News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 13, 2010

AMEY TAKES AIM: Pick a skill and Billy ‘The Kid’ Harris had it

By Andy Amey

TERRE HAUTE — This column is for longtime Sycamore fans — emphasize the “long” part — who remember the CMU.

No this isn’t an account of the trip I once made to Mt. Pleasant, Mich., to see the Central Michigan Chippewas play basketball on their tartan floor. It is about long-ago Indiana State opponents, however.

Billy “The Kid” Harris died on Jan. 3.

The CMU was the Conference of Midwestern Universities, a five-team (which was the problem) league formed almost 40 years ago uniting Indiana State, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Ball State and Northern Illinois.

It died a premature death because six teams were necessary for an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament, and that’s a shame. In its few years of existence, the league had five teams who basically hated each other, the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in Doug Collins of Illinois State, and the best college basketball team nobody has ever heard of.

That would be the Northern Illinois Huskies in 1972 or 1973. I know it wasn’t 1971, because Jim Bradley didn’t have grades after graduating from unbeaten East Chicago Roosevelt in 1970 and had to sit out a year, during which I watched his NIU intramural team beat the NIU freshman team by about 50 points — but I digress.

ISU was playing a pretty beefy schedule in those days, and because I worked for a paper with a huge travel budget — The Statesman, believe it or not — I saw them all. I saw the Sycamores win the UNLV Holiday Tournament during the 1970-71 season, a tournament in which Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach State team with All-America Ed Ratleff finished fourth. Those two tournament games were the last ones Long Beach lost until a one-point decision to one of John Wooden’s national championship UCLA teams in the NCAA tournament.

Northern was way better than Long Beach State was.

The Huskies had Bradley, who was 6-foot-10, Kevin Garnett with point guard skills; they had a 6-9 center whose name I can’t recall who didn’t do much but block out and get rebounds (but was pretty good at it, and left-handed to boot); they had a forward named Zielinski who likewise had one skill — shooting — but could use that skill from anywhere, particularly the deep corner; a 6-4 point guard named Jackson, the most fundamentally sound of all of them and a beast defensively; and they had Billy The Kid, dubbed by Slam Magazine back in 1998 as “the best playground baller ever.”

Pick a skill — quickness, jumping ability, long-range shooting, dunking, trash talk — and The Kid had it. Howard Williams was one of my best friends on the team and, as ISU’s best defender, always got that defensive assignment, but The Kid put a move on him one time in the ISU Arena (came full-speed at Howard on the dribble, causing Howard to stumble backward, at which point The Kid nailed a 35-footer with Howard on the floor) that had me feeling like standing and applauding.

Good citizenship wasn’t always that team’s strong point, one of the reasons I suspect that they never got an NCAA bid despite a record of something like 21-4. Coach Wooden probably didn’t mind, because the Huskies would have given his Bruins as good a battle as any of the teams they beat in that year’s tournament.



Andy Amey can be reached after 4 p.m. for comments or news items at (812) 231-4277 or at 1-800-783-8742; by e-mail at andy.amey@tribstar.com; by mail at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN, 47808; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.