record, against Texas Lutheran. Broke the record of Bruce King, 55 against Baptist College." He recounts it all instantly and precisely: How he started out at Kansas in 1971, spending two seasons there until his wild style bucked up against coach Ted Owens's system. How he read somewhere about Abe Lemons, Pan Am's wry coach, and wrote Lemons, who was only too happy to plug him into the Broncs' up-tempo offense. How he scored 36.8 a game in 1976, winning the scoring title easily. "It wouldn't be fair to set picks for him," Lemons said at the time. "He might score a hundred a game."
Now he needs a screen desperately. Hospitalized briefly for mental illness in 1985, Rogers refused to take the medication a doctor prescribed for him. Recently he studied counseling for a stretch at a small college in Missouri, but he ran into trouble again and was asked to leave. Matthew Hill, a former forward at Sumner High, often sees Rogers shooting hoops at Walnut Park. "He's always wearing the whole Golden State uniform," Hill says. "The shorts. The jersey. The warmup. Even the shoes, the kind they don't sell no more."
Sometimes Hill or a friend will play Rogers into the evening. "We'll want to play to 15, by ones. He'll want to play to 50. He's so good that if you don't get your hand up in his face, he'll make 25 in a row. Endurancewise, he doesn't have it. But shootingwise, he's the best in the state of Missouri. We feel sad for him. We wonder, Oh, man, what happened?"
Tonight in his mother's den the game is blitz dominoes. Rogers's eyes dart around the end pieces, toting up the score. You can't possibly add so fast; no one can. Yet Rogers does, and he's impatient when, on your turn, you can't match his pace. Why should he suffer a fool?
"Domino," he says. He wins easily, scoring 165. Another big game for Marshall Rogers.
"The kids keep coming," Rabbit says to himself. "they keep crowding you up." As they're crowded up, can this mislaid dozen scoring champions fail to sense the mortality they share? Pistol Pete is gone, victim of a heart that surrendered in a pickup game when he tried to reach down and touch the tautness.