Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Three Beautiful Things 02/10/20: Reckless Jack Aubrey, Deeper into Foyle, Documentary: Jacksonville in the Final Four -- 1970

1. I tried to finish reading the book Master and Commander today, but after another night of interrupted sleep looking after Charly, I kept falling asleep while I read. I'm almost done. The book's protagonist, Jack Aubrey, got on the wrong side of his commanding officer by persisting to  carry on an affair with the officer's wife.  The story seems to be headed toward a denouement involving the consequences of Aubrey's recklessness.

2. As the first episode of the second season of Foyle's War got underway, I realized I'd watched it a several years ago, but I couldn't remember the details so I watched it again. In much the same way that the last episode I watched of Vera opened up a story line that revealed Vera's history with her father, this episode of Foyle's War included a subplot that unfolded a painful occurrence in Christopher Foyle's past love life. The brief encounter that revealed Foyle's heartbreak had little to do with the cases he was working on, but developed new depth in Foyle and added complexity to his character.

3. On Saturday, on CBS Sports Network, I saw that CBSSN was running an hour long documentary on the Jacksonville University Dolphins' stunning rise in 1969-70 basketball season from nearly total obscurity to the finals of the NCAA National Championship Tournament.

The title of the show is Jacksonville U: Can Do.

After watching Foyle's War, I looked at the CBSNN schedule to see when else Jacksonville U: Can Do might be replaying since I missed it on Sunday.

It played tonight at nine and I watched it.

It was awesome to return to that 1969-70 season. That March, Terry Turner invited me to be his family's guest and watch the Western Regional of the NCAA tournament in Seattle. On Thursday evening, as we watched UCLA defeat Long Beach State, astonishment rippled through the crowd when the P.A announcer reported that Jacksonville had defeated Ralph Miller's Iowa Hawkeyes, featuring future SuperSonic NBA champions Fred Brown and John Johnson, 104-103 -- we later learned that Jacksonville won that game on a put back by Pembroke Burroughs III at the buzzer.

Then, on Saturday, another shocker: while we watched UCLA dismantle Utah State, we heard that Jacksonville defeated Kentucky, 106-100 and had earned a trip to the Final Four. We were in Hec Edmonston Pavillion on the University of Washington campus  and the proper song to play when that score was announced would have been, "There's a Kind of Hush". You could have heard a proverbial pin drop.

I was 16 years old, sitting in Hec Edmonston Pavillion, and I was having a very difficult time making sense out of this -- I'd had a UCLA-chauvinist attitude toward Jacksonville, thinking that this team anchored by Artis Gilmore, led by guards Vaughn Wedeking and Rex Morgan, and supported by Pembroke Burroughs III, Rod McIntyre, and Mike Blevins was some kind of freak show with their flamboyantly dressed coach Joe Williams, their Harlem Globetrotter like show in warm-ups, and their white boys' floppy hair and their black players' big Afros.

And, it's their rise from obscurity and the shock that Jacksonville sent through the world of NCAA basketball in the late winter of 1970 that this documentary narrates.

I loved UCLA. And, as it turned out, UCLA faced Jacksonville in the final game of the 1970 tournament.

In the same way that I thought the Colts would dominate the Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl (I was wrong), thought the Orioles would crush the Mets in the 1969 World Series (wrong again), and the Vikings would cruise past the Chiefs in the 1970 Super Bowl (wrong, yet again), I didn't think Jacksonville had a prayer against UCLA.

And, for a while, I was wrong again.

Tonight, I enjoyed watching clips from that 1970 championship game between Jacksonville and UCLA and reliving the shock of Jacksonville, especially Artis Gilmore, dominating the early part of that contest. It wasn't until Sidney Wicks stopped fronting Artis Gilmore and defended him from behind and blocked a handful of Gilmore's shots that UCLA assumed eventual control of this game and went on to win it, 80-69.

I was ecstatic that Saturday afternoon.

My UCLA-chauvinism had been vindicated.

But as the years went by, that game kept coming back to me in my thoughts and memories and it wasn't UCLA I kept thinking about, but the unlikely story of Jacksonville's basketball team that year. When I studied at the U of O, I used to take the Sports Illustrated issue off the shelf that included coverage of that game and read about it again and again, look at the pictures, and relive that game. Jacksonville's rise to almost the top had captivated me.

That game happened fifty years ago.

Jacksonville has never won an NCAA tournament game since. In fact, they haven't even appeared in the tournament for 34 years.

The documentary Jacksonville U: Can Do opened my eyes to all kinds of things I hadn't known before about what a small school Jacksonville was, how minuscule its basketball program was, and how much the city of Jacksonville was under the grip of Jim Crow.

Now, I admit, this program was not produced with the high caliber production values, nor with the budget, that make ESPN's 30 for 30 documentaries so exemplary.

And I liked that.

To me, it was fitting that such an underdog story about a low budget basketball team that played championship basketball against all odds was told in a low budget documentary that moved me, not because it had an award winning look, but by stirring up memories and creating fresh feelings in me about this Jacksonville team and about my own attitudes about basketball and basketball players when I was younger.

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