At the University of Utah, students have been known to camp out in pup tents overnight in the snow to get basketball tickets, and Coach Jerry Pimm is such an important man in Salt Lake City that he was recently made a director of Utah Firstbank. At Brigham Young, 45 miles down Interstate 15 in Provo, about 14,000 season tickets have been sold for games in the 22,700-seat Marriott Center, the largest on-campus arena in the country. To be sure, the land along the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains is basketball country, but never more so than on occasions like last Saturday night when 15,186 fans at Utah's Special Events Center and a statewide television audience watched as the two old rivals met for the 160th time. And though the mere fact that Utah and BYU were taking the floor together was enough to inflame passions, this game had an extra fillip. The winner would gain sole possession of the lead in the WAC, the wacky conference that comprises about 2% of the nation's people and 98% of its mountains and rattlesnakes.
The game would also be a showcase for two outstanding sophomores, 6'7" Utah Forward Danny Vranes and 6'4½" BYU Guard Danny Ainge. Ainge came out on top by scoring 24 points, winning the game's outstanding player award and leading the Cougars to a 90-76 victory.
For Brigham Young Coach Frank Arnold it was a doubly sweet win, because that afternoon he had attended a Cougar Club booster meeting in Salt Lake City and heard gripes from alumni who were unhappy that the Utes had won 10 of the previous 11 Utah-BYU encounters. Now Brigham Young rules the rivalry—at least until the Feb. 17 rematch in Provo—and is assured its first winning season in six years.
Much of the credit for the turnaround must go to the boyish Ainge (the name is French and pronounced to rhyme with range), who uses a razor blade only to cut the tape off his ankles. He comes from Eugene, Ore., where he led North High to a 52-1 record and two state basketball titles while making the Scholastic Coach All-America teams in basketball and football and starring in baseball. "When he wants to relax," said one of his high school coaches, "he shoots golf in the 70s." Ainge is a Mormon, which is the principal reason he spurned Oregon colleges and signed with BYU.
Though he no longer participates in football, Ainge continues to play baseball—not at Brigham Young, but with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, top farm club of the Toronto Blue Jays. Taking advantage of a five-year-old NCAA rule that allows a versatile fellow to be a pro in one sport while remaining an amateur in another, he signed a $60,000 bonus contract with Toronto before his freshman year at Provo. Last April, after setting a Cougar single-season scoring record of 632 points, making first-team All-WAC and completing his winter studies, Ainge reported to Syracuse and went 3 for 5 in his pro debut.
That auspicious beginning had Ainge's fans back in Utah comparing him to such accomplished baseball-basketball players of the past as the late Benny Borgmann, Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, Ron Reed, Bill Sharman and Dick Groat. But Ainge soon stopped hitting—his batting average dipped as low as .167—and he had some fielding problems, mainly with his throwing motion from shortstop. He really should have started in Class A ball, and he had the added handicap of having missed spring training.
Then, in August, Ainge hit .296 and was named the Chiefs' Player of the Month. "I certainly expect Danny to be in the major leagues some day." says Syracuse Manager Vern Benson. "I wouldn't want to put a timetable on it, but he definitely has big league potential. Last summer, from the beginning of the season to the end, Danny improved more than any other player I've had the pleasure of working with. And I've been in baseball a long time."
Ainge plans to continue splitting his athletic life between the no-smoking, no-drinking, no-swearing atmosphere of the campus he calls "Happy Valley" and the tobacco-juice ambience of pro dugouts. He will be married in March to BYU coed Michelle Toolson.
The other young Danny—Utah's Vranes, whose name is Yugoslavian—is a Mormon, too, but he turned down BYU to join his cousin Jeff Judkins, the Utes' leading scorer last season and now a Celtic. Vranes started as a freshman, hit 55% of his shots and wowed the WAC with his terrific jumping ability.
Basketball coaches kid about "the white man's disease," i.e., the inability to get much higher off the floor than an arthritic hippopotamus, but Vranes plainly has avoided infection. He doesn't even need a running start; he just bends his knees a bit and pops into the air. He led the Utes in rebounding last year and this season led in both rebounding and scoring going into the BYU game.
Duke Coach Bill Foster, who used to be the head man at Utah, tried to lure Vranes away from his native Salt Lake City but didn't stand much of a chance. The Vranes and Judkins families are in the drapery business together and jointly own a cabin in Mill Canyon that has a basketball court in back. And the members of both clans are avid outdoorsmen. Vranes loves to water-ski on Lake Powell, backpack and fish in the Uinta Mountains and hunt deer, elk and duck. It is a big disappointment to him that the pheasant season comes during the basketball season.
At few other universities in the nation could an athlete have had the kind of day Vranes enjoyed not long ago. He cut his morning classes to go deer hunting with Center Tom Chambers. Vranes wounded a deer, which ran off into the brush. They had to chase it down, finish it off and drag the deer out of a ravine. They were late for basketball practice and got chewed out by Pimm.
Vranes has faced more dangerous things than Pimm's wrath, however. Last summer he was named to a U.S. all-star team that played in the Soviet Union. Soon after arriving in the U.S.S.R., he suffered an appendicitis attack and had to undergo surgery. The danger did not come from the Russian doctor's scalpel, but from the food Vranes was served after the operation. When he at last felt like eating, he was served a bowl of mayonnaise and a raw egg. Subsequent meals were greasier than a 25¬¨¬®¬¨¢ hamburger.
Vranes returned to Utah none the worse for his experience, and going into last weekend he had led the Runnin' Utes to a 13-5 record and a 2-0 league mark. BYU was 12-5 and 2-0. Arnold's plan was to use a 1-3-1 zone defense with the speedy Ainge roaming the baseline in hopes his presence would neutralize the quickness of Utah's front line of Vranes, Chambers and Greg Deane. Cougar forwards Fred Roberts and Dev-in Durrant are both freshmen, and it might have been disastrous for them to cover Vranes and Deane man to man.
Pimm's biggest worry was BYU's "early game," that disorganized moment between the time when the defense has halted the fast break and aligns itself to stop set offensive plays. Ainge, if not handcuffed during this critical gap, might pump in a zillion medium-range jump shots. The job of trying to put the handcuffs on him fell to senior Guard Earl Williams from faraway Newark, N.J., who had done a good job on Ainge last year.
"Ainge is pretty quick," Williams said. "He's tough to guard and presents some problems that most guys don't. I don't know what he's planning, but I know I'm going to be at 100% and ready to play. He's not going to get the type of freedom he usually does."
Utah had attacked zones well in previous games and, in fact, got lots of inside shots against BYU, but not enough of them fell. Chambers, for one, hit only four of 19. Meanwhile, neither Williams nor his sub, Donnie Rice, could stop Ainge: while he scored his 24 points, they collected nine fouls between them. And BYU's 6'10" junior Center Alan Taylor was more than a match for Vranes on the boards. Taylor took down 20 rebounds. Vranes got 16 to go with his 23 points.
Brigham Young shot better from the field and the free-throw line, fouled less, rebounded more and had fewer turnovers than the Utes—not bad for an immature team reputed to be shaky on the road.
"Taylor played very well," said Pimm. "He got a lot of defensive rebounds and kept the ball alive on the offensive boards. He outplayed us inside.
"And, obviously, we did not stop Ainge. The early game just killed us in the first half. Danny Ainge is a great player. I like him. I like his fieriness. I like his competitiveness, I like the way he gets the hell after it.
"And he'll start hitting the curve. I hope he starts hitting it this summer, so he gets to the majors. I want to see him out of college just as soon as possible."
Ainge, who hits his shots better than the curve, had 24 points, while Vranes got 16 rebounds.