(Published in Daily News, March 27, 1985)
The list of people who will watch Gary McLain play basketball this Saturday is positively Olympian.
There's Steve Alford, who made the Olympic team, and Mark Price, who nearly did. And Pearl Washington. And Gary Grant of Michigan and Kenny Smith of North Carolina, the point guards of the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the Southeast Regional that No. 8 seed Villanova, with McLain, just won.
Stewart Granger will watch, too. In McLain's first two years at Villanova, Granger played point guard, conducted about as many wins, and caught just as much criticism. "But I never went to the Final Four," Granger told McLain on the phone the other day. "What about you? You locked up Gary Grant. You locked up Kenny Smith."
Oh, and let's not forget another spectator, Gerald Greenwalt. He was the coach at Lawrence Road Junior High in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island, and he said Gary McLain couldn't play for him. "Of course, I was kind of wild, then," McLain says charitably. "My favorite player was a kid named Steve Brawley, who was outrageous, with at least two 360s (complete spins to the bucket) per game. Back then, it was important to have 1,000 moves, to shake and bake."
But now Gary McLain is off the street and into the Final Four, and he did it the way the great con men do - he did not ever act surprised. He thinks, therefore he is. It has been the most successful mind game in college basketball.
"All those guys (Pearl, Grant, etc.), they get all the publicity, but I've gotten unbelievable amounts, too," says McLain, too peaceful for I-told-you-sos at this point. "All I hoped to do when I came here was contribute. It became a little more than that."
Yes, it did. As dusk gathers around Rupp Arena Saturday, check to see if Villanova is trying its best to get the ball into Gary McLain's hands. If the Wildcats are, you can bank that they are beating Memphis State.
McLain is the general of the deadly Villanova delay game and easily the most valorous Wildcat from the foul line (8-for-13 for the NCAA tournament and 175-for-218 for his career). He also is averaging 1.75 turnovers per game in the tourney, and only 1.00 moments in which some brazen action of McLain's makes Rollie Massimino act as if his Miami Vice alligator shoes are biting his ankles.
"My job is making judgments," McLain shrugs. "Sometimes a play might work out, but it's all according to my judgment.
"However, Coach has killed me on occasion."
Massimino has done more than that. It's no secret that he hunted for McLain's replacement last recruiting season. He struck out on David Rivers (Notre Dame) and, at the last minute, backed off on Howard Evans (Temple).
Rivers and Evans, by the way, will also be watching Saturday's game. McLain, meanwhile, won over his coach by somehow refusing to be too short, too ponderous on his jumpers (roses have opened up in less time than it takes McLain to get his shot off), and too crazy to let Villanova survive at money time.
"He's buried me and brought me back up," McLain said. "He's been right." And McLain always has managed to rally from the dead. The toughest resurrection job came his freshman year, when he threw one to Connecticut's Norman Bailey, who assisted Karl Hobbs on a game-winning buzzer bucket.
But there always has been a tomorrow for McLain, and a last word. He has been the voice of the Wildcats for four years.
"I came down here getting on everybody," he said. "John Pinone wasn't safe and neither was Stewart. Then I got out on the court and started putting those moves on Stewart, except he didn't move. Same with Gene Smith of Georgetown. The good (defensive) ones don't move. That's when I went, uh-oh."
Still, the jeering never stopped. His two favorite targets now are bookend 7-footers Wyatt Maker and Chuck Everson, simply for being large and consuming food. In return, Ed Pinckney and friends hop on McLain's case before big games. "Gary Grant, he's tough," they challenged him before the Michigan game. "Even my friends at home," McLain said, "aren't surprised when, say, Pearl has a big game on me. They expect him to do great against me. But then I won them over, and now they say, 'Gary, you did it once, do it again.' "
McLain did not let Gerald Greenwalt discourage him twice. He stood out at a camp and met Bill Donlon, then the coach at Lutheran High on Long Island. Lutheran was too much of a budget-buster. But then McLain learned Donlon got the job at Methuen, Mass., a small town near Boston. An only child, McLain convinced his mother to let him go there to high school; Donlon offered him room and board.
"That was back when New York Air had 29-cent shuttle flights from Boston," he said. "Even when it went up to $29, it helped me."
Donlon, who later became a Providence assistant, was tough. Make a D, as Gary did once, and sit there for two games. "The other rule was tough for me," he said. "It was, 'Be home by 11.' Now I wasn't used to that in Hempstead. I mean, nothing bad, but I liked to hang out after games. Sometimes we'd go to Nassau Coliseum and see Julius Erving with the Nets. He had that flyaway Afro, and he was fantastic."
But McLain learned to mellow out in Methuen, and he became an all-state player. He also was nicknamed "Gizz" on the Roxbury backgrounds, as were all youths named Gary. It came from a great player named Gary "Gizmo" Burke, who died too young.
"Back then, the important thing was busting your nut," McLain said. "That's what we called scoring. It meant you weren't shut out, didn't get the doughnut. That's what busting the nut means. I went to that first camp with coach Donlon and they were talking about fundamentals. Improve your fundamentals? I didn't think you could do that. That wasn't basketball. But now I'd rather get an assist and make sure I'm there on the foul line at the end.
"I know these guys. I know where Dwayne (McClain) wants the ball, I know about Ed. I see Ed draw double coverage and then flip in there to Harold (Pressley), know the groove we're in. We're playing tremendous basketball."
He also remembers when they didn't. Two years ago, Granger's successor at point guard was 3-7. That's wins and losses, not height, but it was tough to tell the difference then. In successive games, Washington got 28 on McLain and Michael Adams of BC had 34.
Since that BC loss, McLain and Villanova are 39-15. "He's the king of the crew," Massimino said, proud but still wondering how it happened. "He's never down."
But he will be out, and Wildcat basketball will be a quieter place. Maybe. Veltra Dawson, freshman point man from Chicago, has been heard to ridicule Maker and Everson lately.
"Gary's doing all that," Dwight Wilbur said. "Gary's training Veltra well."