You don’t have to be a hoarder to know that sifting through old books and magazines can be like an archaeological dig. Each new pile or layer can provide clues on what was happening in and around your life whenever you started stacking.
Weeding through old media guides in the Channel 27 sports office, I stumbled across what now seems like an ancient relic, crammed with information about college basketball from a previous era: a copy of The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook published prior to the 1987-88 season.
You know, back when most kids played college ball for four seasons.
The BRCBY has become an industry standard. It originally was published by a University of Kansas dropout named Chris Wallace, who went on to become the general manager of the Boston Celtics and currently serves as the GM for the Memphis Grizzlies. The yearbook became known for copious amounts of information on every single Division I men’s basketball program in the country.
It also included (and still does) info on small colleges, women’s basketball, junior colleges and endless rankings of high school players, some of whom actually lived up to the hype afforded them.
The ’87-88 Blue Ribbon book cover featured its pre-season Player of the Year, Danny Manning – a prescient pick, as Manning would go on to lead the Jayhawks to the NCAA championship, himself winning several national awards (splitting honors with Bradley guard Hersey Hawkins).
The Jayhawks were one of the teams chosen to make the 1988 Final Four and in fact, was the only one the magazine accurately predicted. Blue Ribbon said Indiana, North Carolina and Syracuse would join KU but in fact, the others were Duke, Arizona and top-ranked Oklahoma, which had twice beaten Kansas during the Big Eight regular season.
Kansas got its revenge in the finale, upsetting the Sooners 83-79.
Kentucky was listed among “The Next Wave” - teams that had a shot at crashing the Final Four. But alas, the Wildcats fell in the regional semifinals 80-74, upset by Villanova – coached by Rollie Massimino, whose Northwood team faces the Wildcats this Thursday night.
The marquee player on that UK squad was high-flying sophomore Rex Chapman, but it also included seniors Winston Bennett, Ed Davender, Cedric Jenkins, Robert Lock and Richard Madison, as well as sophomore gunner Derrick Miller.
Loaded? Sure it was, but what might have been even more impressive was Kentucky’s freshman class that season. John Calipari is bringing in class after class of blue chippers, but nobody matched Eddie Sutton that year for sheer volume.
The new faces included sophomore Reggie Hanson (who had to redshirt his freshman season for academic reasons) and freshmen Eric Manuel, Jonathan Davis and LeRon Ellis, along with four others who become known as “The Unforgettables:” John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer (for some reason was not listed in the yearbook on the UK page).
Manuel and Ellis were highly touted by Blue Ribbon, as well as every other publication in the country, as was Woods, considered a blue-chipper at point guard. The magazine included a High School Top 44 feature and two companion lists: “100 More Stars of the Future” and honorable mention All-Americas, which mentioned top players in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The Top 44 was dedicated to Ben Wilson, Blue Ribbon’s 1984-85 top prep player (and everybody else’s that year). The subject of a recent ESPN “30-For-30” documentary, Wilson was murdered before he ever got a chance to play college basketball.
Blue Ribbon recognized three separate teams of high school stars as the best in the country, and almost every one of them went on to excel. The first team included Shawn Kemp, who would sign with Kentucky but left before ever playing for the Wildcats. Kemp tried to pawn a piece of jewelry that had been reported stolen by teammate Sean Sutton; it had been given to Kemp by an acquaintance who had gained access to the Wildcat Lodge and taken several items. In the wake of the investigation, Kemp transferred to a junior college.
Others on that first team included Alonzo Mourning, who would sign with Georgetown and spend a productive career in the NBA; Billy Owens, who went on to Syracuse and then 10 years in the league; future LSU big man Stanley Roberts (a disappointment in the pros), and Kenny Williams, who couldn’t qualify academically and wound up in junior college before moving on to pro ball.
The second team: Future Wildcat Chris Mills, who would become one of the focal points of the NCAA’s investigation of Kentucky; another future LSU Tiger, Chris Jackson; New York City point guard Kenny Anderson, who led Georgia Tech to the Final Four; Jimmy Jackson (the one who went to Ohio State, not Michigan) and Robert Werdann.
Werdann was a 6-foot-10 center who went on to play for St. John’s, where he was never better than third-team All Big East, although he was drafted in the second round by the Denver Nuggets. He spent three seasons in the NBA and played several years of minor league ball.
What might be more interesting are the names included in the best of the rest. Among the “other Top 44” players was a kid named Robert Horry, who would go on to an All-SEC career at Alabama, and an incredible 16-year NBA run that saw him win seven championships. He’s one of only nine players in league history to have collected that many rings, and one of just two to win titles with three different teams (John Salley is the other).
Among the “100 More Stars of the Future:” --
Louisville prep star Allan Houston, who followed his dad to Tennessee and became the Volunteers’ all-time leading scorer, as well as a successful pro;
Damon Bailey, just a sophomore then but eventually the Naismith prep Player of the Year. Bailey may have been best known for being recruited as an eighth-grader by Bob Knight. He was a four-year starter at Indiana, which he helped lead to the ’92 Final Four;
and a point guard from Portland who would go on to a solid, if modest, career at the University of Portland. Erik Spoelstra eventually would make it to the NBA –as a video coordinator and, eventually, head coach of the currently reigning NBA champion Miami Heat.
Not all became “stars of the future,” of course. Not all of them could. And talent evaluation 25 years ago can’t come close to where it is today. I asked two recruiting analysts who work the UK beat if they believe talent evaluators are better than they were back then.
Predictably, both said, “yes,” and for the same reason – more chances to see high school kids play, often against each other.
“I believe they are,” Jeff Drummond said, via e-mail. Drummond has worked for several recruiting services and currently is with FoxSports.com.
“There are so many events now where all the top players are brought together (Nike EYBL, NBA Top 100 Camp, AAU nationals, etc.) that national basketball analysts can really get a long look at the top talent all summer long in head-to-head competition. It's a big advantage over their football counterparts as well.”
Chris Fisher covers UK and recruiting for the Cats’ Pause on the 247 Sports Network. “I do think, unequivocally, the scouts, gurus and analysts do a better job evaluating talent now more than ever if for no other reason than they see these kids play more often than they ever have,” he said.
“I was watching that Benji 30 for 30 the other night and
Bob Gibbons ranked Ben Wilson No. 1 in the country after one
appearance at ABCD Camp in 1984.
“It expanded some from there, but even just 15 years ago, you really
only had ABCD (Reebok), Nike and 5-Star camps where you could evaluate the best talent from across the country all in one place.”
Now, talent evaluators can see top players competing head-to-head on a weekly basis, Fisher said, starting in the spring and throughout the summer at a variety of venues.
“To answer your question, yes,” he said. “I think they do a better job and can get a better handle on a kid now because they have a lot more information to base their ranking/projection on.”
Perhaps if they had had a little more information back in 1987, or an ability to see into the future, the Blue Ribbon experts might have rated more highly a skinny, 6-10 post player from Buffalo – a kid named Christian Laettner.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and radio network and can be heard Mon.-Fri. at 6 pm on The Big Blue Insider at 6pm on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)