Durham, N.C. Duke vs. North Carolina for last season's ACC regular-season title. Tar Heels start the game holding the ball. Blue Devils stay back in the zone. "Nerve warfare," a referee calls it. The Heels shoot once. Air. Shoot once more, from midcourt—an end-of-the-period, desperation prayer-ball. More air. NCAA record; least iron in a half. At the intermission Duke leads 7-0.
Birmingham, Ala. Second-night doubleheader in the SEC tournament. Kentucky's Kyle Macy and Truman Claytor, unconscious, shoot slingshots from a mile away for 47 points; Alabama's Reggie (Mule) King muscles for 33 inside. 'Cats win 101-100. Following which Georgia and Auburn, the seventh-and ninth-place teams in the league, play through four implausible overtimes. Tigers win 95-91.
Salt Lake City, the 1979 NCAA finals. Up in the Indiana State section a guy named Curtis Franklin wears a funny bandanna and runs through the aisles waving a huge paratrooper's boot painted silver. Franklin is 5'10", 240 pounds without the boot. The Sycamores are 33-0 with the boot. The section erupts. "Boot Head! Boot Head! Boot 'em outta here!" The Sycamores finish 33-1.
Wherever, along about the Ides of March I figured out why college basketball is a much better game than pro hoops. Oh, there was never any doubt in my mind that at the college level basketball is a happier event, more vibrant, colorful, exciting; that it is better—if not more skillfully—played, better coached and, yes, better officiated; that it is more enthusiastically followed by its fans and more artfully covered by television; that it is esthetically superior, technically more correct, often inspirational; that it is more meaningful than its counterpart. What brought the comparison into sharper focus was that on the rare occasions last spring that I could steal away for a college game, something invariably would happen that was spontaneous, adventuresome. Something would happen that was imaginative, different. Something would happen that was fun. Quite simply, something would happen.
The bottom line with the pros is, of course, money. But the basement line on the pro game is that nothing happens. There must be a correlation somewhere. The other day in Kansas City when Darryl Dawkins, Chocolate Thunder himself, went out and, in fulfillment of his lifelong ambition, got himself a glass backboard, did you hear what he said? Daddy D, the most innovative conversationalist in the NBA, said, "I ain't got no comment." And do you remember what the follow-up story was? It was how much money the 76ers would be billed for the damages Dawkins had wrought by shattering the backboard as he dunked.
Here was the first real happening in the pros since—zzzzzz, zzzzzz—Chamberlain-Russell, and Dawkins was sulking while Kansas City was screaming for money. Lord! What else, truly now, happens in the NBA?
A little background is in order. For the last four seasons, I have been exiled in pro basketball, subjected to the sufferings caused by, among other horrid things, Pacers-at-Pistons, Lloyd (All-World) Free, loose-ball fouls (whatever they are) and the numbing proliferation of the word "role," as in "nobody knows his role around here."
I always thought a basketball player's role was to be a basketball player. But nooooooooo. In the NBA they've got their "backup" center and their "power" forward and their "off' guard, not to mention their "lack of intensity." Old Lack is a star in pro ball. Especially when he knows his role.
This year the pros say their game has turned the corner, passing the intercollegiate brand, what with the arrival of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the three-point bucket. Terrific. Taking third things first, NBA gunners have been unloading—and missing—those preposterously long rockets for years; they just haven't counted three points before. So no change there. Besides which, the best faraway down-range shooter of them all is still on campus in the person of little-known Brian Magid at George Washington. Magid could give All-World a three handicap from 30 feet and win laughing.
As for Bird and Johnson, isn't it ironic that after just a few weeks among "the greatest players in the world" the Bird Man's patently college style had propelled the previously lost and abandoned Celtics to the NBA's Atlantic Division lead, while the Magic Man—who is after all nothing more than a college junior—had singlehandedly turned the Lakers around and was merely the biggest drawing card in captivity?
The NBA still plays too many games. Team talent is too watered-down. The athletes are paid too much and dog it too often. The silly rules, in particular the shot-timer and the zone prohibition, preclude imagination, hinder coaching strategy and reward selfishness. The result is tedious mediocrity. Larry O'Brien could hire Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bo Derek to disco around the 24-second clocks; I'd still rather watch DePaul-Marquette.
Behind this subtle objectivity, you may be able to ascertain that I am a college man through and through. You got it. As a kid in St. Louis, the first basketball game I ever saw was between Washington University and Wayne State. Big deal? No matter. I loved it. The player I remember most from my childhood was Easy Ed Macauley of the St. Louis U. Billikens. Easy Ed. Billikens. What marvelous names.
When my family moved to Upstate New York I became a fan of what was then known as the Little Three—Canisius, St. Bonaventure and Niagara. Especially of the Purple Eagles of Niagara: Al Butler, Kenny Glenn, the great Sal Vergopia. Hubie Brown was in there somewhere—yes, the same guy who coaches the Atlanta Hawks—and Alex (Boo) Ellis. I loved that name, too. Alex (Boo) Ellis. In a warmup at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium one night, Jumpin' Joe Caldwell of Arizona State threw down a 360-degree, behind-his-head, backwards, sideways, triple-pumping, outrageously impossible monster basket. It was the first dunk shot I remember, and neither Dr. J nor Mr. Dawkins has come close to it yet.
In college at North Carolina I got into the game heavy. In college at North Carolina one usually does. This was Tobacco Road, the home of the Big Four: Wake Forest with Bones McKinney, Len Chappell and somebody named Billy Packer; Duke with Vic Bubas, Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins; N.C. State with the fading legend, Everett Case. I came in at Chapel Hill with Dean Smith and left with Billy Cunningham. Frank McGuire, briefly out of coaching, lived down the lane. Al McGuire was over at Belmont Abbey. Lefty Driesell was at Davidson. You get the picture. Oh yes. There was a guy with a great name at North Carolina too. Yogi Poteet. You know I had to love Yogi Poteet.
Moving right along, I'm not sure I didn't become a sports journalist only so I could go to the NCAA finals every year. Annually moving around the land; bringing together four teams whose style, personnel and geographical and cultural backgrounds are vastly dissimilar; evoking the spectacle of the Big Time amid down-home rooters and infectious college spirit. The final four, I firmly believe, endures as the most beguiling of all sports events. Because of it, my love affair with college basketball continued unabated.
Trivia? I used to have it all down. Let's see. The one-game college rebound record? Why Bill Chambers, of course. Fifty-one boards for William & Mary against Virginia in 1953. Bill Chambers told me that himself. Texas Western's national champions? Easy. Bobby Joe Hill, Orsten Artis, David Lattin, Nevil (The Shadow) Shed, Harry Flournoy, Willie Cager, Willie Worsley. I didn't look, honest. The eighth man, a white guy, was Jerry Armstrong. Actually, this question is not difficult inasmuch as the Miners of 1965-66 remain one of my favorite teams. How about UCLA's victims in the NCAA finals? How about Duke, Michigan, Dayton, North Carolina, Purdue, Jacksonville, Vacated (hah! you don't want any part of me, folks), Florida State, Memphis State and Kentucky?
Over the endless years of UCLA dominance there was still a fascination about college basketball. Who could beat the Bruins? Who could even get there to beat them? When David Thompson and North Carolina State finally did it in 1974, it was not only the end of the college game's final dynasty but also the beginning of the sport's breakthrough into wonderland, i.e., national television.
TV always said the college game was too slow, too small, too provincial to be aired on a regular basis. Then NBC discovered that attractive regional games drew big numbers, the network began pairing off intersectional foes—this season DePaul-UCLA, Indiana-North Carolina, Louisville-St. John's, Kentucky-Las Vegas, among others—and it turned the UCLA-Notre Dame rivalry into a national mania. The 1979-80 season will be only the fifth season of Saturday regional and Sunday national college games, but the NCAA ratings simply dwarf those of the longer-established NBA on CBS. It is nice to know I'm not alone.
One last snipe before I quit. I think I appreciate how talented the pros are, but I am less than enthralled with a game that has no place for an Ernie DiGregorio, who may be short and slow but is also as smart, as creative and as exciting a player as ever made a team—pick your level. This is the crux of the matter. In college the game is coached and played the way it was meant to be; talent isn't the dominant factor.
John Stroud of Mississippi and Ron Baxter of Texas are the DiGregorios for this winter. While the 6'7" Stroud can't run and is only a fair leaper, he is an exquisite shooter and a player who fits into the Ole Miss system just so; he could lead the nation in scoring. Meanwhile, the pudgy 6'4" Baxter has returned to Austin after having shed 25 pounds. "Now all Baxter looks like is Stan Laurel," says his coach, Abe Lemons. Now all Baxter must do is get his butterball body down the lane...score...and win.
Which team can win it all? Well, maybe Ohio State or Georgetown or Missouri. Perhaps Toledo or Virginia Tech or Texas A&M. I've got all kinds of wide-open ideas for the wide-open new season, and another magnificent all-name team too: Job Hung of Whittier, Singh Guram of Jacksonville, Nayron Monk of Drake, Forrest Junck of Coastal Carolina, Dud Tongal of Fordham. You can look 'em up.
During my sabbatical from the college game I missed all this scramble and speculation, all these dark horses and names. I missed Al McGuire's farewell. I missed Larry Bird and Magic. I even missed Bobby Knight. The other day I called up Curtis Franklin, the Boot Head from Indiana State, to ask him about his famous silver clodhopper. I told him he was my idol, my hero. I told him I use the phrase "Boot 'em outta here" all the time now, which I do. I told him he was my favorite alltime fan since the Duke guy who used to dress up as Bozo the Clown and harass Maryland's red-haired Bozo lookalike, Jim O'Brien, during the warmups.
Boot Head said that was all very wonderful but that he had been graduated from Indiana State last spring. Oh no, I said. Not to worry, Boot Head said. As Indiana State's President Richard Landini gave him his diploma, Boot Head handed over the boot to the president to use again this season. Right there at graduation the senior class chanted "Boot Head! Boot Head!" for a solid minute.
I thanked Curtis Franklin profusely and hung up, because now everything was quite perfect. Great heavenly days, the silver boot was back in college basketball. And so was I.