For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.

The Greatest Little Tournament in the College World – The NAIA

Many years ago, way back in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, I first attended the NAIA tourney in Kansas City.

As a one-man scouting bureau (among my many duties including being General Manager with the St. Louis Hawks) I was also the head scout. It was my job to search the country and find college players of any sundry abilities who might be able to help win a game or two.

My travels eventually had led me to Kansas City where I was to find a collection of untapped basketball talent that was to titillate the imagination and help me mine a veritable collage of basketball skills.

That mine was the annual tourney of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) – the oldest organization of its kind in the United States.

Since 1937, the NAIA has presented championships in many sports but we were mainly interested in the sport of basketball.

Central Missouri won the first title that year beating Morningside (Iowa), 35-24, and then repeating the next year over Roanoke (Virginia) in the title game, 45-30.

San Diego State made it to the finals the next two years losing to Southwestern (Kansas), 32-31, in 1939 and to Tarko (Missouri) a year later, 52-31.

They finally captured a title in 1942, winning by four over Murray State (Kentucky), 36-32.

Years ago, Red Holzman of the New York Knicks, Early Lloyd of the Detroit Pistons and I would be the only NBA people attending the tourney.

We would stay next door to Convention Hall. On Monday morning, the first day of the event, we would take a tunnel underneath the city and come up in the rotunda of the Hall. We would usually wear a bathrobe over our pajamas and, grabbing a quick cup of coffee and sometimes a bagel, we would find an empty seat at courtside and await the first of the eight games we would see that day.

I would first look up on the balcony and, if I saw twenty or thirty fans sitting there, I immediately knew we had ventured upon two good teams. I used to work for the Cleveland Indians, first as a gofer, then moving up the ladder as a publicity man and business manager in the minor leagues. I always remember the wonderful Bill Veeck taking a young starry-eyed youngster under his wing. Me.

Veeck always told me to check the crowd in the upper deck – the least costly seats. If there were people there early, you knew you were going to have a good crowd.

And later when I joined the Hawks, I remembered that tip whenever I needed to give someone a free ticket for whatever they gave me (Veeck’s sage advice). He called the upper decks, “Up with the Geese.”

If the early game was a dud, we would leave at half-time, return to our hotel via the underground route, shower and shave, get fully dressed and return for the second game of the day.

If the game was exciting, we just stayed there until we caught a clinker. Sometime around lunchtime one of us would venture out to a local deli and return with three pastrami sandwiches on rye and maybe some chopped liver if we were really hungry.

In 1948, Louisville beat Indiana State for the NAIA title 82-70 in the final game and two years later Indiana State won 61-47 over East Central of Oklahoma. Larry Bird had not yet arrived at State.

But it was seven years later that the fame of this tourney began to spread.

Tennessee State, under the brilliance of future Hall of Famer John McClendon – one of the greatest coaches in basketball history – ran off three straight crowns, a feat later matched by the great Kentucky State teams of Lucias Mitchell (1970, 1971 and 1972).

Mr. Mitchell is still active in teaching, enjoying a long standing relationship with Norfolk State University’s Physical Educational Department. And I still call on him frequently for his evaluation of college players.

His Kentucky State teams produced two NBA first round draft choices. Travis Grant was one. He still holds most every NAIA tourney scoring mark including a single-game mark of 60 poins vs. Minot State (North Dakota) in 1972. In three years there, Grant scored 518 total points and still holds the single year scoring mark of 213 total points set the same year.

The other first round selection was center Elmore Smith who cleaned up the boards for Kentucky State and who set the top mark for rebounds in 1971 when he averaged 13.0 per retrieves a game.

But Tennessee State was the harbinger of things to come. They had “Tricky Dick” Barnett, John Barhill and Joe Buckwalter (this duo later played for me at St. Louis) and a collection of great athletes who just swept away the opposition. McClendon’s team won 149 games and lost only 20 in a five-year run from 1954-55 through 1958-59, a won-lost percentile of .882.

His assistant, Harold Hunter, took over for the next eight seasons, winning 169 games while losing only 59.

Everyone in the NBA started to come after hearing about Barnett and his Tiger teammates. Dick was a first round draft choice of the Syracuse Nationals in 1959 and averaged 25.1 pg for his 18 games over four years of play.

And the talent kept coming.

Willis Reed (Grambling) was a high pick of the New York Knicks. Lucious Jackson (Pan American) was tabbed by the Philadelphia 76ers as was Lloyd “World” B. Free (Guilford, North Carolina) also by Philadelphia. Dennis Rodman (Southeastern Oklahoma) went to Detroit. Jack Sikma (Illinois Wesleyan) went to Seattle as the eighth pick in the first round in 1977.

I entered the fray and selected Cleo Hill of Winston-Salem State as the first pick of the St. Louis Hawks in 1961 and then added Zelmo Beaty (Prairie View) as a first round pick a year later. Beaty still holds the NAIA tourney single season rebound mark of 96 set in 1962.

The tourney produced too many other future NBA players to mention but the event, which has bounced around a bit, is still in full force. It starts this year on Wednesday March 15 and ends on Tuesday March 21.

They still play eight games each day for the first three days. Then it slacks off to four games a day for the next day. Then two followed by the title game.

The first night is highlighted by the Parade of Champions which usually starts at around 11 PM and features all of the 32 teams.

In the 1990s, the tourney was moved to Oklahoma City, where from 1994-1998 it was held at the Mabee Center. Then it moved to Tulsa in 1999 in the Donald W. Reynolds Center. It remained in that city for two more years but switched to the Tulsa Convention Center. Finally it returned home to Kansas City and the refurbished Municipal Auditorium in 2002 where it is played today.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of my favorite teams – the Norfolk State team of 1966 which beat Upper Iowa 132-97 – still the single game record for one team. That squad finished in fourth place behind Oklahoma Baptist, Georgia Southern and Grambling – all NAIA powerhouses.

Norfolk State totaled 521 points in the tourney (104.2 ppg) which is still the most points scored by any team past or present.

That team featured Bobby Dandridge, who was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and who had a great NBA career; Charley (I called him Napoleon) Bonaparte who once scored 55 in a single game; Atlantic City’s Frank Graham, a fine all-around player who played wearing sun glasses and the wonderful Richard (Popp) Pitts who then turned to high school coaching and became a legend in the Tidewater, Virginia area.

Oklahoma Baptist had Al Tucker who set scoring marks for Denver in the ABA later on and Coach Bob Bass who later had a great career in both the ABA and NBA as a coach and general manager. Pitts set the rebound mark for that year with a 15.2 per game average and both Southern and Grambling had deep squads.

By then the NBA teams were sending their people to this veritable gold mine of great talent.

In the late-90s, Life College of nearby Marietta won three titles in four years (1997, 1999, and 2000) behind the legendary former Georgia Tech All-American, Roger Kraiser. Life also won the title in 1994.

I also remember the great crowd support accorded the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. Cheering crowds, which sometimes numbered as many as 4,000 rabid fans frolicking in the park across the street from Municipal Auditorium with bon fires galore, is only one of the great memories I recall from this great event.

The true basketball fan still comes opening day for the first game at 9AM and usually stays for most of the week.

What a great time Red, Earl and I used to have. Red went on to win two NBA titles with the New York Knicks and both he and Earl are members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and I received the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hall of Fame last September 8.

Not bad for a trio of old timers.

Top Ten from Marty Blake

  1. Connecticut – back on top
  2. Villanova – should be tough in postseason
  3. Duke – must bounce back in the ACC Tournament
  4. Memphis – still breezing along
  5. George Washington – has won 18 straight but needs “Pops” (Nana Mensah-Bonsu)
  6. Gonzaga – has clinched another West Coast Conference crown
  7. Ohio State – maybe the latest big surprise of the season
  8. Tennessee – several tough loses but still atop the SEC
  9. Florida – big people may prevail in SEC
  10. Kansas and Illinois in a tie

Looking to Move Up: Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Georgetown (Big East); Washington, California, and Arizona (Pac 10); Michigan State and Iowa (Big 10); Texas and Texas A&M (Big 12); maybe Southern Illinois University from the Missouri Valley