THE BEST HIGH SCHOOL TEAM IN AMERICA
BY PAUL LEVY
Courtesy of Connecticut Magazine
The letters inscribed on the purse that hangs from his left shoulder spell the words 'Super John," almost an understatement when one considers some of the feats New Haven's John Williamson has already accomplished. For two years one of the nation's leading collegiate scorers as a sharp-shooting guard at New Mexico State, John now starts for the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. Despite being a rookie, Super John is helping the Nets establish themselves as one of the best professional basketball teams this side of the Boston Celtics. Yet, the joke around New Haven is that John Williamson would have difficulty this year breaking into the lineup of his old high school team.
And while that witticism is just a joke, it is the kind of chicanery that even the most knowledgeable basketball fan must contemplate for a few moments before chuckling. John Williamson is a graduate of Wilbur Cross High, a school that boasts the best scholastic cage team in the country. Not just Connecticut-the entire country! The Governors, who were never tested in winning their first ten games of this season, were ranked second nationally following their 1971-72 campaign in which the team won all 24 of its games en route to the state championship. Last season Cross again won the state title, losing but one of its 23 games-to Hartford Public, a team the Governors later beat twice in the year. However, that one defeat may have been responsible for Cross's 'disappointing" rating as only the fifth best team in the nation in 1972-73.
Just how good is the current Cross quintet?
'They're the best high school team I ever saw, " insists John Wyles, a man who should be familiar with great teams. Wyles coaches DeWitt Clinton High of New York City, the defending city Public Schools Athletic League champion. Clinton, which this year traveled to Houston and knocked off Wheatley, the defending Texas state title holder, and also defeated such powerhouses as Taft of New York City and Eastern of Washington, D.C., had the misfortune of playing Wilbur Cross twice this season, once in New York and once in New Haven. The locations were of little consequence. Cross won, 84-66, in New Haven and was an even more impressive 86-64 winner in Fun City, prompting the New York Post to label the New Haveners as "The Best High School Team in the World." This was one New Haven show that succeeded on Broadway without the slightest problem. Maybe the Governors are indeed The Greatest Show On Earth.
"It will take a miracle to beat them," Wyles surmised. A miracle probably would not be enough. You don't play the Governors, you reason with them. There are only five youngsters in the entire nation chosen each season as first-team high school All Americans. According to the consensus of magazines and polls which make such selections, Wilbur Cross not only has one such player, but two. The Governors could very well be the first team ever to have this distinction, quite an accomplishment when you consider the number of high school teams and players in the country. But the laurels do not stop there for the
New Haven school, for a third starter on the team is also being considered for some type of All America honors and is a sure-fire All State candidate.
But remarkably, there are still a few skeptics who refuse to acknowledge the Governors' authenticity as a national power.
"Oh, they're good, don't get me wrong," insisted Temple University scout Jim Maloney who should know something about Connecticut basketball players although Temple does not go as far away from Philadelphia as Connecticut to recruit. Maloney is a former coach at Niagara University and was the man who signed Norwalk's Calvin Murphy, now a guard with the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association. Maloney left Niagara to recruit for the University of Maryland and among those he signed for the Terrapins is 6'9" forward Tom Roy of South Windsor. Maloney left Maryland for Temple last year.
"Cross has a good team but I think some of the Philadelphia teams could give them a game," Maloney continued. "Germantown (the best high school team in the Quaker City) could play with Cross. The players that Cross has are very good, but..."
To emphasize his point Maloney then rattled off the names of three of the Cross starters, quite an achievement for someone not required to scout teams north of New York City. "Well," Maloney chuckled, "maybe they are pretty good." Maybe the only team in Philadelphia capable of giving the Governors a game is the University of Pennsylvania.
"If there's a team that thinks it can beat us, then that's the team we want to play," stressed Bruce Campbell, the 6'9" forward who has college coaches everywhere drooling. Chances are that if opposing teams catch a glance of Campbell, the last thing in the world they would want is a game with Cross. Campbell is that mmm, mmm good.
Soup, as he is known to his friends, could very well be the best "big man" in the country on the high school level. Although he prefers to play forward, Campbell is equally proficient at center where his defensive abilities bring back memories of Bill Russell. An example of the agility Bruce displays while playing defense are the 83 steals he made last year, an astounding number for a player his size. His ball-handling is so outstanding that his coach, Bob Saulsbury, believes Bruce could play guard.
Campbell's athletic talents are only part of the reason that he and his coach receive telephone calls at all hours of the night from eager college recruiters. Bruce, who is one of nine children, is a very likeable, but well-respected, leader who demands the perfection of a drill sergeant when putting his teammates through a series of calisthenics. Few college players can match his maturity. With a grade average between B and B p1 us, it is no wonder that over 300 colleges have expressed interest in Bruce. It makes it all that much harder to believe that four years ago the last thing Campbell wanted to do was play basketball at Wilbur Cross.
"When I was a freshman I didn't want to play for Cross," said the player Saulsbury considers the best big man he ever has had the privilege to coach. "I wanted to play ball, but I wanted to do it with my friends. I didn't want to play for the high school; I wanted to play for an organization in my neighborhood called the Dixwell Community Soul Station.
"My mother got a call from Mr. Saulsbury one day and I guess he told her that I was good enough to be playing for Cross. My mother looked at what I was doing and asked me, 'Are you crazy?' My mother was really fed up. She practically forced me to play at Cross. I started as a freshman but my heart wasn't really in it. I did things only when I wanted to. That got the coach and my mother really fed up."
Bruce's frosh season, in which he scored only 125 points (the kind of season most freshmen would give their eye teeth for), was the worst season Wilbur Cross ever had under Saulsbury. The Governors actually lost six games.
"People began to tell me that I was just a big nothing," Bruce recalled as he flashed that warm, toothy grin of his which seems to sparkle against his long, black face. "Well I was determined to play some ball after that. You know, I had to show them what I can do. I did all right that year and we won all our games but I still felt funny because I was playing center."
But Bruce, who also plays first base and pitches (he's a southpaw) for the Cross baseball team, was not exactly meandering while playing the pivot. As the team's center he scored 436 points (an 18.2 game average) and grabbed 408 rebounds (17 per game), both outstanding figures.
"It wasn't until my junior year that I was really happy," Soup smiled. "That's when John Thomas joined the team. I saw him and I asked the coach, 'Please Mr. Saulsbury, can John play center so I can play forward?'
A sophomore replace a 6'9" All American? "Why not?" asked Saulsbury. "John Thomas will be the next All American to come Out of Wilbur Cross."
Thomas, at 6'S", is not quite of Campbell's physical stature, but is still a giant by high school standards. Besides he jumps like he's 6'9".
"I'm as big or bigger than most of the centers I come up against," said Thomas, now a junior who will receive at least honorable mention on most All America lists this season. "I only weigh 182 pounds so a lot of the guys I play outweigh me. But I think I'm stronger than most of them."
If Campbell and Thomas are the heart of this Cross team, then it is flashy Jiggy Williamson who really gets things pulsating. Jiggy ("my older sister gave me that name when I was little and don't ask me what it means") is the Governors' other first-team All American, the guy who runs the offense.
James Williamson, at 5'11" is three inches shorter than his famous brother John. When a Philadelphia newspaper incorrectly listed Jiggy as 6'1", Saulsbury quipped, "If you are, I hope you'll take those high heels off before the game." However, Saulsbury never laughs at Jiggy once he begins bouncing a ball or defies gravity with one of his spinning moves to the hoop. The Cross mentor considers the Nets' Super John the greatest scoring threat he has ever coached. But Jiggy is his greatest all-around player.
Many observers who have seen both Williamsons play for Cross feel that at similar stages in their careers, Jiggy has been the better player.
"That's pure nonsense, grinned Jiggy, who may be Super John's greatest fan. "I'll never be in my brother's class. If you've seen him handle a ball you know what I mean. My brother has been playing basketball all his life. I never really took the game seriously until I got into the eighth grade. A lot of times I would go out with my brother but I never really played with him. He was just always too good.
"He's three inches taller than me and he's so much stronger than I am. I know that people like to compare us but it really isn't fair. Even if I was his size I don't know if I could do the things he does."
Try to convince the 300 college scouts who want to sign Jiggy. Nevertheless, like his lifelong friend Bruce Campbell, there was a time when Jiggy was not really concerned with playing basketball for Cross.
It has been noted that John Williamson has the brash confidence of a Muhammed Ali and the body of a Joe Frazier. Jiggy is built along the same lines and, consequently, the sport that captured his interest was football, not basketball.
"I think one of the reasons I went out for basketball was my brother," Jiggy commented. "But I still played football for Cross for three years."
Participating in an additional sport obviously had little effect on Jiggy's basketball prowess. Williamson, a B student, averaged 22.7 points, eight assists and five steals as a junior. This year he has played with even more enthusiasm and finesse, if that is possible.
"If one of my players wants to be on another one of the school's teams, that's fine with me," assured Saulsbury, who rounds out the starting lineup with senior Curt Hismith, a 6'3" forward, and guard Nate Reaves, a6'1" senior.
"It would be unjust of me to tell any of them that they couldn't participate in another sport," continued the eight-year coach. "That's not my business. I know that Bruce and Jiggy have respect for my opinion, but I would never tell either of them where to go to college. They are both capable of making their own decisions. All I ask of them is to choose a place where they will get a good education and have a chance to play."
Little do players such as Bruce and Jiggy realize how lucky they are to have received Saulsbury's guidance. It may seem ridiculous now, but eight years ago the last thing Bob Saulsbury wanted to do was be a head basketball coach.
"I used to think about becoming a coach," the 44-year-old Saulsbury said, recalling his days as an All State and All New England performer while playing for New Haven's Hillhouse High. Upon graduation from Hill-house, Saulsbury matriculated at West Virginia State where he contemplated what the life of a head coach might be like. By the time he finished school he was very disillusioned.
"I thought it might take too much time and be too much of a strain " he went on, his eyes twinkling. "Red Verderame, to whom I owe everything, was the coach at Wilbur Cross. He had a lot of faith in my ability, a lot more than I did. He told me that he wanted to take a short leave of absence and asked if I would coach the team on an interim basis. After a while I finally said I would do it. What I didn't know was that he had no intention of coming back. It was just a trick. I'll always be grateful to him for that."
Saulsbury's success with the Cross team has only enhanced the mutual admiration felt between himself and Verderame.
"I've known Bob Saulsbury for 20, maybe 25, years," said the man Saulsbury likes to refer to as Mr. V. "He's just an outstanding fellow, a great basketball strategist. This year's team is probably the outstanding team in Connecticut history. But most of all, I'm proud that I can call Bob Saulsbury my friend."
That's reassuring for Saulsbury, because when you are Number one, you need all the friends you can get.
"Everybody is out to get us
Campbell explained. "They may not care about the other games, but if you beat Cross you've really done something."
And many teams will try almost anything to accomplish that task.
"You should have seen the game against Hamden," Jiggy Williamson said of his team's tenth victory of the 1973-74 season. They would come out and start throwing elbows and punches. anything to make us fight back and get one of our guys thrown out of a game. Every team does it. You wouldn't believe what the coach asks Bruce to ignore."
"Sometimes," interrupted Thomas, "they'll even try to pull down our pants."
On other occasions, opponents have tried to beat Cross by forcing a slow-down. The most recent example was last year's 54-52 victory over Notre Dame of West Haven. After three periods and Cross leading, 54-52, Notre Dame decided to stop the tempo of the game completely and play for a tie with hopes of winning in overtime. Notre Dame took possession of the ball at the outset of the final quarter and then just held the ball for nearly eight minutes, waiting to take the last shot-which they did in vain. Cross never even made a scoring attempt in the final period.
When the Governors are not beleaguered by opponents and their diabolical schemes, they are usually engulfed by college scouts who are much more tenacious than any zone press Cross has run into.
"The hard part about coming here," winced Syracuse University assistant coach Jim Boeheim, who flew 300 miles to attend a Cross practice session with the hopes of meeting Campbell and Williamson, "is that Saulsbury won't let you talk to the kids. I feel I was lucky to even get into the gym to watch. But nobody is about to argue with him because we know that every year he's going to turn out a few blue-chip prospects. Just look at some of his young kids who aren't even playing yet. They can all jump and they're all built."
Saulsbury, who tells his players to introduce themselves to scouts and then politely tell the recruiters that they have to be home for one reason or another, advises his youngsters to concentrate on school work and their current season first and the recruiters second because the scouts certainly are not about to lose interest. The players have adhered to this advice in precise manner. They do not want to do anything to jeopardize their season.
Once the season concludes, the senior players then will select their colleges and ponder their future careers and the infinite achievements that still lie ahead. But what does Saulsbury have remaining to conquer?
"I doubt that I would ever coach anywhere else," he confessed. "I've had offers from colleges but that would require a lot of recruiting and being away from my family. That's not for me.
"I've had an undefeated season, state championships and national ranking. (In the eight seasons Saulsbury has been coach, including the first 12 games this year, his teams have won 160 games, lost 18, have been state champs four times and have ranked second, third and fifth nationally.) I've seen my players excel in college and in the pros. There doesn't appear to be much left, but when you're working with young people there is always something unpredictable to look forward to. I might leave coaching some day if the right kind of job comes along, and it doesn't necessarily have to be connected with basketball But I'll probably be around for a little while.
"And, of course, Frank Morgillo and Ralph Buccini, help assist me, so that makes things a lot easier. (A former assistant coach, Sal Savo, is now the school's athletic director.) Besides, I have some excellent talent coming up. I can almost predict that five of these kids will get a chance to play professionally some day."
Some day? If they keep this up, Bruce, Jiggy and Co. may be able to challenge Super John and the New York Nets before this season's over.