“Big Bird” perched atop “The Rock” on Feb. 3, 1974, like an eagle stakes claim to the peak of a mountain.
Rarely has an Arizona player soared so high.
Arizona’s Bob “Big Bird” Elliott, a slender 6’10” and 220-pound freshman center from Ann Arbor, Mich., overpowered ASU’s hulky 6’11” and 258-pound senior post player Ron “The Rock” Kennedy almost 43 years ago in a performance for the ages.
Tucson Citizen sportswriter Steve Weston wrote the veteran Kennedy “resembled a boulder with roots” and that Elliott was “boyish-looking”.
The perceived mismatch added to the lore of that evening for Elliott in front of a packed McKale Center with 13,658 fans. In the previous season, Kennedy was a significant reason why ASU swept the Wildcats and knocked them out of the Western Athletic Conference race.
Kennedy drew the ire of Elliott’s teammates, and they let the young center know of their distaste for ASU’s big fella.
“‘The Rock’ blitzed Arizona for 30-some points in one of the games the year before I got here,” Elliott said Thursday night from his accounting office in Tucson. “When we started practicing for ASU, (point guard) Eric Money said, ‘You’re going to have the ball all day long. You’re the first option.'”
Coach Fred “The Fox” Snowden’s first option in every other game was prolific scoring shooting guard Coniel Norman, who averaged 23.9 points in his two seasons with Arizona before going pro. He was nicknamed “Popcorn” because of his propensity to shoot and make those shots from all over the perimeter.
“Even Corn was like, ‘No man, you’re the first option. You need to tear that dude up,'” Elliott said. “It seemed like every time I looked up, the ball was in my hands and every time I shot it (24 times, making 12). … You don’t have to tell a guy too many times.”
“Big Bird” swooped in for 25 rebounds and scored 38 points in Arizona’s 98-90 victory, snapping a six-game losing streak to coach Ned Wulk and the Sun Devils.
That’s a double-double two times over, almost three times over. Who does that?
Kennedy’s stat line: Six points and five rebounds. He made only one field goal and that occurred on a goal-tending call against Elliott.
“There’s no reason a freshman should dominate a senior like that,” Wulk was quoted as saying by the Citizen. “What can you say to expound on that performance? The statistics speak for themselves.”
The 25 rebounds is one shy of the school record and his scoring output ranks as the second-most by a freshman tied with Norman (against BYU in 1973) and one point behind Jerryd Bayless’ 39 against ASU in 2008.
The performance is one example why Elliott was announced as a Pac-12 Hall of Honor inductee on Thursday.
“Kennedy was just like I thought he would be,” Elliott told the Citizen after the game. “He said himself he could not move like a guard, so I believed him. But I can move like a guard. I just said, ‘You’re not going to be able to check me.'”
When reminded of that quote Thursday, Elliott said, “Yeah, that sounds right.” The fact that he went to the free throw line 20 times and made 14 shows that Kennedy and ASU’s bigs could not keep up with him defensively and on the boards.
“You grow up in the Detroit area and you’re taught the way you play has nothing to do with your height,” he said. “If you can handle the ball and shoot from the outside, you can play guard.
“Look at the guys who came out of that area — George Gervin, Magic Johnson, Campy Russell — you can be 6’8″ or 6’9″ and it didn’t matter. If you can handle it, and shoot from the outside, you can play guard.”
He's the ONLY Wildcat to get 2,000+ points AND 1,000 rebounds. 👀
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) January 19, 2017
Elliott said he worked on guard drills with Money more than practice post-up moves with frontcourt mate Al Fleming during his freshman season. The next season, after Money and Norman went pro, Elliott said he played more at the small forward spot than at power forward or center to make up for Snowden’s loss on the perimeter.
His versatility allowed him to become Arizona’s only player to record at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. He is only one of 110 college players to achieve that feat.
The accomplishment is one of many that Elliott and his family believe merits his No. 55 jersey to be honored at McKale Center similar to Sean Elliott’s No. 32 (no relation), Steve Kerr’s No. 25, Mike Bibby’s No. 10, Jason Gardner’s No. 22, Jason Terry’s No. 31 and Miles Simon’s No. 34.
Elliott’s son Marx text messaged me and ended his note with “#Retire55”.
“Big Bird” said the long overdue honor would be “amazing.”
“You can ask Sean, Steve, Mike, Jason, the other Jason, and Miles now … that right there is the ultimate for a player.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.