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Is it the same game in Orono, Me. and Stockton, Calif.? Can Kansas or Western Kentucky win the national championship? How good is Winston-Salem's Earl Monroe, college basketball's top scorer? To find answers to these and other questions, Frank Deford (below) traveled 8,500 miles in six days. His report follows.
Richmond, Ky., Feb 20
The week began in Richmond. The game was Eastern Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky, and you can't get any more Kentucky than that. I had driven there through a cold drizzle, Interstate all the way, from Lexington. Wherever I go in what is called the heartland of America, I am told not to fret because "there is Interstate all the way." I have heard this so often that I am convinced that if the road to hell were made Interstate before heaven became that accessible, most Midwest Americans would gas up and join the devil.
Richmond, Ky., Interstate all the way, is where the Bluegrass meets the foothills of the Cumberlands. It is an unassuming little county seat, with high TV roof aerials, an abandoned movie theater, the Helpy Selfy Launderette and a colonial courthouse with the posted admonition: "Do not talk to prisoners through windows." Eastern, which just gained university status, lies at the edge of town. It has suddenly exploded to 8,000 students and has a 21-story men's dormitory under construction. Western is in the same family way. They both began in 1906 as the Eastern and Western Kentucky State Normal schools, and they have been playing each other almost since that time. Western is ahead 75-29 in the series now, and beats most others in the Ohio Valley Conference even more regularly.
It used to be that in basketball the national anthem was a simple prelude to the action. But, as Eastern showed, an anthem now is approached with all the organized fanfare of a 1930's Dick Powell musical. First there was a drill team, chucking each other rifles and banging them, and at one point screaming "Kill" in unison. Then, marching, came 21 of the school's best-looking coeds, a regular beauty battalion. A gorgeous, long-stemmed blonde named Suzie Donoghue barked the orders. Then there was an honor guard, and finally, a rather anticlimactic anthem.
Western had beaten Eastern 112-71 earlier in Bowling Green, but now, before the packed home crowd, Eastern hung on almost to the end before losing 71-62. The Hilltoppers' Smith brothers—Dwight and Greg—made the difference. In the locker room, having won another OVC title, Coach John Oldham sought out his starters and then, one by one, embraced them.
E. A. Diddle, the old man who coached Western from 1923 to 1964 and won 754 games all over America, came in to see his boys. Uncle Ed was still carrying one of his famous red towels and his red tie had COACH emblazoned on it. "Look here, coach," Oldham said, turning Diddle's cheek. "Why, you've got some lipstick on."
"Sure I do," Uncle Ed said proudly, as happy as if this team were still all his. "Now you go right put there, Coach Oldham, and get your own sugar."
There was some snow in Dixie this morning, but the plane took off and chopped me over the Alleghenies—it is never "bumpy" any more on planes, just "choppy"—into the Piedmont, to Winston-Salem, N.C. The State College there has a student body almost all Negro, and the entire team is colored. This gave me the opportunity to witness a basketball phenomenon—Negro players sitting on the bench. The way it is these days, a Negro is offered a scholarship only if he is certain to be a star, and the white boys sit on the bench. Those Negro players who are only just as good as white boys never get out of the playgrounds.