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The Big Cat Came To Play

Sam Bowie did everything but score a basket as Kentucky blew out Louisville in the rivalry that wasn't—but now is

Well, Louisville, as Art Baker used to say on television. You asked for it. You wanted this regular-season game with Kentucky, shouted for it, pleaded, demanded that it take place not just every sixth decade or so but once every year. Now that you've gone down Interstate 64 to open the season against the boys from the big state U., now that you've finally played the game you wanted so badly, how does it feel? You happy? Satisfied? Fulfilled? What about it, Cardinals?... Cards?... Hey, Louisville, you still alive?

No one would have been surprised if Coach Denny Crum and his smallish and depleted Cardinals had requested smelling salts last Saturday night after the huge and experienced Wildcats, whom Louisville had knocked out of the NCAA tournament last season in a classic resumption of a puzzling kind of nonrivalry, exacted some revenge in a 65-44 wipeout. Or continued some regular-season domination. Take your pick. The last time these Commonwealth schools met in a scheduled game was on Jan. 21, 1922 Score: Kentucky 29, Louisville 22. By the time the Cards had 22 on Saturday the Cats had 39 there were still nearly 17 minutes left in the game and Sam Bowie hadn't even scored a basket yet.

He still hasn't, but no big deal. The old Bowie, that 7'1" fellow who terrorized the SEC as a freshman and sophomore from 1979 to '81, played center and floated along the baselines and through the keys, shooting at will. This new Bowie looks the same—same height and lank, same café au lait skin and delicate features—but this guy shoots more like Jim Bowie or Bowie Kuhn or David Bowie or Ziggy Stardust. And he isn't playing center. Instead, he stays far away from the basket handles the ball gets assists and helps break the press. On defense he denies the entry pass and overplays out on the floor and still finds a way to deflect loose balls and bang inside and block shots. This Bowie unloaded three horrible clangers against Louisville, but he also made seven of eight free throws and 10 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals in about as impressive a floor performance as a man finally coming off a two-year layoff from severe shinbone injuries could possibly hope to expect. Sam's shinbone must be connected to his gut bone, which must be connected to his heart. So Let's Dance.

Dance was what the Wildcats' awe-inspiring front line did all over the visitors' perplexed noggins in the process of scoring 13 straight points late in the first half and in taking a 35-20 lead at intermission, which effectively ended the mismatch early. Kentuckians already have a name for this crew of 6'8" Kenny (Sky) Walker, who had 13 points against Louisville, Bowie and 6'11" Mel (Big Dipper) Turpin, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. Unfortunately, the name is Sky-Sama-Dippa. So much for originality. Anyway, that moniker doesn't take into account the off-the-bench contributions of a 6'7" glaring monster named Winston Bennett, a sledgehammer of a freshman who slashed and pounded the Cardinals enough—remember, we are talking Louisville here, not Marist or somebody—to accumulate seven harmful rebounds and four hurtful fouls Call him Sir Winston and get out of the way, Credit Bennett, too, with bestowing upon the Cats a new more aggressive spirit, "No more Mr. Kentucky nice guys," said Guard Jim Master. "We've got the mean streak now."

The last time Kentucky appeared so physical, so frightening, so mean was in 1977-78, when the last NCAA championship team in Lexington was criticized by some opposing coaches for playing, ah, dirty. Wait until they get a load of Bennett. "There's probably more personality to this team than any we've had since '78," says Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall. "I can hold Winston up as an example." Bennett already has had a punch-up with Bowie in practice. A proud Hall has made the Cats practice defense with their hands behind their backs lest they kill one another.

The aggressive Kentucky D—a man-to-man that was previously thought to be too sluggish to cope with Louisville's quickness—dominated Saturday's proceedings from the beginning as the Cardinals' normally distinguished backcourt of Lancaster Gordon and Milt Wagner suddenly came undone. Gordon and Wagner had scored 18 baskets between them against Kentucky last March but managed only six this time as Master, alongside either Roger Harden or James Blackmon—another outrageously talented freshman who's the point guard of the future—threw up some tenacious coverage outside.

Nor could Louisville, which desperately missed the departed-to-the-pros Rodney and Scooter McCray, get anything done down low either. Center Charles Jones was a non-factor, while Forward Billy Thompson, the much-heralded sophomore from Camden, N.J. seemed more than ever a figment of some Garden State press agent's imagination. The Cards needed 22:52 in the middle of the game to score all of 12 points.

As a team Kentucky had 12 steals and seven blocked shots and forced 20 turnovers. "They took us out of our offense, played us for the jump shot on the drive." said Gordon. "Kentucky pushed but the pushes were clean. They used their bodies well, which is the mark of a good team."

And an imposing one, "The Cards looked intimidated," said Master, who led all scorers with 19 points. "Milt and 'Caster didn't seem to want to get involved. They seemed out to lunch."

The irony of the slaughter was that this game was Crum's baby all the way, or ever since he pulled up his UCLA roots and descended upon the bluegrass 12 years ago. Crum has pushed and prodded and taunted for a UK-UL series. He has been so vocal about it. University of Kentucky traditionalists took to calling him Denny the Crumb. Then Louisville, a perennial power, started winning as never before—and won the 1980 national championship. And on March 26, 1983—good lord, bartender, make that bourbon a double—it beat Kentucky in the NCAA Mideast Regional final. That did it. "The Louisville force went from benign to malignant to political," says Mark Bradley of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The walls came crumblin' down. The man became Denny the Crumbler."

If the Cards' 80-68 overtime victory over the Cats in March had been anything other than what it was—a panorama of courageous plays, stirring comebacks, rival cheerleaders linking arms, the governor and his lady dressed in the colors of both schools; sportsmanship, drama, congeniality, grace; in toto, one of the sports year's more glorious occasions—this "rivalry that never was," as Crum had dubbed it might still be just a gleam in his eye.

What disturbed Crum wasn't so much that Kentucky refused to accept Louisville as an equal—Linda Evans presumably didn't welcome Joan Collins to Dynasty with open arms, either. Rather, Crum observed an autocratic, sneering attitude coming from Kentucky partisans, and others observed a bit of bigotry as well. "Part of it is prejudice," Steve Crum, the coach's 22-year-old son has said, "They still look down on us and say 'All your guys are black.' It's ridiculous. They've got black players too."

Two years ago, when a preseason publication wished to pose Kentucky and Louisville players together on the steps of the Capitol in Frankfort, Crum was more than willing but Hall refused to cooperate. This summer, after the schools finally agreed to play, Louisville Athletic Director Bill Olsen proposed that the announcement be made at the governor's office. His Kentucky counterpart, A.D. Cliff Hagan, refused. When Olsen recommended Shelbyville as a neutral site, Hagan wanted to know if that town was closer to Lexington or Louisville. The result was that Olsen consulted the AAA auto club and determined the exact halfway point—which turned out to be a cow pasture off U.S. 60.

Ultimately, concurrent news conferences were held in Lexington and Louisville to announce the four-year home-and-home series—something Hall never thought would happen when he went before his university's athletics association board in April to speak against the rivalry. Playing such games would erode UK's "unique border-to-border support," Hall suggested. "The one unifying force in this state is Kentucky basketball," he said, conveniently forgetting Colonel Sanders' extra crispy.

If Hall were Barbra Streisand, this would be called chutzpah. As it was, the board repudiated Hall, voting 12-5 to order Hagan to negotiate terms for the series. "We have something somebody wants, and there's apparently nothing we can do to prevent somebody from taking it," said Hagan, spreading the paranoia.

Crum: "I'm disappointed Joe didn't want this game. Regardless, this is what's right. It's good for basketball, and that means it's good for both Kentucky and Louisville."

Louisville's Olsen perceived the game as an event replete with parties, coaches' clinics, maybe a concert or dance—a basketball bowl to be played on New Year's weekend or Super Bowl Sunday. Hagan scoffed at "peripheral issues. We're controlling our home dates. We don't have parades or fashion shows at our basketball games." The buckshot flew across the DMZ for two months before an agreement was chiseled on three key issues: Game dates would be before the start of SEC and Metro Conference play; there would be Big Ten referees and no tickets worth talking about for the visiting school. Kentucky allotted Louisville all of 100 tickets. When Cardinal Assistant Coach Wade Houston was asked in Friday practice about Louisville's main worry, he motioned toward Rupp Arena's then-empty 23,500 seats.

All week before the game. Hall was giving the impression that his team belonged in a hospital ward. Besides Bowie, Point Guard Dicky Beal had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery three times in the past six months. "The doctor said to go all out and not to overdo it," said Beal, whose logic apparently had been 'scoped as well. Walker had recurring back spasms that caused him to miss three of four preseason scrimmages. Bennett had sprained his ankle in a Thanksgiving night workout. "I should go to practice with a stethoscope and a white gown," moaned Hall.

Bowie's two-year recovery from the mysterious fractured left tibia—"not your basic broken leg," he said—involved casts, electrical stimulation, more casts, bone grafting and more casts. It was a frustrating, traumatic period also during which Bowie's 45-year-old father, Ben, a former player for the Harlem Magicians, died of a ruptured cyst in the lung, and one of Sam's best friends was killed in a car accident. Once it became clear that Bowie would return to action this season Hall pleaded for patience from the fans and the media—while automatically inserting Bowie a fifth-year senior in the starting lineup and trumpeting him in the team's press guide as a player-of-the-year candidate.

Searching for "my competitive spirit," Bowie had been alternately polite and petulant off the floor, a contributor and a liability on it. "Sam's lost quite a bit." said Master before playing Louisville. "The talent's still there, but up in his mind...I don't know. He just gets so tired. First his shot goes, then everything falls apart."

In Kentucky's Nov. 22 exhibition against the Netherlands national team, a self-conscious, fumbling Bowie had four points and four turnovers in 20 minutes. Bowie recognized he was a mere shadow of the player who had ranked with Ralph Sampson as a high-schooler and had starred on the so-called 1980 U.S. Olympic team. "Sam knows the game. Sam knows when Sam plays bad" said Sam "This is the worst I've ever played I don't even deserve to start next time."

But start he did, and he played effectively, as did Walker and Bennett. Some decimated front line, Joe B. In the early going Bowie's main role was as a towering backcourt passing target against the ineffectual Cardinal press. "I wish we'd had him last March," Hall said. Then, more and more, Bowie bolstered the defense, enabling Kentucky to build a 29-point lead and coast home.

"I would have liked to shoot a few free throws." said Crum, after Kentucky took 36 foul shots to Louisville's five, "but we just got whipped. We weren't ready and I knew it. Kentucky looked like it was in midseason form. The Cats are so deep. We were in the game until I substituted."

More realistically, until Bowie blocked a Jones driving dunk shot. That was on the first play of the game. "Sam is willing to sacrifice," Bowie said later. "You won't see much scoring from Sam with the supporting cast I have. I'm not downplaying the personnel we had three years ago, but the guys. I'm surrounded with now are overwhelming."

And Sam certainly knows when Sam is overwhelmed.



Bowie was boss under the hoop and above the rim, made fancy passes, blocked five shots and scattered all kinds of bodies.



Hall (left) was backed into a corner, but the walls came down on Denny the Crumbler.


For one night only, the center of the Commonwealth was midcourt at Lexington's Rupp Arena.


Timberrr! Dipper Turpin cut a path to the hoop through the limbs of Manuel Forrest.



Hall uncaged a couple of ferocious specimens in freshmen Blackmon (above) and Sir Winston (left).


Bowie's versatility knew no end as he played cheerleader at the end.