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When Rutgers Basketball had a nationally recognized star

There were plenty of good moments and players before the train came off the rails


Once upon a time.....

The arrival of Steve Pikiell has seemingly changed the entire image of Rutgers basketball. For literally decades, the basketball scene at Rutgers was moribund. Yes, there was the run to the NIT finals under Gary Waters in 2004. But beyond that, the lack of an invitation to the NCAA for the men’s program since 1991 has given a generation - a generation - of observers the sense that Rutgers men’s basketball just wasn’t ever any good.

Ahh, not so fast my friend.

The RAC did rock. And before that, so did the Barn on College Avenue. And there were terrific players who excited the crowds while wearing the scarlet. But then came the dark time, a time of limited, if any, success for RU on the court. Dark....very dark times.

When I came to Rutgers, the little that I knew of college basketball consisted of a local game of the week on, I think, channel 9 out of New York. UCLA had just won its third consecutive NCAA title - on its way to seven straight - and I knew what the inside of Alumni Hall at St. John’s and Freedom Hall in Louisville looked like more than I knew what the College Avenue Gym did.

Rutgers was playing the likes of Army and Fordham and Lafayette. And those teams weren’t too bad. The coach was Bill Foster, who left for Utah in 1971 after going 120-75 at Rutgers. Dick Lloyd became the coach and he brought in Dick Vitale as an assistant and, well, things changed. Lloyd was only the head coach for two seasons, but his hiring of Vitale saw a change in the recruiting - and the talent level - for the Knights. And while people quickly remember Phil Sellers and Eddie Jordan from that 1976 Final Four team, it was the freshman center who truly made the team.

And almost on cue, Rutgers Athletics helps me tell the story with a tweet.

James Bailey. Part of the A-B-C line of Abdel Anderson, Bailey, and Hollis Copeland. They were big, strong, and dominating forces on the court. And they made Rutgers a basketball power.

Go ahead, read it again. Rutgers...a basketball power.

While cleaning out the house a few weeks ago, I came across some papers. And there in the middle of old miscellaneous newspaper and magazine clippings was a sports story from a 1978 issue of Playboy (of course, I bought it for the articles!). It was Playboy’s annual preseason college basketball piece and there, for all the world to see, was James Bailey among the magazine’s top players.

Now, if you can’t make out the other players - I apologize for the jury-rigged photo - let me point out some names you might recognize. Far left in the North Carolina uniform? Mike O’Koren. The blonde guy just behind Bailey? Larry Bird. The guy in the suit is Bill Foster, then coaching at Duke (and Rutgers had him first!). Bill Cartwright is behind Foster. Foster’s Duke player? That’s Jim Spanarkel, sitting just in front of Earvin Johnson.

And in the middle of it all is Rutgers’ James Bailey.

Bailey was lured to Rutgers while it was still playing at the College Avenue Gym, the Barn. But the Athletic Center - RAC was a name that eventually evolved - was already under construction. Bailey would start his career on College Ave but finish in Piscataway.

And for the “young bucks” who don’t know history, Bailey was a huge part of Rutgers’ success on the hardwood. A few random tweets to give him the respect he deserves:

Someone named for a Rutgers player! Cool!

A cover story about a Rutgers player! Cooler!

Bailey is number three on the Rutgers all-time scoring list (2,034 points), and second in career rebounds behind Phil Sellers (1,047). He is also the second leading shot-blocker in Rutgers history behind Roy Hinson. He earned All-America honors from UPI and The Sporting News in 1978, leading to the recognition by Playboy the following season. After his time “on the banks”, Bailey was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, playing nine seasons with the Sonics, New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns.

Bailey was awarded the Coursen Award by Rutgers, presented to the outstanding male athlete who has “proved himself an athlete of outstanding ability, and has represented Rutgers to the highest of standards.”

So, who gets to change Rutgers basketball the way James Bailey did? Is Steve Pikiell the next Tom Young, the coach who succeeded Lloyd and took the team to the Final Four? Is that critical player on the team now? Is he a high school player looking at his options....and is Rutgers one of them?

Who’s next? Who’s the next James Bailey?

Hmmm, ya never know.