College basketball's major tournaments having been concluded on a wing ( UCLA in the NCAA) and a prayer ( Marquette in the NIT), the nation's coaches suddenly found themselves three weeks ago without a season, without chalk, without blackboard, games or fun. It was finally time to get down to the important part of their occupation, the meat-and-potatoes division, if you will, the actual work. And so it came as no surprise to find a militia of these kindred spirits in Pittsburgh last weekend not coaching, but working. For them working is recruiting.
It was impossible to turn around in the William Penn Hotel without bumping into one coach or another looking for high school players in lobbies, hallways, coffee shops, elevators and occasionally under a potted palm. The ubiquitous group had converged on Pittsburgh to watch the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, an annual high school All-Star game that in the six years of its existence has emerged as the best event of its kind. For spectators and others on the mere fringes of the sport, the Dapper Dan has become an extravaganza of fun that involves watching the young court talent on display and, for the ghoulishness of it, the coaches smiling, squirming, boasting, lying and faking themselves out as they attempt to snare the piece of flesh and bone that might win them a national championship.
This season's prime catch is Tom McMillen (SI, Feb. 16), the 6'11" thin man from Mansfield, Pa. whose prospectus is attractive because not only can he run, shoot, pass, jump and score but, unlike many another high school hotshot, he can spell his name—and other words, too.
At the Dapper Dan, McMillen played for the Pennsylvania All-Stars against a team of U.S. stars representing 10 other states. And though he came down with a fever the day of the game, he was brilliant, scoring 37 points before his team finally lost 87-81.
The game was truly child's play, however, compared to the combat proceedings in the stands and smoke-filled rooms where the coaches discussed whom they wanted of the players available, whom they could get and, more often, whom they would like to steal.
The coaches owed the stimulation of this evening to Sonny Vaccaro, the founder of the Dapper Dan. Vaccaro, a 30-year-old former high school teacher, started the games—a local All-Star contest precedes the main event—in 1965 with a neighbor, Pat DiCesare, after convincing Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan Club, a sportsminded charity organization, to lend financial help. Pro basketball has died twice in Pittsburgh and is now under sedation again, and the local colleges have not drawn well recently, but the city has taken the high school event to its steely bosom.
The games have sold out the 13,000-seat Civic Arena every year but once, and the Dapper Dans can now furnish new uniforms, sneakers, travel bags and equipment valises—in addition to free transportation, room and meals—to each player and his high school coach.
Ninety percent of the All-Stars already have made up their minds on a college before they arrive in Pittsburgh, but an awake coach can find plenty of sleepers in the preliminary contest and sometimes one or two in the showcase game. Howard Porter was unknown to everybody except Villanova recruiter George Raveling when he came to the Dapper Dan three years ago. Sure enough, the morning after the game Raveling found a Big Ten team attempting to kidnap his charge. "Howard had his bags packed until I convinced him to stick with us," says Raveling.
Such incidents obligated many coaches to come to Pittsburgh last week for convoy purposes. Dayton, for one, had already signed Guard Donnie Smith, a home-town boy, but Flyers Assistant Coach Pat Haley showed up early. "I told Coach [Don] Donoher I'd get here Friday," Haley said. "He told me, 'Your rear end Friday. You'll go Wednesday and baby-sit.' I came with Donnie and I'm leaving with him."
McMillen is one of this year's stars who is undecided on a college, so he was lovingly courted by representatives of the four Atlantic Coast Conference schools he is known to be considering: Maryland, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. McMillen is worth the tender attention. He averaged 47 points a game this season, and his offensive talents dazzled onlookers at the Dapper Dan practice sessions. "He's a one-man clinic on shooting," said Howie Garfinkle, the guru of high school recruiting services. "He's the greatest offensive center I've ever seen. He's the greatest without the ball I've ever seen. He's the greatest kid I ever met." Howie laughed. "But he won't tell me where he's going next year, and I hate him."