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Ivy League basketball is generally a cut below that of any major college conference in the country. Some feel this comes from a relatively casual attitude toward sports, but, more tangibly, it is the result of the absorption of Ivy students in the tougher academic programs which are enforced in their schools.
Yet the League occasionally produces basketball teams which can go with the fastest company. This year Harvard leads all 167 major colleges in team defense and Columbia ranks fourth in offense. There are also individuals who would be in the first five on any team in the country and would automatically attract All-America notices if they played at places like North Carolina and Kansas. They include deadeye Chet Forte of Columbia, tough Defenseman Gene Booth of Dartmouth and Yale's red-haired, freckle-faced Johnny Lee (see cover).
Last year, as a sophomore, Lee set a new single-season League record in scoring (337), eclipsing performances of such college and, later, professional players as Ernie Beck, Bud Palmer and Tony Lavelli. So this season, in practically every game, he finds himself double-teamed or facing a sliding, over-shifted zone defense which keeps two men on him all the time. As he puts it, "There seem to be hands all around me. It's hard to move in any direction without charging."
One result of this obvious flattery is that Lee undoubtedly will come nowhere near his scoring mark of last season. Another, though, is that he is now a far more valuable member of his team. Any player on whom the opposing defense concentrates its attention is useful as a decoy. But in Lee's case that value is vastly increased because, unlike many other college stars (Rosenbluth of Carolina is one), he knows how to play basketball when he does not have personal possession of the ball. He's always moving—feinting, faking, forcing opposing players to commit themselves prematurely. When he does have the ball? "With two men on me," he says, "there has to be a man open somewhere. I look for him. I've been pretty lucky finding him so far." Typical example of this took place the other day in Yale's game with Connecticut, perennial Yankee Conference champion and recent winner of the Orange Bowl tournament. The last two baskets scored—they won the game for Yale—were made on passes from Lee.
Lee's biggest fault as a player is lack of real speed afoot. This is partially redeemed by his quick and sure hands. Many of his shots are sailing toward the basket before opposing players are aware he has committed himself. When he passes, he moves, on the instant. But his biggest asset is that indispensable—and indefinable—something called basketball savvy, which enables its lucky possessor to do many things instinctively in the heat of competition which others try, often vainly, to teach themselves through practice. One of these is the ability to pace oneself—the innate ability that keeps a player like Lee from wasting physical energy in useless movement, or nervous energy in castigating himself, during a game, for his own errors. Another is the split-second reflex enabling him to take advantage of an opponent's error before that opponent can recover.
Lee, a green-eyed, 6-foot 2�-inch 200-pounder, probably inherited this savvy. His father, a fine all-round athlete, came to this country as a member of the All- Ireland soccer team in 1919, liked what he saw, and stayed. His mother swam in amateur competition around her native Boston and still teaches the sport in New York City's Abraham Lincoln High School. She planned a swimming career for her son, had him in the water before he was a year old. When Lee was in the fourth grade, he was already beating New York high school champions in his specialty, the butterfly stroke. But other sports (football, basketball) and hobbies (music, photography) soon crowded swimming out of the picture. At Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School Lee played clarinet in the orchestra and basketball for four years. He made the high school All-America in his junior and senior years and was senior class president. Despite these and other extracurricular duties, he maintained a 93 average.
In his senior year at Erasmus, Lee received scholarship offers from 65 colleges—schools in every section of the country and of every degree of academic respectability. He narrowed the choice to 15, visited those campuses and came home to think. Though he'd already decided on a career in chemical engineering, that was not the deciding factor in his choice of Yale. Today he explains it this way, "I didn't want to be just another college athlege with nowhere to go after he graduated.... If I'd gone to some of those other schools, I'd have ended up with nothing to show for it but four years of basketball—and a 4-year-old convertible."
Lee's schedule at Yale, where he's an honor student, might well shock athletes at non-Ivy universities, most of whom are through with classes by noon, relax and do homework in the afternoon, practice either before or after dinner or both, and then have their nights off. Lee's classes and labs keep him busy right through until 4:30 practice time. (Last season, because of a heavy lab schedule, he missed practice for weeks at a stretch, though he played in all games. He's able to start homework about 8, often hits the books on past midnight.
In his first year as Yale's basketball coach, after nine in the Big Ten, Joe Vancisin has had to adapt to many new situations. ("Here everything is smaller—the field houses, the attendance, even the players.") In Johnny Lee, whose skill, field generalship and both-feet-on-the-ground solidity would warm the heart of any coach, Vancisin has found a player to help him through a first-season adjustment. Last week Vancisin had this to say: "Johnny's not only a student of basketball, but a real student in school—exactly what he's supposed to be."
An alternating current of victory and defeat for favorites appears to be the persistent theme of conference play as races gather momentum around the country. In the Big Ten, Minnesota started the merry-go-round by beating preseason choice Illinois 91-88. Two nights later Illinois turned on defending champion Iowa 81-70, and Iowa then completed the circle by overwhelming Minnesota 89-66. Undoubtedly no coincidence, all three games were won by the home team, as were nine of the first 13 Big Ten contests. Indiana and Northwestern also suffered first conference losses. Purdue, with former National Collegiate Golf Champion Joe Campbell leading a last-half surge, beat the Hoosiers 70-64. And Michigan, using only six men, upset Northwestern 64-63 despite Joe Ruklick's 27 points.