Everyone begins someone. Naismith started with an idea; Maryland restarted with Len Elmore and Tom McMillen. And the latest collection of letters to make a significant impact on college basketball, UNCC, was fueled initially by an odd name attached to an even stranger body.
"Robert Blue," said the man mainly responsible for North Carolina-Charlotte being in the NCAA finals this week. "He was 6-6 1/2 and weighed 149 pounds, and no one but us thought he could play a lick until we had him. He left us at 149, too, but also with every scoring record in the book."
Understandably, Bill Foster cannot avoid an occasional "us" when discussing UNCC. Even though he has been head coach at Clemson for two years, he recruited nearly every player who lifted UNCC to prominence, including four of the five starters this season.
"When we first got there seven years ago," said Foster, "we had to get us a game plan, because there was no gym, no players, no anything except we were going Division I - right away. What we decided to do was not miss anyone in the state."
At first glance, even that would seem an impossible way to win what with so many fine basketball schools already so close to Charlotte, among them North Carolina and N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest and Lefty Driesell's old power just down the pike, Davidson.
Except that nearly all of the above once did nearly all their recruiting out of state. Even this season, State had only two native sons on its roster and Duke's best players were from Connecticut and New Jersey. Only such as Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Rod Griffin got so much as a wink from the ACC snoots.
Which meant that while Davis was being wooed by Carolina, his nephew, Lew Massey, was unnoticed by nearly all but the Charlotte hustlers. And while most scouts were watching Ford score 22 points during a high-school all-star game, Foster noticed (See DENLINGER, D5, Col. 1) (DENLINGER, From D1) the other guard, Jeff Gruber, score 23 and signed him. He is the 49ers' sixth man.
The point guard for UNCC against Marquette Saturday in Atlanta, Melvin Watkins, was a 6-3 center in high school who did the recruiting bit in reverse: he called Foster.
"Shows you how smart we were," Foster said. "We had to have a meeting before we took him."
In fact, every UNCC starter, including the other guard, freshman Chad Kinch, and the small forward, Kevin King, was a center in high school. Kinch, recruited by the present coach Lee Rose, averaged 18 rebounds per game.
If all the UNCC teams, from Foster through Rose, have been dotted with players most schools overlooked, the all-time sleeper is the center who remained a center, Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell. Blue gave UNCC its early lift, and Maxwell sent it soaring, to the NIT final last year and the NCAA final four this year.
Maxwell was unnoticed early, and by the time he sprouted three inches between his junior and senior high school years, Foster still was the only coach to keep regular company. Later, when Maxwell played splendidly in some posthigh-school all-star games, the major factories snapped to attention, pens and scholarships in hand.
He said no to everyone but Foster.
"This team's idea of a good time in the summer is to pile into a VW and shoot off for a pickup game somewhere," said Foster. "The game might be in Columbia, S.C., or Atlanta but they didn't mind. They'd just pile in and go, and they drove back when the game was over.
"They thought that was a helluva night."
When UNCC began to flex its muscles, Foster and his staff began to slip out of North Carolina for players. They saw King play at least 20 times in his hometown of Lakewood, N.J. They tried to coax Brian Magid to Charlotte, but Maryland was more persuasive.
"Magid might well be averaging 20 a game for a team in the final four," said a Foster aide at the time. "But he was caught up with 'image,' like a lot of other kids who said no to us over the years."
In the beginning, scheduling was a mad hassle, Foster said, with games arranged either with friends or coaches who figured the 49 ers for easy prey. Norm Sloan even allowed them to lose by 37 and 32 points to the David Thompson-Tommy Burleson teams. Last year, they beat State in the NIT.
"People'd laugh when I tried to raise money in the early years," said Foster. "But we beat Austin Peay with Fly Williams and Canisius with Larry Fogle; and Marshall when they were 21-1 and ranked eighth."
So UNCC was a launching pad for Foster. He rarely sees the 49ers these days and often is reluctant to discuss the players he recruited because Rose apparently is sensitive.
Also, Foster has avoided giving UNCC a game, for the same reasons other coaches once ducked him.
"I may not be too smart," he said, "but I'm not an idiot."