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After 14 Years, Presto! Miami Sends a Team Onto the Court

Times Staff Writer

It had been 14 years since the University of Miami fielded a men’s basketball team.

Thus, in the school’s unofficial opener on Nov. 7, the Hurricanes’ starting lineup was being introduced for the first time since 1971.

Kevin Presto, a stocky 5-11 blond playmaker from Kennewick, Wash., was the first player out to center court. Dennis Burns, a 6-5 forward from Sicklerville, N.J., was next. He raced toward Presto for what was to be Miami basketball’s first high five.

They missed.

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Coach Bill Foster, who left Clemson and the highly regarded Atlantic Coast Conference two years ago to re-install a basketball program at football-rich Miami, smiled. He had been through this before and knew that before it gets better, it might get worse.

Burns, however, redeemed himself on the opening play of Miami’s 72-70 win over the Australian national team. After taking a pass from Presto, he drove to the basket and slammed home a spectacular left-handed dunk.

The last time the University of Miami played basketball, dunks were illegal and no one had thought of high fives.

Friday night, Miami, playing its regular-season opener before a crowd of 4,984 at 5,109-seat James L. Knight Center, defeated The Citadel, 85-77. Burns scored a game-high 24 points, and Presto added 22.

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Presto and Burns are freshmen. And the Hurricanes’ starting lineup is made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores.

What Foster has for his first season is a well-recruited junior college team.

But Foster didn’t line up a junior college schedule. His freshmen and sophomores will play NIT champion UCLA Dec. 21 at Pauley Pavilion, besides Notre Dame, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Dayton and Duke--all participants in last year’s NCAA tournament. All 28 opponents are Division I schools.

“Our goal is to get our basketball program on a national competitive level,” Foster said. “If we played a lot of teams not on that level, we’d never achieve our goals. We want to move up through osmosis.

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“We might win a few more games against weak teams, but we want our fans to get excited over who we’re playing. We have UCLA coming down here next season. We’ll probably have to pay the price for a year or two. The schedule is pretty much my doing. You think I’m kind of crazy, don’t you?

“If I were 29-30 years old, still wanting to move up in my profession, I would have scheduled it different, but at this stage, going 8-20 is not going to tarnish my reputation. I have a five-year contract, so I don’t look at this job as a gamble. All I want to do is get Miami basketball to the same level as Miami football and baseball.”

Foster, 49, who was known as Clemson Bill when he coached for nine years in the ACC because another Bill Foster was coaching Duke at the same time, is an unbridled optimist. For instance, he sees it as a plus to recruit high school phenoms to a school that hasn’t played in 14 years, in playing in a downtown arena that seats barely 5,000 and in preaching tradition, even though the school has virtually no basketball tradition.

What about Rick Barry? Isn’t he a pretty good piece of tradition?

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“You and I don’t realize it because we were around at the time, but your average high school player never heard of Rick Barry,” Foster said. “When Barry was setting scoring records here (he graduated in 1965), this year’s recruiting crop wasn’t even born. Some may remember him vaguely from the NBA, but they don’t associate him with Miami. His is a totally foreign name to most of them.

“I recruit with three main selling points. First, I sell the kids on playing immediately. No other school can tell that to freshman prospects. Second, I tell them they’ll have an opportunity to play top-notch teams right away, that they’ll get TV exposure against some of the best teams in the country.

“Other coaches tell the kids they have no tradition here. Just the opposite is true. I tell them that they will be the tradition. They’ll always be remembered as pioneers. They’ll always be somebody important when they come back and visit the school.”

Miami will play 16 home games and will hold two tournaments at the Knight Center in the Miami Convention Center.

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“Knight Center is a blessing in disguise,” Foster said. “It has so few seats that it makes the tickets dear. We generated a lot of interest downtown by telling alumni groups and corporations that if they didn’t get their tickets right away, they’d all be gone. We sold our entire allotment in two months.

“It’s incredible that a city the size of Miami (the metropolitan population is 1,626,000) doesn’t have a building anywhere that seats more than 6,000. Our long-range goal is to build a basketball facility as part of a $400-million sports complex.”

Foster uses Miami’s success in other sports as a recruiting tool. The Hurricanes were national football champions in 1983, NCAA baseball champions in 1982 and 1985, and NCAA women’s golf champions in 1984. Former Miami athletes include 1981 United States Amateur golf champion Nathaniel Crosby, and Greg Louganis, NCAA diving champion in 1979 and 1980.

“There has been no Miami basketball champion, but the school is well known,” Foster said. “It enabled us to get some quality kids, kids other schools wanted in some cases, and I’ll be surprised if we’re not a factor when this year’s crop are seniors. After our fifth season, we look to share the consistent success that our football and baseball programs now enjoy.”

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The recruiting prizes are freshmen Burns, Presto and Eric Brown, a 6-6 forward from Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, and two transfers, 6-10 Tim Harvey from Georgia Tech and 6-7 Tim Dawson from George Washington.

“We found Presto in an AAU tournament for kids 18 and under up in Jacksonville,” Foster said. “The first night we saw him he scored 24 points and we decided to take another look. That night he got 47. He had played in the middle of the state (Washington) where he didn’t get much notice and a lot of colleges are leery of giving a scholarship to a 5-11 Caucasian kid.

“Burns came from a New Jersey summer camp for high school all-stars two years ago. We redshirted him last year, along with Presto and two others. We took 11 kids from the student body and put them with our scholarship redshirts and scrimmaged all last year. We probably didn’t accomplish much, but we laid some groundwork about how our system works.”

Dawson, a 6-7 forward, helped Baltimore’s Dunbar High to a 51-0 record over two years and at George Washington was named to the Atlantic 10 Conference all-rookie team. Dawson will not become eligible until the UCLA game.

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“Dawson’s the kind of a player who can step right into our starting lineup and play,” Foster said.

This is Foster’s second go-around with a new program. The first was at North Carolina Charlotte in 1970-71, when he took a Division III team and jumped to Division I. In his fourth year the team was 22-4.

“Yeah, I know something about starting new programs, but this one is a lot different from NCC,” he said. “That year I recruited six freshmen and six JC transfers and had no assistant coach. I traveled 7,000 miles in my own car recruiting. It was a rewarding experience.

“Down here, I have a good group of assistants, a big-city atmosphere and someone else to do the recruiting.”

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Foster has spent the last year communicating. For 22 weeks, he wrote a column for the Miami Herald on college basketball. He had a Thursday night radio show and a Sunday night TV show on college basketball.

For those old enough to remember Miami basketball, the name Rick Barry tells it all.

Barry was a spindly 6-7 forward who wandered down here from Roselle Park, N.J., in 1962 and led the Hurricanes to two NIT appearances and a 65-16 record in three seasons under coach Bruce Hale. He led the nation in scoring with a 37.4 average his senior season and was a consensus All-American before becoming one of pro basketball’s most prolific scorers. He also married the coach’s daughter.

“I’m glad that they have basketball back again at Miami,” said Barry, now a basketball announcer for WTBS. “I never did think it was a wise decision to drop it when they did. The way Miami has grown, I think it will become very big.”

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Surprisingly, Miami never made the NCAA tournament while Barry was there. The Hurricanes’ only NCAA appearance was in 1960 when forward Don Hickox averaged 22.1 points a game, but they lost in the first round to Western Kentucky.

When Hale resigned in 1968 to coach the Oakland Oaks of the old American Basketball Assn., Miami basketball slid downhill again. Only 587 people showed up for a game against undefeated Fordham, the sixth-ranked team in the country at the time, in December of 1970. In 1971, the attendance at one game was announced as 75 and the season average was 1,166. The Hurricanes’ record was 7-19. Worse, the program showed a deficit of $130,417.

During those years, the Hurricanes moved their home games around among Coral Gables High, Dinner Key Auditorium, Dade-North High and the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“It got so bad when I was a sophomore that we would meet at the gym to take a bus to our home game and I would have absolutely no idea where we were going,” Barry told Phil Taylor of the Miami Herald. “Bruce would test me sometimes. He would say, ‘Where are we playing tonight, Barry?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, Bruce. Surprise me.’ ”

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The board of trustees voted to “temporarily suspend” basketball on April 22, 1971, and there was little attempt to bring it back until 1983 when Sam Jankovich came from Washington State as athletic director.

“I took this job with the proviso that basketball would be returned to the athletic program,” Jankovich said. “I wanted it to be self-supporting but I wanted it back.”

The board reinstated the sport in three months.

A group of 20 downtown businessmen, known as the Basketball Founders, agreed to ante up $12,500 each for four years to underwrite the program in its growing stage.

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