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Kean's Little Garden, they call the place, and if the name summons up visions of the friendly neighborhood beer hall or a spot where old ladies go to sniff camellias, that is all right with the Big Blue Hardwood Tigers of Tennessee State University. A garden is a nice place in which to sandbag a visiting basketball team, especially if it happens to be Kentucky State. Oh, happy day! Everybody, absolutely everybody, tries to squeeze into the entirely too small gym that was named after former Football Coach and Athletic Director Henry Kean, who came to Tennessee State from, ironically, Kentucky State in 1944. They sit and stand and jump hipbone to hipbone and sing and cheer and stomp and dance and clap and bang on bongo drums until the foundations rock, and then they put on the crusher. That is what happened last Wednesday night to Kentucky State at Kean's Little Garden in Nashville. Lucias Mitchell couldn't believe it. The K State coach was beside himself. He wouldn't believe it.
To begin with, there is always a rivalry between Tennessee State and Kentucky State. They like each other about as much as Notre Dame and Michigan State do. In 1948 their football teams began playing for a Little Brown Jug. The 'Breds, as the Kentuckians call themselves, took the trophy home that first year, lost it the next and have never had it back. The schools decided to give the whole thing up this year after the 'Breds absorbed a 61-7 rout.
It is on the basketball court that the schools are more evenly matched. Going into last week's game, K State was 17-1, it ranked first in the UPI's national small-college poll and it had two fine pro prospects, 7-foot Elmore Smith and Travis (The Machine) Grant. The Tigers were 16-2. They were ranked fourth and they had a hero of their own, Ted (The Hound) McClain, who could complete a pass through a maze. Eyes closed, of course. In January, Tennessee State had lost by three points at Kentucky State's gym, which is no Sea of Tranquillity, either. In the rematch, with the pro scouts somehow wedged into all that humanity and the din so heavy that it even drowned out rehearsals for the Grand Ole Opry blocks away, TSU won in the last minute 95-94. It was the grandest moment on campus since the custodian, tired of ducking, declared a 25� bounty on pigeons. Lucias Mitchell saw it another way. Personally, he said, he did not consider the game a loss.
Now there is a very strange thing about this rivalry. Neither team is ever beaten. It always has the game stolen away by unscrupulous referees. Last year, for instance, the Thorobreds scored a tremendous victory at Kean's Little Garden by losing by only three points. It was one of their three losses of the season as they made their way up to the NAIA national championships, which they won. Lucias Mitchell charges that one of the referees in that game was Hound McClain's high school coach, "and you can imagine what he did to us." The game was taped for showing on Frankfort television the next night, but somebody (obviously from TSU, they claim in Kentucky) snatched the tape and ripped it up, destroying the evidence of chicanery forever. Kentucky State won the rematch at home by 21 points. Tennessee State Coach Ed Martin says a fan came out on the court in the middle of that game and took a swing at McClain. Martin would prefer three hours in a dentist's chair to visiting the Thorobreds in Frankfort.
"It's unbelievable," he says. "The fans are so close that their knees are in your back, and there are people tapping you on the shoulder.... Our fans are more sophisticated than that. They aren't as hostile."
Martin neglected to mention that in Nashville the player benches happen to be the first row of the stands and knees are in everybody's back, or that those five bongo drums never stop (eventually the ears don't ache anymore; one's teeth grind in numbed unison), or that the scoreboard clocks at either end of the gym are not synchronized.
Both Martin and Mitchell are experts at going into the ghettos or the boondocks and finding themselves tall, tough and hungry black kids—Willises, Elvins, Artises and Sidneys—who can leap so high that sometimes their best view of the action is down through the hoop. Mitchell has been the more thorough searcher of late, which accounts for the presence of Elmore Smith on his team. In the reheated NBA-ABA war, says Mitchell, Smith is worth $2 million.
Mitchell admits to being a wheeler-dealer in recruiting. He once went on a talent-hunting foray to Picayune, Miss. and found his prospect on the doorstep all packed and ready to leave for Jackson State. The coach used his best Baptist manner on the boy's father, a minister, and a few hours later was on his way back to Kentucky with kid and baggage in tow. He had never met the family before that day.
When Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville's 7'2" All-America, became too old to play his last year of high school ball in Florida it was Mitchell who moved him in with a family in Dothan, Ala., where the eligibility rules were less strict. The idea was that after Gilmore's senior year Mitchell would get him, but there was a double cross somewhere and Gilmore ended up at a junior college and then Jacksonville.
That was no lasting tragedy, because Mitchell got Smith, out of Macon, Ga., where he had played only one high school season and never started a game. Smith was so green that Mitchell had to red-shirt him his freshman year (freshmen can play varsity ball at KSU), which is why, as a junior, Smith is fair game for the pro drafts this year.