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Original Issue

A coach's garden of curses

Kean's Little Garden, they call the place, and if the name summons up visions of the friendly neighborhood beer hall or a spot where old ladies go to sniff camellias, that is all right with the Big Blue Hardwood Tigers of Tennessee State University. A garden is a nice place in which to sandbag a visiting basketball team, especially if it happens to be Kentucky State. Oh, happy day! Everybody, absolutely everybody, tries to squeeze into the entirely too small gym that was named after former Football Coach and Athletic Director Henry Kean, who came to Tennessee State from, ironically, Kentucky State in 1944. They sit and stand and jump hipbone to hipbone and sing and cheer and stomp and dance and clap and bang on bongo drums until the foundations rock, and then they put on the crusher. That is what happened last Wednesday night to Kentucky State at Kean's Little Garden in Nashville. Lucias Mitchell couldn't believe it. The K State coach was beside himself. He wouldn't believe it.

To begin with, there is always a rivalry between Tennessee State and Kentucky State. They like each other about as much as Notre Dame and Michigan State do. In 1948 their football teams began playing for a Little Brown Jug. The 'Breds, as the Kentuckians call themselves, took the trophy home that first year, lost it the next and have never had it back. The schools decided to give the whole thing up this year after the 'Breds absorbed a 61-7 rout.

It is on the basketball court that the schools are more evenly matched. Going into last week's game, K State was 17-1, it ranked first in the UPI's national small-college poll and it had two fine pro prospects, 7-foot Elmore Smith and Travis (The Machine) Grant. The Tigers were 16-2. They were ranked fourth and they had a hero of their own, Ted (The Hound) McClain, who could complete a pass through a maze. Eyes closed, of course. In January, Tennessee State had lost by three points at Kentucky State's gym, which is no Sea of Tranquillity, either. In the rematch, with the pro scouts somehow wedged into all that humanity and the din so heavy that it even drowned out rehearsals for the Grand Ole Opry blocks away, TSU won in the last minute 95-94. It was the grandest moment on campus since the custodian, tired of ducking, declared a 25¢ bounty on pigeons. Lucias Mitchell saw it another way. Personally, he said, he did not consider the game a loss.

Now there is a very strange thing about this rivalry. Neither team is ever beaten. It always has the game stolen away by unscrupulous referees. Last year, for instance, the Thorobreds scored a tremendous victory at Kean's Little Garden by losing by only three points. It was one of their three losses of the season as they made their way up to the NAIA national championships, which they won. Lucias Mitchell charges that one of the referees in that game was Hound McClain's high school coach, "and you can imagine what he did to us." The game was taped for showing on Frankfort television the next night, but somebody (obviously from TSU, they claim in Kentucky) snatched the tape and ripped it up, destroying the evidence of chicanery forever. Kentucky State won the rematch at home by 21 points. Tennessee State Coach Ed Martin says a fan came out on the court in the middle of that game and took a swing at McClain. Martin would prefer three hours in a dentist's chair to visiting the Thorobreds in Frankfort.

"It's unbelievable," he says. "The fans are so close that their knees are in your back, and there are people tapping you on the shoulder.... Our fans are more sophisticated than that. They aren't as hostile."

Martin neglected to mention that in Nashville the player benches happen to be the first row of the stands and knees are in everybody's back, or that those five bongo drums never stop (eventually the ears don't ache anymore; one's teeth grind in numbed unison), or that the scoreboard clocks at either end of the gym are not synchronized.

Both Martin and Mitchell are experts at going into the ghettos or the boondocks and finding themselves tall, tough and hungry black kids—Willises, Elvins, Artises and Sidneys—who can leap so high that sometimes their best view of the action is down through the hoop. Mitchell has been the more thorough searcher of late, which accounts for the presence of Elmore Smith on his team. In the reheated NBA-ABA war, says Mitchell, Smith is worth $2 million.

Mitchell admits to being a wheeler-dealer in recruiting. He once went on a talent-hunting foray to Picayune, Miss. and found his prospect on the doorstep all packed and ready to leave for Jackson State. The coach used his best Baptist manner on the boy's father, a minister, and a few hours later was on his way back to Kentucky with kid and baggage in tow. He had never met the family before that day.

When Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville's 7'2" All-America, became too old to play his last year of high school ball in Florida it was Mitchell who moved him in with a family in Dothan, Ala., where the eligibility rules were less strict. The idea was that after Gilmore's senior year Mitchell would get him, but there was a double cross somewhere and Gilmore ended up at a junior college and then Jacksonville.

That was no lasting tragedy, because Mitchell got Smith, out of Macon, Ga., where he had played only one high school season and never started a game. Smith was so green that Mitchell had to red-shirt him his freshman year (freshmen can play varsity ball at KSU), which is why, as a junior, Smith is fair game for the pro drafts this year.

The young man grew to be 7 feet, improved his shooting and agility and quickly started attracting attention from the pros. "He's come far, but he's got a way to go," says Mitchell. "He won't reach his potential for five years."

After Elmore became known there seemed to be a lot of other tall people around named Smith. Lon Smith, for example. He is Elmore's younger brother, 6'7", 230 pounds and still growing. Lon plays low post for Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C., where he lives with a North Carolina A&T assistant coach who is his legal guardian. Among the colleges trying to steal him from under his guardian's nose are NYU, New Mexico State and, naturally, Kentucky State.

"I saw him last year," said Mitchell. "A lot of heart. He's going to be a real fine college ballplayer."

Another brother, Ken, is a 6'6" high school junior in Orlando, Fla. He has not bothered to take up basketball yet. Older brother Elbert, 6'11" and close to 300 pounds, is in the Army, stationed in Germany. He played high school football in Georgia and, although he did not go to college, has been approached to play pro football.

Good as Lon might be or Elbert might have been, Elmore is the Smith of the moment. The thankless job of trying to stop him and score past his upstretched hands in the two Tennessee State games fell to 6'7" Lloyd Neal of Talbotton, Ga., whose offensive plan, at least, was beautifully simple.

"There's only one way I can handle that guy inside," he said. "That's to take him directly underneath the basket. When I go up and he goes up he'll hit his head on the rim and I'll score."

For the teams' first meeting this season Kentucky State's small campus gym was packed with 3,500 people, several hundred of whom got there by shoving through a side door and past four guards. The soul songs, with such lyrics as, "We're gonna sho'nuff remember this game" and "I love those Thorobreds, deep down in my heart," kept the place swaying every bit as much as the Garden does down in Tennessee. Even KSU's president, Dr. Carl M. Hill, could not shoehorn himself into the place, and he missed all but the last three minutes of the game.

Smith never did hit his head on the hoop, and he did not do such a good job of putting the ball through it, either, but Tennessee State's McClain took up all the entertainment slack for the scouts in attendance. The Hound (he doesn't know the origin of the nickname) made 13 of 13 free throws, scored 37 points and showed off some moves that would have baffled a yogi. He led the fast breaks that gave Tennessee State a 47-40 lead at halftime.

Midway through the second half the Thorobreds caught up and went ahead, but both teams had key men in foul trouble, and the game was close to the end. Kentucky State won 91-88. Elmore, despite having 22 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocked shots, did not look like the new Lew Alcindor. He did not even look like the old Elmore Smith, according to his coach.

"Smith didn't shoot well at all tonight," said Mitchell. "We had a poor offensive game. The defense won it for us again."

No, the referees won it for them, yelled Martin, maintaining tradition. One official in particular had him peeved.

"X-ray him," said Martin. "You'll find the whistle he swallowed in the last five minutes."

Then Martin remembered the rematch coming up in Nashville. He smiled. "We're gonna be waiting in the weeds," he said.

Kean's Little Garden had weeds, all right. It also had a real fake tiger walking around the court carrying his tail, which had broken off. It had the people and the noise, and it was altogether a very unsatisfactory place for a visiting team. The day before the game Mitchell was already complaining about the officials.

In the first half the big star was not Smith but Grant, who, at 6'8", is not exactly small himself. One of the finest shooters in college ball (but not much on rebounding or defense), he scored 26 points. But Hound McClain and Ron Dorsey were scoring 16 apiece for Tennessee State, and at the half the score was 50-50. Nobody doubted that this game would go down to the buzzer.

It did. Tiger Bob Mathis was put on Grant and held him in check (Wally held him, the Thorobreds claimed, in a hammerlock that lasted the whole of the second half), but The Hound was not quite his old tricky self either, so things balanced out. The Tigers were up by six points with little more than four minutes to play, but then Kentucky State put in six straight points to tie the score at 90, even though Elmore had fouled out. The score was tied again at 92, and the noise was making it impossible for anybody to hear the referees' whistles, or even one's own thoughts.

After a frenzied series of fouls, turnovers and missed free throws, Tennessee State was one point behind and had possession with about 15 seconds to go. Neal got the ball in two passes and put it in—95-94. Now it was KSU's turn. With about eight seconds left—who could tell with those crazy clocks running off in opposite directions!—the ball went to Grant in the left corner. He dribbled, collided with Mathis and fell. Somebody must have charged or somebody must have blocked, but no, no whistle. So that was the game, and maybe it was Kentucky State's last good chance to persuade the NIT that it deserved an invitation.

Afterward in the Thorobred locker room it was vintage Mitchell. "Travis was pushed down in the crowd," he said. "They choked, the referees choked! They took three balls away from us on turnovers! It's unthinkable!"

Next year the weeds will be in Frankfort. Bring earplugs.