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Pan Am finds the going great

With Abe Lemons' easygoing coaching and a 19-1 record

Abilene, Tex. is a city whose earthly delights are so limited that Abe Lemons once punished his players during a visit there by telling them they had to stay out until 11 o'clock. "It is a bad place to lose a game because on cable TV they run the news in writing across the side of a fishbowl that has this big old goldfish in it," Lemons remarked last week as his Pan American University Broncs arrived in Abilene to play Hardin-Simmons. "That fish'll look at you, and if you lost, he can tell. The last thing you want to find yourself doing at night in Abilene is lying there a loser looking at that fish."

The Broncs kept the goldfish at bay by making mackerel out of Hardin-Simmons' Cowboys 82-75. It was Pan American's 18th win in a row and ran the record of the little-known college from Edinburg, Tex. to 19-1, better than any other NCAA Division I team except Indiana.

The afternoon before the game Lemons had watched the team's trainer, the faculty adviser, the sportswriter, the radio announcer and the assistant athletic director all head off with the players toward Pan Am's first practice session in two days. "Well," he said, "if everybody else is going, I guess I might as well go too."

It was not that Lemons felt guilty about not attending the session. He believes in what might be described as an alternate coaching style. "The players are more relaxed if there's not an adult with 'em," he said. "I'd prefer to send 'em over there with White." Lemons' assistant, Bill White, is well on up into his 30s, and Lemons usually jokingly lists him as "defensive coordinator" because the Broncs are, to say the least, not noted for defense. "Trouble is, there's nobody for him to coordinate it with," Lemons said.

It was only because he was going to be left by himself with no one to play poker or talk basketball theories with that Lemons tagged along, propounding all the way.

"They're always talking about cutting down the big man by raising the basket," he said. "I tell 'em they ought to bore a hole in the floor and change the rules so you have to drop the ball through. Then there'd be cheating to sign up little men. Everybody'd be chasing after guys two feet tall." Lemons stooped over, picked a tiny imaginary recruit, looked him square in the eye and said, "I'll give you a car."

When the team arrived at Taylor County Coliseum, balls were not immediately available, so Lemons proposed a little tip-in practice using the hat of Marshall Rogers, his high scorer with a 27.1 average. Then he digressed to tell about how they treated Rogers at the University of Kansas before he transferred to Pan Am:

"They wanted him to play all kinds of defense. Said they wanted him to take that big man's charge. 'Don't worry,' they told him, 'if you get hurt, we've got somebody to put in for you.' " Lemons does not require Rogers to get himself run over because that is not what Rogers does best. It is Lemons' philosophy not to impose an arbitrary system on players but to fit their respective strengths together, concede their weaknesses, chew them out entertainingly and turn them loose to play the game. Rogers' specialty is running and gunning. Early last week he shot 39 times as Pan Am defeated Texas A&I 119-85.

Rogers' backcourt mate is Jesus (Chuy) Guerra, the floor leader who holds all the school's assist records. During Lemons' 18 years at Oklahoma City University he often declared himself the nation's best coach of Indians. Now, in his second year at Pan Am, he is one of the very few college coaches working with a Mexican-American, and Guerra, with his 10.1 assists and 14.1 points per game, makes him look like the best. The other starters, Rogers, Gilbert King, Julies (pronounced "Julius") Howard and John McDowell, are black. "We need a little racial balance," says Lemons. "I'm thinking about getting a Chinese faculty adviser."

Not until Lemons arrived did Pan Am begin to take on Southwest Conference teams—it has beaten SMU and Rice this year—or travel as far away as Georgia Tech or Hawaii. None of Lemons' players was a blue-chip recruit, but they produce for him because, he says, "We don't do a whole lot of baloney." He imposes no curfew, except maybe the occasional reverse one. There are no team meals, no tricky plays ("I'd rather have tricky players"), no scouting reports (because he does not scout other teams), no emotional pep talks and no long, highly structured practices.

Sometimes there is no practice at all. After an hour or so at Taylor County Coliseum the balls still had not shown up. An elderly gentleman would appear from time to time and mumble at Lemons, and occasionally a younger man who spoke no known language would pop in and make some noises. "Everybody throw in a nickel and we'll get up a pool on what's been going on here. Whoever guesses closest wins the pot," said the coach. Finally he gave up and merely had his players run a few laps.

Three days without practice did not unduly bother the Broncs. Against Hardin-Simmons, Rogers played an unusually controlled game, taking only 17 shots, making eight of them and scoring 19 points. That allowed teammate King to take a rare turn as high scorer with 24 points, many of them on passes from Guerra, who had 11 assists. All of which was enough to offset Pan Am's uncoordinated defense and keep Lemons from a long night in Abilene being stared at by a goldfish.