SAN DIEGO — The speaker at a sportswriters' luncheon was discussing a safari that would make Charles Kuralt of the On The Road show envious. The speaker talked about importing two or three seven-foot basketball players from Europe and Africa to play for his team next season.
Suddenly, a voice in the audience interrupted.
"Gary, didn't you say there were 10 or 15 Division I kids in San Diego?"
Gary Zarecky, United States International University basketball coach, was being questioned by Smokey Gaines, San Diego State's coach. Their teams will renew a crosstown rivalry at 7:30 tonight at the Sports Arena.
Zarecky and Gaines disagree about the quality of San Diego County's high school basketball players. Zarecky, who coached Sweetwater High until this season, has contended there is an abundance of potential major-college players locally. Gaines thinks overwise.
Though Zarecky has discussed recruiting players from abroad, his main focus is local talent. USIU currently has six local players, SDSU has one. The Aztecs' local is Darryl Gaines, Smokey's son.
"Some people say there are only a few good kids in San Diego, and Smokey is one of them," Zarecky said. "Look at the rosters around the country. We have 15 to 20 kids from San Diego on Division I rosters."
Among the more notable are Bob Capener (Torrey Pines High) at Brigham Young, Tyrone Miller (Sweetwater) at Oregon State and Reggie Wallace (Sweetwater) at Cal State Long Beach, according to Zarecky.
But Gaines has another list of locals--Dominic Johnson (Fallbrook), Billy Washington (Patrick Henry), Loren Goodwin (Hoover) and Norm Baker (San Diego). Each signed with SDSU but did not play for the Aztecs.
"I'd love to be able to recruit local kids who can play," Gaines said. "It's tough when you recruit a young man who can't come in and play for us. When I was coaching at Detroit, we recruited good local kids who could play there. Here, there really haven't been that many kids who left town that could have played for us."
Zarecky counters that Gaines recruited three of his Sweetwater players--Michael Pitts, who went to California; Aaron Combs, who went to Oklahoma and transferred to Long Beach; and Miller.
"When you are a high school coach in a pretty high-powered program, you are able to listen to a lot of Division I coaches," Zarecky said. "I've listened to Bobby Knight, John Wooden and Digger Phelps. I can pick out the best and the worst. I'm very aware of Smokey's techniques. Smokey and I have differences of opinion that are strictly professional; I have nothing against Smokey.
"I feel there are certain things you have to really be careful of when recruiting San Diego youngsters. San Diego youngsters may be the strangest breed of all because of what they are used to--climate, the laid-back atmosphere and so many things to do. At Sweetwater, one thing I noticed most was that most major universities did a better and more intense job going after San Diego kids than San Diego universities did."
Gaines said he was often contacted by local coaches concerning kids he did not think were major college prospects.
"We get calls all the time from coaches who want us to look at their kids," Gaines said. "High school coaches get a thrill when out of town coaches come in and wine and dine them. In Detroit, the local kids could see packed stands, and we were playing teams like North Carolina and Marquette. There was a lot of excitement there. Here, you just don't get people in the stands. These kids can go elsewhere and see 8,000 to 10,000 people in the stands."
SDSU has an average home attendance of 2,802. Though USIU does not keep attendance, a school spokesman said attendance has increased at least 50% compared to last season. The Gulls often drew fewer than 100 people last year, but they drew 300 to 400 fans for two games at Southwestern College this season.
Zarecky attributes the attendance increase to his six local players.
"One thing we haven't done for several years is get basketball fans into the arena (SDSU's home court)," Zarecky said. "I've heard people say they can't identify with the product on the court. Take North Carolina for example. It always spices its lineup with kids from that state."
Gaines said he has attempted to keep locals home.
"I spent three hours in Gary's home with Tyrone Miller," Gaines said. "We spent five minutes with Aaron Combs and didn't like his attitude. He went to Oklahoma, and now he doesn't even play at Long Beach. Long Beach has only won six games. If he can't play for Long Beach, do you think he can play for me?"
SDSU has won eight games.