Nacogdoches, as Nacogdochians do not mind telling people, was the first town in Texas to drill an oil well. It is also, they will allow, the home of the No. 1 small-college team in drilling basketball opponents. That would be Stephen F. Austin State University, and if SFASU is no better than Albany (Ga.) State, Roanoke, Augustana (Ill.) or Kentucky State—the other teams with national title aspirations this season—it is at least as colorful. The Lumberjacks, as the Austins call themselves, are really wildcatters who have struck it rich in Coach Marshall Brown's fast-breaking, freelancing style of play.
"We like to have fun," says Brown. "Many of the guys attended other colleges before but left because they didn't tit in with a disciplined attack. I have all the respect in the world for disciplined teams, but to me the prettiest play in basketball is the fast break."
With Brown the fast break also might be his most remunerative play. Since 1967 Stephen F. Austin has won 24 or more games each season and has made the NAIA tournament four of the last five. Last winter the Lumberjacks averaged 94 points a game, four fewer than the year before. They were 31-3, they finished third in the NAIA and, best yet, they have all their starters returning and a fresh supply of razor-sharp recruits.
Brown is a crew cut among a bunch of Afros and shaggy hairs, but differences in personal grooming do not bother him a bit as long as he and his team agree on how the game is supposed to he played. They all do, Brown says. "We have a pattern we use a lot but we like to play wide-open ball. The fans prefer it and so do the players, I guess because the pros do. One thing about freelancing. It doesn't hurt very much when you're going after the good players."
One he got was 6'7" Pete Harris, the Lone Star Conference's leading rebounder and MVP and Brown's man to trigger the fast break, something he did not get the chance to do at McNeese State, where he played before he transferred in his freshman year. A fine pro prospect who averaged 18.5 rebounds and 20 points a game, Harris regards himself as a man of all trades. "My asset is my ability to do most things pretty well," he says. "I like to keep people happy."
Harris is one of three seniors on the team who are keeping most everybody in town happy. The others—Robert (Skeet) Gords, who led the conference in scoring last winter, and Skip Carleton—transferred to Stephen Austin, too, Gords from Central (Okla.) State and Carleton from Texas A&M. Carleton's reasons for switching are typical. "Before I came here," he says, "we played slowdown and I just didn't fit in. Here everybody can play offense."
But maybe nobody is going to play as much offense or keep the townspeople happier than Archie (Magic) Myers, who is Brown's recruiting coup of the year and would be almost anybody else's. A 36.5 scorer from Howard County Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, he chose SFA simply because he wanted to be with a winner. The bane of Myers' earlier life was that try as he did he always ended up with the little trophy, the one that disappeared in the palm of the hand on the march back to the bench. "I'm willing to sacrifice everything to win a championship," he says wistfully. "I had a 28-point average in high school and still we didn't win. I was told I could win here and I know it."
For all the team's obvious assets, winning among the tough small colleges will not be that easy. Among other things, the Lumberjacks will have to play defense. "I guess you might say my players have a tendency to defend just as well as they have to," Brown says. "If we score, our opponents will, too." Still, Brown says, they stay ahead of the game. "It's the margin of victory that measures defense," he says, "and last year ours was about 18 points. That isn't bad considering the stalls we run into."
One reason for the margin is Stephen Austin's depth. Substituting freely, the Lumberjacks just tire other teams out. "We can go full throttle the entire game without the guys feeling they have to pace themselves," Brown says. Or, he might add, without fear of hurting the team by a liberal use of freshmen and sophomores. His are better than most, a fact that can make any theory shine. Brown figures a freshman is going to get burned on defense a few times, but if freshmen Dewey Rivers and Gary Brown, both 6'8" and the two tallest team members, and slick Frank Fernandez are singed very often, he always has solid veterans to throw into the breach. It is a comforting thought.
Until they get into their new $3 million arena two years from now, the Lumberjacks will have to make do with old Shelton Gym. It seats 3,200 but there is live cable TV of home games. As a follower said, "Everybody watches at home or they rent a hotel room. We take our basketball seriously."
And so, of course, do the people who follow the schools that will be pushing up there in the rankings with Stephen Austin. In fact, it would be hard not to want to follow Albany State, if for no other reason than to keep up with the Joneses, a basketball dynasty themselves. With just about every coach in the country—and one governor—after him, 6'9" Major Jones this spring decided to follow his four brothers to Albany. Wilbert, now with the Memphis TAMs, went there, Melvin did, too, and 7'2" Caldwell is a senior there now. "The two of them don't believe they can be beaten," says Coach Oliver Jones, who started the whole family thing. A lot of other people believe that, too.
Not among them is the crowd from Roanoke. To defend their NCAA college-division championship, the surprising Virginians have back Jay Piccola and Everett Hurst and their best incoming players ever. Augustana has a brother act of its own—well, almost. They had the good sense to listen three years ago when a coed touted her brother, and that's why 6'11" John Laing is a Viking and the Vikings are potent. Laing is one of the best big shooting men in the country. Which brings it all back to old Kentucky State. Big? You bet. Fast? Sure. Hungry for more honors? They're Thorobreds, aren't they?