In the winter of 1972, Steven Noll and three sports-junkie friends at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., were nursing two gripes.

In the winter of 1972, Steven Noll and three sports-junkie friends at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., were nursing two gripes.

One was the proliferation of All-America teams in college basketball — the annual awards given to standout players by sports magazines and journalist groups.

The other was the belief they shared that none of those teams would ever recognize the star player in their midst — William & Mary's own Mike Arizin, 6-foot-5 shooting guard and small forward.

So the college buddies — one a current Southern Oregon University professor — hatched a plan. They made up a fictitious professional organization and called it the National Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers. They then created an All-America team of their very own, naming the top 15 rookie players in the nation.

In March 1973, they mailed official-looking certificates to the universities where the winners played. Finally, the four men, long-haired juniors who had never published a word about college basketball, told The Associated Press about the award.

Just like that, the news went out on the wire and appeared in newspapers all over the country.

For 40 years, the men told almost nobody about the fake award, which they gave out just once. Now, the men are telling their story with heads held high.

"Are we proud of this? Oh yeah," said Noll, now a senior lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida. "I think it's fun stuff."

The pranksters went to great lengths to make the award believable. They spent hours at the library, paging through newspaper box scores to help them select recipients. They designed stationery with a spinning basketball and the official-sounding slogan: "Serving the Sport." They sent correspondence from Noll's parents' address in Garden City, N.Y., for big-city authority.

"My mother thought we'd go to prison for mail fraud," Noll said.

Paul Pavlich, a co-conspirator and now an SOU professor, said that plotting the scam was as painstaking as an ascent of Mount Everest.

"We tried to figure out everything that could go wrong," he said.

Their preparation paid off. Newspapers printed their fabricated details. An article in the Miami Herald published March 27, 1973, announced the all-rookie team as "selected by the nation's college basketball writers."

The Hartford (Conn.) Courant noted that North Carolina State's David Thompson was "the only unanimous choice." News of the award also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, New York Daily News and elsewhere.

"It would be impossible to reconstruct 40 years ago, but I find it hard to imagine this could ever happen again at the AP," says Paul Colford, the AP's chief spokesman.

The hoax lasted longer than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend. Until this week, some of the All-America rookie award winners still had no idea that it was all a joke.

Louis "Sweet Lou" Dunbar was a rookie award first-team member at the University of Houston before his 24-year playing career with the Harlem Globetrotters, where he is now a coach. Dunbar laughed when a reporter told him of the prank. He compared it to famous Globetrotter tricks.

"This is right up there with the water and the confetti," he said.

The hoaxers named the award for the late Leo G. Hershberger — a crusty, cigar-chomping New York sportswriter. He was a figment, too.

The name made the award stand out to James "Fly" Williams, a high-scoring guard and Hershberger winner for Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Williams, reached by telephone, laughed when he learned of the hoax: "Amazing"…something else."

Several players who won the award went on to greatness: Indiana University's Quinn Buckner was co-captain of the team that went undefeated and won the 1976 national championship. John Lucas was the No. 1 pick of the 1976 NBA draft, had a 14-year pro career and coached in the NBA. North Carolina State's Thompson is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"They picked some pretty good players," he said.

At the time Roger Valdiserri, the sports-information director at the University of Notre Dame, sent the "association" a thank-you letter and requested a new certificate because the first one had misspelled Notre Dame forward John Shumate's name.

A few years after that, Noll and a co-conspirator, Reed Bohne, were driving through Indiana and stopped at Notre Dame. Noll posed as an ardent fan from England, asking to see the school's All-America awards.

Valdiserri welcomed the men into his office where the Hershberger Award was hanging in a frame on the wall, and the men gleefully snapped pictures.

Valdiserri's secretary then was the wife of a Notre Dame quarterback and invited the men to join her and her husband for a drink. That was how Noll and Bohne say they came to meet future Notre Dame and Super Bowl legend Joe Montana, Noll prattling on in a British accent to keep up the ruse.

This week, Valdiserri said he remembered meeting the men and guffawed about what they had done. Kim Moses, now divorced from Montana, didn't recall the men specifically but said Notre Dame was a very social place and that she "very likely" introduced them to her famous former husband.

During the 2007-2008 academic year, Noll had a freshman basketball player in his American history class named Jai Lucas — the son of John Lucas, a Hershberger Award winner.

"I debated whether to say something," Noll recalled. "I never did."

Jai Lucas said it is "crazy how small the world actually is," and that Noll is still one of his favorite professors.

Only once, the hoaxers say, did they spill the beans to a player. In the late 1970s, Bohne waited tables at a restaurant frequented by Detroit Pistons players, and one day happened to serve former University of Alabama center Leon Douglas, a Hershberger winner. Bohne says he told Douglas the story and the player "was dumbfounded."

Reached this week, Douglas, men's basketball coach at Tuskegee University in Alabama, said he remembered getting the award but didn't recall meeting Bohne.

Today, two of the pranksters are academics. Pavlich is chairman of the history and political science department at SOU. Two of the men have worked for the government. Bohne is a regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration living in Savannah, Ga., and Tom Duncan, who lives in Fairfax, Va., is retired after 30 years as a lawyer.

Pavlich says he felt a pang of guilt that winner Maurice Lucas of Marquette University had died in 2010 probably believing the award was legitimate. A 2006 article on a school website noted that he had won the Leo G. Hershberger award. Maurice Lucas's son David said his father "would have seen the humor in it."

Arizin, the former William & Mary player, mused that his "greatest college sports award turned out to be a fraud," but said that's OK by him. "I'm sort of flattered," he said.

William & Mary's current president, Taylor Reveley, said the school has been fostering creativity for more than 300 years and that "these four students obviously fall in that grand tradition."

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