Wilkinson has been playing basketball since he was 5. He used to follow his brother Malcolm, who's four years older, around and sometimes the big boys would let him fill in. He played at Pineville High School, then went to Greenbrier Military School for three years. When Greenbrier played the Virginia freshmen, Evan J. (Bus) Male, the University of Virginia coach, couldn't keep his eyes off Buzzy. Recently, asked how in the world he had the nerve to ask a player of such potential to come to Virginia, Bus shrugged and said, "Well, when you've got so little it doesn't pay to go after anyone but the best."
In the face of far better bids, Virginia got Wilkinson for the price of his out-of-state tuition—$257 a semester.
"Right up to the time I packed my bags I still didn't know whether I was going to Virginia or Kentucky," Buzzy says. "I'd spent a whole week at Kentucky, fooling around in the gym every day, but in that whole week nobody ever showed me the campus. That's all they showed me at Virginia. My home's just about halfway between Virginia and Kentucky but Dad kept talking about the folly of going 'out west.' He made it sound like the Indians were waiting for me."
Virginia Athletic Director Gus Tebell gets the credit for that selling job. He talked to Buzzy and figured he'd go where his father wanted him to. Then Gus went to work on the doctor. Tebell, in fact, gets credit from Male for the emergence of basketball at Virginia. The quiet, sensitive little coach points out that Tebell had been patiently watering the plant for years. A Wisconsin three-sport star, Tebell was head coach of football and basketball at North Carolina State when Virginia offered him a unique incentive plan: he could be assistant football coach and head coach of basketball, for less money. Gus jumped at the chance.
"I knew what I was doing," he says. "I've been in one place now 24 years. How many coaches can say that?"
Burly Bus Male was typical of Virginia's athletes during the miserable '30s. His sophomore year Male played eight consecutive football games, 60 minutes each, as tailback in the single wing. He weighed 145 pounds. Somewhat mellowed by his experience and with a master's degree in education, Male went into coaching. He is doing a fine job on a miniscule budget. With just a little more height, just a little more depth—he didn't have enough men to scrimmage in November—he would give even the big-budget schools a contest.
As basketball coach Male faced a situation which was, to say the least, discouraging. An incident shortly after he took over sums it up. He stopped by the university gymnasium the day after a boxing match to see workmen dismantling the bleachers. "Hey," he said to the foreman. "Leave 'em up. I got a basketball game tonight."
"Who's coming?" said the foreman.
It was a good question. For years at the University of Virginia when anybody came to a game he simply looked around for a chair, took it to the edge of the court, sat down and watched. It was a fine place to be alone. At this tradition-soaked institution, where students wear coats and ties to class, basketball was long considered a kind of gauche pastime designed for the peasants in the hinterland.
Buzzy Wilkinson has changed all that. This year Virginia played to packed houses both at home and on the road. After carrying a squad of thumb-fingered midgets through two seasons of basketball Wilkinson has finally jammed the game down the blase throats of the sophisticates. When he has played his last game this season, the University of Virginia will retire his No. 14 uniform permanently.