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There is a fresh attraction springing up in Arizona and it has one old retirement community throwing away those shuffleboard sticks. Out in Sun Heaven the University of Arizona basketball team has replaced the oxygen tent as a life-support system, its frenetic behavior opening up rusted arteries and clearing the cobwebs from brains addled by too much Bingo. Tucson, in short, has another Cactus Flower and the town loves it.
The enthusiasm gushes for a team that uses as many aliases as can be found on a post-office bulletin board and employs a coltish, exuberant style. Fans leave a game feeling as if they had just sipped from the Fountain of Youth. Arizona starts four sophomores and a freshman, scores baskets at a faster clip than some of the pros and plays laissez-faire defense. The Wildcats racked up 106 points once this year and still lost by 15.
Last Saturday night they played archenemy Arizona State in Tucson. The game had the bitter overtones of two neighbors arguing over a property boundary and the surreal staging of a Grade B Western in which the gunfighters never have to reload. Arizona won the shootout 98-90, powered by the trigger of Bob (Big Bird) Elliott, a 6'10" freshman with a future rivaling that of a Mideast sheik. The brawny Elliott scored 38 points and mocked his opponents with 25 rebounds.
The victory raised Arizona's season mark to 14-5 and put it back in firm contention for the Western Athletic Conference title. And it came before a standing-room crowd of close to 14,000 in the new McKale Memorial Center, a tribute not only to the team but to its coach, Fred Snowden, one of the first blacks hired to lead a major college team.
When he arrived at Arizona less than two years ago, Snowden inherited a squad that played before listless, sparse crowds in an ancient, gray edifice named Bear Down Gym. The team had won 16 games in two years. Snowden scoured the cities, recruited a passel of freshmen and junior-college transfers and won that many in his first season, going down to the final game before being eliminated from the conference race. "You better get a good look at them," Snowden said when people raved over his incubator babies, "because there are more on the way."
Tucson gradually became enchanted by this enthusiastic man. His flamboyance was suspect at first, but as the victories mounted suspicion was replaced by respect and approbation. He was named WAC Coach of the Year, Tucson's Man of the Year and became a celebrity. Now he has two television shows, appears in several commercials and generates almost enough outside income to match his $23,500 salary from the university. Last week, while he prepared for the Arizona State game, he also was wrestling with the problems of a new $50,000 house. "I always dreamed big dreams," he says.
For 10 years Snowden coached in the Detroit school system where his teams had an 189-7 total record, never losing more than two games in a single year. He took a pay cut to become an assistant coach at Michigan in 1968. Then came Arizona.
He is 37 years old, a small man with a pencil-thin mustache and the beginnings of a paunch. He was born in Brewton, Ala. to a sharecropping family and raised in Detroit, mostly in the inner city where he weathered the riots of 1967. He has a smooth, cool manner that has earned him the nickname The Fox. Says his white assistant, Jerry Holmes, "Fred could talk George Wallace's son into going to school here."
Snowden and Holmes make a personable recruiting tandem. They brought in eight freshmen this year, including highly sought prospects like Elliott, Herm (The Germ) Harris and Jerome Gladney. An example of their resourcefulness occurred on a trip to Indiana to recruit Forward Al Fleming last year. They were not enamored of their prospects of landing him, but when the high school senior introduced them to his mother, they were flabbergasted to learn her name was Arizona. Holmes jumped straight into the air and shouted, "God sent us!"
Most of his players, white and black, agree that Snowden is a master psychologist. He allows them to express their individuality while still insisting that they conform to a firm set of rules. "I don't think my blackness gives me any advantage," says Snowden. "I'm more of a people person anyway. I refuse to be a tyrant every day of the week. I think sometimes a coach has to be big enough to let a player throw a fancy pass." None of his players remembers hearing Snowden ever blow a whistle at practice.