Feb. 12, 1998

'Win One for the Chipper' Was Battle Cry for Cavaliers

What if you planned a gala celebration and the guest of honor failed to appear? That is exactly what happened to the 1963-64 Virginia Cavaliers, and it ended with one of the most me -morable wins in UVa history. After nine consecutive losing seasons, Virginia tapped Bill Gibson to take over as head coach from Billy McCann before the 1963-64 campaign. Gibson's first team at Memorial Gymnasium was decidedly more competitive than its predecessors, but still stood at just 7-13, 3-8 in the ACC before the final home game of the year on Feb. 24, 1964.

That contest, against North Carolina and a third-year head coach named Dean Smith, was promoted as "Chip Conner Night" at UVa.

Conner, a 6-3 guard-forward, came to UVa in 1960 from Clover, Va., near the North Carolina border, and had been a consistent bright spot for his squads for three years. Blessed with a soft shooting touch, Conner averaged 15.1 points per game as a sophomore and 17.4 points per game as a junior. His prowess continued as a senior as he again led the team in scoring -- cause enough for friends and students to present him with a silver bowl as part of "Chip Conner Night." But on the morning of the game, little more than 12 hours before tipoff, Conner woke up in agony with what later would be diagnosed as a circulatory problem.

"I couldn't move; the pain was excruciating," Conner said. So debilitating was the pain that his teammate Fletcher Arrit, later a coach at Fork Union Military Academy, flung Conner over his back and took him to the hospital. Conner was on the mend after emergency surgery when Gibson came calling at about 6:30 p.m. to check on the status of his star.

The coach brought a portable tape recorder with him, and captured Conner's thoughts on what each player should do against UNC. Just before the team ascended the stairs at Mem Gym, Gibson played the tape. "After they heard Chip talking about the game, they were ready to knock walls down," Gibson said.

The tape proved to be the great equalizer. North Carolina had beaten the Cavs 10 straight times and 18 out of 19, but UVa was fired up like never before. Center Rich Katstra was expected to sit out the game with a sprained ankle. Instead, he scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Mac Caldwell scored 21 points while Jay Lambiotte had 12.

Arritt also came through in defense of his fallen roommate. He had tallied just 18 points all year, but scored seven on four foul shots and a three-point play in two minutes to give UVa a 39-27 first-half lead. Carolina got as close as six points after intermission, but Lambiotte and Katstra put the game out of reach from the foul line.

In the meantime, Virginia held North Carolina's brilliant Bill Cunningham, "The Kangaroo Kid," to just six points. Cunningham fouled out with 13 minutes to play. Afterward, the Cavaliers visited Conner in the hospital and presented him with the game ball. On the ball, the team inscribed the date, score, and the inscription, "We won it for you."

There was a sidelight to the incident. Conner later was named first-team All-ACC and thought the vote was more a reaction to the heartwarming story than his on-court play. "I don't think I was one of the five best players in the ACC but the attention from that game got me on the All-ACC team," he said.

Conner stuck with basketball for several years. He coached at Lane High School in Charlottesville when he was 22, and was an assistant to Gibson at UVa and South Florida. But he said he never again had a thrill like he did the night he missed his own party.