Publish date:

That cactus cacophony


There are three axioms in college basketball coaching: never disparage the cooking of the athletic director's wife, never laugh at a referee's toupee and never, ever, open the season with a giant when a cream puff will do. Because they were obliged to violate the last, Fred Snowden and Ned Wulk were chewing their knuckles Thanksgiving Day. As bitter rivals and the respective coaches of Arizona and Arizona State, each had a case of shakes over their Friday night meeting; even if it was each team's opener, it could indicate who might ultimately win the championship of the Western Athletic Conference. They don't play again until February.

So, as the University of Arizona's McKale Center echoed with thumping heartbeats and the rest of the state listened outside the door, Arizona won 92-91 in overtime, getting 34 points from Herm (the Germ) Harris, a real virus as far as Arizona State was concerned. Although Harris did everything but infect his rivals with strep, it was a little-known dream weaver named Tim Marshall who came up with the winning basket on a drive with two seconds remaining. "I just closed my eyes," said Marshall, after opening them in the locker room. "I didn't really want to shoot."

Meanwhile, Ned Wulk reaffirmed what he had been saying all along. With three newcomers in his young Arizona State lineup, including one freshman who looked like an Acapulco cliff diver, this was no way to begin a season. It was the freshman with the long black wavy locks, Johnny Nash, who was beaten on the final play after tormenting Arizona most of the night.

The locals regard U vs. State as the greatest thing since air conditioning. The rivalry embodies even more than the usual bitter feelings common to intrastate foes, for it is a tale of two cities: Tucson, where the University of Arizona is located, and State's hometown Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix. Once these metropolitan areas were comparable in size, but Phoenix' growth long ago accelerated and its citizens look with disdain upon smaller Tucson, a town, they sneer, that is filled with rusted car mufflers. In any case, it is a rivalry to be cherished and one that will endure even though both schools are making overtures to move to the Pac 8 in a package deal.

The depth of the feeling between the schools can be illustrated in several ways. Ernie Valenzuela, a Tucson native and the Arizona student manager, turned down an academic scholarship to State to stay home in Tucson, where he had to pay his own way. And despite Phoenix being only 120 miles from Tucson, U of A officials were not worried about an influx of rival fans. The game contract deeded only 24 tickets to State players, two for each, plus a few hundred more that one fan said were located "up in the rafters" of the 14,438-seat arena. Tony Castagna, who is State's mascot and is prime prey for Wildcat fans in his bright red costume, said, "I'm glad my Sun Devil's head is made out of rubber."

The first thing Arizona fans told Snowden, when he arrived in Tucson in 1972 after being an assistant coach at Michigan, was that any season would be considered successful if he beat State. "It's big-time Phoenix against small-time Tucson," said Snowden last week. "Our fans kind of christen you to go forth and carry out the edict of the populace. Hey, it's a lot of fun. It's tough on your gut, but it's a lot of fun—in a sick sort of way."

The fun Snowden has must make up for all the heat he catches. Before Friday's game Arizona had beaten the Sun Devils only twice in eight tries under Snowden. "I think they play scared when they play us," said James (Silky) Holliman, State's senior guard. "We know we can beat them anytime, anyplace. It's the game of the year for us. We're going out there to prove the power."

The differences between Tucson and Phoenix extend to their basketball coaches, who are antithetical in appearance and style. Snowden is a short black man who is so slick you can almost hear his fingers snapping when he talks. His plush office even has a shoeshine machine in it. Wulk is a tall, solid Midwesterner who thinks that dancing is tapping your foot. Ironically, neither team reflects the personality of its coach. Snowden has a big, power-oriented squad that likes to jam the ball inside. Wulk's clubs have dash and verve, pressing all over the court, running pell-mell and doubling their bets when they hit a losing streak.

Some U of A fans were concerned about their team's ability to counter State's gadfly defense so early in the season. Still, Snowden did not work the Wildcats against the press until the day before the game. Also causing concern was the fact that the team's best ball handler, junior Gilbert Myles, who wears No. 00, had been relegated to the junior varsity because of his penchant for flash in the backcourt. The demotion came despite the fact that Myles had been a starter since his freshman year and won two games with clutch performances in the final minutes last season.

And State did rattle the Wildcats during the early minutes, forcing three quick turnovers. Snowden had warned his team that the Sun Devils would be loose. "Don't let anyone come in your living room and be insulting," he cautioned. But State quickly built a 12-3 lead and everyone in the stands hunched up to the edge of their seats waiting to see if the Wildcats would heed their coach's advice.

The U of A had expected to win by dominating play under the basket. Instead, it was State's sophomore springboard, Tony Zeno, and transfer Mark Landsberger, a rawboned forward, who dominated the Wildcats' big people. At halftime Arizona's Bob Elliott, the U of A's All-America candidate, had managed but two shots, and only Herm the Germ's long-distance injections kept the team on the radarscope and within five points, 46-41. He was deadly.

Harris' sensational moves figure to provide much of Arizona's scoring this year. Len Gordy, his high school and college teammate and his roommate on the road, has complete admiration for Harris. Whenever anyone asks him who is the best ballplayer he ever saw, he answers, "Herman Harris."

The Germ looked worthy of Gordy's plaudits at the start of the second half when he rifled in two jumpers that put Arizona even closer. From then on the two teams stayed as tight as thieves who mistrust each other until, with 1:47 left, Holliman had a chance to run out the door with the money. State led by 82-79 and Holliman was on the free-throw line shooting one and one. He missed, and Arizona scrambled back to tie the score on a layup by Phil Taylor with 28 seconds remaining. "We made some really immature mistakes," Holliman said later. "We killed their will. They were giving up. And we let 'em back."

In the overtime State was playing without Zeno, who had fouled out, and Landsberger was limping on a knee injured when he drove to the basket on the final play of regulation time. Still, the Sun Devils built an early four-point lead. But Arizona kept popping away, and Harris—with Snowden pleading for a time-out from the sidelines—put the Wildcats ahead by sinking a jumper with 46 seconds left.

Before the cheers had subsided Holliman drove the length of the floor and fed teammate Bill Kucharsky for a layup to give State the lead once again. Obviously this was a game that would be won by the team last in possession of the ball. Arizona's Marshall had it last, and the only place he could get rid of it was in the basket. "Don't you ever bring that ball over to me with two seconds left again," Marshall told playmaker Gary Harrison after the game.

The remark was made in jest, but Marshall had a point. Some people may think it charming to play for the Cactus League championship on the day after Thanksgiving, but with everyone in the desert looking on and with all the pressure, no one wanted to become a turkey just for the sake of trying to be a hero.