Gil Hennenfent and Roger Westman are sophomores at Iowa State University at Ames and, like all State students these days, intense basketball fans. Along with other Staters last week, they were disappointed to learn that the Saturday night game with Kansas at Lawrence, some 250 miles away on the Kaw River, had been a sellout for weeks and there were no tickets for Iowa students.
The rest of the Ames undergraduates met the challenge by raising $2,100 to pay line charges from Lawrence so the game could be telecast by their local station, but this did not satisfy Hennenfent and Westman. Early Saturday morning they started hitchhiking to Lawrence, made it by 2 in the afternoon. Still without tickets, they found an open door in the Kansas Field House, slipped in and eluded uniformed guards and ushers all afternoon.
That night, they and 17,000 others present, plus the thousands who watched on television, saw an immensely exciting game. Only two men, however, were fully aware that in addition to a game the final act in a psychological drama was being played out before them. They were Kansas Coach Dick Harp and State Coach Bill Strannigan.
Two weeks earlier, State had beaten Kansas by one point, on a last-second jump shot by Center Don Medsker. It was a victory in which the whole team shared, including Assistant Coach Bob Lamson, who had literally dreamed up a defensive strategy (SI, Jan. 28) to contain Kansas' giant Wilt Chamberlain. That defeat, only one of the season for Kansas, highlighted Dick Harp's difficulties. The first was a season-long tendency by his team to play at considerably less than full effort, trusting, as he put it, "to the Big Fellow to pull them through somehow." The Big Fellow of course is Chamberlain, and he had indeed saved Kansas up to that time. But he had to miss at least once, and when he did the letdown was hard.
Harp's other problem—far more complex than the first and one which is still far from being solved—concerned Wilt himself. Chamberlain came to Kansas all the way from Philadelphia on a floodtide of publicity unmatched in college sports history. And Wilt, at best a fitful and moody young man, is simply not equipped to cope with the stares, cameras, reporters and rumors that follow him wherever he goes. He has withdrawn within himself to the point where, even during practice sessions in an empty stadium, he appears to be miles from the scene in spirit. During a game, before the capacity crowds he always draws, he seems to be doing his best to avoid any move that will cause any special notice. On offense, he takes his position in the post and remains rooted for most of the action, coming to life just long enough to block a few shots and dunk a few buckets to save the day for Kansas.
Before the Iowa State game, Dick Harp, who is 38 and in his first year as head coach, tried for hours to talk Chamberlain into a relaxed frame of mind. He also tried to impress the rest of his charges that out on the court they were not just four anonymities surrounding a star. By game time he had nearly talked himself out.
Bill Strannigan had to approach tip-off time by a different psychological route. He had no new strategic rabbits to pull out of his hat—nothing new that might give his boys a lift. Indeed, he was sure that his problem was to bring them down from the happy heights, mentally, that they seemed to have been in ever since they had beaten Kansas. It was an attitude perhaps best summed up by State's star shot and playmaker, 5-foot-10 Gary Thompson, who said, "Why should we worry about this Kansas game? They're supposed to win."
Without even a dream to fall back on (Lamson tried hard but learned what Freud taught, that dreams arise in the subconscious and can't be forced) Strannigan had only one card to play. He brought along the films of the State-Kansas game that State had barely won, and a few hours before game time he herded his boys into a Field House projection room and ran them off, with the barest of critical comment. There for Thompson, Medsker, et al. to see was clear proof of how tough it really was to beat Kansas. They trooped out considerably sobered.
And so, at the jump-off, the two real contestants in this game—Harp and Strannigan—sat back on their benches, both literally relying more on their abilities as psychologists than as basketball strategists. As he usually does, Harp sat frozen through most of the game, only occasionally breaking his silent suffering to whisper a comment to the player nearest him. Strannigan lived up to the limit of his trigger-taut temperament rather than the dark, conservative suit he wore. Never still, he kept up a running fire of instructions which he must have known could not be heard by his men over the din of 17,000 partisan Kansans and the valiant efforts of Iowa hitchhikers Hennenfent and Westman: "Put Gary in the post. . . . Move the ball. . . . Watch the baseline, John. . . ."
What they saw in the first half sent Harp into the locker room wondering if his boys—and Chamberlain, in particular—had been listening to anything he had said during the past two weeks. The score was State 38, Kansas 31; twice State had led by as much as 11 points. Even more important, Chamberlain was still not moving; State's double-teaming of him had held him to four points. Harp's one spark of hope lay in the fact that the rest of the team might really be trying somewhat more than usual; they had taken 37 shots to State's 24, most of them reasonable tries. But their percentage was 27 to State's 50.