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Frank Tripucka put up a backboard in the yard and installed lights so play could continue until 11 p.m. most evenings. "My thing was, don't sit around the house doing nothing and end up getting yourself in trouble," Frank says. "I never pushed them, but I wanted them to get involved in something. Some fathers will teach their kids to bat a ball or to shoot baskets, but I never did that. I just gave them the equipment and let them play."
As the Tripucka boys got biggger, the games got rougher. Occasionally one of them would say to the other, "Excuse me, brother mine, but I discern you have quite by accident perpetrated a foul against my person." Or something like that. It was all quite lovely. "There wasn't a game that didn't end up in a fight." says Kelly. "My brother Mark would usually instigate the trouble because he was the smallest and the strongest. Mark sort of scared me. He'd beat us up and punch us like he hated us. When we'd start fighting, my father would come off the porch with a baseball bat or an iron rake, and while we were all trying to scatter, he would whack everybody."
"You couldn't reason with that many boys trying to kill each other," explains Randy.
For a long time, Kelly was always the last one chosen for pickup games, and he and his brother T.K. looked out for each other. "Everybody always wanted to do better than the brother before him," says T.K., who is an insurance adjuster in New Jersey. "But around our brothers, Kelly and I stuck together because we got beat up together."
Trying to be better than his brothers was second nature to Kelly, but the possibility that he might fail to measure up to them never weighed on him. "I never really thought of pressure," he says. "I don't know why; I should have. When my brothers were already successful and I was in high school, people would look at me and say, 'Is he going to be another Tripucka?' " Kelly went to the semifinals of the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition twice but never had much interest in pursuing football. He was an all-state soccer player and turned down several college scholarship offers in that sport. He set Bloomfield High records in the javelin, high jump and shot. In the final game of his high school basketball career, he scored 52 points in the state semifinals. He was a Tripucka, sure enough.
Kelly wound up at Notre Dame after the usual intense and bizarre recruiting campaigns, including one visit from Bobby Knight in which the Indiana coach forgot himself and porked out on chocolate-covered ice-cream bars, eating almost an entire box of them in a single sitting. Phelps got Tripucka by appealing to his sense of tradition, but Digger couldn't win the boy's mother. Randy never really liked Notre Dame, and she dislikes Phelps for the way he handles her son.
Tripucka was just one of Phelps' outstanding crop of recruits in 1977. Jackson came through the Notre Dame pipeline from the Washington, D.C. area, and Woolridge was discovered on the edge of the bayous in Mansfield. La. Woolridge was averaging 13.8 points a game on 64.3% shooting at the end of last week, which isn't bad for a guy who was only being recruited by a few Southern schools until his cousin, Willis Reed, mentioned him to Phelps. The 6'9" Woolridge admits his name is a mouthful, but says his old nickname is inoperative. "In Louisiana they used to call me Tree," he says, "but once I got up to Notre Dame I found out I was just a shrub."
Jackson, who is 6'6", was Notre Dame's supersub as a sophomore and started at forward as a junior. This season Phelps shifted Woolridge from center to forward, where he's a proficient enough shooter from outside and extremely explosive when he gets near the basket, and moved Jackson from forward to shooting guard. Jackson struggled in the Irish opener at UCLA, a 94-81 loss, but was 6 for 6 against Kentucky and 9 for 11 in Notre Dame's 94-65 romp at Villanova early last week.
The Irish rebounded from their setback at UCLA to win eight straight games, including important victories over Indiana and Kentucky. "People forgot about us after UCLA," says Phelps, "and that was good. The three seniors have put a lot of things together since then. They dictate the mental state of this team. For us to be good, two of those three have to play well."
Notre Dame is a methodical, almost plodding team at times, but when it can control the tempo of a game, it's among the best in the country. Against UCLA and again at Marquette last week, the Irish were clearly out of their normal rhythm and paid for it. "When we just take our time and execute, we're awesome," says Woolridge. "But we aren't quick enough to run with teams like DePaul and UCLA." One position at which the Irish are particularly vulnerable to an opponent who can move around a bit is in the pivot, where 6'11", 240-pound freshman Joe Kleine and 6'10" sophomore Tim Andree split time. Last Saturday, Marquette's Dean Marquardt, who was averaging 2.2 points a game on 37.0% shooting, hit all six of his attempts from the field to lead the Warriors in scoring with 15 points.