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Frank Deford
January 16, 1967
Florida's sheltering palms are fashioning the best basketball team in the Southeastern Conference, helped by their coach's manipulation of a magic rock and a patented potion of rare restorative powers
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January 16, 1967

Tall, Stoned And Gatoraded

Florida's sheltering palms are fashioning the best basketball team in the Southeastern Conference, helped by their coach's manipulation of a magic rock and a patented potion of rare restorative powers

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After the snappy warmups—featuring not only Dixie, of course, but Sweet Georgia Brown—the Florida Gators come out for the introductions. At the forwards: from St. Petersburg, 6'9" Gary Keller; from Clearwater, 6'5" Gary McElroy. At center: from Miami Beach, 6'10" Neal Walk. At guard: from Delray Beach, 6'5" Dave Miller. The Gators stand tall. Then, down below those four sheltering palms, comes a bundle of northern sunshine, Skip Higley, from Akron, Ohio—6 feet "if you really stretch it." With their little Yankee skipper running things, the sheltering palms play tall.

They are now 9-1 under Coach Tommy Bartlett, a sentimental little tough guy who is four inches smaller than Higley and who won the Southeastern Conference title last year at Tennessee—coaching tennis. The players and Bartlett are loose, the Gators because they have Bartlett, Bartlett because he has something called a "tension stone" that he picked up in Caracas, Venezuela and that he rolls over and over in his hand whenever tension starts to mount. Captain Queeg had the same sort of act, but this is a happy ship. Also, one of a different color. Bartlett has had his Volkswagen painted in nauseating, undulating shades of orange, blue and white, the Florida colors. Not even Doyle Dane Bernbach ever had the guts to go that far.

Of course, until 1961 Florida did not even have a full-time basketball coach, much less a traveling advertising agency. This makes it all the more amazing that the Gators are suddenly the best team in Kentucky's SEC, while the Wildcats themselves are staggering around under a load that now has reached a stunning five losses at home. Two of those came in SEC play, including the first loss ever to Florida at Lexington. There is nothing for Adolph Rupp to say except, perhaps, what Chester Riley used to wail to his pal Gillis: "What a revoltin' development this is."

While Kentuckians of short memory have taken to cheering for the opposition, the situation in Gainesville is entirely different. In the outdated, undersized Florida gym—"When do the bats come out?" Bob Hope once asked when he was playing the place—interest has overtaken capacity so that, in the name of public safety,' the university plays down word of its basketball games. And no one quite knows what to expect now that Steve Spurrier has taken his Heisman Trophy and finished all his Hula Bowls and Ed Sullivan introductions and generally stopped diverting attention from the sheltering palms.

In any case, very little of all this troubles the Gators themselves. They are supremely confident, and not only because they are so damn big. "It's just a feeling," says McElroy, a jut-jawed junior who is one of the few college forwards majoring in nuclear engineering. "It's a feeling, and I can't quite explain it. Except all of a sudden it is there and you feel—well, I guess like Kentucky did last year—that there's nobody who can beat you. And you don't worry."

The Gators are, to begin with, difficult to defense. They are among the biggest teams in the country—taller, even, than several NBA clubs—and there is no way opponents can match up. Indeed, Florida can get even bigger during a game, since Jeff Ramsey, 6'11", who was good enough to start for two seasons; is now on the bench. At times the Gators are merely incredible on the boards, as they were in their 87-70 win over Louisiana State on Saturday when, in one stretch, they managed nine tips in a row by four different players before an exhausted Tiger player finally, mercifully, fouled Ramsey to stop the carnage. "It must be some kind of record," LSU Coach Press Maravich said afterward.

Since no team can match up against Florida, it is unlikely that the Gators will see anything but zone defenses the rest of the season. Miami tried a man-to-man early in the season and lost a humiliating 113-88 decision on its own court. More likely, Florida will get the weird sort of thing that LSU tried—a collapsing diamond with a one-man chaser on Higley, and variations thereof.

It collapsed beautifully, too, cutting off the high-low post men, Keller and Walk, but in the process leaving McElroy and Miller wide open. They play the wings of Bartlett's 1-3-1 offense, and they made 20 baskets over the zone to ruin it. Besides such zones and combinations and match-up zones and presses and anything else the opposition might dream up in the way of defenses, Florida is also encountering the slowdown game. "We're ready to run. We want to run," Bartlett says, "but nobody will run with us."

With the replacement of sophomore Walk for Ramsey, the Gators are a faster team than last year's 16-10 squad. Walk, only 18 and just beginning to reach his potential—he did not even start till his senior year at Miami Beach High—adds not only speed and aggressiveness to the Gator forecourt, but a little glitter of The Beach as well. A close examination of the team's gray traveling slacks shows that only Walk's are without cuffs. "The kid's gonna need a lot of it," says his father, Al Walk, rubbing his thumb over the tips of his fingers to make the classic sign for cash. "He's a regular fashion plate. He wants the $50 shoes, the custom-mades. He's got to have the fedora, the cuffs off the pants. He better make it in the pros to keep himself dressed the way he wants." Mr. Walk, a promotion director—himself dressed in Edwardian boots, tight Caribbean-blue pants and a white cardigan sweater over a black sweater-vest over a blue-and-white-checked turtle-neck—is the team's biggest fan. When it traveled to South America on a tour this summer, it was met in Panama by Al Walk.

The Walks moved to Florida when Neal was 7, migrating from the North just as the McElroys and Kellers and most everybody else in Florida did. Only Miller, of the starters, is a Florida-bred. Neal grew steadily but gained little weight, and even though he was 6'9" he played the corner in high school. "I told his mother," Mr. Walk says, " 'I haven't got the heart. You tell him. Tell him to keep with the trombone so maybe we can get half a scholarship out of that.' " Suddenly, though, Walk found himself, and last year he led the freshmen with 24 points a game. He is averaging 12 this year on a team that has all its starters in double figures, with the highest, Keller, making only 16 a game.

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