Skip to main content
Original Issue

Blooming cactus flowers

Arizona was long given up for dead, but a transfusion of stimulating young talent brought in from afar has hearts all aflutter in Tucson

There is a fresh attraction springing up in Arizona and it has one old retirement community throwing away those shuffleboard sticks. Out in Sun Heaven the University of Arizona basketball team has replaced the oxygen tent as a life-support system, its frenetic behavior opening up rusted arteries and clearing the cobwebs from brains addled by too much Bingo. Tucson, in short, has another Cactus Flower and the town loves it.

The enthusiasm gushes for a team that uses as many aliases as can be found on a post-office bulletin board and employs a coltish, exuberant style. Fans leave a game feeling as if they had just sipped from the Fountain of Youth. Arizona starts four sophomores and a freshman, scores baskets at a faster clip than some of the pros and plays laissez-faire defense. The Wildcats racked up 106 points once this year and still lost by 15.

Last Saturday night they played archenemy Arizona State in Tucson. The game had the bitter overtones of two neighbors arguing over a property boundary and the surreal staging of a Grade B Western in which the gunfighters never have to reload. Arizona won the shootout 98-90, powered by the trigger of Bob (Big Bird) Elliott, a 6'10" freshman with a future rivaling that of a Mideast sheik. The brawny Elliott scored 38 points and mocked his opponents with 25 rebounds.

The victory raised Arizona's season mark to 14-5 and put it back in firm contention for the Western Athletic Conference title. And it came before a standing-room crowd of close to 14,000 in the new McKale Memorial Center, a tribute not only to the team but to its coach, Fred Snowden, one of the first blacks hired to lead a major college team.

When he arrived at Arizona less than two years ago, Snowden inherited a squad that played before listless, sparse crowds in an ancient, gray edifice named Bear Down Gym. The team had won 16 games in two years. Snowden scoured the cities, recruited a passel of freshmen and junior-college transfers and won that many in his first season, going down to the final game before being eliminated from the conference race. "You better get a good look at them," Snowden said when people raved over his incubator babies, "because there are more on the way."

Tucson gradually became enchanted by this enthusiastic man. His flamboyance was suspect at first, but as the victories mounted suspicion was replaced by respect and approbation. He was named WAC Coach of the Year, Tucson's Man of the Year and became a celebrity. Now he has two television shows, appears in several commercials and generates almost enough outside income to match his $23,500 salary from the university. Last week, while he prepared for the Arizona State game, he also was wrestling with the problems of a new $50,000 house. "I always dreamed big dreams," he says.

For 10 years Snowden coached in the Detroit school system where his teams had an 189-7 total record, never losing more than two games in a single year. He took a pay cut to become an assistant coach at Michigan in 1968. Then came Arizona.

He is 37 years old, a small man with a pencil-thin mustache and the beginnings of a paunch. He was born in Brewton, Ala. to a sharecropping family and raised in Detroit, mostly in the inner city where he weathered the riots of 1967. He has a smooth, cool manner that has earned him the nickname The Fox. Says his white assistant, Jerry Holmes, "Fred could talk George Wallace's son into going to school here."

Snowden and Holmes make a personable recruiting tandem. They brought in eight freshmen this year, including highly sought prospects like Elliott, Herm (The Germ) Harris and Jerome Gladney. An example of their resourcefulness occurred on a trip to Indiana to recruit Forward Al Fleming last year. They were not enamored of their prospects of landing him, but when the high school senior introduced them to his mother, they were flabbergasted to learn her name was Arizona. Holmes jumped straight into the air and shouted, "God sent us!"

Most of his players, white and black, agree that Snowden is a master psychologist. He allows them to express their individuality while still insisting that they conform to a firm set of rules. "I don't think my blackness gives me any advantage," says Snowden. "I'm more of a people person anyway. I refuse to be a tyrant every day of the week. I think sometimes a coach has to be big enough to let a player throw a fancy pass." None of his players remembers hearing Snowden ever blow a whistle at practice.

He claims he does not think that defense is a dirty seven-letter word, but his players, mostly blacks with roots in the playground style of the inner cities, revel in his run-and-shoot approach. "Playing against a team like Texas-El Paso can be a very boring game," sniff's sophomore Guard Eric Money. "I don't know how some schools get black ballplayers, the way they play the game. You can go to a lot of schools to play basketball. But you can go to only some schools to play basketball."

Money was in the vanguard of the players recruited by Snowden last year. A 6'2" guard who has the jerky moves of a puppet on a string and feet so fast they hardly seem to touch the floor, he is the team leader, even going so far as to taunt his teammates in practice. "He can pass the ball," says Coniel (Popcorn) Norman. "He'll make any big fellow look good if the guy can just catch the ball." Of course, that can be a problem. Fleming, who is catching it enough to be hitting on 68% of his shots this year, has a scar on his face, a tattoo from one pass he did not handle. And Elliott says he goes home each day with at least one new bruise courtesy of Money's skill.

Against Arizona State the Wildcats had 15 turnovers in the first half but still managed a nine-point lead at intermission. In the second half, after Arizona State pulled into an early 56-56 tie, the team handled the ball more judiciously. Afterward, Money was asked why. He raised a forefinger and pointed to his head.

Arizona won the game despite an average performance from Coniel Norman, whose names go as well backward as forward but whose scoring style is straight ahead. "He's the best shooter in college basketball," says Holmes. Named the WAC's Most Valuable Player last year as a freshman, Norman was a high school teammate of Money's and once made 127 out of 128 practice free throws. And if Bobby Riggs ever cares to challenge him, he will let the old man shoot from the foul line while he fires away from half court. A television crew filmed him shooting 20-footers earlier this year. Norman swished 37 straight before the crew ran out of film.

People in the state had eagerly anticipated the Arizona-Arizona State game, a rivalry of long standing that evokes visceral emotions. In addition, the Sun Devils were coming to Tucson with a string of six straight wins over Arizona. Everywhere Snowden went he was greeted with, "Gonna win Saturday night?"

He and his team tended to play down the importance of the game. "Rivalry?" said Money. "I'm from Detroit." "It's only going to count as one loss or one victory," Snowden pattered, and to show he meant it he closed his practices and cloistered the team in the Plaza International Hotel on Friday night, a first-time-ever experience at home. He also ruminated over a newspaper column in which the author speculated that St. Peter would not let him into Heaven if he did not beat Arizona State.

Saturday morning the beleaguered coach showed up for breakfast at the hotel with the hollow-eyed look of Papillon, muttering about the workmen who had awakened him at 2:30 a.m. repairing a hotel elevator. He could not go back to sleep. "My wife said, 'What's wrong with you, tossing and turning all night? You never get like that.' I'll tell you, after we win tonight a lot of people are going to go berserk." Then he paused, remembering what he had been saying, and added, "It's just another game."

Next to him, his jittery assistant Holmes was eating his napkin. Obviously just another game.

When it was over and Arizona had scored 98 points against a team that played good defense and had been allowing only 72 a game, Fleming commented, "The coaches were so nervous they were like hens sitting on eggs."

The trepidation stemmed from a realization that a loss practically would eliminate Arizona from title consideration in the WAC. The Wildcats were the overwhelming preseason choice, the voters apparently ignoring the defection of John Irving, a big shot-blocking sophomore who succumbed to homesickness and transferred to Hofstra on Long Island. Arizona still was in good shape before Elliott and Fleming came down with the flu on a road trip to wintery Wyoming where the temperature went to 34° below zero with a wind-chill factor estimated at 90 below. The team lost three of its next six games, all in the conference.

Arizona's game plan against Arizona State was to shut off Ron Kennedy, the Sun Devils' massive center who is nicknamed The Rock. Snorted Elliott on Friday: "The Rock hasn't seen a fast-breaking center. That's what I am. I'm one of the new centers, a Dave Cowens type. I'm like a Motor Mouse."

Elliott grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., the son of schoolteacher parents. He plays a variety of musical instruments, but after he sprouted eight inches in one year it was obvious he would be a real virtuoso on the basketball court. He hit a 35-foot shot at the buzzer to beat Kansas State, but that pales in comparison to his performance against Arizona State. In the second half alone he had as many rebounds as ASU's entire team. Kennedy, bothered by foul trouble and a twisted ankle, had only seven points and five rebounds. "I guess they won't be talking about The Rock too much now," said Elliott.

A few feet away Snowden was accepting congratulations. With only seconds remaining in the game and the win assured, he had swung his right arm in a relieved gesture of victory. Last year he lost twice to ASU. This year is the Year of the Fox, the people in Tucson have been saying. Mixing his animals, Snowden smiled and sat down. "I wonder," he said, "if those people here tonight still think it's unlucky if a black cat crosses their path?"