Editor’s Note: It’s been hard for us to watch the ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance” without noticing what two-time Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year Bill Cartwright is doing in various clips. He’s always been a special player for us since it was during his years at Elk Grove that Cal-Hi Sports founder Nelson Tennis began compiling state records. One of the first lists Nelson did was for most points scored in a season for California boys basketball and he noticed that Cartwright was getting close to the record. The Sacramento Bee published it and when Cartwright got the points he needed for the new record (moving past Paul Westphal from Aviation of Redondo Beach) the early round CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff game was stopped and the crowd erupted. For a sophomore in high school at the time to notice that is hard to describe. If it weren’t for someone figuring out what that record was, that moment would have never happened. Cartwright’s exploits therefore have always had a soft spot for us. This following story came in from correspondent Chuck Nan several weeks after the season ended and seemed appropriate to run in conjunction with “The Last Dance.” Enjoy.
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Forty-five years ago, there was a dominant center who made his mark on the prep basketball game in Northern California and beyond. His name was Bill Cartwright of Elk Grove High School. Cartwright’s exploits were famous far beyond the sleepy little town outside of Sacramento. His legend was known throughout the state and most of the nation by his senior season.
Standing a touch more than 7-feet, Cartwright was one of the greatest players ever to lace up the black Chuck Taylor canvas high-tops in the state of California. He was on the radar starting with the 1973-74 season when he was selected considered the best player in the state and he also is still showing as “Mr. California Basketball” for 1974-75 as a senior.
The Thundering Herd senior was heavily recruited by just about every major and minor college in the country around his 1975 graduation. He was the nation’s prized recruit. In the end, it would be a small Jesuit school in the City that would land him: the University of San Francisco (USF).
Cartwright lived-up to some of the observations thrown his way as he and his team frequently steamrolled opponents. Descriptions such as: “towering scoring machine,” “best big man playing the prep game today,” “franchise” and one that was over the top (“better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in high school”) were just a few of the accolades from those in the basketball world.
Cartwright’s senior season of 1974-75 garnered as much media attention that a “superstar” of that stature and of that era could have captured. Before the days of the Internet, PCs, online websites, blogs and social media, his larger than life reputation soon became legend based upon reports from local journalists, college recruiters and fans who were fortunate to witness Cartwright play.
There had been other “big men” prior to Cartwright and there were others even in California who were his rivals, especially Bill Laimbeer of Palos Verdes (Palos Verdes Estates). Cartwright was perhaps the first outstanding shooter for someone of his size, and he was unmatched if he could get going on his turnaround jumpers. People now make fun of his shooting form in old clips, but in high school he was deadly and had footwork before his time.
Cartwright’s popularity as a prep was the most seen in the Sacramento and Northern California region in many years. The only exception may have been that of young man-child Moses Malone, of Petersburg, Virginia, one-year prior to Cartwright’s graduation. Malone would “jump” straight from high school to professional basketball’s American Basketball Association (ABA).
The culmination of Cartwright’s prep career came in the 1975 “Tournament of Champions” or “TOC.” The 1975 event was the last “TOC” run by Bay Area leagues under the familiar format that had brought the top local teams together in exciting post-season competition for 29 straight years. The tournament, which began on March 6, would succumb the following year to the growing movement within the California Interscholastic Federation to formalize postseason play in its section tournaments, eventually with the eye of staging a true state championship. In 1976, the event became known as the “Northern California Finals” and the field was largely made up of section winners.
Elk Grove, outside of the “Bay Area,” was invited after winning the fourth annual Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS) playoffs. The SJS never had warranted an invitation, at least in the eyes of tournament organizers. However, this year the Thundering Herd could not be ignored, with perhaps the greatest player of his generation.
One section still missing from the fold was the Central Coast Section (CCS). It would not participate until the 1976 event. Many were hoping for the CCS champion — Cupertino — to get an invite because of its talented and tall (6-10) junior center Kurt Rambis. Many were dreaming of a Cartwright-Rambis showdown battle, which never transpired in high school but would in college. Cupertino would, however, appear the next year.
The TOC was an eight-team, single-elimination event, consisting of large league and section champions, such as Oakland (OAL) and San Francisco (AAA).
Going into the TOC, Cartwright’s 38.5 per-game scoring average was the highest of any participant in the history of the event.
Elk Grove would easily win its first two games and be the representative from its side of the bracket for the championship game. On the other side, Berkeley was making a run and was the survivor to face the Herd for the title.
In the quarterfinals, Berkeley needed overtime to dispose of Lincoln (San Francisco), 68-66. High scorer for the Yellowjackets was Gene Ransom with 20 points. In the semifinals, Berkeley topped Redwood (Larkspur), 65-56. Leading the way was again Ransom with 18 for the winners.
In its quarterfinal, Elk Grove whipped Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland), 90-72. Cartwright easily smashed TOC records with 53 points and 23 field goals made. He also added 20 rebounds and four blocks. The point output easily erased Phil Chenier’s 42-point outburst for Berkeley in 1968. In the semifinal, with Oakland Tech (Oakland) double-teaming him, Cartwright was “held” to 29 points and 16 rebounds, but the Herd dumped the Bulldogs, 60-52. It was a rare off-night shooting for Cartwright.
That set-up a path to the final game for both Berkeley and Elk Grove. There was a substantial mismatch in average height of the two squads. The Yellowjackets averaged barely 6-foot while the Herd averaged around 6-6. In fact, Berkeley didn’t have a single player over 6-3 in height on its roster.
In the finale, Berkeley couldn’t handle Elk Grove’s front line and Cartwright (34 points), Bill Job (17) and Mitch Megna (11). They outscored the Yellowjackets, 67-55. Cartwright was 15-of-25 from the floor. Berkeley would double-, and, at times, triple-team Cartwright in the post. The Yellowjackets tried to sandwich Cartwright in between a pair of alternating frontliners to no avail. When Cartwright wasn’t doing the damage, the other cast members were.
Although dunking the basketball was not allowed in high school games at this time, Cartwright’s coach, Dan Risley, encouraged his star to do so, if the team was winning and time was running out. Cartwright obliged and dunked the ball before leaving the contest to a standing ovation from the crowd. He was assed a technical foul, but no one really cared at that point. One reporter described the dunk as “savage.”
In addition to the record for most points in a single game, Cartwright rewrote the TOC record books with most points (116) and field goals (48) for three-games played. In the three games, he hit 53 percent of his shots from the floor and made 20-of-23 free throws (86.95%). The previous record for points, 94, was set by Ed McPheeters of Lincoln (Stockton) in 1971.
Cartwright also had a lot to do with a boost in attendance at the event. On the nights he played, it was standing room only for crowds. The Oakland Coliseum Arena was busting at the seams with 12,500 patrons for each game. In all it was more than 36,000 people for the three nights.
After that last dunk, Big Bill also set the state single-season scoring mark with 1,233 points. He and his fellow Herdsmen finished with a final record of 27-5 and are considered the State Team of the Year. That wouldn’t have happened, however, had Laimbeer and his buddies at Palos Verdes not beaten L.A. powerhouse Verbum Dei of Los Angeles and prevented the Eagles from winning their fifth straight CIF Southern Section major division title.
After conclusion of the tournament, Cartwright would go on to garner All-Nor Cal, All-State and Parade Magazine All-American status. He starred at USF for four seasons and enjoyed an outstanding 15-year career in the NBA.
It’s likely that the CIF would have staged a state championship event at some point in the 1980s, but it definitely can be argued that if it weren’t for what Cartwright and his team did in 1975 in Oakland that the idea of CIF state playoffs in boys and girls basketball became much more viable.
Chuck Nan is a former banking executive and free-lance sportswriter from Northern California now living in Orange County and is providing Orange County information/writeups to Cal-Hi Sports. Chuck is former sports editor of the Martinez News-Gazette and is author of the book “The San Francisco Giants: Fifty Years by the Bay” published in 2006.