Say it ain't so, Cliff! - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Say it ain't so, Cliff!

Alas, it may be. The nation's top schoolboys could be UCLA bound

In a way this is a horror story. It involves the long domination of college basketball by UCLA, and the chilling fact is this: the Bruins may stay on top forever. Clues to this unsporting situation abound. They include a ripening of interest in basketball at the high school level in California, the reluctance of locally grown talent to leave the home state and the discovery that three of the West Coast's—many say the nation's—four outstanding high school seniors are threatening to enroll at UCLA en masse.

The story begins on East Vine in West Fresno, an unpaved, dead-end street with two junkyards and a scraggly field of corn down aways. Directly across from the corn is a tiny, one-story house where two very large adults and four oversized children have trouble making life mellow on $5,000 a year. The section of town is so isolated that mailmen can reach it only by truck, but that might not be a bad thing. The daily mail is heavy at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Roscoe Pondexter Sr. It comes from such faraway places as Hawaii and Florida, where the Pondexters have no friends or relatives (no doubt the senders wish they did), and all of it concerns their second son, Cliff. He is 6'7" and 230 pounds and he does things on the basketball floor like tipping in baskets from jump balls and dunking spectacularly when he wants to come out at the end of the game. He is something to see, and the curious have come to look.

As many another Eastern basketball coach had done, Maryland's Lefty Driesell sent an assistant out merely to ask if a player like Pondexter would consider going outside California to visit a campus. Well, probably he wouldn't. Would he consider Long Beach State, where Coach Jerry Tarkanian already has Cliff's older brother Roscoe Jr.? Well....

Cliff is used to playing with Roscoe. They teamed for two years at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno and they became so effective that opponents began to think they were up against one guy who stood 13 feet tall, weighed 430 pounds and could outscore and outrebound them all, which on occasions the brothers did. The two were so popular that to handle its crowds the school had to rent college arenas for nearly every home game. Roscoe closed out his career in 1971 as the highest prep scorer in California history (2,288 points), and Cliff was on his way to breaking that record this season—he was averaging over 30 points a game—when who should arrive on the scene from the football squad but his younger brother Sam (6'3", 200 pounds) and some other teammates to balance the Panthers' scoring attack.

In the six consecutive seasons that one or two Pondexter brothers have played for Coach Tom Cleary, Memorial has won 129 of 151 games. Roscoe, the extrovert, is now averaging 13 points a game at Long Beach State and is one strong reason why the team is ranked fourth in the country, but it is 18-year-old Cliff who has emerged as the more dominant figure of the two. Quiet and self-contained—"You never know what he's thinking and he'll never tell you straight," says his mother, Mrs. Zeola Pondexter—he keeps things to himself. Recently he played a game while so weakened by the flu that he could not keep his hands from shaking during time-outs. Afterward, Cleary, who had not known his star was ill, apologized for his so-so game but then realized he had been fooled himself. Cliff had scored 32 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and handed out four assists.

College recruiters have been saying all season that Cliff has only three peers in the country—Richard Washington of Benson Tech in Portland, Ore. and Lewis Brown and Jackie Robinson of Verbum Dei and Morningside high schools in the Los Angeles area. Washington and Brown are close to 7 feet tall and good shooters while Robinson is a mature 6'5" forward with excellent moves to the basket.

Cliff's game is all-round and intimidating. Built like an NFL defensive end, he dominates the whole court, whether powering in for a layup or violently snatching a defensive rebound. Because of his strength and leaping ability many college coaches feel he could remain at center in spite of being only 6'7". They like the way he leans forward on defense—ready as Bill Russell was—shoulders hunched in anticipation of a move on the basket. Like Russell, Cliff prevents many would-be shots by dipping as if to jump. Should the shot come anyway, he often blocks it in mid-flight.

"Cliff Pondexter has the potential to challenge the world of the big men just as Sidney Wicks did," says a UCLA recruiter, Frank Arnold. "He is a man among boys in high school, a better-than-average outside shooter and he is quick laterally with great explosion to the basket."

When Cliff was a sophomore and Roscoe a senior, Memorial finished 24-2, scored 100 points in seven consecutive games and knocked off Verbum Dei in a memorable upset. Lewis Brown was also a sophomore, and the Eagles were led by Raymond Lewis, who is presently the nation's second leading scorer at Los Angeles State.

By the time Roscoe graduated, Cliff was already two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier than his brother and more than qualified to move down to the low post near the basket. On his own at last, he won his first statewide acclaim in the annual Tournament of Champions in Oakland. Memorial was a late replacement for another school and so lightly regarded that it was put in the same bracket with Fremont High of Oakland, winner of 17 straight games, and Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland, 29-0 But Memorial beat both teams and breezed through the championship game by 20 points. Cliff scored 72 points in the three games and was the obvious (though unofficial) MVP.

Memorial was not as overpowering in a Christmas tournament this season at San Dimas in Southern California, but Cliff was. Memorial won only one game and Lewis Brown and Jackie Robinson squared off in the championship, but Cliff was voted Most Valuable Player for his 89 points and 31 rebounds in three games.

The possibility that California high school basketball could become the best in the United States may come as a mild shock to people in Indiana, Kentucky, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. But that is the trend. Although John Wooden recruits his share of out-of-state players, much of his talent comes right off the Los Angeles freeway system, which at the Wilshire Boulevard interchange is less than a mile from UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. "I'm always surprised if a bright young California player decides to go out of state," Wooden says.

A lot of people in California are going to be surprised if Wooden does not land Cliff Pondexter. Long Beach's Tarkanian, who was Cleary's high school coach at San Joaquin Memorial more than 15 years ago, could have an inside track but Cleary has misgivings about delivering his own prized pupil to Long Beach. Although the two get along fine, Tarkanian has never endorsed Cleary's win-but-not-at-all-costs philosophy. A child of the '50s who teaches ethnic history and talks contemporary jive as fast as they can make it up, Cleary learned some harsh lessons about recruiting when he went through the rush with Roscoe. While he refuses to favor one college over another he does say, "I don't think Cliff could help but profit from the atmosphere and discipline at UCLA. I just want to see him develop into the player and the man I know he can be."

If UCLA lands Pondexter, it probably will get Jackie Robinson, too, since he and Cliff say they want to attend school together. And Richard Washington reportedly is highly partial to UCLA. All of which sounds like the Alcindor-Wicks-Rowe act or is it the Walton-Wilkes-Farmer act all over again?

Regardless of where he would like to see Cliff go to school, Cleary has had the good sense to have his star put off visits to the University of California, UCLA, USC and Long Beach State until after basketball season ends in March. Cal will be looked at merely because Cliff wants to stay in the state and he likes the Bay Area. USC has been omnipresent. Assistant Coach Rex Hughes recently wrote the family a letter, drove almost 300 miles to see a meaningless game that Cliff did not even start because he was late for a practice, and then drove back to Los Angeles the next morning. Long Beach has relied on big family gatherings, like this season's Tournament of Champions in San Dimas. Tarkanian and Roscoe flew to the games after beating Jacksonville in New York. They were in time to see Cliff play and to talk with his parents. UCLA's style has been quiet, almost cool. The Bruins know who they are and so does everybody else.

The final word will come from Cliff himself. He does not read the mail is not terribly concerned with starting as a freshman and says he will simply go where he will be happiest. Things both brothers have said recently indicate that Roscoe and Cliff would like to establish separate identities. Roscoe has a chance to be an All-America at Long Beach and he says he would like to be known just as Roscoe Pondexter for a while, to see how it feels. The Pondexter Brothers will ride again, but perhaps apart. When Cliff was asked about UCLA recently he said: "They'll be very hard to say no to." Which is the perfect ending to a horror story.