What you might call the Good Ol' Down Home Christmas 'n New Years Folksy All-College 'n University Holiday Classic Festival 'n Yuletide Funnin' Jamboree Time Tournament wound itself up and down and around and into all manner of sideway curlicues last week in a courageous attempt to answer some of college basketball's puzzling questions. Such as, what is the matter with Florida State? What isn't the matter with Long Beach State? Can a 6'11" Yugoslav get away with wearing a cowboy hat? And does Oklahoma City's Abe Lemons really mean it when he says, "This tournament goes lak 'iss. Ah sneak mah Endins past 'em in the first round, throw a referee hose job on 'em in the sem-eyes and git somebody shot in the finals. 'Iss over, simple, we win."
In truth, the Chiefs have won the All-College Tournament there in hometown Oklahoma City only five times (they finished fourth this year) and, since it is the oldest of any tournament going, that isn't saying much. But then nobody has ever accused Lemons of not saying enough, either. In fact, it is simply because he is the funniest man in the whole sport, because his team is one of the wildest and woolliest and because a flock of red-blazered tournament directors evoke warmth and cordiality the moment a visitor steps off the plane, that the All-College has become such a desirable place for basketball teams to be during the holiday season.
Last week it was also a dangerous place for any team wishing to retain its collective sanity and some semblance of a national ranking. Yet, after a rash of nonupsets and despite some of the most questionable officiating this side of Munich, on Saturday night Long Beach and Brigham Young found themselves in the same position they assumed last March in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs—tiring away at each other with something important at stake. For all its lofty expectations, however, the confrontation became only one more in a three-year series of showcases for Long Beach's 6'6" Ed Ratleff. Just as he seems to do in all the big ones, the smooth senior from Columbus, Ohio took matters into his own hands early on, whipping the running game into gear and shooting in 26 points during the first half—including a 35-footer at the buzzer—as the 49ers opened up their guns for a 63-42 lead.
After that the 49ers became cautious and lost their momentum, but they still had enough to win easily, 101-89—an especially impressive victory considering it was their fourth tournament championship in December, their seventh game in 12 days and their eighth victory on the road.
In short, Long Beach, a notoriously slow-starting team, is now 11-0, playing (believe it or not) man-to-man defense, and winning the way the 49ers usually do at the end of the season, not the beginning. They are also, as one scout noted, "a bunch of high-strung, volatile beings," who, nevertheless, buried their differences on the bench long enough last week to emerge from the holidays as contenders for the national title.
Many of these strange items commonly referred to as holiday classics are not worth their weight in crushed candy canes. What happens is a vain coach invites three squirrels to his own classic, drinks an eggnog, lights up the scoreboard and, in the end, proclaims that he and the boys have a "tournament championship under our belts now." What he actually has done is unwrapped his own Christmas present to himself.
Only in a few remaining eight-team tournaments that pop up annually does the genuine spirit and atmosphere of a highly competitive field still exist. And even they are vastly different from each other. There are the big city extravaganzas in New York and Philadelphia, where a team goes for prestige and "press" and where their coach can get himself seen with Red Auerbach, or somebody; the Big Eight in Kansas City, where an entire league is on display in a broken down mausoleum of an arena; the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, where everybody gets sunburn, beverage paralysis and pineapples from Mr. Ah Chew Goo; and the Far West Classic in Portland, out of which nobody hears the scores until February, but which might be the best organized of them all.
But the All-College has a special country flavor that is all its own. It began as a benefit for something called the "milk and ice fund," with 16 teams playing in a couple of high school gyms around town. It went to 22 teams, then to 32 with almost 450 players competing, sometimes in games that were played out of town in Comanche. Despite such haphazard arrangements, the tournament has had its moments. In 1954 it introduced San Francisco and Bill Russell to the big time. Its beauty queens haven't done badly either. One of them, Jane Anne Jayroe, became Miss America.
Notwithstanding the lack of large crowds (the tournament this year moved into a beautiful new 15,000-seat downtown auditorium called the Myriad, and drew an average of 6,432 for the four night sessions), the All-College remains a kind of success and, especially, homey. All seven visiting teams stayed together in the same hotel. They were squired around town, to the Petroleum Club and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. There was a nice luncheon with lovely young things decorating the dais; there were meetings in the coffee shop of players who had not seen each other since high school. And there were what seemed like 24-hour talk sessions in smoke-filled rooms where competing coaches milled in private to attack zone defenses, the NCAA and room service.
Above all, there was Abe Lemons. Not only does Lemons try to lull everybody into playing his run-and-gun-it-damn-it game on the court, but he inspires opposing coaches to the height of affability off of it.
"Abe is something else," said Dick Conover, whose St. Francis of Loretto (Pa.) team is young and without hope. "We just want to get into the afternoon bracket so we can make the parties at night."
Lemons himself is never outdone. Part Choctaw Indian and an eighth-grade non-predictor, he picked up enough smarts and paleface one-liners to endear himself to Madison Avenue forever. He has had several NCAA tournament teams and a couple of NIT appearances, always achieving humorous mileage out of the Indians ("Endins") on his team and its defensive shortcomings. Once, at half time in New York after a particularly woeful performance, he scrimmaged his Chiefs against each other. "Couldn't even win the scrimmage," he said. Lemons speaks of his "sieve defense—because it leaks like one" and he remembers "not to puff mah see-gar around mah Endins. Ah might be cussin' in smoke signals."
Pretournament speculation centered on unbeaten Long Beach and the marvelous Ed Ratleff, a mysterious crew from Florida State that had lost twice, and Kresimir Cosic of Brigham Young, the tall foreigner with the gypsy moves. But Lemons was lying low with his normal interesting cast chock full of characters. There were Ozie Edwards and Marvin Rich, two 6'4" forwards who fire bow-and-arrow style from over the hill in the true OCU mold; quick Mike Tosee, a mustached Kiowa-Apache ("Mah weird Endin who don't talk," Lemons calls him. "Ever see an Endin with a mustache?"); and transfer Herb Gilkey, who has made a comeback from open heart surgery. "We're 7-1," said Lemons. "Ah wish we was a football team. We'd be in a damn bowl."
Unfortunately, the first round was marred by referees whose incompetence included awards of two free throws to players who were fouled while passing, permission to the wrong men to shoot free throws and a strange penchant for technicals. There were 10 called in the first round, Jerry Tarkanian receiving the first two he has had at Long Beach. After one official, crewcut Jack Savidge of the Missouri Valley Conference, fouled out every big man except one in the two games he worked, Lemons had had enough. "I'm always scared of burrheads," he said. "I ain't even had this jewel yet and I hate him. We gettin' rid of him." The other coaches agreed.
Savidge singlehandedly turned the Brigham Young-Texas A&M game into a fiasco. Belmont Anderson's jump shot pulled it out for the Cougars 83-81, but not before Cosic and Aggie sophomore Cedric Joseph, who had kept his team in the contest, were whistled out. "I trying running away from fouls from this ref," moaned Cosic, who incurred two technicals. "He seem like counting to get me out whole time."
Florida State's Hugh Durham meanwhile was counting on the All-College to iron out some problems. Though Center Lawrence McCray is much improved, the Seminoles do not have the same scratch pressure defense that served them so well last season; they have had trouble meshing the talents of erratic Benny Clyde into the offense, and then, suddenly, the week before last they lost the heart, guts, and outside threat of the team, Ron King, with a dislocated ankle.
"Ron may be out for the season," said little Otto Petty, "and we're not the same. Our new dudes just have to learn the old stuff."
In contrast, everything has been going well for Long Beach. "We're running better, playing defense better and beating people better," Tarkanian said. The 49ers seem quicker, smarter and far deeper than last year, and while Ratliff has lent his usual domination, the arrival of little-known Roscoe Pondexter, a powerful 6'6" sixth man who averages 14 points, has been an important factor. Another JC transfer, Guard Rick Aberegg, has contributed enough passing skills for Tarkanian to exploit a running game and free Ratleff for some ball-handling chores.
All of this seemed to no avail against Lemons' hustling Chiefs in the first half of their semifinal game. While Long Beach strayed from its familiar zone to play man-for-man, OCU's Edwards and Rich plugged away outside from ABA 3-point territory for 17 and 15 points respectively and Oklahoma City shot 59 percent to lead 49-45 at the half.
Tosee, the little Redskin, was deft in backcourt and with the 49er tall men in foul difficulty, Tarkanian looked ready to circle his wagons. Then Ratleff began making his wondrous plays to take back control. His defense held Edwards to one basket the rest of the way and Long Beach went ahead by six points. But OCU began chipping away and, due to some surprising work inside by Larry Tribble ("He's jest some ugly stranger to me," said Lemons. "Gah never comes to practice"), the Chiefs led 78-74 with about a minute remaining.
It was here that both the weakness and the raw power of Long Beach showed most dramatically. Twice down the stretch the 49ers missed from outside and both times 240-pound Leonard Gray went over several bodies to tap the ball in. Now, with the score tied, the tom-toms beating and five seconds to go, the 49ers' Aberegg stole the dribble from Rich at midcourt and was fouled as he went racing into the basket. He hadn't missed a free throw all year and he didn't miss these. Long Beach won 80-78.
Just prior to the other semifinal, both Brigham Young Coach Glenn Potter and Florida State's Durham were down-hearted to see Referee Savidge. It seemed clear that their game would come down to whichever team's big men lasted the longest, and that is what happened. Florida State's McCray (who played just seven minutes) and Reggie Royals both fouled out; BYU's Cosic and a muscular Finn named Kalevi Sarkalahti stayed in the game and Brigham Young won 80-77, despite being out cored from the field by six baskets. His Seminoles having taken only three free throws during the entire contest, Durham hurdled after the referees in a fury and looked ready for a punch-out. "These guys should pay this tournament for being allowed to work the big time," he said. "We played as well as we can. How can you tell who the best team is when these butchers don't let you play."
It was easy to tell the next evening after Long Beach battered Brigham Young in the finals. The Cougars are a smart, well-balanced unit—maybe the very last of the Fine White Teams—but they couldn't cope defensively when the 49ers threw their devastating fast break down the floor in that first half.
BYU had played a box-and-one on Ratleff last season and held him down somewhat in an overtime loss. This time Brian Ambrozich started against him head-up and contained the Long Beach star for the first eight minutes while Brigham Young stayed with the 49ers. But then the Cougar defense fell apart; Ratleff scored 13 of the next 16 Long Beach points and finished the evening with 34.
The outcome was no surprise to Lemons who, as always, had the last word. "How Brigham Young 'spect to win anythang?" he said. "All's they got is a bunch of Mormons, farriners and Commnists. Now Long Beach—they big, they mean and they bad. But know what they's missin'?"
Nobody needed to answer that. What Long Beach was missing was one good Endin.
Best of all was Long Beach's Ed Ratleff, sharpshooter of the tournament's sharpest team.
Kresimir Cosic, the Yugoslav with the gypsy moves, moved Brigham Young into the finals.
Chiefs Coach Abe Lemons runs the Classic and does the talking.