Jim McGregor won’t take credit for lighting the long-burning fuse that set off the international boom in college basketball.
He dishes that credit to Frank Warren.
The man McGregor says fired him as basketball coach at what was then Whitworth College.
The year was 1953. McGregor was 31 years old and in three years had steered the Pirates to 72 wins and an appearance in the NAIA national tournament. He had sent two players, Phil Jordan and Ralph Polson, to the NBA at a time when the league had only nine teams. But his methods, strategies, temperament and general indifference to Whitworth’s Christian mission got him crosswise with the school’s president. The day before McGregor was named Coach of the Year at the old SWABs banquet came the report of his resignation, though in his book “Called for Travelling” and all conversations since, he’s called it a firing.
But it was more than that. When two jobs he’d seemed to have nailed down suddenly went to others, McGregor had an inspiration.
“I found it expedient,” he said, “to get a coaching position somewhere they couldn’t read Dr. Warren’s letter of recommen- dation.”
His first stop: Italy. That was the first of eight countries he served as national coach, on top of 30-odd more where he was a consultant and clinician. In and around those gigs, McGregor developed something of a basketball flea market: coaching teams of post-collegiate American players barnstorming through Europe and other ports of call meeting club teams.
The clubs were looking for American players. The players were looking to land foreign contracts. McGregor would collect the reward of a transfer fee. And every now and then in the process, he would uncover a young European player eager to play basketball for an American college.
Among the first was Jean Claude Lefebvre, a 7-foot-3 1/4 Frenchman he hooked up with an old coaching rival, Hank Anderson, at Gonzaga.
The Gonzaga of that era wasn’t going outrecruit anyone for an American 7-footer, so Anderson was eventually all ears – even if he was leery of McGregor’s ways. While at Whitworth, McGregor had tried to recruit rebounder deluxe Jerry Vermillion right out of GU’s gym during a freshman game. When McGregor tried to coax Anderson into taking his team on a tour of the Far East, the Zags coach’s response was, “I don’t know about you, Jim. I can see us coming back in a rowboat.”
But recruiting was another matter. Two years after Lefebvre, McGregor sent another 7-footer, George Trontzos of Greece, and 6-8 Hans Albertsson of Sweden to GU.
It wasn’t an exclusive deal. Peruvian Raul Duarte got steered to Iowa State, and there were scads of others.
“I was getting players from college coaches (for the touring teams), and helping them find foreign players,” McGregor said. “It was a two-way street.”
The real foreign invasion wouldn’t come until the game overseas grew – television, the Olympic movement and money all playing a part in that. But nudging it along in the early stages was “Jolly Jim” McGregor.
“I wasn’t alone at it for long,” he acknowledged, “but for five or six years, I was the only shop in town.”
Now there’s a franchise on every corner. Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, with connections that date back to his playing days, has kept the Zags stocked with international talent. Washington State’s Ben Johnson has specialized in recruiting Australia, where he also played. Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford – who followed McGregor at Whitworth by four decades – has launched a major international recruiting blitz.
Placing foreign players at colleges was the lesser part of McGregor’s enterprise – a mere priming of the pump.
But he could see, even as early as the 1970s and ’80s, that the international game was making gains on ours.
“One of the reasons overseas coaching and playing caught up with us is that they don’t get too concerned with ‘systems,’ ” McGregor said. “When I was coaching, everyone had a system. In other countries, like Yugoslavia, they concentrated on teaching skills: jump shots, two dribbles and pull-up, footwork. But they weren’t much on the shuffle or the motion offense or whatever.”
McGregor will turn 91 two days before New Year’s and now lives in Bellevue. He is dumbstruck when he turns on his TV and sees college rosters stacked with foreign players – though even more when he notes that “there are 8,000 Americans playing overseas now.
“World basketball,” he said, “has expanded beyond my comprehension.”