Hoops' growth from duckling to swan took some time

By By Stan Torgerson
March 28, 2002
The ugly duckling lives. He not only lives, he thrives. You do remember the ugly duckling, of course. No one paid much attention to him for some time. Then one morning he awakened and he (or was it she) had become a lovely swan, the envy of everyone in the neighborhood.
College basketball is like that. In the fall when practice starts and games begin not many really notice. Football is the swan of the moment. Basketball is the ugly duckling.
It begins that way and it continues that way until after the bowl games. Then basketball finally begins to find its place in the sun, shakes its feathers and in due time becomes a swan. That time is now, the final week of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Older basketball fans remember the cliche of days gone by. "Basketball is just something that fills the gap between the end of the football season and the start of spring practice."
That was certainly true at Ole Miss in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Nobody paid any attention. No one came to the games. And worst of all, nobody cared.
I broadcast the games at Oxford for almost 15 years before I saw a full house. It took the same amount of time before the Rebels won enough games to be invited to a postseason tournament. There were a lot of schools like that. Ole Miss just happened to be one.
LSU played its basketball games in a converted agricultural barn with a dirt floor on which they laid a temporary wooden court. The various pieces bobbled up and down as the players dribbled. Florida's gym seated about 4,000 and was part of a building across which they hung a canvas curtain with the basketball complex on one side and workout mats and machines on the other so the students could get their exercise while the basketball team got theirs.
Mississippi State had an old building with wooden bleachers and a broadcast booth that looked like a streetside hot dog stand, no windows, no privacy and no protection from the surrounding crowd. Tennessee's gym seated 12,000 but the floor was made of an orange colored linoleum-like material and the nearest bathroom for the announcers was a five minute walk away, pure torture when you tried to find the time and opportunity during halftime.
Kentucky didn't have the cavern now known as Rupp arena. It had a gym which by today's standards would be called dumpy but which at its time was considered to be very nice, although a little gloomy.
When Ole Miss asked me to create a network for broadcasts of the basketball games I begged and pleaded with every Mississippi station owner or manager I knew and finally had 12 of them agree to carry the games. Some were part time, others carried them all. The games were provided to them free.
The university paid for the telephone lines, my travel, housing and meals and gave me a small fee, $75 if I remember correctly. Unlike the football network there was no partner, no color man. I like most of my fellow basketball announcers traveled alone and used accompanying sports writers to be halftime guests.
Lee Baker from the Clarion-Ledger. Bill Ross from the Northeast Mississippi Journal. Paul Borda, also from the Clarion-Ledger. Orley Hood from the Meridian Star. All of them were kind enough to join me on the air and give me a chance to catch my breath. None of them were ever paid to appear. There's much to be said for glory.
Also, unlike the football network, basketball couldn't afford the luxury of an engineer. I had to order the lines, lug the equipment and learn how to hook it up. If there's one thing I don't have, it's mechanical ability. Every hookup was an adventure.
The next year we had only 10 stations. Management found it was difficult, if not impossible, in some markets, to find sponsors and even if they didn't have to pay for the broadcasts they felt they were driving their audiences away.
I think about all that at times when I run into references about CBS paying a billion dollars to broadcast the NCAA tournament games or Jefferson-Pilot with their game, or games, of the week on TV.
There is a certain amount of pleasure when you see a headline in your local paper "NCAAs get biggest ratings since 94." Millions watched. Millions enjoyed. Yes, they are not Super Bowl-sized audiences. They are not comparable with the BCS National Championship college championship bowl game.
But they are big, they are sponsored, CBS gets its money back and the participating schools are well paid very well paid.
There's a certain amount of pleasure in knowing you helped raise that ugly duckling, the one few admired and almost no one loved. There is virtually joy in seeing him now, one of the world of sports most beautiful swans.
You'll see him this weekend, disguised as Oklahoma, Indiana, Maryland and Kansas basketball teams. You and millions of others will feel the excitement, admire his poise and his beauty.
Yes, there will be another ugly duckling coming along next December and hardly anyone will give him a glance until mid-January. But when March comes he will be the next generation from a time before only a few realized the transformation that was in his future.
People will fight for tickets to see him. They will sit before a TV set and shush their wife's every word so that nothing will interfere with the pleasure of watching the duckling who became one of sports most exciting swans.
I wish I could tell you I was wise enough to know that would eventually happen.
I wasn't. But I know now.