Madness broke out in March of ’68 in Johnson City.
East Tennessee State, led by Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year Harley “Skeeter” Swift, defeated Murray State in an OVC playoff to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth – and trigger a panty raid on the Johnson City campus – and went on to defeat Dave Cowens-led Florida State to advance to the Sweet 16.
Swift, a 6-foot-3 guard who ended a five-year ABA career with the San Antonio Spurs, was a “bipolar basketball addict” who was as amped as he’d ever been to take on the Seminoles of Hugh Durham at Kent State.
He finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds and made all eight of his free throw attempts, but his adrenaline fueled an antsy opening. His early jump-shot was ill-advised and nowhere close, which made for an unnerving start when considering the muscular, athletic 6-foot-9 Cowens began by making a perimeter shot and a lay-in that would’ve been a thunderous dunk if dunks had been legal.
The Boston Celtics would make Cowens the fourth overall pick in 1970 and he was the NBA Rookie of the Year. The Hall of Famer was voted one of the NBA’s top 50 players on the 50th anniversary team. He was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and All-Star Game MVP in ’73 and started for the Celtics’ championship teams in ’74 and ’76.
But ETSU’s Ernie “Moose” Sims, a muscular 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior recruited to Johnson City from Miami Dade Junior College by Jack Maxey, put the clamps on Cowens after his auspicious opening in the ’68 NCAA Tournament.
ETSU assistant Don Eddy, who went on to an impressive college coaching career at Eastern Illinois and Texas-San Antonio, where he coached George Gervin’s brother Derrick, lit a fire under Sims during a timeout after Cowens’ second basket.
ETSU lead guard Richard Arnold remembered Eddy cutting through the chase during the timeout.
“Coach (Madison) Brooks, you know, was saying ‘Do this, do that,’” Arnold said, “and Coach Eddy went right at Ernie … with veins bulging out of his face right up in Ernie’s face and said ‘Ernie, if you don’t stop that young man, he’s gonna embarrass all of us.’ … And at some point later on in the game Florida State tried to run a play in which Cowens, instead of coming to the top of the key, cut across the lane … and Ernie stepped in front of him as he started across that lane and, I mean, just dropped him. I mean he just put an arm and shoulder in his chest and put him on his butt.
“And after that, I think Cowens might’ve gotten seven or eight points, but he was not a factor in the game. Ernie took him out of it completely. That was the key to that whole game. The rest of it was window dressing.”
Cowens finished with 11 points and four rebounds.
Mike Kretzer, a New Jersey product known as the Springfield Rifle, was the second-leading scorer for ETSU.
“Nobody messed with Ernie,” Kretzer said. “He would’ve knocked Cowens right on his (butt). I mean Cowens got 11 points. Are you kidding me? One of the top 50 players of all time.”
ETSU led the final 37 minutes and its lead swelled to as much as 17 points. Arnold (16) and fellow Dobyns-Bennett alumnus Leroy Fisher (19) joined Swift in double figures. Fisher also had 12 rebounds.
Another D-B product, athletic 6-foot-6 North Carolina State transfer Worley Ward, was invaluable in the Buccaneers’ 1-3-1 zone.
The Bucs’ Sweet 16 opponent was Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ imposing frontline featured 6-foot-7, 228-pound senior Bill Hosket (20.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg), 6-foot-8, 214-pound sophomore Dave Sorenson (16.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and 6-foot-5, 233-pound Steve Howell (16.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg), a tight end drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.
The New York Knicks drafted Hosket 10th overall later that spring and Sorenson was drafted in the second round two years later by Cleveland, where he averaged 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds as a rookie.
But the Buckeyes guards didn’t impress ETSU players nearly as much as all of the backcourts in the integrated OVC.
Perhaps least impressed was Swift, who would average double-figure scoring during an ABA career that concluded when he was with the San Antonio Spurs, trying to come back from a knee injury sustained against George McGinnis and the Indiana Pacers.
Swift was fired from five coaching jobs in six years, including a clash with Jerry Falwell at Liberty. He irritated coach Babe McCarthy enough to get traded from Memphis to the lowly Pittsburgh Condors, where legendary loose cannon bad boy John Brisker laced ‘em up. And Swift essentially caused future friend Gary Scheuerman to leave college coaching when, among other things, he committed a “dangerously flagrant” foul against a Brevard Junior College post in an ETSU freshman game.
But Swift convincingly said a number of times that his biggest regret in basketball was not playing his best in a 79-72 loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16. Granted, he scored 21 points and finished the NCAA Tournament 18-for-18 at the foul line. But his A-game, he was certain, would’ve advanced ETSU into the Elite Eight, where it would’ve met host Kentucky.
And who knows what might’ve happened? Ohio State eliminated the Dan Issel-led Wildcats in Lexington.
“If I’d just played pretty good against Ohio State we would’ve won,” Swift said. “Kretzer played well. Ohio State had the three big men … but their guards didn’t do a damn thing for me. There were plenty of better backcourts in the OVC. I just didn’t perform up to my capability.
“Butterflies? Hell no, there weren’t any butterflies. It just didn’t happen against Ohio State.”
Arnold agreed with Swift that Ohio State would’ve struggled a lot of nights in the OVC.
“Skeeter was right – I would play Ohio State five times before I’d play Murray State again,” Arnold said. “And Ohio State finished third in the country. They lost to North Carolina in the Final Four and then beat Houston … when they still had the consolation game.
“That was the year Houston had beaten UCLA (in the Astrodome) and then UCLA got back at them by beating the daylights out of them in the Final Four. Then Ohio State played Houston and Elvin Hayes, and beat them. I think that was only Houston’s second loss of the year. And, of course, (UCLA star) Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and them went on and beat North Carolina.”
The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Abdul-Jabbar first overall in ’69, the same year they drafted Swift No. 31 overall. But Swift opted for a guaranteed two-year deal in the ABA.
The pro career completed his hoop dreams, though the nightmarish result in the Sweet 16 was never completely put to rest.
“Who knows what we might’ve done if I’d played good against Ohio State,” Swift said. “Ernie dealt with Cowens; he could’ve dealt with Issel.”