Jake’s boys: Special team from special generation
Appeal Sports Writer
The season is over for the University of Nevada men’s basketball team, a special group of players the like of which may never again be seen at Lawlor Events Center.
This edition of the Wolf Pack – which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where it lost, 78-62, to Memphis – is now headed to the history books, with departing seniors Nick Fazekas, Kyle Shiloh and Denis Ikovlev off to explore their respective careers in the NBA or whatever other opportunities their education has opened up for them.
The 2006-07 Pack finished the season with a record of 29-5, setting a school record for most victories in a season by surpassing the 28-5 mark set by the1945-46 team, which was coached by Glenn “Jake” Lawlor.
But for all of its success – it had a season winning percentage of .853 – this team still fell short of surpassing one record held by another Lawlor-coached team. The 1951-52 team, which finished its season 19-3, still holds the mark for winning percentage at .864.
It was a different time, with television – black and white, no less – just beginning to climb its way into vogue. Radio was the reigning king of media and the advent of the Internet, Instant Messaging and cell phones lay decades in the future.
The NCAA Tournament, which had expanded from eight to16 teams in 1951, still lacked the cache of the National Invitational Tournament and was years away from becoming the multi-billion dollar phenomenon it has become.
And that 1951-52 Nevada team?
Well, they came to be known as a special group of “Jake’s Boys.”
A DIFFERENT GENERATION
Whether it was geographically, physically or experientially, the 1951-52 team was about as different from Nevada coach Mark Fox’s group as the technology that separates the two generations.
Whereas Fox has two players from the state of Nevada playing on his 12-player team – Curry Lynch, a backup guard from Virginia City and Reno’s Matt LaGrone (McQueen High School) – nine of 11 of Lawlor’s boys were from practically all corners of the Silver State.
Guard Dan Vidovich and forward Ed Hancock were All-State players from Reno High School; center Mert Baxter, of Carson High, was another All-State selection.
Guard George Assuras hailed from White Pine High School in Ely; All-State center Reggie De Paoli came from Eureka High School; forward Doug Douglas was a graduate from Tonopah High.
Center-forward Earl Jarrett (Las Vegas High), Jerry Wyness (Boulder High) and forward Bob Wilcox (Panaca) all represented the South.
Only guard Bert Larkins (San Francisco) and center-forward Dave Storm came from California.
In contrast to such redwoods as the 6-foot-11 Fazekas or the 7-1 David Ellis, the 6-3 De Paoli was the tallest player for the ’51-52 team.
All of the players grew up during the Great Depression and one, Vidovich, played as a 24-year-old sophomore. Vidovich, now an 80-year-old Carson City resident who still practices physical therapy, graduated from Reno in 1944 and went to San Diego, where he joined the United States Marine Corps.
He subsequently saw action with the 2nd Division in the Pacific theater of World War II before later combining the G.I. Bill and working two jobs to pay and play his way through college.
“I think we made the most of it,” said Vidovich, who lettered three years in basketball (because he played as a freshman, he wasn’t allowed to play as a senior) and four years for the Nevada baseball team. “It was definitely a different generation with different goals. We’d set a goal, work toward it and keep going till we got it.”
Another difference back then was how the game was coached. According to 76-year-old Baxter, a retired United States Army brigadier general who lives in Reno, there was only one way to do things: Lawlor’s way.
“You go to these games now and you’ll see (Nevada football coach Chris) Ault with about 10 assistants and Mark Fox with five or six assistants,” said Baxter, who played three years each on the basketball and football teams (wide receiver) and for one year ran the high hurdles and threw the javelin for the Pack track team. “When Jake was coaching basketball, he was the only coach. He had a kid that helped him (team manger Bill Deal), but he did whatever Jake told him to do.”
Jarrett, a junior on the ’51-52 team and who taught at Douglas High for 31 years (he also coached the Tigers’ varsity basketball team from 1956-67), remembers an extreme individual in Lawlor.
“He was a flamboyant man,” Jarrett said. “He was very hard to play for. Very temperamental. Very competitive. Very sound defensively.”
And, according to Vidovich, one of the team’s fastest players, Lawlor was hands-on.
“He was a hard-nosed little Irishman, a stickler for defense,” Vidovich said. “His thing was defense. He said if you can hustle, you can go with anybody. He believed that. We played some good teams.
“He’d say, ‘Damn it, Vidovich, I’ll give you the ball on one end of the court and we’ll go one-on-one and see if you get past me.’ I ran him all over the court. He’d get you face to face when he wanted to talk to you. He chased me around the gym a couple of times.”
Hancock, a 76-year-old Reno resident and professor emeritus from the University of Nevada, said he crossed Lawlor one time.
“Jake was a wild man,” Hancock said. “He’d be just wild at halftime, just crazy. He told me, ‘You can’t run, you can’t shoot, what do I have you in there for?’ One halftime I started to answer and he grabbed me by the ears and stuck that big red face of his right in front of mine. I didn’t talk again.”
But what happened on the court and in the locker room was later forgotten by Lawlor, who coached the Wolf Pack for 15 seasons (1942-43, 1945-59) and holds the all-time record for wins by a Nevada coach with 201 (he lost 159 games).
“One time I didn’t see him for about a year,” Baxter said. “He came running over and grabbed me under the arms and picked me up and shook me. He was happy to see me.”
In addition to holding outright the Wolf Pack’s season winning percentage record, the 1951-52 team’s mark of opening the season with 14 consecutive wins has yet to be eclipsed. Fox’s 2005-06 team also won 14 straight games, but it didn’t open the season with those wins.
The steak ended when the University of Pacific came to Reno and took consecutive wins – 45-39 and 60-54. The Pack went on to twice beat San Francisco YMI and won the first of two games with Portland before losing its third game.
De Paoli, Hancock, Vidovich, Larkins and Baxter were Nevada’s starting five, with Jarrett coming off the bench.
“We were competitive,” said Jarrett, who also coached the Douglas junior varsity football team, started the boys’ and girls’ tennis team and guided the track team to a state championship in 1974. “Most all of the guys got Jake’s competitive spirit. It carried over to the games.
“Mert Baxter and Dan Vidovich were good shooters and knocked down some pretty good shots. I got most of my points under the basket. We ran more of a set offense. We had certain players we’d try to get the ball to. We’d set them up and try to run them. If we couldn’t, we’d get the ball to the outside. It was typical basketball back then. It wasn’t as exciting as today’s game.”
The game may not have been as exciting as today’s, but some of its players were fun to watch.
“We called Bert Larkins ‘The Frog,'” Vidovich said. “He was quick. He got quite a few of his points off defense. He jumped around like a little frog. He was short, but he was a good hustler. He was fast and a good shooter. Both of us got a lot of shots.”
“”The Frog’ was from French descent,” said Hancock, who boxed under Nevada coach Jimmy Olivas, said of Larkins. “He was just real small. He was a good shot – he never missed. He was like Dan that way.
“I remember ‘The Vid.’ Dan was great. He had so much ability. He had the strangest shot – it went kinda flat, but he put it in. He had everything.”
Hancock, according to the 5-11 Vidovich, was no slouch himself.
“‘Easy Ed’ was a quiet guy, but he’d get excited once in a while,” Vidovich said. “He was a good, smooth ball player. He was a good shooter.”
The 6-2 Baxter, who led the team with 17 points per game, said the ’51-52 group was successful because it played as a team.
“We had a lot of passion,” he said. “You had to in those days. We brought the ball down the floor and hoped to get the ball (in the paint). Reg (De Paoli) did a lot of screening in the middle. We didn’t shoot a lot of long shots. Larkins and Vidovich were good long shooters.”
“We were all good friends, buddies,” Jarrett said. “We were competitive. We worked hard. We practiced hard and played hard.”
Nevada finished the season with two wins against Arizona State and was set to compete in the NAIA Tournament, in Kansas City, Mo.
“It wasn’t a huge tournament, but we had a good team,” Baxter said. “A little later (Las Vegas casino owner) Benny Binion donated some money for us to go back (to Kansas City). The committee found out where the money came from and withdrew their invitation. They viewed it as tainted money (garnered) from the poor people who lost it gambling.
“He was just a contributor. It wasn’t as if somebody went to him. It was published in the newspaper and they gave the money back to him.”
A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW
As successful on the court as they were, the players from the ’51-52 team were perhaps even more transcendent off it.
Hancock, who has written several books, went on to become the first American to teach at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England after earning a Fulbright Scholarship. He taught the structure of English to the top three to six percent of the brightest students the United Kingdom had to offer.
Vidovich went on to earn his master’s degree at Nevada, coached basketball for six years in Lovelock, then went to Stanford to earn his physical therapy license. He had his own practice in Carson City for more than 20 years.
Baxter rose from the rank of 2nd Lt. to Brig. Gen. in his 36 years in the Army, serving in Vietnam from 1966-67 and 1969-70.
Although none went on to play in the NBA, they showed what the value of education and working toward goals could do for a person.
“It’s kind of nice – nowadays you don’t find that – everyone went on to make a name for himself,” Vidovich said of his team’s post-basketball accomplishments. “We all went into a field and did something.”
And it’s still nice to hold that record after all these years.
“I drink coffee at Coney Island every day with Jerry Wyness and we laugh a lot about it,” Baxter said. “This year they (the Wolf Pack) made it (seven games) before they lost. Everyone laughed and said, ‘You guys survived one more year.'”
Vidovich added a line that even tough old Jake Lawlor would likely acknowledge.
“It was a special team,” Vidovich said. “Everybody worked hard.”