Back in the 1950s the University of San Francisco basketball team introduced a couple of patented products called the left-handed backboard eraser and the 60-game win streak. Now USF has another hot item on the market. The trouble is, one minute it is as efficient as a digital computer, the next it is as useless as a pet rock.
So far, the Dons have racked up a 9-2 record while exhibiting the uneven pace of a cable car. Stanford, Hawaii, Oral Roberts and Niagara all apparently had San Francisco safely put away, but each time USF escaped with nothing but dents in its pride. If the miracles continue, people will be writing in for pieces of the Dons' uniforms.
Actually, San Francisco is a paradox, since the source of its problems is also the solution to them. The Dons rely heavily on three freshmen, all of whom have considerable talent to go with their inconsiderable experience. Another starter is a junior college transfer, and the fifth is a former forward who now plays guard. It is a new cast, and the players have a tendency to blow their lines. Once they stop running into each other, they are very likely to be a smash. Says freshman Winford Boynes, "We'll be killing people."
Right now they are killing them softly. Last week at the Ocean State Classic in Providence, R.I., San Francisco exhibited all of its' amazing grace and awful failings. Against Niagara in the opening game, USF was clumsy and fell 17 points behind by halftime. Then, in the second half, the Dons limited the Purple Eagles to only one field goal during a 16-minute stretch and won 60-57. Things were even worse in the championship game the next night, in which USF played like a bunch of dudes afraid of wrinkling their satin suits and lost to unassuming Rhode Island 85-77. The defeat pointed up another youth problem for San Francisco. The Dons have the best batch of teenage players in the country; the trouble is that the youngsters know it. What they do not know yet is that there are good players at almost every college these days, so exertion is needed against every opponent.
San Francisco displayed its inconsistency during an early-season game against Stanford when it was down 12-0 and looked as if it might be shut out. The Dons eventually won by five. "I think they're awesome," said Cardinal Coach Dick DiBiaso after the defeat. "They have the best talent in the country. When they learn to play together, it'll really be something to see."
This sort of comment causes USF Coach Bob Gaillard's eyes to cloud with anguish and his voice to take on a sand-papery rasp. As soon as he recruited his three high school and two junior college All-Americas to complement the four top players from last season's 19-7 squad, San Francisco fans began to make comparisons with the teams of 1955 and 1956, when Bill Russell took San Francisco to consecutive NCAA championships. Some of Gaillard's rooters even went so far as predicting an undefeated season. That possibility disappeared with an 81-80 loss three weeks ago at Hawaii. But even in that defeat by the Rainbows, the young Dons exhibited unusual promise. Far from home for the first time, they lost by only one point on a floor where much more experienced teams have often found it impossible to prevail. And-USF came back the next night to score a 105-103 double-overtime victory over the previously unbeaten Rainbows.
While San Franciscans talked of titles and win streaks before any of the newcomers had even suited up, Gaillard knew that he faced a year of ups and downs—because he planned it that way. He called in the returning veterans and told them they were losing their jobs. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it," says Gaillard. "Maybe we're not using I our best team now, but if we're going to be a factor in the NCAA tournament next spring the kids are going to have to get their feet wet."
The kids are freshmen Bill Cartwright, a seven-foot center, James Hardy, a 6'8" forward, and Boynes. Cartwright and Hardy were ardently pursued high school stars, but Boynes was the Holy Grail of last winter's college basketball recruiting. Every coach with a gasoline credit card showed up at his home in Oklahoma City, with the battle, for his signature finally coming down to a tug-of-war between Gaillard and Louisville Coach Denny Crum. Their tactics included early-morning stakeouts of Boynes' house. Crum would drive off with Boynes, while Gaillard sat ruefully in the house, playing checkers with Winford's brother. Then Gaillard would motor away, leaving Crum to talk about recipes with Boynes' mother. Once one of Gaillard's assistant coaches and Crum almost got into a fistfight.
"I never had time to think," Boynes says. "I came home, people were there. At school, people were there. I went to practice, people were there. They followed me at all-star games." Boynes says Oral Roberts told him that he had experienced a vision in which he had seen Winford playing for—who else?—Oral Roberts University. "How could I turn down God?" says Boynes.
Somehow he did, and he has been the answer to Gaillard's prayers. Boynes, who is capable of playing both forward and guard, is averaging a shade under 20 points and was named the most valuable player in the Cable Car Classic, which USF won by defeating a good Providence team 91-77. He is 6'6" and can shoot from the outside and glide on the inside. He is also one of those dedicated players whom coaches call "gym rats." "I'd spend 12 to 14 hours a day shooting all by myself when I was growing up," says Boynes, who gets almost ecstatic when he talks about basketball. "It's a game in which you can be you. You can be creative, invent new dimensions. It lets you be as good as you want to be, without limitations."