The root of the California state basketball championship tournament took hold with Bill Cartwright, the 7-foot teenager with a feathery shooting touch who harvested his strong work ethic on a Walnut Grove farm.
Before he grew to become one of the nation’s most-sought-after recruits at Elk Grove High School in the mid-1970s, Cartwright toiled in sweaty obscurity with his father on a sugar-beet field, chest deep in weeds, hands blistering and feet tender to the touch. Cartwright’s arms seemingly reached to the stars, in the fields with a long hoe or in the gym with the ball, and the vision of a state tournament was similarly a galaxy away.
Yet it was Cartwright’s drawing power as a two-time state Player of the Year, with magazine profiles and the attention of NBA scouts, that was a driving force behind the creation of the CIF State Basketball Championships. Taking that idea from boardroom meetings to fruition required a lot of labor, like harvesting those beets, and the state tournament was launched in 1981. The 2013-14 season ends Saturday with six title games at Sleep Train Arena and the specter of Cartwright as a subtle backdrop.
“Bill Cartwright was the guy that really got all of this going,” said Mark Tennis, a prep historian and the editor of Cal-Hi Sports. “The thinking was that everyone should be able to see a Cartwright in the state tournament. It was time. Over the years, the state basketball tournament has had great teams, great competition, but it’s the elite players that people come out to see.”
Still considered the finest player in Sac-Joaquin Section history, Cartwright powered a 30-0 Thundering Herd team in 1974 as a junior. The following season, Cartwright and Elk Grove enjoyed an identity breakthrough. The Herd, coached by Dan Risley, was the first section team to compete in a national tournament. In an all-expenses-paid midseason game in Texas, Elk Grove, featuring the nation’s No. 1 recruit, lost 66-64 to the nation’s No. 1 team, Kashmere High of Houston.
The Herd dominated the section playoffs as Cartwright averaged 42 points and 21 rebounds despite being double- and triple-teamed, and playing against gimmick defenses. But it was the Tournament of Champions in Oakland that put Cartwright in the spotlight. Sacramento-area teamswere an afterthought at the time. Cartwright changed that, scoring a T.O.C.-record 55 points to help beat Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland 96-78 before Elk Grove topped Berkeley by 15 in the final. Dunking was prohibited in the 1970s, but Cartwright couldn’t resist against Berkeley in his last game. After Risley gave him the green-light wink, Cartwright threw down the first and last dunk of his prep career.
That Elk Grove team remains the only one in section history to finish ranked No. 1 in the state. Cartwright single-handedly pulled regional basketball out of the shadows.
The T.O.C. ended after 36 seasons in 1980, giving way to the CIF State Championships.
“When Cartwright went to the T.O.C., people filled the place,” Tennis said. “He was that kind of player. Everyone wanted to see him. That weekend really got the ball rolling toward the state playoffs.”
Cartwright said a year ago that for all of his basketball achievements – All-American at USF and a three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls – he especially appreciated his prep days, calling them, “Sweet times, man. Sweet.”
Cartwright was able to focus on school and basketball as a senior at Elk Grove despite a whirlwind recruiting circus. College coaches flocked to Cartwright’s home, be it Digger Phelps, Dean Smith or Jerry Tarkanian. NBA scouts dangled a $100,000 contract, major money then. Philadelphia 76ers executive Pat Williams targeted Cartwright and Darryl Dawkins, a muscled 7-footer in Orlando who bulked up by throwing tires in a junkyard. The 76ers were that desperate for inside talent. The ABA had drafted center Moses Malone out of Petersburg, Va., in 1974, prompting Williams to recall a few years ago, “We needed a Moses Malone type, and Bill Cartwright had our attention. You can’t teach big and big talent.”
The 76ers drafted Dawkins fifth overall in 1975. Cartwright was committed to USF and coach Bob Gaillard, the one-time Jesuit High coach who made some 50 trips from San Francisco to Elk Grove to shadow his prize. Cartwright said about the only recruiter the family dog, Buzzy, didn’t snarl and bark at was Gaillard.
Cartwright led USF to a national No. 1 ranking in 1977. He was the No. 3 pick in the 1979 draft, going to the Knicks. Cartwright played 15 NBA seasons. He later coached the Bulls and in Japan. He now lives in Chicago.
Cartwright never played for a state title, but Tennis said he opened the door for other players who used the CIF title events as a launching pad of sorts to the NBA. They include Jason Kidd, Tracy Murray, Tyson Chandler, brothers Jason and Jarron Collins, Klay Thompson, Jrue Holiday, James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Ryan Anderson.