Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball

Named one of the "Top Ten Books on Basketball History" in sports historian Peter Bjarkman’s widely respected The Biographical History of Basketball

"Going Bigtime is a great look at the rise of college basketball viewed through the lens of a land-grant institution that first ignored the new realities of the sport, and then embraced them wholeheartedly. With historical perspective and an eye for the telling detail, Dobrow accurately details what UMass gained, and what it lost in the process. By doing this, he transcends the usual failings of this genre and gives us an honest and excellent book."
American Reporter

Excerpt #1

They called him Julie back then, Julie the jumping-jack. He literally brought the game to a new level. Ellerbrook recalls watching Erving stand beneath a basket, a ball smothered in each of his enormous hands. Up he went, tomahawking first one ball and then the other through the cylinder, a wild windmill of power that sent the balls thudding onto the hardwood and the rim rattling while Erving quietly, almost innocently, touched down. An NCAA rule prohibiting dunking during games (mercifully rescinded in 1976-77) denied fans some of the aerial show, but even Erving’s rebounding could bring gasps. Sometimes he snatched the ball above the rim with just one hand. "Julius didn’t have to box out," Ellerbrook recalls. "He was up where no one could go."

It is difficult perhaps to appreciate just how revolutionary he was. Basketball was still played on the floor, mapped out by blackboard barons like Leaman. It was long before the age of Air Jordan, when jumping would become that most deified of athletic skills. In a dark and dreary gym in New England, fans were part of a wonderful little secret. There was no ESPN, no USA Today. Boston papers never deigned to make the two-hour drive to Amherst to cover the games, once referring in passing to "Julius Irving." But without the eyes of the wide world upon him, Erving was quietly displaying an in-the-air artistry that would transform the game of basketball.

Excerpt #2

If the modern era of basketball was hinted at by Erving’s departure, it was embodied even more by the arrival of Rick Pitino. He brought flash and fire to the usually controlled UMass game. He was a modern point guard, who loved to dribble the ball through his legs and flip passes behind his back—moves that had not yet made it out to western Massachusetts. A skinny six-footer, he loved nothing more than to take the ball to the hoop against the big boys. The crowd loved him.

He drove Leaman crazy. The coach had cultivated a system, and dammit, it worked. Good fundamental basketball was played in the halfcourt. It involved a well orchestrated series of cuts and picks. The point guard set the offense. He didn’t force it. He sacrificed his own game for that of the team.

The clashes were fierce. Pitino would enter the game with instructions to run the offense. He’d stand at the top of the key, directing traffic, calling the play. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he’d see a seam in the defense. Instantly he’d dart like a piranha, knifing, twisting, flicking up some little reverse or whipping the ball across the lane to a cutting teammate. There would be some electrifying baskets, and, too, some ugly turnovers. Glaring, Leaman would take Pitino out; sometimes Pitino would glare right back.

It was a philosophical battle. Pitino believed in a new era of basketball with wide open, athletic spontaneity. Leaman sought structure, choosing substance over style. Sometimes they yelled at each other, a rather comical clash: the gap-toothed coach with the razored r’s of Boston talking about the responsibilities of the "point gahd," the pretty-boy slickster with New Yawk in his mouth who seemed to think he was God.

Excerpt #3

Calipari was passion without polish. He startled students by turning around during games and yelling at them for cynical comments they were making about his players. "You don’t do that!" he screamed. "Cheer for us." Before long, he won over a number of converts with his flamboyant style. In one game he demonstrated the hustle he wanted by sprinting down the sideline and belly-flopping to the floor, splitting his pants in the process.

He was resourceful, proud of little triumphs. Determined to oust a bird flying through the rafters in the Curry Hicks Cage, he set up a trail of popcorn on the floor one day in practice. The bird ultimately swooped down. Calipari then dropped some popcorn in a trash can. When the bird darted in after it, the coach rammed on the lid with a delighted "Gotcha," carried the can outside and released his feathered friend.

There were not, however, a lot of big triumphs. For the first time since his junior year at Moon Area High School, Calipari was part of a losing team. When the season was done, UMass was 10-18. It was the Minutemen’s eleventh straight losing year under five different coaches. It was, as Basketball Times longtime editor Larry Donald would write years later, "as miserable an era as any school had ever endured."

Few observers could hold out much optimism. Calipari’s record was actually one loss worse than the previous year under Gerlufsen. UMass had been absolutely pulverized on several occasions, losing ten games by at least nineteen points, six of them by more than twenty-five ... This was the great turnaround?

At the team banquet, held at Season’s Restaurant in Amherst, Calipari addressed a small gathering of fans. "He got up there and said, ‘We’re not planning on getting to the NCAA tournament: we’re planning on winning the NCAA tournament,’" Ben Grodski recalled seven years later. "I was thinking, ‘You got to be kidding.’"

Excerpt #4

The date December 6 had long been circled on the calendar hanging above Marcus Camby’s oversized bed on the eleventh floor of the John Quincy Adams dormitory. That night UMass would host Wake Forest, and Camby would tangle with Tim Duncan, widely regarded as the best big man in college basketball. It was a title that Camby himself coveted.

Before you become a big man, you must grow up. For Marcus DeWayne Camby, this had been a gradual process. Unlike a lot of superstars who blossom early, Camby was more goldenrod than dandelion. Physically, intellectually, and emotionally, he was a late bloomer.

The Bellevue Square neighborhood of Hartford where Camby spent his first eleven years is not the worst housing development in the country, but for a glimpse of urban desperation in late twentieth-century America it serves just fine. Amid the mélange of crack vials, swirls of graffiti and plywood-covered windows, young people try to find their way in the world. Camby’s old home, Building 61, is now condemned.

Like plenty of other city kids, Camby started playing basketball by hanging a milk crate from his mother’s clothesline. Shooting amid the bleak backdrop of Belleveue, he dreamed the typical hoop dreams: the college scholarship, the NBA, the big bucks. He was a fairly tall and very skinny kid with uncommon coordination, but he was far from a prodigy. There was no reason to believe he’d be good enough, no reason to believe he’d be big enough. Indeed, there was no reason to believe that deep down he even wanted his dreams enough -- enough, that is, to really sweat for them.

Selected Works

"It took an extraordinary writer in Marty Dobrow to ... deliver this remarkable story."
--Dan Wetzel, national columnist, Yahoo! Sports
"Dobrow ... engagingly recounts hoop tribulations and triumphs at the University of Massachusetts."
--Sports Illustrated

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