His independent streak was inbred, inherited from James and Marie Cartwright, who met in California after James left South Texas in the 1950s seeking farm work, eventually finding that work in Elk Grove, where their closest neighbor was more than 10 miles away. Except for his six sisters, with whom he shared a room, Cartwright had few friends. Then in junior high he met Sheri Johnson. By Cartwright's standards, her parents were "big people." Sheri's father was the vice-principal of the high school, while Mrs. Johnson taught third grade. Heads turned when Bill and Sheri began spending time together, not because Cartwright is tall but because Sheri is white. Nonetheless, they dated through high school, were married last May and are expecting their first child soon. Looking back, they didn't see themselves as unusual or as crusaders. "We had very little trouble," Sheri says. "At least people didn't say much to our faces. I guess if we hadn't been 'somebody,' things might have been a little bit different."
There's no doubt that Cartwright was somebody. Junior high baseball pitchers well over six feet usually are. Ah, baseball, his first sports love. Even today he can't resist bragging about his prowess. "Oh, they always began by saying, 'He's big, put him on first,' " Cartwright says. "But when I got to pitch, yeah, that's when the fun started. Nobody ever got more than one good hit off me, 'cause if someone did, next time I'd brush him back, get two strikes, then throw him the curve and sit down. After that he'd know better."
As a senior Cartwright was a full seven-footer who took five career and single-season state and northern California records with him from Elk Grove as he contemplated what would have been a premature jump to the the pros. He knew the NBA was a risk, and so did the pros. Jack McMahon, the Philadelphia 76ers' director of player personnel, scouted Cartwright and another high school phenom, Darryl Dawkins, that year. "They were from similar backgrounds and were the offense of their teams, but Cartwright had a lot of baby fat on him," says McMahon. "We wanted to choose a kid who could help us immediately." Dawkins became Philly's first-round pick and eventually the 76ers' starting center.
So Cartwright went down the road to USF as a member of the most heralded bunch of freshman recruits in the country. Oklahoma's Player of the Year, Winford Boynes (now with the Nets), Long Beach, Calif. star James Hardy (now with Utah) and Cartwright had USF fans drooling as they anticipated a return to the glories of 1955 and 1956, when Bill Russell and K. C. Jones took the Dons to two consecutive NCAA championships. While at USF, Cartwright majored in sociology, which, he says, allowed him to study how people coped with their surroundings. "Country folks have their problems for sure," says country boy Cartwright. "Like their tendency toward complacency when they have big problems. City people, on the other hand, are too competitive. They're uptight and sometimes blinded by their competitiveness. Yeah, I'll take that country life."
These are strange words coming from the man who will have a lot to say about the future success of the league's most important franchise, based in the nation's largest city. Deep inside, Cartwright admits he's highly competitive. Which is why he stood fast when the too-many-stars syndrome hit USF in his junior season. At the end of that season, Coach Bob Gaillard quit. And Hardy and Boynes went hardship, leaving only Cartwright and the national titles that never were. Yet when USF retired his No. 24 last spring—putting it alongside Russell's six and Jones' four—Cartwright was the Dons' alltime leading scorer.
As was the case at USF, Cartwright is surrounded by capable scorers on the Knicks. In fact, for most of the season New York has been the NBA's second-most explosive club. Though Cart-wright's critics charge that his rebounding isn't as good as it might be—his board work ranks ninth among NBA centers—his proficiency as a shooter is prompting opponents to double-team him, at the expense of taking the pressure off other New York players.
"I've never had to worry about scoring. I do what we have to do to win," Cartwright says. "If that means getting the ball to the open man, then that's what I try to do first. Everyone out there can score. But if I have to shoot, then I do it." Perhaps much better than Knick management dared hope and Knick opponents expected. His turnaround jumper is quick, smooth and, most of the time, on target. Billy Paultz, then a San Antonio Spur, sat stunned in a postgame locker room after being ripped for 27 points by Cartwright earlier this season. "He doesn't have that many great offensive moves," Paultz said, "but he sure knows how to use the ones he has."
As Cartwright uses those moves more effectively, the Knicks usually win. But when he doesn't make the moves, New York goes right down the tubes. In short, he has become The Franchise. Maybe even more so than his prestigious classmates, Bird and Johnson, each of whom has turned out to be exactly what his respective team needed to make it championship caliber. But when Johnson missed three games early in the season with a sprained knee and two later on with a groin injury, the Lakers still won, though just barely. Bird, a much more important factor to the Celtics, has played in every Boston game and made key plays in most of those. With him, Boston could win it all. Without him, they're merely good. Without Cartwright, the Knicks aren't even that. New York's Coach Red Holzman says, "The things people criticize when they talk about Bill's game are things they oughtn't worry about. He's done everything we've asked him to do."
He even lost weight last summer, which has always been difficult for him. Fischer was assigned the duty of trimming the 265-pound Cartwright down to a sleek 250. First, there was a five-mile run in the morning. Then weightlifting to build up his relatively small upper body. Shooting and wind sprints in the afternoon. Cartwright got down to 240, but baby fat is baby fat. You don't lose it, you outgrow it. And it doesn't necessarily reflect conditioning—especially after averaging 39 minutes in 70 NBA games.
"He's already played his freshman and sophomore seasons for us. Now he's going into his junior year," says Butch Beard, a Knick assistant coach. "There's no way he's out of shape."