Redlands. USC. Alhambra. Modesto. Kansas State. Utah. U.S. Olympic team? The NBA’s Utah Jazz?
“Black” Jack Gardner’s basketball insight was apparently so keen that he was selected as the 1964 tryouts coach for the U.S. Olympic team. Princeton’s Bill Bradley, North Carolina’s Larry Brown, UCLA’s Walt Hazzard and a few other future NBA players were on that gold medal-winning squad.
A few years earlier at Utah, 6-foot-9 center Billy McGill led the NCAA in scoring (38.8), 1961, including a memorable 60-point game in a 106-101 rivalry game win over BYU.
Gardner, also known as “The Fox,” knew how to coach against the biggest names in basketball – nearly against Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain and went up against University of San Francisco’s Bill Russell. If Gardner hadn’t moved on to Utah from Kansas State, he’d have had to scheme against Wild twice a year.
Truth is, he tried to recruit Wilt when he was in high school.
As for Russell, imagine the excitement in Utah when Gardner called Russell’s Dons “the greatest team ever assembled.”
His top player at Utah, McGill, had scrimmaged in Los Angeles summer leagues against Russell and Chamberlain. McGill was one of the L.A. best players when he led Jefferson High to a pair of city titles. Scrimmaging against Chamberlain? Russell?
“That was a player I had to have,” said Gardner, referring to McGill.
Scheming against Chamberlain and Russell was another matter.
During a 1998 phone chat, Gardner asked, “Are you sitting down, Mr. Brown?”
As a matter of fact, I was. He was about to offer insight into the background in coaching against two of basketball’s greatest icons. Sitting down? I should’ve called for some oxygen. Or sedation. This was a dream for a small-town reporter: Moments like these.
“Is it possible in anyone’s thinking out there,” mused Gardner, “that Mr. Russell and Mr. Chamberlain could be considered as equals in this sport?”
Russell’s 1956 USF squad, which took a 29-0 record into the NCAA Tournament, knocked off ranked teams – No. 8 UCLA, Gardner’s 18th-ranked Utah, No. 7 Southern Methodist and No. 4 Iowa – and the Dons beat them all by at least 11 points.
Iowa, the Big Ten champ for the second straight year, came into the NCAA final on a 17-game win streak of its own before losing, 83-71.
Utah lost, 92-77, to the Dons in the West Region final.
“You had to figure a way to score against Mr. Russell,” said Gardner. “What’d we have – 77 points? It’s not bad, but their defense led them to score a lot of points.”
Hal Perry, an All-Tournament player, along with future Boston Celtic guard K.C. Jones was part of the Dons’ mystique, not to mention Russell.
“No one plays this game alone,” said Gardner.
“Regardless of what anyone else says, including Mr. (Red) Auerbach in Boston. It’s a team game, always has been a team game and, for the winning teams, always will be a team game.”
Include Chamberlain on that discussion.
“Anytime you played a team with Mr. Chamberlain on it,” he said, “you had to draw up a defense to stop him – just like you had to devise a good offensive game plan against Mr. Russell. You see the similarity there?”
Playing against Russell was mythic. Gardner’s teams never had a chance to play against Wilt.
But Russell versus any other team, or Chamberlain against other teams posed remarkably similar problems, reflected Gardner. “You really have to be good at both ends,” said the Redlands-based Hall of Famer, “no matter who you’re playing against.
“If you’re going to be a good team, you’ve got to be able to score and you’ve also got to be able to stop the other team. Coaches have to have defense and offense in the court.”
He came close to coaching against Chamberlain, a Kansas sophomore, in 1957. Utah finished 16-8 overall in 1956-57. “You had to win your conference to get into the (NCAA) tournament,” he said, “which was only 32 teams then.”
The headline was this: Chamberlain, still at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, had been promised to Kansas back in the days when Gardner was still coaching at Kansas State.
“Yes. I was after him,” said Gardner. “I had my ways. KU was better than Kansas. They hid him from me. I couldn’t get to him.
“I think you know what I mean, Mr. Brown.”
That 1957 season, though. Lost some close Mountain States Athletic Conference games – by five to Denver, by four to BYU, plus a four-point loss to Utah State.
“Turn those games around,” Gardner said, “which we should’ve won – I remember all of them – and we’d have gone up against Kansas. I can tell you that.”
Out of the blue, I asked Gardner a fairly personal question, basketball-related, of course. “You’re a USC guy. Did you ever think of coaching there?”
The answer was quick. “Never had a chance,” he said. “Things didn’t work out. I was a USC guy … you’re right about that.”
“Black” Jack coached against his Trojans – 3-8 against them, in fact.
Gardner-at-Utah was legendary. There was another Redlands Connection. Shortly after serving his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, onetime Long Beach State recruit Jon Hansen, a 6-foot-5, sharp-shooting Redlands High alum, decided to transfer to Utah.
For years, Hansen saw the likeness of Jack Gardner at Utah – heard the stories, even met the man.
Years after graduation, Hansen learned something new about Gardner. They were both Terriers. He seemed overwhelmed by such a notion. Said Hansen: “He graduated from Redlands High School?”
It was a surprising revelation about a man he’d only viewed from afar – having graduated 56 years apart from the same high school campus. It was in 2000 that Gardner died, age 90, in Salt Lake City.
There was a list of Top 100 college coaches released in 2011. Most basketball fans would know the names. Gardner was slotted in at No. 27, one spot ahead of Kansas legend Phog Allen and four spots behind Tarkanian.
At the top, of course, was John Wooden.