Jim McDaniels is an improbable giant. He plays center, naturally, but also forward and sometimes guard. He is, says Coach John Oldham of Western Kentucky, a "roamer," meaning that McDaniels would just as soon fire away from 25 feet as score easily from underneath. The scouts say he will play pro ball at forward, where his size (7 feet) and outside touch would add a new dimension to any team.
The scouts and practically everybody else in Louisville were out in force last Wednesday night when Western took on Jacksonville in Louisville's Freedom Hall, and they saw McDaniels at his all-court best. Both teams were unbeaten and ranked among the nation's top 10, but the main attraction was the matchup between McDaniels and a more conventional—and more famous—giant, Jacksonville's 7'2" Artis Gilmore. An impassive intimidator, with a satanic beard and an Afro as wide as the foul lane, Gilmore outscored, outrebounded and outpsyched McDaniels last season when the Dolphins buried the Hilltoppers 109-96 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That loss had stuck in McDaniels' craw all summer. "I'm just going to lay it on the line," he said before the rematch. "I can't see that much difference between Gilmore and me. And I think we can beat them."
Big Mac, as his teammates call McDaniels, could not have been more prescient. Nor could he have been more of an avenger. The Hilltoppers, beautifully prepared and playing at their peak, upset the Dolphins 97-84. More surprising, McDaniels did everything with Gilmore but stuff him through the hoop. He out-scored the taller man 46-29 and blocked at least four of his close-in shots. As one scout said, "Tonight McDaniels' contract went up $100,000."
Western was serious about the game, so serious that the players asked Oldham to let them go to Louisville a day early so they could get in a workout on the Freedom Hall floor. Jacksonville was more casual. The Dolphins did not arrive in Louisville until noon on the day of the game; they did not elect to work out, and in their warmups they seemed cocky and careless. Said Western's Clarence Glover, whose 14 rebounds had a lot to do with the outcome, "They seemed to be taking us pretty lightly."
Oldham had felt that faulty intelligence had contributed in part to Western's loss last March, so he sent Assistant Jim Richards to scout no fewer than three of Jacksonville's first five games this season. Richards reported that Jacksonville could be beaten if its breakneck tempo were slowed and a 1-2-2 zone defense were used, a defense that would keep Glover and McDaniels close to the boards and Gilmore away.
Early on it was apparent that McDaniels was ready for one of his finer efforts. Getting wide open off picks usually set by Glover, he hit his first six shots, all but one of them jumpers from eight to 20 feet away, to give Western a 16-14 lead.
Meanwhile the 1-2-2 defense was working perfectly. Whenever Gilmore came near the basket he either was called for traveling or had his shot slapped back in his face by McDaniels. About the only offense Jacksonville could muster came from little Vaughn Wedeking's long, arching bombs.
Early in the second half Jacksonville put Gilmore on McDaniels, and that was pure disaster. First McDaniels powered over Gilmore for a lay up on a fast break. Then he began to drive around him, shoot over him and totally dominate him. With 15:46 left, McDaniels got the ball 20 feet from the basket, turned around to look Gilmore in the eye and fired in another jump shot. Gilmore fouled him on the play, and when McDaniels made his free throw Western had a 57-44 lead.
To its credit, Jacksonville did not give up. The Dolphins pulled within seven points late in the game and were behind only 86-77 when McDaniels fouled out with 2:51 remaining. But Oldham put in four guards—all ball handlers—and the Dolphins were forced to foul. The Hilltoppers made their free throws. On the Western bench, with only seconds left, McDaniels threw a long arm around Oldham, who was still looking grim, and said, "What's the matter? Aren't you happy?" They both laughed.
The final statistics showed that McDaniels had hit on 20 of 29 shots and equaled a career-high 46 points. He also got 11 rebounds. "I was playing on pride, man, nothing but pride," he said.
Big Mac had been contacted by several pro teams before the season began but elected to return to Western, finish his career and get his degree. The latter is genuinely important to McDaniels, who comes from an underprivileged family in Scottsville, Ky., about 25 miles' from Bowling Green. He went to a one-room, all-black school through the first eight grades and had so much catching up to do that his high school grades were too low for admission to many colleges. Everybody in his home town predicted that McDaniels would never make it academically. "Now I'm going to take that degree back home and wave it at a few folks," says McDaniels with a grin. Eventually McDaniels wants to be a social worker, preferably in a big-city ghetto. "I want to work with black kids," he says, "and say, 'Hey, I got my college degree, you can do it, too, and you don't have to be a basketball player, either.' You know, only a few years ago I was shining shoes in Scottsville for 20¢ a pair. Now sometimes I get my shoes shined."