The unbeaten University of Texas basketball team had just demolished South Carolina last weekend and Texas Coach Abe Lemons was asked if his players had tried to look good because they were on television.
"We always like to look bad on TV," Lemons deadpanned in his slow, almost inaudible drawl, "because everybody would want to come down here. We don't want 'em to come." Pause. "We don't have any place for them to park."
No matter how good are his basketball teams, Abe Lemons' humor seems to overshadow them. But this year he's had to hustle to stay ahead. At 14-0, the Longhorns have their best start since 1935. Two weeks ago, they scored back-to-back victories over Houston and Arkansas and barged their way into the top 10, their highest rating in history. The Longhorns are No. 5 in both wire service polls this week.
The last time they were behind was on Jan. 5.
There's an old saying that if you give a kid a football in Indiana, he'll throw it through a hoop. In Texas, a kid with a basketball is likely to line up eight yards behind center and dive for the end zone. But under the skillful Lemons, basketball now gets almost equal billing.
"If we win two or three more games, I don't think there will be any doubters," said 6-foot-10, 250-pound junior center LaSalle Thompson, the nation's second-leading rebounder and Texas' leading scorer.
Thompson, heavily recruited out of Cincinnati, said he chose Texas for the weather--"It was 48 degrees when I left Cincinnati and 85 when I got here."--and Lemons' style of coaching. "He gives you a lot of freedom. He doesn't put a lot of rules on you."
"I know coaches who go over and wake players up to go to class," Lemons said. "That's totally ridiculous. Sooner or later you've got to grow up and face responsibility."
Consequently, Lemons neither coddles his players nor restricts them. If they flunk out or quit the team, he doesn't moan. When Texas travels, he imposes no curfew, although he may be the only coach in history who once resorted to a reverse curfew.
"That was up in Abilene," he said with a little smile, his handsome cowboy boots propped up on his desk that is decorated with a rattlesnake under glass. "I made them stay out until 10 p.m. We weren't playing very well at the time. They sat out on the curb and tried to slip into their rooms. I told them if they got beat, they'd have a curfew in every small town we played in."
Now in his 27th season, Lemons is the seventh-winningest active college coach in the country, but still is best known for his steady stream of one-liners and his irreverant attitude toward big-time athletics.
"My whole family's jokesters," he said. "My mother, she's 97 years old and over at a rest home back in my hometown. My sister was in there one day just giving her hell for not taking care of herself. Just talking and talking and talking. So she starts to leave and my mother said, 'Close the door and don't get your tongue caught on it.' "
Lemons learned his lessons well. Like the day in New York he came down for breakfast in a high-priced hotel.
"We were living on $15 a day in New York, if you can believe that," Lemons said, as he rolled one of his long cigars over the flame of a butane lighter. "Two eggs a la carte were $6.95. Nothing with them. So I called the waiter over and asked to see the chicken. 'What for?' he asks. I told him I wanted to see the chicken that lays $6.95 eggs."
Lemons was a successful coach and well-known comic-philosopher at Oklahoma City and Pan American University before coming to Texas in 1977. Two of his teams came within one victory of making the final four in the NCAA tournament. When he coached at Pan American in little Edinburg, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley, he joked that it was "13 miles north of Guatemala and 250 miles from the closest road."
He won't compare his current team to the 1978 squad that won the National Invitation Tournament, but the differences between last year's 15-15 team and this year's undefeated squad are obvious.
Thompson is again the team leader. Against Arkansas, he hit 12 of 14 field goal attempts, scored 32 points, and blocked six shots. Against South Carolina, he scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and blocked five shots while sitting out part of the second half. His coaches say he is one of the five best big men in the country.
But unlike last year, Thompson now has help along the front line. Virdell Howland, a 6-6 senior, has turned into a more consistent scorer, and Mike Wacker, a 6-9 sophomore, has improved tremendously both as a shooter and a rebounder.
In their last four games, Thompson, Wacker and Howland have averaged 68 points, and 27 rebounds, while hitting 63 percent of their field goals and 89 percent of their free throws. "Everybody talks about my two 30-point games (against Arkansas and Texas Christian), but it's those two guys who've really been playing," Thompson said.
Lemons doesn't like to use freshmen, but is getting good play at point guard from newcomer Jack Worthington, who successfully broke South Carolina's aggressive press on Saturday night with his ball handling.
"I thought they gave him a pretty good massage coming up the court," Lemons said after the game. "It reminded me of an Indian movie."
Lemons admits there are disadvantages to coaching at Texas. "When I was at Oklahoma City and Pan American . . . nobody paid any attention to what I said. At Texas, everything I say is attributed to Texas, and I catch flak back through the administration for some of the things I say off the cuff. You've got to change your ways."
Even with all the recognition Lemons' team is getting, its hard to imagine him ever going straight.