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The NBA still plays too many games. Team talent is too watered-down. The athletes are paid too much and dog it too often. The silly rules, in particular the shot-timer and the zone prohibition, preclude imagination, hinder coaching strategy and reward selfishness. The result is tedious mediocrity. Larry O'Brien could hire Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bo Derek to disco around the 24-second clocks; I'd still rather watch DePaul-Marquette.
Behind this subtle objectivity, you may be able to ascertain that I am a college man through and through. You got it. As a kid in St. Louis, the first basketball game I ever saw was between Washington University and Wayne State. Big deal? No matter. I loved it. The player I remember most from my childhood was Easy Ed Macauley of the St. Louis U. Billikens. Easy Ed. Billikens. What marvelous names.
When my family moved to Upstate New York I became a fan of what was then known as the Little Three—Canisius, St. Bonaventure and Niagara. Especially of the Purple Eagles of Niagara: Al Butler, Kenny Glenn, the great Sal Vergopia. Hubie Brown was in there somewhere—yes, the same guy who coaches the Atlanta Hawks—and Alex (Boo) Ellis. I loved that name, too. Alex (Boo) Ellis. In a warmup at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium one night, Jumpin' Joe Caldwell of Arizona State threw down a 360-degree, behind-his-head, backwards, sideways, triple-pumping, outrageously impossible monster basket. It was the first dunk shot I remember, and neither Dr. J nor Mr. Dawkins has come close to it yet.
In college at North Carolina I got into the game heavy. In college at North Carolina one usually does. This was Tobacco Road, the home of the Big Four: Wake Forest with Bones McKinney, Len Chappell and somebody named Billy Packer; Duke with Vic Bubas, Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins; N.C. State with the fading legend, Everett Case. I came in at Chapel Hill with Dean Smith and left with Billy Cunningham. Frank McGuire, briefly out of coaching, lived down the lane. Al McGuire was over at Belmont Abbey. Lefty Driesell was at Davidson. You get the picture. Oh yes. There was a guy with a great name at North Carolina too. Yogi Poteet. You know I had to love Yogi Poteet.
Moving right along, I'm not sure I didn't become a sports journalist only so I could go to the NCAA finals every year. Annually moving around the land; bringing together four teams whose style, personnel and geographical and cultural backgrounds are vastly dissimilar; evoking the spectacle of the Big Time amid down-home rooters and infectious college spirit. The final four, I firmly believe, endures as the most beguiling of all sports events. Because of it, my love affair with college basketball continued unabated.
Trivia? I used to have it all down. Let's see. The one-game college rebound record? Why Bill Chambers, of course. Fifty-one boards for William & Mary against Virginia in 1953. Bill Chambers told me that himself. Texas Western's national champions? Easy. Bobby Joe Hill, Orsten Artis, David Lattin, Nevil (The Shadow) Shed, Harry Flournoy, Willie Cager, Willie Worsley. I didn't look, honest. The eighth man, a white guy, was Jerry Armstrong. Actually, this question is not difficult inasmuch as the Miners of 1965-66 remain one of my favorite teams. How about UCLA's victims in the NCAA finals? How about Duke, Michigan, Dayton, North Carolina, Purdue, Jacksonville, Vacated (hah! you don't want any part of me, folks), Florida State, Memphis State and Kentucky?
Over the endless years of UCLA dominance there was still a fascination about college basketball. Who could beat the Bruins? Who could even get there to beat them? When David Thompson and North Carolina State finally did it in 1974, it was not only the end of the college game's final dynasty but also the beginning of the sport's breakthrough into wonderland, i.e., national television.
TV always said the college game was too slow, too small, too provincial to be aired on a regular basis. Then NBC discovered that attractive regional games drew big numbers, the network began pairing off intersectional foes—this season DePaul- UCLA, Indiana- North Carolina, Louisville-St. John's, Kentucky-Las Vegas, among others—and it turned the UCLA-Notre Dame rivalry into a national mania. The 1979-80 season will be only the fifth season of Saturday regional and Sunday national college games, but the NCAA ratings simply dwarf those of the longer-established NBA on CBS. It is nice to know I'm not alone.
One last snipe before I quit. I think I appreciate how talented the pros are, but I am less than enthralled with a game that has no place for an Ernie DiGregorio, who may be short and slow but is also as smart, as creative and as exciting a player as ever made a team—pick your level. This is the crux of the matter. In college the game is coached and played the way it was meant to be; talent isn't the dominant factor.
John Stroud of Mississippi and Ron Baxter of Texas are the DiGregorios for this winter. While the 6'7" Stroud can't run and is only a fair leaper, he is an exquisite shooter and a player who fits into the Ole Miss system just so; he could lead the nation in scoring. Meanwhile, the pudgy 6'4" Baxter has returned to Austin after having shed 25 pounds. "Now all Baxter looks like is Stan Laurel," says his coach, Abe Lemons. Now all Baxter must do is get his butterball body down the lane...score...and win.