From the top of Gabe's Motor Inn, a man can see all of Owensboro, Ky. To the north are the distilleries on the yellow banks of the Ohio River basin. To the south are industrial plants and the country club. Roads from Owensboro lead off to Louisville and Nashville and, of course, Evansville, until recently the absolute mecca of small-college basketball.
Gabe's is a cylindrical motor inn of considerable bulk and garishness, which has outside walls of green, orange and yellow and, 13 stories up, a roof garden with a heated indoor swimming pool. Down below are Gabe's Restaurant (seating capacity, 1,000) and Gabriel Fiorella himself, in red blazer and string tie. A few local gentry regard the motor inn as somewhat of a psychedelic silo, but Gabe, who says "Hi, neighbor, it's a wonderful world" a lot, loves the place and says so unabashedly. Nevertheless, his is not the only game in town.
Three years ago Kentucky Wesleyan, a small liberal arts college that was moved to Owensboro by the Methodist Church in 1951, won 24 basketball games and upset Southern Illinois for the NCAA College Division championship. The following year the Panthers won 25 and finished third in the same tournament. Last season Wesleyan compiled a record of 28-3, won 21 straight games and captured the NCAA title again.
Until a sudden 71-70 loss last Saturday night in the hothouse emporium of arch-rival Evansville, the Panthers had won eight more this year for the longest winning streak in college basketball (29 games) and, in spite of their one-point defeat on a court where visitors seldom are able to think, much less to shoot, they had given ample proof of why they are considered the best small-college team in America. Kentucky Wesleyan is a reasonable early-line choice to win its third championship in four years and, for the time being at least, the team has moved the capital of college division play from Evansville to Owensboro, just 35 miles southeast on the Ohio River.
The transferal of power has come rather suddenly, but permanent domination would be a mistaken assumption. "For a few years Evansville was able to come up with one or two big stars who controlled the game. Everybody else hung around, hoping," says Kentucky Wesleyan Coach Bob Daniels. "Now, we've been getting the stars."
The two teams always play each other tight, as evidenced by the game Saturday in which the home-town Aces, a far cry from the talented precision groups of old, took a six-point lead at the half, fell apart late in the game and then came from behind to win on Ron Bae's shot with six seconds left. Due to some scheduling lunacy, Wesleyan had come into the game after a damaging two-week break, and the team looked listless and unimaginative. Its best player, George (The Hat) Tinsley, had 17 points and 20 rebounds, while Center Dick O'Neill played capably, but Evansville's fine shooter, Mike Owens, with 23 points, hurt the Panthers. Then Bae, who had scored just 19 baskets all year, banished them. Tinsley's desperation 30-footer hit the back of the rim and bounced away as the buzzer sounded, and the winning streak was over.
As is the case with most of the schools in the college division, Kentucky Wesleyan, with its enrollment of 885 fulltime students and its freshman-eligible rule, is an attraction for prospects who prefer a small-college atmosphere and wish to earn varsity playing time immediately. The teams at Owensboro have always been respectable; in 1964 freshman Mike Redd, who had played with Westley Unseld at Seneca High School in Louisville, led the Panthers to a 16-8 year. Redd then flunked out of school, and Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics is looking for him still. It was the following year, however, that then-coach Guy Strong began achieving results with his pipeline to another school in Louisville, Male High. Strong, who had previously coached at Male, recruited Dallas (Dazzling D) Thornton, and for three years thereafter at least one good player from Male arrived at Wesleyan to mingle with the Dazzle, Tinsley included.
Before the Panthers became so successful, Owensboro was thrifty with any favors, particularly attendance. "People didn't know we were good, and we had really to push to show the product," says Publicist James Elkins. Wesleyan staged many gimmick "nights"—autograph night, poster night, two-for-one night—to fill the 7,000-seat downtown Sportscenter.
Interest has advanced so rapidly that now Wesleyan distributes schedule cards, schedule holders and place mats with all the players' pictures and autographs in the number of 75,000 each. The population of Owensboro is 55,000. "We have to go out of town with these," says Elkins. Moreover, the publicist has been disposed to print a 12-page basketball prospectus in the middle of the summer, not to mention what might be the largest game program in the land (44 pages, five colors, 25¢). "I guess we've made some strides with success," says Elkins, somewhat bashfully. Nonetheless, activities at the Sportscenter have not forsaken the bizarre; already this season halftime shows have included everything from square dances to karate.
This year the Wesleyan team is long on shooting, defense, speed and depth. Unfortunately, most of its size is on the coaching staff. Daniels, at 6'6", 230 pounds, and assistant Bob Jones, who is 6'5", 260, tower over most of their players and would be a good tag team bout for anybody. Center O'Neill, for instance, is a 6'6½", 180-pounder who came to Wesleyan without a scholarship and who appreciates lines like, "If O'Neill turned sideways and stuck out his tongue he'd look like a zipper." The Stick, as O'Neill is called, doesn't score much and has one knee full of torn cartilage, but his arm span is over seven feet, enabling him to play tough defense and get lots of rebounds.
Daniels starts Joel Bolden in the corner opposite the 6'4" Tinsley and, at guard, alternates Eugene Smith, Steve Deskins and Tommy Hobgood ("the pride of Nebo, Ky., pop. 394"). But though there is bench strength with John Duncan and Jim Smith, both 6'6", and with David Erwin, a good shooter whose 14 points beat Evansville last year, Wesleyan must have Tinsley at his best in order to operate efficiently.
In their biggest game of the season, a rematch of the 1968 college division final, the Panthers defeated Indiana State 73-69 in overtime as The Hat took over and scored 31 points. He is averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds but is probably most impressive on defense, where he usually manages to shut off the opposition's toughest man. In the 1966 NCAA final against SIU he held George McNeil to eight points. Last year in the title game he stopped Indiana State's Jerry Newsom with four. Most Wesleyan observers insist that were it not for an infected tooth that shackled Tinsley in a 1967 semifinal game the Panthers would have beaten Earl Monroe and Winston-Salem and would have won three straight national championships.
The Hat, who gave up hats when the natural haircut became the rage, is cultivating a thin Fu Manchu mustache now. In addition to his off-court activities of rock singing and clay sculpture, he is the first black to pledge Sigma Alpha Mu (Dave Bing's fraternity) at Wesleyan. Tinsley came to Owensboro on his defense and shot only 37% in his freshman year. "Coaches always said I couldn't shoot, but I didn't believe I was that bad," he says. "Then I got the message. Any man guarding me would fade way back when I got the ball. I mean he'd really wander off. I'd move in closer, right up to him, shoot...and miss everything. Now I'm better. I like offense, but I still remember it best when I stuff a man."
In March Kentucky Wesleyan will be back in Evansville to defend the NCAA title with George (The Hat) Tinsley. No college division player has ever started for three national champions, but no town has ever had a psychedelic silo with room service, either.