Skip to main content
Original Issue

An All-Star named Tom is the most Dapper Dan

Tom McMillen, the country's best high school player, wows a Pittsburgh crowd and leaves coaches shaking as he prepares to pick his college

College basketball's major tournaments having been concluded on a wing (UCLA in the NCAA) and a prayer (Marquette in the NIT), the nation's coaches suddenly found themselves three weeks ago without a season, without chalk, without blackboard, games or fun. It was finally time to get down to the important part of their occupation, the meat-and-potatoes division, if you will, the actual work. And so it came as no surprise to find a militia of these kindred spirits in Pittsburgh last weekend not coaching, but working. For them working is recruiting.

It was impossible to turn around in the William Penn Hotel without bumping into one coach or another looking for high school players in lobbies, hallways, coffee shops, elevators and occasionally under a potted palm. The ubiquitous group had converged on Pittsburgh to watch the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an annual high school All-Star game that in the six years of its existence has emerged as the best event of its kind. For spectators and others on the mere fringes of the sport, the Dapper Dan has become an extravaganza of fun that involves watching the young court talent on display and, for the ghoulishness of it, the coaches smiling, squirming, boasting, lying and faking themselves out as they attempt to snare the piece of flesh and bone that might win them a national championship.

This season's prime catch is Tom McMillen (SI, Feb. 16), the 6'11" thin man from Mansfield, Pa. whose prospectus is attractive because not only can he run, shoot, pass, jump and score but, unlike many another high school hotshot, he can spell his name—and other words, too.

At the Dapper Dan, McMillen played for the Pennsylvania All-Stars against a team of U.S. stars representing 10 other states. And though he came down with a fever the day of the game, he was brilliant, scoring 37 points before his team finally lost 87-81.

The game was truly child's play, however, compared to the combat proceedings in the stands and smoke-filled rooms where the coaches discussed whom they wanted of the players available, whom they could get and, more often, whom they would like to steal.

The coaches owed the stimulation of this evening to Sonny Vaccaro, the founder of the Dapper Dan. Vaccaro, a 30-year-old former high school teacher, started the games—a local All-Star contest precedes the main event—in 1965 with a neighbor, Pat DiCesare, after convincing Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan Club, a sportsminded charity organization, to lend financial help. Pro basketball has died twice in Pittsburgh and is now under sedation again, and the local colleges have not drawn well recently, but the city has taken the high school event to its steely bosom.

The games have sold out the 13,000-seat Civic Arena every year but once, and the Dapper Dans can now furnish new uniforms, sneakers, travel bags and equipment valises—in addition to free transportation, room and meals—to each player and his high school coach.

Ninety percent of the All-Stars already have made up their minds on a college before they arrive in Pittsburgh, but an awake coach can find plenty of sleepers in the preliminary contest and sometimes one or two in the showcase game. Howard Porter was unknown to everybody except Villanova recruiter George Raveling when he came to the Dapper Dan three years ago. Sure enough, the morning after the game Raveling found a Big Ten team attempting to kidnap his charge. "Howard had his bags packed until I convinced him to stick with us," says Raveling.

Such incidents obligated many coaches to come to Pittsburgh last week for convoy purposes. Dayton, for one, had already signed Guard Donnie Smith, a home-town boy, but Flyers Assistant Coach Pat Haley showed up early. "I told Coach [Don] Donoher I'd get here Friday," Haley said. "He told me, 'Your rear end Friday. You'll go Wednesday and baby-sit.' I came with Donnie and I'm leaving with him."

McMillen is one of this year's stars who is undecided on a college, so he was lovingly courted by representatives of the four Atlantic Coast Conference schools he is known to be considering: Maryland, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. McMillen is worth the tender attention. He averaged 47 points a game this season, and his offensive talents dazzled onlookers at the Dapper Dan practice sessions. "He's a one-man clinic on shooting," said Howie Garfinkle, the guru of high school recruiting services. "He's the greatest offensive center I've ever seen. He's the greatest without the ball I've ever seen. He's the greatest kid I ever met." Howie laughed. "But he won't tell me where he's going next year, and I hate him."

There had been hopes for a Dapper Dan face-off between McMillen and another outstanding center from La Mesa, Calif., Bill Walton, but a California ruling prohibited Walton from playing. Still the U.S. stars had 7'3" Tom Burleson from North Carolina, 6'9" Dwight Jones from Texas, New York's Ed Searcy and New Jersey's Harold Sullinger, both 6'7", to contend with McMillen. In Pittsburgh Dwight Jones was an unknown quantity, but people in Houston could tell the Dapper Dans that Big D had helped Wheatley High School to the state championship three years in a row and finished his career with a record of 102-2.

The U.S. team also had the best group of guards in the game's history—Donnie Smith, Tom Kivisto of Illinois, John Williamson of Connecticut and Kentucky's 5'9" Ronnie Lyons, who looks like Howdy Doody and is an alabaster version of Niagara's three-time All-America, Calvin Murphy ("A honky Calvin," said an observer).

But the real battle was going to come when Searcy of the U.S. Stars moved in on McMillen. Called the Human Shot Rejector by eager recruiters, the star from New York City's Power Memorial had been stung by the praise for McMillen and the adverse publicity his Power teammate, Len Elmore, had received after Power defeated Mansfield back in January.

"Lenny didn't play McMillen but eight minutes because of foul trouble," said Searcy, "but McMillen is the fair-haired boy and gets the ink. They say he got 20 rebounds. It never happened. He can only go left, he doesn't box out well and he plays no defense. I want to play him again. It's not a grudge, but I'm going to do him in for Lenny's sake."

Searcy, talking with Sullinger the night before the game, said, "I'll pass the ball enough. If you and Texas [Jones] dance on McMillen, it's all over because I guarantee you he won't dance on me. I'll shove the ball down his throat."

"Hey," said Sullinger, "a cat who gets 40 points a game is doing it against dudes who don't care. A cat who scores 20 on me the first half is going to finish the game with 20 because I'll break his arm."

McMillen, aware of his opponents' hard feelings, was less violent. "Searcy is hostile, but he can really leap—woosh, like that," he said. "But he's the easiest man in this game to guard. I don't want to sound cocky, but I'd just like to play anybody here one-on-one."

On Friday night the U.S. Stars took a quick lead, and Searcy stuffed McMillen's first shot back in his face. Though the U.S. guards gave every indication of developing gunner's cramp, their team dominated play and led by nine at the end of the first quarter.

McMillen, scoring on soft left-handed hooks from the side, and Ray Edelman, a hot-shooting guard, brought the home team to within one just before halftime, but then the U.S. spurted again. Toward the three-quarter mark, Pennsylvania once more got the margin down to three when McMillen scored six straight points, but in the fourth quarter, visibly worn out from lack of rest, McMillen hardly touched the ball until the game was out of reach. Big D finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds to win the MVP award for the U.S., while McMillen, as expected, won the most-valuable award for Pennsylvania and was immediately adjudged all-world by the visiting coaches.

"It's been every man for himself this week," said little Lyons, pleased with the winning effort. He was talking about the players, but the description also suited the coachly figures lurking in the shadows of the locker rooms. They were busy—working, working, working. On April 15 McMillen will announce his choice of school. The work will pay off for somebody.