The last time the basketball team at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater (pop. 11,520) supposedly had to rebuild was in the fall of 1983. The Warhawks were coming off a 25-6 season, but three of their starters had departed. Do the best you can, some of the Tip-Off booster club members told coach Dave Vander Meulen. Doing the best they could, the Warhawks won the Division III championship.
Vander Meulen remembered that season when the same people talked about rebuilding last fall, after he had lost two All-Americas from a 22-6 team. He grinned when the thought crossed his mind again with a few seconds to go in Saturday night's national championship final in Springfield, Ohio, where the Warhawks defeated top-ranked Trenton State 94-86.
The key to Whitewater's win was controlling Greg Grant, the Division III Player of the Year. You can forget that Grant is only 5'7" and 140 pounds and that just a couple of years ago he was a college dropout shelling shrimp in a Trenton fish market. Watching Grant do his magic act is like watching five giants try to trap a hummingbird in a paper sack: Zip, he's here. Zip, he's there. Zip, he's gone.
On Friday night Grant scored 36 points in Trenton State's 84-62 semifinal victory over Southern Maine. "It was like a one-man gang war against us," said losing coach Bob Brown. "The only way to stop him is to put a grenade in his pants."
After having watched Grant in that game, Vander Meulen said he wasn't sure that a grenade would do it. "He's unbelievable," the Whitewater coach said on Saturday morning. "We're not going to stop him, because no one has. All we can do is play our normal game and hope he doesn't go completely wild."
That wish came true. Grant finished with 35 points, but many of his shots were delivered more with a prayer than a chance. Normally a 47% shooter from three-point range, Grant was off-balance on a number of shots and connected on only two of 12 treys and was 14 for 36 overall from the field. "I was kind of tired out there," he said. "I usually hit those shots, but I didn't tonight. I just didn't have my legs."
Still, he finished the season with 1.044 points to erase the old Division III record of 1,037 set by Dave Russell of West Virginia's Shepherd College in 1974-75. He also established the record for highest career scoring average, with 30.7 points per game. Not bad for a kid who gave up on college life after one semester at Morris Brown in Atlanta because he was homesick.
Two years later Lions coach Kevin Bannon, who had tried to recruit Grant out of high school, discovered him working at Marsh's Crab Trap fish market on Princeton Avenue in Trenton and talked him into enrolling at Trenton State. That serendipitous meeting may result in a bigger payoff than Grant expected—he has been invited to a 64-player NBA tryout camp at Portsmouth, Va., from April 5 to 8.
"People ask me if I don't wish I were taller," says Grant. "I say no. Wishing doesn't make you grow. You have to do with what you've got. If I were six-three. I might not be as quick. Now I can move and stop on a dime. I can do a lot of things those big people can't."
The Warhawks' game plan on Saturday was to put the ball in the one place where Grant couldn't use it against them—in the Trenton State basket. "Let him score from there," said Whitewater guard Ricky Spicer with a grin. With Spicer directing the offensive traffic (he wound up with 11 assists and 24 points), the Warhawks neutralized Trenton State's quickness with the slam dunk.
Whitewater's main jammer was Elbert Gordon, a 6'5", 190-pound junior forward and former high jumper who once cleared 6'11" for the track team at Colby Community Junior College in Kansas. In the first seven minutes Gordon pounded home five dunks, two of them on alley-oop passes from Spicer. "Going up, Elbert is as quick as any basketball player in the country," says Vander Meulen. Gordon's jams helped give the Warhawks a 20-6 lead, and Trenton State spent most of the night playing catch-up. Grant's last college bucket brought the Lions within one, 85-84, but Whitewater then outscored the Lions 9-2 down the stretch to end Trenton's hopes.
While the victory may have been cause for jubilation in Whitewater, there is one bit of bad news for the Tip-Off boosters: Vander Meulen has three starters coming back and, sad to say, next season will not be a rebuilding year for the Warhawks.
Spicer (below) had 24 points for Whitewater and helped hold a weary Grant, the Division III Player of the Year, to "only" 35 points.