NEW YORK THE TWO men had missed a turn on a New Jersey highway and were now late for the game. They had come down to Princeton University from New York to watch a basketball team coached by Pete Carril, who is to coaching what Peter Pan is to flying, David was to slingshots and Rudolph to reindeers.
Princeton was playing Dartmouth, in an important Ivy League game, with a 7:30 p.m. tip-off, and the men arrived in the lobby of the Jadwin Gymnasium at about 7:45. As they hurried in, they heard several roars from the unseen crowd inside the arena.
"The game's over," said one of the men, Howard Garfinkel, the basketball camp owner.
"Can't be over," said his companion, attending his first Pete Carril-coached game, "it just started."
"I've seen Pete coach four thousand games," said Garfinkel, who might have been exaggerating by only some 3,800. "What's happening is, it's early in the game, Princeton's ahead, probably by about eight or 10 points, and with Carril coaching they're going to keep this lead. Game's over."
Indeed, the score was 20-8, with some five minutes elapsed in the game. Dartmouth would never get closer than it was now, and lost by 20.
This took place several years ago. But nothing has changed at Princeton. Carril, at age 60 and in his 24th season as head coach of Princeton, is still there. Princeton is still a small, but winning team, one that often forces bigger and beefier teams to become befuddled and sometimes collapse.
The Tigers play basketball with such beauty and brains that watching them dig on defense, and on offense, screen and weave and cut and suddenly find the open man for an easy layup is not only eye-opening, but nearly uplifting, too.
Princeton almost upset Arkansas in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA tournament last season, losing to the eventual Final Four team, 68-64. The year before, in the East Regional, Princeton, seeded 16th, lost to top-seeded Georgetown, 50-49.
On Saturday, Princeton walloped rugged Rutgers, 58-45, to bring its record to 7-0 this season. Tomorrow, the Tigers travel to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to play the defending NCAA champion and the No. 1-ranked team in the country. The only other time these two teams met was in the 1984 NCAA regionals. Princeton stayed close until the end, losing 68-56.
How does Carril do it, taking relatively ordinary students jTC majoring in economics and political science, and turning them into a unit that combines certain qualities of a neighborhood bulldog with that of a former professor on campus, Dr. A. Einstein?
"Nobody understands the system fully," said Kit Mueller, the senior center, "except for Coach and his assistant, Bill Carmody. But we do what he tells us, and it usually works out right. He's also tough, and we prepare well, so we're not intimidated by anyone."
John Thompson III, son of the Georgetown coach, recently completed four years under Carril. In his first two years, he wasn't impressed with Carril, but he gained an appreciation for him in his last two years. It is like the Mark Twain line about leaving home when he was 17 because his dad was so dumb, only to return four years later and discover how much his dad had learned.
John MacLeod, the new coach of the New York Knicks, said that his team must get back to fundamentals, to blocking out for rebounds, to even practicing the two-handed chest pass. Princeton teams do these things routinely, and their player-salary payroll is not $13.4 million, as it is for the Knicks.
"I love watching Pete's teams play, the way they move the ball to get the high-percentage shots, the way they shift on defense," MacLeod said wistfully.
On the bench, Carril, his gray hair ruffled, his tie loosened, exhorts his scholars to higher forms of the pick-and-roll.
"You get a bunch of good kids and they play hard together," Carril said yesterday. "A jerk does what he wants. That's basically it. No big secrets. I just try to get kids who don't have those fighting egos that are flying all over the country today. My guys are reasonable people who respond to reasoning."