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  • Prize and Joy

    SOU professor among college friends who fooled the college basketball establishment 40 years ago
  • 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.
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  • 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."
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