The first thing Bobby Cremins did at Georgia Tech was teach all those New York kids how to wear coats and ties. The Yellow Jackets remain largely a collection of streetwise mouth, but you can dine out with them and they'll take you to the NCAA tournament.
The heart-of-Atlanta campus is an unlikely melting pot but the Rambling Wreck, with four New Yorkers, an Okie and a Haitian, is surely the most improbable gathering of basketball talent to come along in many an NCAA season.
Cremins, a Bronx kid himself whose accent is strictly Bridge and Tunnel, likes to shake his head and say, "We're not theah yet." But the sixth-ranked Yellow Jackets, winners of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, are in the NCAA East Regional semifinals with a 26-7 record. They will meet Illinois Thursday night at 6:35.
Bruce Dalrymple, a suave guard from Harlem with a flair for telling tall tales, has become the self-appointed narrator of Georgia Tech's success story. He likes to start with the one about how Yvon Joseph, a 6-foot-11 center from Haiti, picked him up one day in preseason practice.
"He treats me like a doll," Dalrymple said. "He picks me up and starts shaking me like a little rag doll. 'Oh Mon,' he says, 'We going to have such a good team!' "
In the year of the shooting guard, Georgia Tech possesses something few teams outside of Georgetown do: a strong inside game. It begins with Joseph, the wide-eyed 27-year-old engineering student who began playing organized basketball just four years ago. Forward John Salley, out of Brooklyn, a dandified social butterfly, helps form with Joseph what is perhaps the best front court in the ACC. Freshman Duane Ferrell of Towson, Md., the other starting forward, was named rookie of the year in the conference. Dalrymple, the urbane wit from Manhattan, and Mark Price, the sharp-eyed Okie from Enid, make up the back court.
For all of its colorful charm and wealth of talent, the Wreck can be a flaky club. "Some days we can beat everybody, other days we can't beat anybody," says Dalrymple, who often is one of the few sane voices to be heard, including Cremins.
Dalrymple, who was saved from the streets by a concerned youth league coach who sent him to a private high school in Vermont, might have more to do with pulling the Wreck together than anyone else, including Price, his more publicized counterpart. Price was named ACC tournament MVP when Georgia Tech upset North Carolina, but Dalrymple was acknowledged by many -- including Cremins -- to have deserved it for a tournament performance that included 43 points and 19 rebounds.
The chief flake is Salley, Dalrymple's roommate and close friend. The 7-foot, 225-pound junior forward, nicknamed "Spider" for his Gumby-like build, developed this season into an explosive asset at both ends of the court. But he's a sometimes thing as a player who still needs 20 pounds and can appear as small as the 6-foot Price on an off day.
Salley, who came into Tech at 6-9, will tell you frankly that he tends to talk a better game than he plays. He was Cremins' first New York recruit, and remains his bad boy. At Canarsie High in Brooklyn, he once was benched for too much socializing on the sideline. Cremins taunts him, yells at him and generally never leaves him alone. If Salley has become somewhat consistent this season, it's due to Cremins' nagging. "He'll yell at me till the day I die," Salley says.
The results are showing, although Salley has yet to play to his height. He led the ACC in blocked shots (28) and rebounds, with an average of 7.3 a game, and was second on the team in scoring, averaging 14 points a game.
"I came in here with all my talk, my hats and my chains around my neck, bebopping around," Salley said. "Coach taught me things, like how to wear a shirt and a coat and a tie to a nice restaurant. He taught me to grow up."
Joseph's development has been equally dramatic. A spiker on the Haitian national volleyball team, he was recruited to play basketball by Miami-Dade Community College. A mechanical engineering major, he chose Georgia Tech because of its academics, and only recently developed a passion for the game. Over the season, a change occurred.
Price, probably the best thinker on the court, is the steadying influence. A legendary story among teammates relates the time he went one-on-one against reserve forward Scott Petway, the best team's defensive player. But Price hit nine straight jump shots and, when Petway was looking for another long shot, Price dribbled in for a layup.
Georgia Tech was 3-23 when Cremins, 37, took over three years ago. Like Frank McGuire, his coach at South Carolina, Cremins has made an art of finding worth in riffraff. In the process, he's earned a rare devotion from his players.
Cremins' growing reputation as a recruiter is backed up by Georgia Tech's having the last three rookies of the year in the ACC. The latest is Ferrell, who suffered strained knee ligaments in the ACC tournament. He sometimes needs prodding, but might have more potential than any of Cremins' other discoveries. "Once Duane gets a punch in the back, he'll be fine, too," Dalrymple says.
And if the rest of the Yellow Jackets ever get over their lightheadedness, there's no telling what could happen. "Maybe then, Coach can stop saying, 'We're not there yet,' " Dalrymple said.