Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Greatest College Basketball Team You Never Saw

In honor of March Madness getting into full swing today, I am going way back in the old time machine to 1973. So far back that I'm sharing a vintage post (first published in 2011) on a Throwback Thursday. Now THAT's old! Now enjoy this tale from days gone by...


I grew up in North Carolina in the 1960's and 70's, and it is not an overstatement to say that college basketball was a religion. The ACC Tournament was the high holy season. And I was a fully-devoted follower. I was (and still am) first and foremost a fan of the UNC Tar Heels (who open NCAA play today). But that is not the basketball story I want to tell you today. I lived about a mile from Guilford College, a small (about 1100 students at the time) but prestigious Quaker college. I attended New Garden Friends Meeting (and would later work there) in the early 70's, which was across the street from the Guilford campus. Occasionally on Sunday afternoons we would use our connections to get access to Alumni Gym (original name, huh?) and shoot some hoops. We would occasionally run into some of the players from the college. During the 1972-73 season, we shared that tiny gym with one of the best basketball teams of which you have never heard. The Guilford College Quakers had been to NAIA (small college) tournament a couple of times, but it just seemed from the very beginning of the season that this team was special. Every game was an event, and I went to as many as I could. Alumni Gym (its nickname was "The Crackerbox") probably held 700 people, and there had to be 1000 packed in for each game. The noise was deafening. Opponents rarely had a chance in Alumni.

Coach Jack Jensen had assembled an amazing collection of talent and roll players. M.L. Carr (later of the Boston Celtics championship teams in the early 80's), Ray Massengill and beefy ex-Marine Steve Hankins provided the size. Teddy East was one of the best defensive players I ever saw. Every game he would simply shut down the other teams's top scorer. Greg Jackson was a true point guard who could also jump out of the building; he had a 48" vertical leap (True story- one Sunday afternoon some friends went to the gym and found Jackson and Carr shooting around. They were debating just how high Greg could jump. Several of them witnessed as the 6'0" tall Jackson touched the TOP of the backboardRumor had it that he could actually take a quarter off the top, and I never doubted it. Another rumor said he could take one and leave one on the same jump. That's a bit more iffy...). The top 2 subs were freshmen Johnny Ralls and Robert Kent, both of whom graduated from what would the very next year be my high school- Western Guilford.  Johnny's dad was my dentist. The final piece to the puzzle was a freshman guard from Brooklyn named Lloyd Free. He could (and did!) shoot from anywhere. He was in range as soon as he crossed half-court. And he too could jump out of the building. He later changed his name to World B. Free and was an NBA all-star with two different teams. Jackson also played in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. This team was so good we actually had legitimate arguments about whether or not they could have won the ACC that year. For a school with an enrollment of just over 1000, this was an amazing team.

Despite the fact that UNC was already a mini-dynasty and that N.C. State had David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe leading them to an undefeated season that year and a national championship the next, our little community was obsessed with Guilford College basketball. They won the Carolina's Conference championship (no easy feat in 1973- almost every school had a future NBA player) and then advanced to Kansas City for the NAIA national tournament. They were unseeded, but we expected them to win it all. This being way before the days of cable TV and ESPN, we listened to every minute of every game on the local AM radio station, 1320-WCOG. This included hiding in bed with a transistor radio way after bedtime or listening with an earphone while in class. It was around 11 PM Greensboro time when they finally won it all, and all around the neighborhood car horns were blowing and lights were flashing. Our guys were national champions!!! National champs, with three future NBA players, a future NBA coach & General Manager (M.L.) and a future league scoring leader (Free). Hankins and Kent both went on to very successful careers as high school coaches. Today, with talent so spread out, that team would be one of the best 10 college teams in the country at ANY level. I promise you that they were the best team that you never saw. But I did- and I will never forget them.

When I first posted this in 2011 I received a comment that fully supported my own memory and made me smile. I share it here: 

I lived in Kansas City and had attended Rockhurst College (class of '61), which had won the NAIA basketball tourney in 1964. I was an NAIA tournament junkie, present at EVERY game from 1968 until they moved the tournament out of KC. The greatest team I ever saw, without a doubt, was Guilford College when they won the tournament in 1973 (I think? my memory is 71 years old!). Their run to the championship was one of the most exciting basketball experiences of my life. And, after the final game ceremonies, I took my twin sons down onto the court and got Lloyd's and ML's autographs!

Small world. Thanks for the reminder.


They were indeed a great team, and unlike with big universities and schools that are on TV all the time, they were very much OUR team in the community of Guilford College. I'll share one final memory. Just a few weeks later my connection to the team got one last unexpected boost. My Dad had gone back to Guilford after nearly 15 years to finish his degree, and was taking Anatomy and Physiology. One Saturday afternoon he and his lab partner dissected a cat on our screened-in porch. That lab partner? M.L. Carr (pictured above). Thanks for reliving with me the best March Madness of my life. 

Because of Jesus,

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