Moscow, Idaho is a jaunty little town located in the lush, rolling hill country that makes up so much of the northern section of the state. Muscovites enjoy announcing that they live in the green-pea capital of America, and add without much fear of contradiction that there isn't any richer wheatland from coast to coast, either. Their community of 11,183 serves as a shopping center for farmers, lumberjacks and the now friendly Nez Percé Indians. It boasts the University of Idaho, 14 churches, an Elks club, two hotels, a couple of movie theaters, a bowling alley, several large grain elevators and, most important of all in this snowbound season, Gus Johnson.
Gus Johnson is the spectacular center of Idaho's suddenly spectacular basketball team, which last week trounced the University of Oregon twice to bring its record to 15-3. Given any opportunity at all, a perfect stranger will turn to you in Moscow and tell you about the time Johnson stuffed a shot in the basket with one hand, caught it with the other and handed it to the startled referee. And when the residents of Moscow are not talking about basketball they are making earnest preparation to see basketball. "Maybe it's because there aren't many diversions here in the winter," says the university's director of information, Rafe Gibbs. That there is a scarcity of activities in Moscow is attested to by the University of California's athletic director and former basketball coach, Pete Newell. "I just let my players go their way in Moscow," he said once. "If they can get into trouble they are a better team than I think they are." Such a sentiment is seconded by Oregon Basketball Coach Steve Belko, who said last week, "I had five minutes to myself so I made the rounds—twice." "As you can see," says Rafe Gibbs, "our passions are more or less channeled, and they spill out all over the basketball court."
This spilling has been a Moscow tradition since the 1920s. Games were played then in the university library. A player racing in for a layup braked himself by running headlong into the bookshelves surrounding the basketball floor. This was, as a wag put it, one way to get the team familiar with the classics.
"Nothing was too good for our boys," recalls an Idaho professor. "Once when the team went off to Berkeley, Calif, to play for the championship the townsfolk, who were suspicious of living conditions there, sent them bushels of Idaho potatoes to tide them over."
Basketball continued to be serious business well into the '30s, when money was scarce and entertainment was where you found it. Any chance to turn a routine game into a riotous occasion was welcomed. Students once rigged a contraption from the ceiling before an Oregon game. When the timekeeper fired his pistol in the air signaling the end of the half, a dead duck plummeted to the floor. No one remembers who won.
Ardent as the fans were, there came a time when they became more than a little disenchanted with Idaho basketball. "It was a combination of things," says Tom Hartley, the university's director of sports publicity. "Essentially, we had lousy teams." The old excitement arose only in games against nearby Washington State, a rivalry that once prompted a Moscow sheriff to snap off a couple of quick shots at a low-flying plane chartered by some WSU students. They were bent on prematurely igniting an Idaho rally bonfire by bombing the pile with phosphorus.
Then, three years ago, Idaho hired as head coach Joe Cipriano, who had been a fine little backcourt man on the University of Washington's teams in the early '50s. It is questionable if Cipriano was a popular choice. While still a player, he had two front teeth knocked out of his mouth by an Idaho player at Moscow, an action roundly cheered by the home-town fans. When Idaho lost 10 of its first 13 games in Cipriano's first year, he seemed Siberia-bound. There was more than mild discontent among members of the local booster club, whose slot machine money was a large hunk of the school's scholarship fund. (State legislation eventually banned the use of one-armed bandits. The money already collected from them was shrewdly invested, however, and the slot machines are still paying off.)
An energetic recruiter, Cipriano only needed time. He searched the Northwest for suitable talent and came back with Rich Porter, a 6-foot-3 guard who has a different facial expression for every occasion and who is a remarkably accurate long-range shooter, and Chuck White, who recently broke the school's alltime scoring record and is about to receive a bonus from the New York Yankees for his baseball talents. (He hit .324 as an Idaho outfielder.) In 1962 Idaho's basketball team won half its games.
"But if you're going to have an exceptional team," Cipriano had said, "you've got to have more than just good players. You've got to have one who's great." Coach, fans and critics all had a pretty good idea they had one of those coming to Moscow this season, but no one was quite prepared for Gus the Great. It took Cipriano about 30 seconds of practice and Idaho rooters about five minutes of the season's opening game to realize that here indeed was one of those rare talents. It goes beyond mere ability. It is a special quality. Sports-writers fell all over their typewriters calling Johnson "another Baylor," "another Russell," "another Lucas." But the fact is Gus Johnson is none of these. He is a unique basketball player.
Standing six and a half feet tall, weighing a hard 225 pounds, Johnson exudes a full, uninhibited zest for whatever is set before him. One morning last week it happened to be a stack of wheatcakes, three fried eggs, a double order of potatoes and a rasher of bacon, which he consumed slowly, steadily and joyfully. "I've got to take it easy," he said, downing a second glass of milk. "Game tonight." Though Johnson is a sophomore, he comes to Idaho pretty well prepared. In 1959 he had enrolled at Akron University, then dropped out after the first year because of disastrous grades. He joined an AAU team, and it was from there that Cipriano got him. Johnson agreed to spend a year at Boise Junior College, getting his grades up to the point where he could be accepted at Idaho and further honing his basketball skills. At age 24, and with two years of top quality experience, he comes to college basketball as one of the most knowledgeable sophomores ever. He became eligible to play last month, but NCAA rules ban him from postseason tournaments this year. He will be a member in good standing next year and can play through the 1963-64 season.
The sad invasion
When Oregon's Steve Belko came into Moscow for the two games against Johnson and Idaho last weekend he looked much like a marine who has been told he is to land with the first wave. "We've played them twice now," he said, sadly shaking his head, "and now we play them twice more. That Johnson jumps like he's sold his soul to the devil." "I go up with him," an Oregon player protested. "But when I come down he just stays up."
When asked if there wasn't something freakish about the way he gets off the ground, Johnson abandoned his usually articulate form of speech and said, "Hecks, no. I just say, 'Legs, jump,' and they says, 'How high, boss?' "
And so it went in the opening game Friday night. Oregon played sharply and intelligently, but with Johnson throwing the ball through the basket from several feet above the rim and Rich Porter and Chuck White shooting over the Oregon defense when it sagged on Johnson, it became quite clear that Oregon wasn't going to have a chance. Both backboards belonged to Johnson, who got 25 rebounds, and his passing was devilish, too, as Idaho won the opener 79-61.
On Saturday night Johnson jumped even better, setting a school record of 31 rebounds, and Idaho beat Oregon's Ducks again, 88-78. When the timer fired the final gun Coach Belko just shrugged and looked up at the ceiling, perhaps expecting another dead duck to fall. "They call this place the 'Safest Town in the West,' " he said, referring to a chamber of commerce pitch prompted by 15 years without a fatal automobile accident. "Ha!"