In the familiar, classic scene the tall stranger—really William S. Hart—cleans out the barroom. He shoots up a few bad 'uns, clonks some others over the head with a pistol barrel and slugs the rest with a fine right cross to the jaw. Then, with bodies piled up to his boot tops, he looks around with steel-eyed speculation at any would-be challengers. Today, five tall strangers to the national basketball ratings are repeating the scene, with everything but the piano accompaniment, in the unlikely locale of Davidson, N.C. Opponents' bodies are piled to the tops of their sweat socks already.
Davidson's tall, clean-cut straight shooters make up the most surprising team in the nation. Not all the victims in their list of credits are of star caliber, but laced through it are a sufficient number to indicate that a new basketball power is in the ascendancy. Until last Saturday night Davidson had beaten Hampden-Sydney, Wake Forest, St. Joseph's, Ohio State (by 22 points), Jacksonville, Furman, East Carolina, Pennsylvania and Princeton. And then on Saturday Davidson took the measure of the Southern Conference's longtime leader, West Virginia, 93-82.
The game was played in the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum before 11,666 spectators, including two charter busloads of Davidson-come-lately fans from Winston-Salem. They spurned their own Wake Forest-Clemson game right at home and the Notre Dame- North Carolina game in nearby Greensboro to come the 70 miles to see Davidson in action. More than 600 were turned away at the doors, a record for the Coliseum.
Davidson had never beaten West Virginia before, and they have been playing since 1952. The Wildcats did it this time with a press-awhile, run-awhile, freeze-awhile strategy, just the sort of attack a team might put together when it is not quite certain which will work. But it need not have been that complicated. Davidson's speedsters ended the game doing to West Virginia what they did to the season's other victims: they ran them down.
Oscar-winning basketball and the I-can-lick-anybody attitude are new to Davidson. The school itself is old, old Southland—venerable red-brick buildings and rolling lawn, chapel every Sunday night followed by open house at faculty residences. One hears, "Good morning, you-all," and stops his car respectfully for the old mama beagle dog as she strolls casually across Main Street. In the background are comfortable endowments and a sense of gentlemanly learning. Academic requirements at Davidson arc so high that of every 1,000 applicants only 400 succeed, and scores of others are told discreetly not even to try. Undergraduates number 1,000 hand-picked young men, scholars all, and that includes the basketball players. Their shooting average is 58%; their study average, B plus.
Dean Rusk was a Davidson man and played basketball back in 1931. "We won our first six games, I recall," says Davidson President David Grier Martin, who played on that same squad. "Dean and I were forwards and good, too. Then our center dropped out of school, and I was shifted to center, and Dean stayed at forward. I don't remember much about the rest of the season. We lost quite a few, but I know I got the center spot because I had hair and looked taller, while Dean was—well—bald, even in those days."
President Martin still has his hair today, though the terrible basketball years that followed turned it white. Davidson lost and lost, and at one low point The New Yorker magazine, in reporting scores, noted that Harvard defeated Davidson, "whatever that is."
"We were," sighs Martin, "a doormat. We didn't belong in the Southern Conference."
Then Davidson went off campus looking for a coach and found one in Charles G. (Lefty) Driesell, the only man in the Southland with a matched set of qualifications: he agreed to work for the low salary offered, and he hated to lose. Driesell had run his Newport News (Va.) High School team into a 57-game winning streak. President Martin handed him 12 full-tuition basketball scholarships and said something like this: "You are now a college coach. For heaven's sake, improve Davidson's basketball program." Then, as Driesell reached the door, Martin added, "And, by the way, you understand that under no circumstances will Davidson lower its academic standards for any player." That was three years ago, and those are still the rules of the game.
Lefty Driesell, who has about the same amount of hair but is easily 50 times more excitable than Dean Rusk, once sold encyclopedias from door to door in Newport News to supplement his income as a high school coach. He has sold Davidson in the same manner. He painted his small, up-over-the-gymnasium office, bought his own carpet and curtains so the place would look nice for prospective students coming in to visit. He made his own posters and hung them in the dorms, urging students to come out and see the games.