It would be 12 long weeks before they would come together, emerging—as the final teams always seem to do—through trial, torment, talent and, mostly of course, sheer perseverance. But under that warm Hawaiian moon in late December they were linked only in conversation as Joe Williams sipped his cocoanut chi chi drink. "I know I've got a dog schedule, but I also know I've got a good team," he said of his Jacksonville Dolphins, who were in the Islands for a vacation and, as an afterthought, a few games. "The guards are solid, we've got the superheight and, dammit, I know we can play with anybody. All I want is a chance."
That same evening Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville's 7'2" center, sat and stroked his goatee as he heard the news from the mainland: on the West Coast, UCLA, the Aquarius of the age in college basketball, had struggled again and just slipped by Princeton. On the East Coast Bob Lanier had scored 50 points in Madison Square Garden as St. Bonaventure won the Holiday Festival. Gilmore thought about all of that for a moment and looked up smiling. "So," he said. "Bob Lanier. That dude must really be something. And UCLA one point over the Ivy League. This is turning into a very interesting year."
Indeed, as Gilmore and everybody else connected with the sport was to observe in its first full season free of that common ache and pain known as the Alcindor Syndrome, the meanderings of the basketball have been alternately weird, heartbreaking, exhilarating and fascinating as it bounced its way to College Park, Md. for the finals this week of the NCAA tournament. There, hard by the nation's capital, the showdown will come when Jacksonville, St. Bonaventure and UCLA are joined by New Mexico State for a group exercise which, for once in Washington, can hardly be said to represent the heartland of America. All four are from the edges of the country, two from cities on the brink of the oceans and two from towns just a fast break away from Canada and Mexico.
That one of the teams does not come intact with all of its arsenal is a serious disappointment to those who suspected—with reason—that this would be the closest competition among the final four in years. Unlike most other seasons, this one had produced four teams for the championship with size, speed, good shooting, individual stars, team play, fine coaching and nary a dark horse or a fluke among them. The Eastern final especially was to be an intriguing matchup of towering postmen, Gilmore vs. Lanier, a veritable Thunder Road.
Then suddenly it was not. For as anyone already knows who has not been blinded by a stray eclipse or rendered deaf and dumb by his friendly neighborhood bomber, St. Bonaventure's graceful, ubiquitous Lanier will not be a participant in College Park. With 9:39 to go in the Bonnies' 97-74 rout of Villanova in the Eastern regional final, Lanier was accidentally buckled from behind by Villanova's Chris Ford, who had tripped going for a rebound, and the Big Cat went down. Lanier continued playing, but after 34 seconds, he called time out, walked to the bench with a slight limp and told Coach Larry Weise, "I can't move." Lanier had torn the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, and that night he went home to Buffalo on crutches for an operation.
"This puts a crimp in the festivities," said Mike Kull in a Bonaventure dressing room shocked into silence following the game. The atmosphere was all the more somber because the Bonnies knew that their teammate's college career had come to an end on a meaningless play, long after St. Bonaventure had wrapped up the regional. The rest of the contestants in Columbia, S.C., in fact, could have just as well mailed in their performances rather than show up, so dominant was St. Bonaventure last weekend.
As any local citizen would—and did—tell you, the only team which might have tested the Bonnies was there all along, watching from the sidelines. Bumper stickers proclaiming "Dump the ACC" and signs ranging from "To Hell with the Asinine Conference of the Country" to more colorful obscenities showed the visitors, especially South Carolina's conqueror in the ACC tournament—N.C. State—where community feelings stood. St. Bonaventure was exhorted by everybody from airport baggage-handlers to movie-house cashiers to "kill" State. Some dormitory residents went so far as to hang out "Go Bonnies" banners.
"If I was State, I wouldn't even show up," said Lanier on Thursday afternoon. "Bull," said Gene Fahey. a teammate. "The marquee of their hotel says 'Welcome, N.C. State.' Our sign says 'Franks and Beans—Eighty-Five Cents.' This is ACC country."
Still, what with the Franciscan fathers of St. Bonaventure, the Augustinians of Villanova and the Vincentians of Niagara all on hand, the Bible Belt ACC country had never seen such religion. "At a tournament like this you find out who's closer to God," said Fred Handler, the St. Bonaventure assistant coach.
In the first game Villanova stayed closer to Calvin Murphy than to the Deity and ran away from Niagara 98-73, while N.C. State had no answers for Lanier as St. Bonaventure won 80-68. These developments set up what should have been a close rematch of a game earlier in the season, when Villanova handed the Bonnies their only defeat, 64-62, on a disputed play near the finish. But this time Lanier, with help from his smaller but quicker forwards, Matt Gantt and Bubba Gary, took the boards away from the Wildcats early on and the game was over by halftime.