It all really began, Marques Haynes's show of basketball shows, in an old gymnasium in Baton Rouge late in the winter of '45. Haynes took the ball out of bounds from Willie Malone. Came upcourt, young Marques did, dribbling across the center line, with the ball bouncing low, thumping, floor to fingertips to floor. Haynes had been waiting all night for this moment, knowing all along what he would do should an occasion like this arise.
The occasion was the final 2½ minutes of the championship game of the old Southwestern Conference tournament. Haynes's Langston University, an all-black school out of central Oklahoma, was thrashing the host school, Southern University, at the moment leading by 13. In an earlier game, Southern had not merely defeated but had humiliated Samuel Huston College and that school's young coach, an aspiring professional baseball player named Jackie Robinson, by showing the Dragons up in a pointless exhibition of razzle-dazzle ball handling and fancy footwork.
"They'd made fools of them," Haynes recalls. "I decided then, if we played Southern in the finals, and the opportunity was there, that I was going to go into my act."
Malone had warned him not to. Why, the Langston coach, Zip Gayles, would never brook such nonsense. A rigid fundamentalist, a strictly give-and-go and move-the-ball guy, he forbade all things fancy, and excessive dribbling was punishable by benching. But here it was, with less than three minutes to go, and time to settle a score.
Showtime! There was Haynes, down on one knee, dribbling between his legs. The crowd in that little gym, some 2,500, started howling for more. Up on his feet, he took off around the key, making a circuit of the half court. Defenders closed in, chasing him. Dribbling behind his back and between his legs, he made another circle of the court, then another. The Southern players dived for the ball. Stopping, starting, stopping, he raced down the key, up the key, around the top, then dropped to his knees.
The roar of the crowd grew louder. With less than a minute to go, coins and articles of clothing began falling on the court. There were pennies and nickels, dimes and quarters, shirts and hats and programs. "People went crazy," Haynes recalls. "They got louder and louder." He poured it on, more and more. With half a minute to go, rising to the chorus, Haynes slid to a stop and lay down on his side, dribbling the ball in front of him. The fans whooped and hollered and stomped their feet. The whole Southern team was diving and grabbing at the ball, but Haynes kept dribbling.
With less than 15 seconds on the clock, he heard Malone's voice: "Marques! Here comes Zip!"
Outraged, Gayles had left the bench and come out on the court, joining the Southern team in pursuit of Marques. Chased not only by five defenders but also by his own coach, with time running out, he figured he'd better get rid of the ball and get out of there. So he made one more quick sweep of the half court, drove the basket, put the ball up for two and kept running, right for the locker room. He heard the buzzer as he hit the door, and still today he can hear Gayles's voice as the coach chased him through it:
"Haynes, goddammit! You'll never play another game for Langston University!" It was a momentary outburst—the next year Haynes was back in a Langston uniform.
Under a South Carolina sky bright and alive with stars, the bus pitched slightly in the wind as it rolled south toward Georgia on this February night. The Savannah River lay just ahead, and beyond it the road to Macon and Atlanta, but they were hours away through the woods that parted for the road, and the driver kept the bus at 65 mph, no faster. It was 1 a.m., and the broad, divided expanse of Interstate 95 was nearly deserted. It was dark in the bus except for the pale glow of light from the dash that illuminated the face of the man known for almost 40 years as The World's Greatest Dribbler.