Eddie Palubinskas has a complaint: practically nobody around Baton Rouge, where he plays basketball for Louisiana State, knows very much about Australia. Oh, you thought he was from Chicago and it was the name that had people hung up? Not a bit of it. Eddie Palubinskas (it is pronounced Pal-u-bin-skas) is Australian and the newest sensation at the school that gave us Pete Maravich. He says that although Americans delight in adopting foreigners, they know very little about his country, while "Australians know all about the United States." It is when he opens his mouth that he gets into the most trouble. Listeners hear that accent and, claims Eddie, "They say, 'Hey, man, where you from?' When I tell them Canberra, I get the strangest responses. One guy asked, 'Is that the capital of Belgium?' Another wanted to know how I got here—by bus?"
Absolutely nobody has questioned Eddie's basketball, which is what really brought him to the United States. Back home in Canberra he was as much of an oddity as he sometimes feels he is here. While the other boys were wondering how tight to make the strings on their tennis rackets, Eddie was doing what kids from, say, Indiana do, practicing shooting, dribbling and passing on an outdoor court. In a short time he became remarkably adept, but he is not at all sure that was a good thing. "I always seemed to be ahead of the others," he says. "I think the reason I never learned to play defense well is because I could always outscore the other fellow."
Scoring, either with his soft 15-foot jump shots or on his spectacular baseline drives, is the best part of Eddie's game. He is an excellent dribbler who switches hands well, even though he looks somewhat ragged when he is driving downcourt because he has a natural herky-jerky movement from the waist up, not unlike Elgin Baylor.
At LSU Eddie was an instant success. He scored 32 points in the team's first game, a 94-81 upset over nationally ranked Memphis State, which should not have surprised people as much as it did. Eddie had been playing in this country for two years—at Ricks Junior College in Rexburg, Idaho—and his accomplishments were considerable. He averaged 24 points, scored 1,400 in all and two years ago shot 94.2 from the foul line. Playing for Australia, he was the second leading Olympic scorer, with 190 points in nine games.
"Eddie is an adventurer, a free spirit who goes where he wants," says Dale Brown, the LSU coach. A former assistant coach and recruiter at Utah State and Washington State before succeeding Press Maravich at LSU last March, Brown recruited Palubinskas through Lindsay Gaze, coach of the Australian national team. Brown met Gaze when the Australians were touring the U.S. in 1967-68 and said, "If you ever develop a player good enough to play in the States, let me know." Brown did not hear a word for three years, and then came a letter from Gaze saying, "We now have that player, Eddie Palubinskas, age 19. He is the best offensive player in the history of Australia." Since Eddie had not taken the entrance tests required by American schools, Brown wrote Gaze that he would try to place Palubinskas in a junior college. A few weeks later Brown's phone rang. It was Palubinskas calling from an airport in Utah. " Coach Brown had a lot of faith in me," Palubinskas says. "For all he knew, I could have been a drug addict."
The Americanization of Eddie Palubinskas began nicely, despite minus-28 degree temperatures and tons of "stink-in' snow" in Idaho. He met a Mormon girl at Ricks and changed his religion. He intended to enroll at the University of Idaho last fall until he learned that Brown had taken the LSU job. Shortly after the Olympics, Brown answered his phone again. It was the free spirit calling from the New Orleans airport. When Brown picked him up, Eddie was wearing a full-length coat made of 12 kangaroo pelts. "I had it made because I thought I was going to Idaho again," he says. Anybody want to buy a slightly used kangaroo coat?
Palubinskas began playing basketball at 14 after he broke his ankle in an Australian rules football game. "In Australia everyone was out to bust me because I was so good," he says. "Australians always root for the underdog, and if you are the best, they want to knock you down. Americans are just the opposite. They root for you and ask, 'How did you get to be so good?' "
Eddie got that good quite naturally, he says, and some of his passes and moves—as flashy as the playgrounds of Watts and Harlem have seen—bear him out. He believes that three or four other Australians who have played either Olympic or international basketball could make it in the U.S. Of his passing he says, "I have always had the vision. It is just a matter of being alert so that when a guy is open I can get the ball to him. I just love busting open a bloody zone by throwing a good pass to a man who is cutting through it."
At Narrabundah High School in Canberra, Palubinskas also swam, ran track, played football and was a gymnast. His gymnastic ability saved him from a serious injury in the Memphis State game. He flipped into the air over a ducking shooter, and was about to land on the top of his head when he broke his fall with his hands and went into a perfect forward roll. "He could have broken his neck if he hadn't known what he was doing," Brown said after running a film of the play.
Eddie seems to have inherited his athletic prowess from his father, Stanley Palubinskas, a national swimming star in Lithuania before emigrating to Australia. (His mother is Russian, and that language is one of four Eddie speaks; the others are German and French.) It was all but inevitable that in football-crazed Louisiana Eddie would cast a covetous eye on that game. "Football players put so much into it," he says, "you just have to enjoy the sport." He has practiced kicking on his own and claims to have booted a 65-yarder from a kick-off tee while wearing sneakers. Indeed, Palubinskas' most dramatic moment came at a football game and not on the basketball court. It happened on the Saturday night that LSU Quarterback Bert Jones beat Ole Miss in the last second. There was Palubinskas, a guy from Australia, jumping and whooping like a good ol' boy. Split his pants, the free spirit did. Maybe he shouldn't sell that coat after all.