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From the moment he arrived at Marquette three years ago until the third game of the current season, Earl Tatum, a shy poor boy from Mount Vernon, N.Y., has been a watched pot that refused to boil. Refused, in fact, to rise above room temperature. While his coach, Al McGuire, called him "a black Jerry West" and the most talented player I've ever coached," Tatum averaged less than 10 points a game. To resemble West, he needed more than a twang and a turtleneck; he had to make his jump shot far more consistently.
Glimpses of Tatum's talents, the long rainbow of a jumper, the lofty leap for rebounds, the quick-handed steals, were seen outside the practice gym only occasionally. Those rare moments merely served to remind Marquette fans of unfulfilled promises, but none of them were more disappointed than Tatum himself.
After scoring 17 points during the Warriors' first two games this season, Tatum decided to quit. His mother had been evicted from her apartment and she needed him at home. And even though he is a rarity among Marquette players, a senior who will graduate with his class, he also was worried about his studies.
Tatum packed his boxes—suitcases are a luxury he cannot afford—and lay down on his dormitory bed to think it out one last time. "Does anybody know I'm here?" he asked himself. "Am I doing anything?" As he continued this self-analysis, his counselor, a Jesuit priest, knocked on the door. The priest's appearance may have been providential or it may have been ordained by the coaching staff. Tatum does not know, but he listened, then went to see McGuire.
"I thought about where I'd be a few years from now if I quit," Tatum says. "People would see me on the playground and say, 'There's Tatum. He could have made it. He isn't a black Jerry West. He's just black.' "
The fact is that none of Marquette's players performed well in the season-opening victories over St. Joseph's of Indiana and Northern Michigan. The Milwaukee Arena crowd even booed them during the second game. With four starters back from last season's 23-4 team—Guards Lloyd Walton and Butch Lee and Forwards Bo Ellis (6'9") and Tatum (6'6")—McGuire expected to make a serious run at the national championship. But at the time the Warriors were seriously crawling.
Tatum aroused himself and his team in the third game, scoring 18 points in an 80-58 victory over Drake. He was still starring last week, as Marquette, No. 2 in the UPI poll, stretched its record to 14-1 with a 76-62 defeat of Creighton and a 92-64 blitz of Fordham.
At a school where 20-point performances are as rare as 20-foot jump shots, the broad-shouldered, loose-limbed Tatum is making both routine. His average is 19.7, including a high of 35 in an overtime loss at Minnesota. He had 21 points and 15 rebounds in a tough 79-72 victory at DePaul, and scored 18 against Creighton, six of them in a 10-point burst that broke open the game. And he was not the only Warrior to play well. Lee, the team's second-leading scorer with a 15-point average, also had 18 and made five steals. Ellis, coming around after a plodding start, had 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. Walton, perhaps the best penetrator in the country, dealt off 12 assists to tie a school record. The fifth starter, 6'10" junior college transfer Jerome Whitehead, contributed 13 points and six rebounds. "I can't be cute about it anymore," McGuire said. "We've got a shot at winning it all."
The Warriors have their usual quickness and defensive aplomb—opponents are averaging just 60.2 points a game. But this team also has unusual versatility: muscle from Whitehead, depth in 6'8" freshman Bernard (Looney) Toone and improved shooting, both from the foul line and from Tatum outside. Marquette has also shown an inclination to break out of its deliberate offense and look for the fast break.