CLEMSONC. — Less than 10 minutes into the first game of his first season in major college basketball, Larry Middleton was already facing a defense designed specifically to stop him.
The junior transfer from Valley College had made 8 of 9 shots, bombarding a Maryland-Eastern Shore zone from long range, and the crowd at Clemson University's Littlejohn Coliseum was chanting, "Lar-ry, Lar-ry, Lar-ry."
Howie Evans, the Maryland-Eastern Shore coach, switched his team into a box-and-one, with one defender assigned to dog Middleton. The defense slowed down the muscular 6-3 guard, but it was too late to save the Hawks.
Clemson romped, 83-57, and Middleton, cut from the B team at Taft High in Woodland Hills just five years ago, had taken his first step toward proving to the world that he could play the game at its highest levels.
Not that Evans needed much convincing. He had seen Middleton play at Valley, where the former All-City center was a two-time all-state selection while making the transition to guard.
"All the coaches in the country know Larry Middleton," Evans said afterward. "We had his name on the bulletin board--Middleton: shooter supreme, must contain. We didn't do a good job the first eight minutes and he blew us out of the game."
Clemson expected big things from Middleton--he became a starter about a week into fall practice--but 24 points and forcing an opponent into a special defense in his debut?
Wasn't he getting ahead of himself?
Afterward, Evans was already talking about Middleton's pro potential, saying: "There aren't too many guys in the big show who can shoot like that."
As far as Middleton is concerned, this is the big show.
He came to Clemson, he said, to face the best possible competition. And here he was, one game into the season, staring into a television camera and being interviewed on the local news.
"The adrenaline was pumping so quick," he told WOLO's Mark Wade, "that I didn't feel anything."
Later, Middleton smiled broadly.
"This is a lot of fun," he said.
And it will only get better, he promised.
"I felt that I shouldn't have missed a shot out there," said Middleton, who missed 9 of 21. "I feel that every time I put it up there, I shouldn't miss unless I'm rushing myself or I don't have my feet set or I'm just too far out."
Last Monday night against Rider College of New Jersey, he was almost perfect. He missed his first shot, then hit a school-record 12 straight and finished with 27 points in a 101-63 Clemson victory.
"Our Mission is Transition"
--Clemson basketball motto
Clemson's 10,000 residents live and die with the fortunes of the Tiger athletic teams.
Lest you forget whose territory you might have wandered into by mistake, orange Tiger paws have been painted everywhere--on taverns, laundry mats, newspaper racks, barber shops, banks, tennis rackets, even in the streets and gas stations. When the Clemson football team played in the Gator Bowl a few years ago, Clemson students painted tiger paws along the 350 miles of highway between Clemson and Jacksonville, Fla.
"At football games," said assistant basketball Coach Maury Hanks, "even 80-year-old women have tiger paws painted on their cheeks."
As the bumper stickers say, "Paws for a Quality Experience."
In basketball, however, the locals haven't had much to celebrate.
A charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Clemson is the only school that hasn't won a conference title in the 32 seasons since the ACC was formed in 1953. Only once have the Tigers been invited to the NCAA tournament--they lost to UCLA in the West Regional final in 1980, Larry Nance's junior year.
The problem is the conference. From top to bottom, the ACC has long been a standard of excellence in college basketball.
To put it in perspective, a fan once asked former Clemson Coach Press Maravich about the Tigers' upcoming schedule. "We play North Carolina and Duke this weekend," Maravich said, "and next weekend we play North Carolina State and Virginia."
"OK," said the fan, "you're 0-4. Then what?"
It could be more of the same this season.
Clemson was ranked 34th in the nation by Sports Illustrated in its college basketball preview edition, which is pretty good, considering that 64 teams make the NCAA tournament. But six of its seven ACC opponents were ranked higher. In this week's United Press International poll of coaches, three ACC teams--North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech--are ranked among the top four.
Obviously, the competition is intense, which is why Middleton is here. Although he is shy by nature, he has never been one to back down from a challenge.
When he dreamed of dunking a basketball as a youngster growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, his father told him, "If you want something bad enough, you've got to go out there and practice at it."
And so he did, coming home from school every day and jumping for hours at the basket hanging in the backyard. After his homework was finished, he'd go out again, sometimes until midnight.