The first 7-foot all-America basketball player was Bob Kurland. They called him "Foothills," and in three seasons he helped Oklahoma A&M win two national collegiate championships. Later there would be Spivey-Lovellette and Lucas-Hogue, Russell-Chamberlain, Alcindor-Hayes and Walton-Burleson. In the beginning there was Kurland-Mikan.
Let us return to those glorious days of yesteryear, when the fathers of Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing were kids. Let's go back to when Bob Kurland and George Mikan made the world safe for big men. There would be others more famous in their time, and all would owe a nod to the first giants who showed they were also basketball players.
It was 1945. Only eight years before, the famous Coach Phog Allen of Kansas noted that the colleges then had 33 players over 6 feet 5. Neil Isaacs, in his college basketball history, "All the Moves," reported that Allen worried his precious game was being diminished by the accent on height. Goaltending was legal, because no one saw a need to outlaw such an impossible feat.
We're talking ancient history. We're talking the days when Johnny Wooden coached high school ball along a river in Kentucky. Johnny Wooden of Purdue had been your typical all-America player of the time, a scrappy little guy who penetrated if he couldn't get off his two-hand set shot.
Phog Allen could see the future, even if he didn't like it. He signed up his own 7-footer, who drowned before he could play for Kansas. Then Kurland, who was 6-6 by age 13, left his hometown of St. Louis to play for Allen's coaching rival, Henry Iba. Allen called Kurland "a glandular goon."
Kurland soon demonstrated that his extraordinary height -- the equivalent of an 8-footer today -- was only partly responsible for his success. He also had unusual coordination and combativeness. Even as a sophomore in '44-45, Kurland was all-America going into his first game against George Mikan, the 6-foot-10 center from De Paul who later would be the first dominant big man in pro basketball.
These giants of the '40s first met in the NCAA tournament semifinals, De Paul winning a game that Kurland remembers only as forgettable.
"But the next season, we played a game with a helluva lot of hullabaloo to the point where everybody didn't sleep well," Kurland said this week. "It was like this Sampson-Ewing game that way, with a really big buildup. It was different, though, because it was for what they called the mythical national championship in those days."
By 1946, the NCAA tournament was less than a decade old. The National Invitation Tournament was preeminent. Teams often turned down the NCAA to play in the NIT. De Paul won the NIT that season, and Oklahoma A&M won the NCAA. They met in a benefit game.
"Mikan fouled out in the first half," Kurland said. "I had this shot we called a 'scoop sucker shot,' where I spun and came in low with a scoop shot. We both played a low post in those days. The lane was very narrow, and it was difficult to cover a guy so close to the basket.
"Theoretically, a guy like me, 7 feet tall, was supposed to come over the top with my shot. But I developed the scoop sucker shot. I had four fouls that first half, too. Then, out of sheer desperation, George bit on the bait. He hacked me across the wrist on the scoop shot. He was quite upset that it was called, but it was a legitimate foul.
"The rest of the game became an anticlimactic thing. We won that one. I played against Mikan five times, with De Paul winning three of them. Mikan outscored me a little, and I outrebounded him a little. We still get together occasionally, and we have a warm regard for each other."
Kurland never played in the NBA, then in its infancy. He played for the Phillips Oilers, the best team in the pro-caliber national AAU league of teams representing companies. Today Kurland is director of special products sales for the Phillips Oil Co. in Bartlesville, Okla.
Mikan, after a career with the Minneapolis Lakers so remarkable he was named the NBA's "player of the half-century," became a lawyer. He became commissioner of the short-lived American Basketball Association, and now operates a travel agency in Minneapolis.
There would be other big-men duels, most of them passing fancies. Only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain carried their competition across a decade, as Sampson and Ewing likely will. That is the excitement of Saturday night's Georgetown-Virginia game. These are gifted athletes moving at a higher level of ability than anyone dared dream 40 years ago, and what happens Saturday night will be only the first chapter in a really big book.
Bob Kurland sees Patrick Ewing as "a player completely immersed with the idea he's going to win a game. He's so physically strong he's overwhelming, and yet I see a gentleness in him that tells me he enjoys playing. I think, against Sampson, that Ewing will be so involved that he'll make something unexpected happen. He's explosive, whereas Sampson seems to work from a game plan. They're both phenomenal."
Whatever Sampson and Ewing do, it will be only one more step into a future revealed by Kurland and Mikan.
"If you take pride in anything," Kurland said of himself, "it's not the physical, it's not the mechanics of learning how to play, it's in having the guts to stay in there and prove that you could play when Phog Allen called you 'a glandular goon.'
"Until George and I came along, the whole psychology of it was that big boys couldn't do much. It hadn't been proven otherwise until then.
"Now you see these two play today -- Sampson and Ewing -- and they just have phenomenal ability. George and I had pretty good mechanics, but these guys have such foot speed and such jumping. Hell, it's a different world now."
In 1979 the NCAA statistical bureau reported there were 23 players 7 feet tall and 557 over 6-8.