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Florida's sheltering palms are fashioning the best basketball team in the Southeastern Conference, helped by their coach's manipulation of a magic rock and a patented potion of rare restorative powers

After the snappy warmups—featuring not only Dixie, of course, but Sweet Georgia Brown—the Florida Gators come out for the introductions. At the forwards: from St. Petersburg, 6'9" Gary Keller; from Clearwater, 6'5" Gary McElroy. At center: from Miami Beach, 6'10" Neal Walk. At guard: from Delray Beach, 6'5" Dave Miller. The Gators stand tall. Then, down below those four sheltering palms, comes a bundle of northern sunshine, Skip Higley, from Akron, Ohio—6 feet "if you really stretch it." With their little Yankee skipper running things, the sheltering palms play tall.

They are now 9-1 under Coach Tommy Bartlett, a sentimental little tough guy who is four inches smaller than Higley and who won the Southeastern Conference title last year at Tennessee—coaching tennis. The players and Bartlett are loose, the Gators because they have Bartlett, Bartlett because he has something called a "tension stone" that he picked up in Caracas, Venezuela and that he rolls over and over in his hand whenever tension starts to mount. Captain Queeg had the same sort of act, but this is a happy ship. Also, one of a different color. Bartlett has had his Volkswagen painted in nauseating, undulating shades of orange, blue and white, the Florida colors. Not even Doyle Dane Bernbach ever had the guts to go that far.

Of course, until 1961 Florida did not even have a full-time basketball coach, much less a traveling advertising agency. This makes it all the more amazing that the Gators are suddenly the best team in Kentucky's SEC, while the Wildcats themselves are staggering around under a load that now has reached a stunning five losses at home. Two of those came in SEC play, including the first loss ever to Florida at Lexington. There is nothing for Adolph Rupp to say except, perhaps, what Chester Riley used to wail to his pal Gillis: "What a revoltin' development this is."

While Kentuckians of short memory have taken to cheering for the opposition, the situation in Gainesville is entirely different. In the outdated, undersized Florida gym—"When do the bats come out?" Bob Hope once asked when he was playing the place—interest has overtaken capacity so that, in the name of public safety,' the university plays down word of its basketball games. And no one quite knows what to expect now that Steve Spurrier has taken his Heisman Trophy and finished all his Hula Bowls and Ed Sullivan introductions and generally stopped diverting attention from the sheltering palms.

In any case, very little of all this troubles the Gators themselves. They are supremely confident, and not only because they are so damn big. "It's just a feeling," says McElroy, a jut-jawed junior who is one of the few college forwards majoring in nuclear engineering. "It's a feeling, and I can't quite explain it. Except all of a sudden it is there and you feel—well, I guess like Kentucky did last year—that there's nobody who can beat you. And you don't worry."

The Gators are, to begin with, difficult to defense. They are among the biggest teams in the country—taller, even, than several NBA clubs—and there is no way opponents can match up. Indeed, Florida can get even bigger during a game, since Jeff Ramsey, 6'11", who was good enough to start for two seasons; is now on the bench. At times the Gators are merely incredible on the boards, as they were in their 87-70 win over Louisiana State on Saturday when, in one stretch, they managed nine tips in a row by four different players before an exhausted Tiger player finally, mercifully, fouled Ramsey to stop the carnage. "It must be some kind of record," LSU Coach Press Maravich said afterward.

Since no team can match up against Florida, it is unlikely that the Gators will see anything but zone defenses the rest of the season. Miami tried a man-to-man early in the season and lost a humiliating 113-88 decision on its own court. More likely, Florida will get the weird sort of thing that LSU tried—a collapsing diamond with a one-man chaser on Higley, and variations thereof.

It collapsed beautifully, too, cutting off the high-low post men, Keller and Walk, but in the process leaving McElroy and Miller wide open. They play the wings of Bartlett's 1-3-1 offense, and they made 20 baskets over the zone to ruin it. Besides such zones and combinations and match-up zones and presses and anything else the opposition might dream up in the way of defenses, Florida is also encountering the slowdown game. "We're ready to run. We want to run," Bartlett says, "but nobody will run with us."

With the replacement of sophomore Walk for Ramsey, the Gators are a faster team than last year's 16-10 squad. Walk, only 18 and just beginning to reach his potential—he did not even start till his senior year at Miami Beach High—adds not only speed and aggressiveness to the Gator forecourt, but a little glitter of The Beach as well. A close examination of the team's gray traveling slacks shows that only Walk's are without cuffs. "The kid's gonna need a lot of it," says his father, Al Walk, rubbing his thumb over the tips of his fingers to make the classic sign for cash. "He's a regular fashion plate. He wants the $50 shoes, the custom-mades. He's got to have the fedora, the cuffs off the pants. He better make it in the pros to keep himself dressed the way he wants." Mr. Walk, a promotion director—himself dressed in Edwardian boots, tight Caribbean-blue pants and a white cardigan sweater over a black sweater-vest over a blue-and-white-checked turtle-neck—is the team's biggest fan. When it traveled to South America on a tour this summer, it was met in Panama by Al Walk.

The Walks moved to Florida when Neal was 7, migrating from the North just as the McElroys and Kellers and most everybody else in Florida did. Only Miller, of the starters, is a Florida-bred. Neal grew steadily but gained little weight, and even though he was 6'9" he played the corner in high school. "I told his mother," Mr. Walk says, " 'I haven't got the heart. You tell him. Tell him to keep with the trombone so maybe we can get half a scholarship out of that.' " Suddenly, though, Walk found himself, and last year he led the freshmen with 24 points a game. He is averaging 12 this year on a team that has all its starters in double figures, with the highest, Keller, making only 16 a game.

All of these players were recruited by Norm Sloan, who must be acknowledged as the man who finally brought basketball into Florida. Now the coach at his alma mater, North Carolina State, Sloan took over at Florida in 1961. His assistant coach, Perry Moore, who is now assistant to Athletic Director Ray Graves, remembers: "It was miserable. Norm and I literally walked the streets talking basketball. We took sportswriters out to lunch, just to get their minds off football. We talked to high school principals, in barber shops, anywhere anyone would listen."

Sloan is an energetic and successful promoter and recruiter, but he is a tough coach and a temperamental one—his actions on the bench were responsible for the referee ending the N.C. State-Maryland game last Saturday night with 1:15 still remaining—and last year he did not get along with the Florida players who, for the most part, are of a calm and studious mien. Bartlett, with his peppery enthusiasm on the one hand and his relaxed, tension-stoned demeanor on the other, appeals to the players. "He's a winner," Keller says simply, "and he's treated us like winners from the first."

Those who know and respect both Sloan and Bartlett say that Florida got the best of both worlds—Sloan to start the program, Bartlett to nurture it to fruition. Bartlett is a tenacious man who, despite his size, has spent a lifetime beating other people in a variety of games: tennis, football, softball, swimming, badminton, basketball. He takes up a sport, masters it, beats everybody around and, that done, moves on to something else. After a tour in the service, in which he spent much of his time playing on the All-Navy tennis team, Bartlett went home to Tennessee in 1948 on a football-basketball scholarship. He gave up the football but played basketball and tennis, and after graduation moved naturally into coaching—first in high school, then at Carson-Newman College and Chattanooga, where he had winning records every year. He returned to Tennessee as assistant basketball coach, head tennis coach and tennis pro at the Cherokee Country Club. The only two times that Tennessee ever won the SEC tennis title were when Bartlett was captain and last year when he was coach. With his pro job he was earning good money, too. "If I had wanted to remain an assistant coach, I could have lived and died at Tennessee," he says.

Two years ago, shortly after recovering from a mysterious virus that almost killed him, he decided against accepting an offer from Georgia, but when the Florida challenge came last June he grabbed at it. A few weeks later he took the team to South America. It lost one game out of nine, when all but three of Bartlett's players were fouled out. The home team wins a lot of revolutions and basketball games in South America.

So, too, in the SEC. Because of its losses at home to Vanderbilt and Florida, Kentucky has—temporarily, anyway—been eliminated from the race. The Wildcats, with plenty of good little men, have neither found the right combination nor achieved the cohesion that made it possible for last year's team to overcome a similar height handicap. Kentucky has also deteriorated dramatically on defense. The collapse has brought the Ruppologists—who, like Kremlinologists, are usually wrong—scurrying into the open again, speculating about the Baron. Rumors of his demise, however, are greatly exaggerated; Adolph has told friends that he has no intention of quitting until his fine freshman team leaves school, three seasons hence.

But the fall of Kentucky leaves a flock of contenders. As in football—five SEC teams went to bowls and four of them won—the basketball race should be a close one among good teams. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State must be ranked only slightly behind Florida, with Tennessee just another notch below.

The Gators are acutely aware that this would be their first basketball championship, a prize to match their other proud claims: Spurrier; the SEC all-sports title; the oft-repeated boast that they are second only to Vanderbilt in academics; and invention of a jaundice-yellow beverage that is made on campus and is called Gatorade. This elixir, it is alleged, will put back into an athlete's body those chemicals lost through perspiration. Presumably Gatorade is responsible for many Florida victories, and everybody is very proud of it.

There is more talk about sweat in Gainesville than in all the ads for Turkish baths. But then, Gainesville is not part of the Florida of the Gold or the Platinum Coast, but just a college town, inland and far enough north so that the palm trees seem out of place—commercial adornments planted around motels and public buildings and on median strips. It cost Bartlett $70 to buy a pair for the front lawn of his new home. When Carol Higley, Skip's wife, arrived in Gainesville from Akron, it was the lack of jungle vegetation that disappointed her most.

The Higleys were married last summer. Skip, who came to Florida sight unseen because his high school coach knew Sloan, is a top student majoring in psychology. He wants to do social work with children after his graduation. It is ironic that all the great height on the Florida team is completely dependent on Higley and his playmaking ability. Miller, who was an Eagle Scout, a center in high school and a forward last year, is, under Bartlett, the other guard. As he quickly admits, however, he really fills the role of a third forward. He and McElroy both crash from far outside, the nuclear engineer and the Eagle Scout coming at the hoop from opposite directions.

So the entire ball-handling responsibility is left to Higley, the point man. Rival teams have been pressing full court, just to harass him and wear him down, but he has not lost the ball in backcourt even once this year. "You always hear coaches talking about their good little ball handlers," says Garland Pinholster, former coach of Oglethorpe College who is studying for his Ph.D. at LSU this year, and was watching Higley bring the ball up last Saturday. "Usually they mean he is tricky and can throw it behind his back and all that. But this guy is what a good little ball handler really is." Higley is also the team's only sound defensive player.

Obviously, the pressures on him will grow as the season progresses. More teams will concentrate on Higley outside—as Vanderbilt did when it gave Florida its only defeat—to force the big men away from the basket. Vandy was fortunate that Keller, an all-conference forward last year and now the team's leading rebounder and scorer, played so poorly and took only two shots. Keller has the analytical mind of a dedicated crossword-puzzle player, but he and McElroy are given to spectacular lapses of concentration. "You can't believe McElroy," Bartlett said. "You could put his breakfast right under his nose, but if he was in one of his faraway moods, he'd just stare out into space and never know it was there for 10 or 15 minutes." Bartlett rolled the tension stone around in his palm at the thought. Maybe he was planning to have Higley feed McElroy breakfast, too.


Coach Tommy Bartlett displays Florida's secret weapon, the South American tension stone, to his towering Gator squad. From left: Captain Skip Higley, Dave Miller, Gary Keller, Neal Walk, Jeff Ramsey and Gary McElroy.


Getting off a flying flip shot, Vanderbilt Guard Tom Hagan, son of a former Kentucky star, helps send the Wildcats to their fifth defeat in Lexington.


Adolph Rupp's company in despair at Vandy game are assistants Harry Lancaster and Joe Hall.