Rich LaRocco

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My favorite basketball teams, a broken nose and brushes with fame

by Rich LaRocco

Like many basketball fans, I favor the teams close to where I live, so I follow the Utah Jazz, the BYU Cougars, the Utah Utes, the Weber State Wildcats and the Utah State Aggies. Outside my area I like Duke, Kansas, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. I also like the Miami Heat but believe that LeBron James would have been better off going to a team that already was well-rounded and had a strong bench such as San Antonio, Atlanta, Phoenix, Oklahoma City or even Utah.

I especially enjoy watching teams that work as a unit, passing to the open man (or woman), working hard to get good shots, hustling to get rebounds and loose balls and defending aggressively. My favorite coaches are Jerry Sloan, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Mike Krzyzewski, Stu Morrill at Utah State, Greg Popovich and No. 1 on my list, John Wooden, whom I had the good fortune of meeting a few years before he passed away.

All these men won the vast majority of their games by emphasizing teamwork, hard work, defense, rebounding and hustle. Sloan and Morrill would have had the best records of all time, in my humble opinion, if they had been able to coach teams with as much talent as some of their competitors. I also think Rick Majerus and Phil Jackson are great coaches, but I don't care for some of their antics.

As I kid, I listened to California radio stations at night, using one of my crystal radios, either the one I made from a store-bought kit or the one I made from scratch, using a pencil lead and a razor blade for the diode. Many a night I was riveted to the play-by-play of the San Francisco Warriors on KNBR radio or the Los Angeles Lakers on KNX or KFI. I especially enjoyed listening to the voice of the Lakers, Chick Hearn, and his color commentator of the time, former NCAA All America and the No. 1 player taken in the NBA draft one year, Hot Rod Hunley, who later became the voice of the Utah Jazz.

Many a night I watched those games play out in the great video screen of my mind. Nate Thurmond, Al Attles and Jeff Mullins were the stars of the Warriors, and the Lakers were led by the great Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, who at the time was considered one of the top five players of all time, and Elgin Baylor, one of the most athletic and prolific scorers ever to lace up basketball shoes. Well do I remember the night West broke his nose for the seventh time. He ended up breaking it nine times.

Speaking of broken noses, I broke mine once about four years ago when a young, out-of-control and muscular Marine was trying to get a rebound out of my hands and suddenly lunged upward, catching the bridge of my nose with the the top edge of his skull.

It took 15 minutes to stop the bleeding, and as I stood looking at my reflection in a locker room mirror it was obvious that my nose was well off center. After trying to straighten it, hearing bones grinding together, I borrowed a couple of towels and got in my car to drive to the emergency room. Seeing myself in the rear view mirror, I realized that my nose was still crooked, so I grabbed it and forced it back to the center and heard an audible snap as it seemingly clicked into place like the battery cover on my wife's camera.

Now it seemed logical to drive home first, change out of my bloody clothes and get a checkbook and a quick bite before getting x-rays and possible surgery.

After making a few phone calls to find out where I might get the best care at the best price, we left for one of the few medical care facilities that would accept our insurance. My wife, Julie, drove as I held an ice pack to my schnoz. This was during the height of the swine flu scare, and we found the emergency room teeming with loud-coughing patients, most of them speaking Spanish. Some of them were telling the receptionist that they lacked dinero and seguro. We decided they were probably getting free health care, courtesy of the American taxpayer and those among us who pay more in order to cover the freeloaders.

Every time one of the occupants of our crowded cubicle let loose with a particularly forceful and deep, retching cough, we and another Caucasian family inside the crowded cubicle, where we all shared the air, looked at each other in alarm. Finally, after 90 minutes or so, I was admitted for x-rays. After another wait, a technician came appeared and said, "Well, your nose was broke all right. You can see it here and here and here in three places, but you set the bone as well as any doctor could have done, so we don't need to do anything." I was advised to stay away from contact sports for six weeks.

In two weeks, the bone seemed to have healed pretty solidly, so I decided to hazard an evening of pickup ball. After announcing my intentions to avoid rebounding, I played point guard, a position that I had played often during my teens and 20s before the term became part of American vernacular. You might guess that the ball didn't cooperate that night and ended up glancing off my nose twice that evening as I found myself underneath the basket where I had vowed not to be. Fortunately my newly ossified nose bridge stayed put, but pain like an electric cattle prod shot straight to my brain anyway, bringing the kind of tears that I normally experience only when trying to swallow a forkful of sushi loaded with the hottest of Japanese wasabi.

Basketball is the No. 1 sport in my home state of Utah, probably because almost every boy and most of the girls grow up playing on basketball teams sponsored by the LDS Church. Almost every chapel has an attached "cultural hall" that gets more use as a basketball gym than a place where Mormons stage road shows or hold talent contests or piano recitals.

The Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association came to town during my junior year. Their big star was Zelmo Beaty, who looked a lot like Carlos Boozer, formerly of the Utah Jazz and currently with the Chicago Bulls. He played center and was in an acrimonius battle with the NBA to be paid what he considered himself to be worth. Some team members I remember were foxy veteran Red" Robbins, master defender Willie Wise, streak shooter Ron Boone (currently doing color for David Locke during radio broadcasts of Jazz games), Glen Combs and two BYU players, Dick Nemelka and Jeff Congdon.

My friends Dennis Delquatro and Glen Imamura and I occasionally went to Stars games and soon realized that the team was on a par with NBA teams of that era. Tickets must have been inexpensive because I paid my own way from my meager paychecks, which I earned at the rate of $1.50 an hour by making aluminum window frames after school and later about twice that by glazing windowed overhead doors with my parents on a piecemeal basis. In 1971 the Stars won the ABA championship. Here is an excellent article that brings back nice memories. Unfortunately, playoff tickets must have been pricey because I don't remember attending a single playoff game.

We three attended many University of Utah games, often followed by a visit to the Iceberg fast food establishment on 39th South and Ninth East. The Iceberg was famous for its milk shakes and malts, which were made of real ice cream and were so solid that I won a chocolate marshallow shake on a bet once when I told a doubting friend, George Vicchrilli, that he could turn his malt upside down for one minute, and it wouldn't drip or fall apart. George had only one perfectly good eye, the other one badly scarred by a boyhood archery accident, which was one reason I never shot my bow and arrow straight up.

Two or three times a month we would drive to the university, sometimes in Mark Dawson's Polaris Ranger-sized Renault and sometimes in Glen's Mustang. Pretending that we were college freshmen looking for a pickup game, we would saunter in the doors of the new gymnasium facility and organize or join a game. Occasionally we got to play with players who were junior college or Utah high school all star quality, and the competition made us better.

The Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association came to town during my junior year. Their big star was Zelmo Beaty, who looked a lot like Carlos Boozer, formerly of the Utah Jazz and currently with the Chicago Bulls. He played center and was in an acrimonius battle with the NBA to be paid what he considered himself to be worth. Some team members I remember were foxy veteran Red" Robbins, master defender Willie Wise, streak shooter Ron Boone (currently doing color for David Locke during radio broadcasts of Jazz games), Glen Combs and two BYU players, Dick Nemelka and Jeff Congdon.

My friends Dennis Delquatro and Glen Imamura and I occasionally went to Stars games and soon realized that the team was on a par with NBA teams of that era. Tickets must have been inexpensive because I paid my own way from my meager paychecks, which I earned at the rate of $1.50 an hour by making aluminum window frames after school and later about twice that by glazing windowed overhead doors with my parents on a piecemeal basis. In 1971 the Stars won the ABA championship. Here is an excellent article that brings back nice memories. Unfortunately, playoff tickets must have been pricey because I don't remember attending a single playoff game.

We three attended many University of Utah games, often followed by a visit to the Iceberg fast food establishment on 39th South and Ninth East. The Iceberg was famous for its milk shakes and malts, which were made of real ice cream and were so solid that I won a chocolate marshallow shake on a bet once when I told a doubting friend, George Vicchrilli, that he could turn his malt upside down for one minute, and it wouldn't drip or fall apart.

George had only one perfectly good eye, the other one badly scarred by a boyhood archery accident, which was one reason I never shot my bow and arrow straight up.

Two or three times a month we would drive to the university, sometimes in Mark Dawson's Polaris Ranger-sized Renault and sometimes in Glen's Mustang. Pretending that we were college freshmen looking for a pickup game, we would saunter in the doors of the new gymnasium facility and organize or join a game. Occasionally we got to play with players who were junior college or Utah high school all star quality, and the competition made us better.

Our favorite player on the Running Redskins (later changed to the Running Utes for reasons of racial sensitivity) was Mike Newlin, who hailed from Las Vegas and later became an impact player in the NBA, where he starred for the Rockets. He was a great shooter, especially from the foul line, where he famously dribbled the ball eight times before each shot. Newlin might have set a college record for free throw percentage, but opposing crowds got under his skin by counting out his bounces. That became evident during one game when he dribbled only seven times to spite the crowd. He missed.

A play that I remember as though it were yesterday involved Newlin's being knocked onto his back with the ball bouncing right into his hands. As he was being fouled by opponents trying to get the ball, he shot from his back, nearly making a three-point play.

The Utah coach in those days was Jack Gardner, one of the most respected coaches in college. His Kansas State teams reached the NCAA finals twice before he came to Utah, where he got to the finals two more times before retiring 18 years later. Utah won the championship a few years before I was born, and my dad introduced me to a couple of those players, including Arnie Ferrin and Wat Misaka, who was the first non-Caucasian to play in the NBA. Wat was at least two inches shorter than my father, who stood 5'9" in his shoes, and like my father's best friend, Jim Shimizu, and one of my best friends, Glen Imamura, was of Japanese descent. Misaka's name has been in the news lately due to the heroics of Chinese-American Jeremy Lin of the Knicks.

When I was only 9 years old, I had the chance to shake hands with one of the best players ever to play for the U, Billy "The Hill" McGill, who scored more points one season than any previous college player except Frank Selvy, who incidentally went on to play with the Lakers and missed a shot that would have won another championship for Jerry West. Boston won that contest in overtime.

McGill was visiting our local stake center, the Mormon equivalent of a Catholic diocese chapel, and demonstrated some of his basketball skills on the floor before taking the time to shake hands with those of us were in awe of a very dark-skinned man who stood 6 foot 9 inches tall and could jump so high that he could touch the top of the backboard. That same evening I was treated to a slide show of an African hunting safari, which was narrated by the photographer and shooter, who proudly showed pictures of himself posing with an elephant, a rhino and a lion. How times have changed.

Later we learned that McGill had left the university as an illiterate, but we still admired him for his gentlemanly ways and his astounding basketball skills. Unfortunately, those skills didn't translate to the pros, where he was just mediocre. He once blocked Lew Alcindor's sky hook, one of the few players ever to do so besides Wilt Chamberlain. Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar upon converting to the black Islam religion, and some people refused to call him by his new name, just as they had refused to stop calling Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay.

Sometime during high school, I also became a Brigham Young Cougars basketball fan. Coached by Stan Watts, BYU was among the better teams in the country and won the National Invitational Tournament one year back when the NIT was as prestigious as the NCAA playoffs. Marty Lythgoe, Scott Warner, who got 27 rebounds one night, the aforementioned Congdon and Nemelka, Doug Richards, after whom I patterned my own foul shot, and Grig Clawson are some of the names I remember. But there is one name I will never forget, Kresimir Cosic, one of the most entertaining players in basketball history.

A 6'11" gangly Yugoslavian, Cosic almost returned home to his communist-controlled country immediately after arriving in Provo when he was hit with a double whammy. First, he realized he couldn't play as a freshman and, second, he learned that BYU was serious about its honor code that precluded drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and having pre-marital sex.

Kres got as far as the Salt Lake airport before one of his Cougar hosts caught up with him and persuaded him to return. The result changed not only the history of basketball in the state of Utah, but the history of the LDS Church as Cosic led the Cougars to the NCAA playoffs, converted to Mormonism, turned down a chance to play in the NBA and returned to communist-controlled Yugoslavia, where he became the greatest international player of his era, winning two world championships and an Olympic gold medal over the hated Soviets. Using his fame, he was able to spread his faith even though it was illegal to do so under communist rule. LDS leaders said God placed him in that position because no other person in the world could have spread the restored Gospel in Yugoslavia. The country has since split into several nations, which are home to many groups of members, some of which have their own LDS chapels.

In college Cosic delighted fans with fancy behind-the-back and behind-the-neck passes, shots from ungodly distances long before the three-point shot became part of the college game and a joy of the game that was infectious. He made several half-court shots to end quarters but regularly shot and made 25 to 30-footers during games.

My pals and I watched the Cougars face the dreaded UCLA Bruins during the peak of John Wooden's career in the Western regionals. Cosic and his teammates were able to stay with Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and the rest of the Bruins for the first half, and we held out hope that we were witnessing an upset in the making. But Wooden got the attention of his team at halftime, and the Bruins came out in the second half determined not to end their winning streak. BYU simply didn't have the manpower or bench strength to keep up for an entire game and ended up losing by something like 20 points.

Cosic was drafted by four different professional teams but felt that it was his mission to return to Yugoslavia., where he could help his nation's basketball fortunes as well as bring his faith to his country. After his playing days ended, Cosic coached the Yugoslavian team and then became a deputy ambassador of Croatia to the U.S. Cancer took his life at age 46.

When Cosic passed away, a temporary truce was called in the Croatian-Serbian war so that his Serbian fans and former teammates and players could join with Croatian fans to pay their respects to the fallen legend at a memorial ceremony held at an arena. Now a basketball arena, a town square and a castle bear his name. Here is an excellent article about this special man.

I mentioned Dick Nemelka, who had the prettiest shot I ever saw. After his pro career, Nemelka lived in my home town of Murray for a time, and my friends and I would watch him in city league competition. Just to keep things fair, he seldom shot much more than two or three steps past half court. Even then, it seemed as though he never missed. Not until Jimmer Fredette did we see another player who had that kind of confidence from 30 feet or more

The most famous basketball player I've met was Charles Barkley, who was playing golf at the Logan River Golf Course in Utah. He was very gracious to Dave Saunders and me as he shook hands with his. I would guess that he is one-quarter inch taller than my 6'4". His hands were enormous, and it was obvious that he had extremely long arms. This was before Sir Charles developed his awful golf swing, but we heard through the grapevine that his awesome.

Speaking of height, after watching basketball games in college, high school and even a few pro games, I've gone down to the floor to see if the players were actually as tall as listed. The answer is no. Most are definitely shorter than their listed heights. The greatest exaggerations are the shorties. If a guy is listed at 6'0", chances are that he is 5'7" to 5'10". And if he is listed as 6'7" he is probably 6'4" or 6'5".

I can't judge the really tall fellows. Wilt was simply awesome as was the Utah Jazz All Star shot blocker Mark Eaton. I never saw Shaquille O'Neal in person, but he is obviously enormous.

Karl Malone seemed much shorter to me than 6'9" when I met him in a bike shop once, but I think that's only because he looked so much bigger on television. I think he probably is actually 6'9", at least in his shoes. I also talked with Greg Ostertag at a sport show, and he was too tall for me to judge. He was much slighter than he appeared on TV. I could understand how Shaquille was able to slap him to the floor once when they played in the off season. I shook hands with Shawn Bradley once, and he was listed at 7'6" and probably was. He was awfully skinny when he left BYU early to become an instant multi-millionaire.

I've had a hard enough time being 6'4" and wouldn't want to be a seven-footer. If I were to live life over again, however, I would ask for Michael Jordan's extraordinary jumping ability, and as long as I'm asking I would want Larry Bird's ambidexterity and shooting ability. But I still wouldn't want my legs to hang over the end of the bed any farther than they do now.