Awtrey Stood Tall in SCU's Heyday

Nov. 13, 2002

By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News

It won't ever happen again. You can be sure of that.

``It was,'' said Dennis Awtrey, ``kind of a fluky situation. You know, for a small school.''

College basketball season starts soon, and our local teams again will skirmish for a place on the NCAA bracket landscape. Some will make it. Some won't. However, we can be 100 percent sure that the Santa Clara Broncos will not be ranked No. 2 or 3 in the country and challenge for the national championship -- with a team made up primarily of talent from South Bay neighborhoods.

Yet that's exactly what happened in 1968-69, when Awtrey was the 6-foot-9 fulcrum around which Santa Clara climbed high into the wire service rankings and was second on the West Coast only to UCLA in terms of hoops mightiness. The Broncos went 27-2 that season and 72-12 during Awtrey's three years as a starter.

``One thing I look back on that's kind of funny is, it didn't dawn on me that you didn't win 85 percent of your games everywhere,'' Awtrey said. ``We knew we were good, but it was a natural thing when we were winning because we had come from winning high school teams. The ignorance of youth, I guess.''

Awtrey, 54, was speaking by phone from his Phoenix residence, where he was packing for his trip to the Bay Area and tonight's affair at HP Pavilion. Once a year, San Jose visits its sports past -- and to the surprise of many, discovers it actually has one. Despite what you've heard, not everyone moved here in the past 10 minutes. And despite rumors, there were many great homegrown athletes around here before Jeff Garcia.

Five of those great ones, including Awtrey, will be honored tonight at the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame banquet and induction ceremony. The class includes Ed Burke (hammer-throwing Olympian), Betty Hicks (female golf pioneer), Carney Lansford (champion A's leader in the clubhouse) and Craig Morton (two-time Super Bowl quarterback).

All are obviously worthy of induction. All have remarkable tales. But it's difficult to top the story of Awtrey and those Broncos teams of the late '60s. Awtrey averaged 28 points per game at San Jose's Blackford High, was named the state player of the year and was recruited by UCLA and Duke. But he chose to stay home and play at Santa Clara.

Why? Awtrey said ``a couple of things happened with UCLA where I thought they weren't going to be straight with me,'' but he didn't elaborate. And in those days when air travel wasn't so common, Awtrey perceived Duke as a school ``on the other side of the world'' in North Carolina. So when he learned that Santa Clara's academics were good, he signed with the Broncos.

This put Awtrey on a team with two other local high school stars -- the Ogden brothers, Ralph and Bud, who had excelled at Lincoln High. All three played in the NBA. Together, they created something special.

Trouble was, in those days, the NCAA was totally regionalized. This meant a good team from the West could not be sent back East to another bracket. So for two consecutive seasons in the West Regional, the Broncos were defeated by Lew Alcindor's UCLA teams, who rolled on to national titles. And in Awtrey's senior year, the Broncos were upset by Utah State.

That hardly ended Awtrey's basketball life. He was drafted by the 76ers and began a productive career that included a trip to the 1976 finals with Phoenix and an NBA title with Seattle in 1979.

Awtrey did the little things -- banging the boards, boxing out, playing tough defense and finding the open man with a deft pass.

He gazes at the NBA today and sees almost none of the above. He doesn't want to come across as Mr. Grumpy Ex-Player, but it is difficult for him to witness what the league has become.

``I seldom watch,'' Awtrey said. ``It hurts me, because I think the NBA should be the best basketball in the world, and right now it isn't. It's more of a one-on-one game with a lot of standing around. When I was learning how to play the game, the biggest thing I was taught was, `Don't stand still. Keep moving.' And now I see so many teams run offenses where two or three guys just stand still.''

In the latter part of his career, Awtrey was known as a quasi-enforcer and a bit of a defensive mad dog. So how would he guard Shaquille O'Neal?

``That would be . . . interesting,'' Awtrey said, pausing to chuckle. ``He's so big.''

Back in the day, Awtrey will tell you, his most formidable opponent was Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was the best, Awtrey said, because he worked as a team player, taking on as big a load as necessary and amping up emotionally whenever needed.

This praise of Abdul-Jabbar is significant, considering that Awtrey also had to guard Wilt Chamberlain.

``I could bother Wilt,'' Awtrey said. ``I got in his way a lot. I was pesky. I'm told he raised his fist once at me, but I didn't see it. It was tricky, because you didn't want to get Wilt mad. But I should say that by the time I was playing against Wilt, he was in the last part of his career while Kareem was right about my age.''

Maybe the best part of tonight's ceremony is the chance to recognize local athletes' achievements in larger perspective. That's true with Awtrey.

At the time, those Santa Clara teams drew plenty of attention. But in retrospect, their feats -- and Awtrey's -- are even more astounding. He remains Santa Clara's career scoring leader (19.9 points per game) and still owns nearly every school rebounding record. If Awtrey isn't the best hoops player produced in the South Bay, he's definitely in the starting five. And when he accepts his induction tonight, he knows some of what he'll say.

``I'd just like to convey how much I enjoyed the whole experience,'' Awtrey said. ``I'm a lucky guy.''