Skip to main content
Original Issue

All the smalls were tall

Whatever they call that brand of ball, it looked awfully imposing when Travis Grant was shooting and the jucos and Roanoke were playing

They come from Boiling Springs, Nacogdoches, Frankfort and, of course, Eau Claire. They play in that interesting basketball get-together, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, which faces off 32 "small college" teams from other places like Princess Anne, Md., and Arkadelphia, Ark., and they come up with people like Travis Grant, on his way to the pros. Travis Grant, the alltime collegiate scoring leader, who banked his 4,000th career point in the semifinal against Stephen F. Austin. Travis Grant, who set a new NAIA tournament record of 60 points in one game against poor Minot State. Travis Grant, from Clayton, Ala., which is also the hometown of George Wallace. It was a big week for Clayton.

The 21 pro scouts, six general managers and seven coaches at the tournament slavered over Grant. "He is the best pure shooter I've ever seen," Len Snyder of the Buffalo Braves said. Bob Cousy was drooling. "Grant plays no defense," he said, "but he hardly needs to. Any NBA club with a big stud at center would find him extremely useful just as he is."

Grant actually had a cold stretch in the first half of his 60-point performance. He scored 43 for his Kentucky State Thorobreds in the second half. But then earlier this season he had put in 50 in one half against Eastern Michigan.

"I didn't feel I had an unusual game," Grant said modestly afterward. "It was my usual performance."

The tournament had some other usual performances, by Grant's teammate Sam Sibert, who matched his 6'7" frame against a 7'3" St. Thomas center and blocked 15 shots in one half, which must be the combined pro and college record. (One pro scout said he was ready to forget Grant and draft Sibert.) By George Adams, a 6'5" forward for Gardner-Webb of Boiling Springs, N.C., who averaged 33.8 points a game this year. And by Mike Ratliff, Eau Claire's 6'10" center. Only on a club as balanced as Eau Claire would Ratliff average a mere 22.4 points and 14.9 rebounds a game. Ratliff's figures would be bigger were it not for Guard Frank Schade, whose cuts and use of screens, not to mention his outside shooting, have to be seen.

All of which leaves Eau Claire's most remarkable asset yet unmentioned. Its maniacal student fans, between 4,000 and 5,000 strong (out of a student body of 8,251), staged a virtual occupation of Kansas City. Practically from dawn to dusk from Monday to Sunday, they swarmed over Civic Plaza in downtown KC and undoubtedly and unequivocally set a national small-college alltime record for partying and nonstop cheering. The local cops were so impressed with the gang's voluntary collection of huge heaps of beer cans that they were considering writing a letter of commendation to the college.

At night the Eau Claire students entered the auditorium in a body, and immediately an enormous baritone voice would crash out of the concrete of the upper stands. "We are the Blugolds, we are the Blugolds," over and over and over, hypnotically.

The Blugolds needed all the help they could get just to reach the semifinals. Tiny Belhaven College, enrollment 580, playing an all-white lineup recruited entirely from the not very basketball-berserk state of Mississippi, stretched Eau Claire most of the way as it shot an impossible 68.8% from the floor in the first half and finally lost 59-53. Charlie Tharp, a 6'11" giant from Indianola, outplayed the formidable Ratliff on both offense and defense, hitting 10 of 11 and 21 points in the first half alone. His feat, avidly viewed by the scouts, was all the more remarkable because he was often double-teamed, and Belhaven did not have a guard to feed him.

As if Tharp was not enough, the Blugolds had to run across Augustana's normally sober student population, which matched Eau Claire's fanaticism to a qualitative standoff. The Clansmen were so drunk on euphoria that the Eau Claire mob didn't quite know what to make of them, particularly when Eau Claire discovered it was looking up to a team. Jolly blond giant Bruce Hamming, 6'10", might have whipsawed Eau Claire had not the fierce Schade shot three brilliant baskets within 48 seconds and set up many more with the most spectacular guard play of the tourney.

Naturally, this made for a superb buildup to the finals. And who were in them? Eau Claire, of course, which had wasted Gardner-Webb 83-68, even though it never did shut off Adams, who finished with 30 points. And Kentucky State, which had destroyed Minot State 118-68 in Grant's 60-point game, trotted past West Georgia 112-83, laughed at St. Thomas so hard it possibly could have lost the game before winning 66-57 and beat Stephen F. Austin in a hard battle 87-82. The Austin Lumberjacks scrambled back in contention when Grant went out on fouls, a rare occurrence. Much of the credit for that belonged to a gallant freshman, Andria Brown of Chireno, Texas, who played astonishing defense, holding Grant to a mere 12 points in the first half.

In the finals Eau Claire began as if it were going to blast Kentucky State out of the auditorium. It had a 13-5 lead and within the first 4½ minutes, Steve Johnson, guarding Grant, and Sibert, guarding Ratliff, had each drawn two fouls. This was a measure of the emphasis on defense. Within another three minutes, Sibert had drawn his third foul, but then Eau Claire blew the game, frittering away its chance.

The turning point came early in the second half when Johnson drew his fourth foul. Schade tried to compensate with 10 points from outside, but Eau Claire began to miss badly and turn over the ball. When it was over, Travis Grant and the Thorobreds had won 71-62.

After the game, Eau Claire Coach Ken Anderson refused to say that Grant had anything to do with the deep melancholy he found himself in. "He certainly wasn't the difference," he said. "He got 39 tonight and Kentucky State got 71." Which is like saying Travis Grant is not a great rebounder, nor a great defender, nor does he put the ball on the floor. He only shoots.

•There was excitement of another sort during the week, as reported by Larry Keith. It occurred in Hutchinson, Kans., where the smooth young men with their fistfuls of dollars gathered for the silver anniversary of America's biggest cattle roping. That, as any coach worth his alligator loafers and recruiting budget knows, is what has become of the generally unknown National Junior College Basketball Tournament.

This no doubt eluded the honest townsfolk who came up from the salt mines and down from the grain elevators only to see if the local entry could properly observe the town's centennial by winning the big trophy. Everyone else—players, coaches, recruiters and Marques Haynes of the Harlem Magicians—realized that no other place in college basketball could display so much raw, unrefined talent.

"It's like an open slave market, and it gets worse every year," said one Southwest Conference bidder. "Every coach here is trying to make a deal."

Their hope, reflected in the knowing nods that acknowledge a good play, was that they might find another juco star as accomplished as Spencer Haywood or Artis Gilmore or Sidney Wicks, all ex-jucos, a player who could maintain a successful program or renovate a failing one. They saw some of those, or they think they did but, save for the finalists, the whole teams were not always as good as their parts.

As expected, unbeaten Vincennes made its way into the finals; unexpected, it was joined by Ferrum (Va.), a sure thing for the interloper trophy if nothing else. A young team without athletic scholarships and with a first-year coach, Ferrum hardly endeared itself by initially eliminating hometown Hutchinson and later in the semifinals booting out Tyler, whose Ruppian coach, Floyd Wagstaff, had won 678 juco games. Without a starter over 6'3", Vincennes played its controlled game—unusual among the jucos—and won 73-61. It was the team's third national championship in seven years.

Few of the recruiters and four-year coaches and assistants stayed around for the finals. They had already matched the best available talent with their particular needs. Out of the tournament at least 60 kids will be signed. The exceptional ones include 6'9" Butch Taylor of Gulf Coast (Fla.), 6'7" Greg McDougald of Seminole (Okla.), 6'7" Billy Buford of Paducah (Ky.), 6'8" Ken Morgan of Casper (Wyo.), 6'6" Charles McKinley of Tyler and Bill Butler, the 6'2" center of Vincennes.

Another might be a Calvin Murphy-type guard (not to be confused with Erie's 6'7" Calvin Murphy) named Victor Kelly of Southern Idaho. The 5'6" scooter had 38 points for the single-game tournament high, but coaches fear he may be too small for the bigs.

"The talent here is exceptional," said Iowa State's Maury John, who won two national juco titles himself and later fashioned a successful program at Drake with third-year transfers. "It is easier to tell about these kids than those right out of high school because you have a better idea of what they can do in higher competition. At least if you make a mistake he's not around for four years."

He won't be, of course, but the fans and the hard-working people from Lysle Rishel American Legion Post 68 will. Already plans are being made for Hutchinson Junior College to win in the town's bicentennial year.

•Up in Evansville, Ind. the third tournament of the week, one staged by the NCAA for its so-called small colleges, erupted in a big-time brawl, the sort that had been seen at South Carolina and Minnesota. In this instance, however, reaction as reported by Peter D. Swanson, was quick and decisive, indicating that repeated experience may be teaching coaches and officials how to deal with on-the-court fighting.

The incident involved Eastern Michigan's superlative George Gervin, who, after being ejected from a semifinal game because of a flagrant foul, returned to the court and knocked Roanoke College's Jay Piccola unconscious. Roanoke won the game, however, and Piccola recovered to score 22 points in the 84-72 championship victory over Akron.

Gervin was not around the next night when his team let Tennessee State, the tournament favorite, win the consolation game 107-82. He had been sent home by Coach Jim Cutcher, and three other starters, who were fearful of the emotion that might cloud the last game, went with him. Before the game, at the suggestion of Tennessee State Coach Ed Martin, all of the players shook hands.

"It was an excellent idea," said Akron Coach Dr. Wyatt Webb. "It showed everybody that we were just out here to play basketball."

Webb's own team had beaten Tennessee State in the semifinals before losing to Roanoke, whose 16-game winning streak going into the tournament was not expected to last long. Nobody had known about Guard Hal Johnston, however, a philosophy major and the tournament's Most Valuable Player. The son of a one-time University of Miami quarterback, Johnston was going to be a quarterback, too, before he fell off the back of a truck and, among other bad things, lost his senses of taste and smell. Despite the Gervin affair, Johnston may yet savor his victory. Gervin and his school were properly contrite, which is a tasty way to end any season, big college or small.