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ODYSSEUS WITH A BASKETBALL
Mel Durslag
November 27, 1961
Roaming the world with a round ball and a taste for high living, Jim McGregor preaches the gospel after (75 years after) Naismith. He has taught Turks and the Watusi and is now invading South America
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November 27, 1961

Odysseus With A Basketball

Roaming the world with a round ball and a taste for high living, Jim McGregor preaches the gospel after (75 years after) Naismith. He has taught Turks and the Watusi and is now invading South America

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At Doney's sidewalk caf� on Rome's Via Veneto, James McGregor of Portland, Ore. sipped his aperitif lazily and planned his day. He had just come from a refreshing swim at a private club, to which he had been given a guest membership. After lunch, he thought, he would play nine holes at a local country club, where he also had guest privileges, then return to his rent-free apartment in the fashionable Parioli section for a short siesta. At 6 o'clock he would report for work and put in his customary two hours, after which he would dine with friends and possibly attend the opera. Then back to Doney's for what he called "the final review and salute of the troops."

Idly, McGregor thought of his harried colleagues in the U.S., beset with the usual problems of the college basketball coach. There were alumni to flatter, athletes to recruit and professors to plead with in order to keep the athletes eligible. McGregor had left all this behind, with no regrets, for a richer and more varied life.

McGregor today is the foremost international basketball coach. He is now encamped in Lima, Peru, where he has signed a year's contract to instruct that country's team. It is the sixth such team he has coached. The others are Italy, Greece, Turkey, Austria and Sweden. Not as national coach but as consultant and clinic conductor, he has appeared in 22 other countries, five of which have decorated him for his contribution to their sports efforts. Thanks to his profession, McGregor has crossed the Atlantic seven times on fine liners. He has lived in penthouses in Monte Carlo and Durban, sailed on Lake Kivu in the Switzerland of the Congo, golfed at St. Andrews and skied at St. Moritz. A patron of the theater, he has been a frequent first-nighter in London. At La Scala in Milan he has plunked a key of a piano that belonged to Verdi, and he has satisfied a longtime desire to inspect Scythian antiquities at the famed Hermitage in Leningrad.

McGregor does all this living at little cost to himself but at considerable expense to others, usually the basketball federations of the countries that seek his services. However, while such pleasures occupy a major part of his life, he is not without a mission. He makes a genuine effort to build interest in international basketball, especially in the U.S., which is lagging in this field. He has arranged schooling in America for scores of foreign athletes and has helped line up tours here of basketball teams from abroad. One such tour, for a team from Sweden, resulted in a raucous argument with the Amateur Athletic Union, which assailed McGregor and forbade teams in this country to play the Swedes. Ultimately the AAU apologized and reimbursed the visitors for expenses incurred on the fruitless trip.

That McGregor should be functioning at all today is a stroke of luck, considering that he lay dangerously near death from cancer two years ago. Doctors in Austria, where he was hospitalized, estimated his chances at less than even. As McGregor puts it, "I beat the spread," and he has been circling the earth since. Next to soccer, he affirms, basketball is now the most widely played spectator sport in the world, and since it is played most skillfully in the U.S., foreign athletes are extremely anxious to learn American techniques. With the promise to impart this knowledge, Jim McGregor began his odyssey.

At 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds McGregor, now 39, posed no threat as a collegian to the Wilt Chamberlains of his day. He tried out for the basketball team at the University of Southern California in 1942 but didn't make it. Undaunted, he shifted to track, choosing the two-mile run. "I quit a maiden," he confesses. "I never won a race." Following a service hitch in World War II, he enrolled at Minnesota to complete his college education. He earned a degree in philosophy in 1946 and returned to his home in Portland, where he took a job as basketball and track coach of Benson High. "My success in both fields as a performer," he says, "qualified me."

McGregor did so well with his basketball team that he was offered a position in 1951 as basketball coach and director of athletics of Whitworth College in Spokane. There he quickly instituted a spirited recruiting program, determined to put the school in the basketball big time. In a three-year period he won 72 games and lost only 34. The college president, however, was less than elated. He was not about to compromise any of the school's standards for the sake of winning games. "And he proved it," says Jim, "by firing me."

McGregor went to work for an airline, promising to deliver sports travel business. He arranged, for instance, to fly the Philippine and Formosan teams to the World Basketball Championships in Rio de Janeiro. He also set up a baseball tour of the Caribbean for the Tokyo Giants. Through his international travels for the airline McGregor made many contacts abroad with athletic groups. One of them led to his appointment in 1954 as national basketball coach of Italy—and he was off on his new and unique career.

"I reported to Rome," he recalls, "where I had a beautiful apartment and a maid. I lived it up good for six weeks with pay [$800 a month plus expenses] before the basketball federation even called me for work. When I finally got word I was told I had one week to get the team ready for a big match against France. I knew there was no time to get fancy, so I decided mostly on a defensive game. I introduced the full-court press—the first time it had been seen in Italy. It puzzled some of my players, but it also puzzled the Frenchmen. We won in an upset, 64-56. It was the first postwar victory for Italy over France, and Italians rushed out on the court and hugged and kissed me."

The cool American

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