The greatest show in college basketball

by Russell Steinberg

The greatest show in college basketball used to practice in an old warehouse, nestled between one belonging to Pennzoil and another that held a paper company. The team wasn’t affiliated with a conference, didn’t have an on-campus gym, and never finished above .500.

These were the United States International University Gulls — the forgotten team of San Diego, whose Division I reign lasted just 10 seasons, from 1981-82 to 1990-91.

In that time, the Gulls barnstormed college basketball, playing the biggest names in the sport and eventually filling arenas nationwide. When they could actually find a home game, it would be at a local high school willing to host them, or later on, in a repurposed concert hall that the school rented out in downtown San Diego.

In the second half of its run, USIU was led by a successful local high school coach who single-handedly talked his way into funding the program. Under Gary Zarecky, the Gulls routinely scored north of 100 points per game, rarely took more than seven seconds to attempt a shot, and were well on their way to building a national brand.

Right up until the moment the school went bankrupt and the athletic department folded mid-season.

There are plenty of stories out there about coaches struggling to build a program. None took the route that Zarecky tried (and sometimes had) to take. He saw the value of playing an entertaining brand of basketball — one that would attract recruits and fill the stands. He also had a gift for fundraising. One former player called him a “used car salesman” and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It made him the perfect candidate to build something out of literally nothing.

To this day, Zarecky maintains that he would have ultimately succeeded if he had just a little more time. He had taken a team that went 1-27 the year before he arrived and made them competitive, almost every night. He had taken a team no one had ever heard of and brought in a player who still holds the Division I single-game scoring record. He did it all for a school that was constantly on the brink of financial disaster and that never built its own athletics facility.

That it all came tumbling down in a matter of days in December 1990 is both unsurprising and another remarkable piece of the puzzle. Without those pieces fitting so perfectly (or imperfectly) together, USIU becomes just another no-name school that experimented with Division I athletics. When combined, however, they form perhaps the weirdest, most unique basketball program ever.

Credit: John Valdez

THE UNIVERSITY

Now called Alliant University, United States International traces its roots back to 1909, when it opened as San Francisco Law School in northern California. The college wouldn’t travel south until 1952, two name-changes later, when, now called Balboa University, it moved to San Diego and became California Western.

University president and ordained minister William Rust had grand plans for his school, hoping to one day have campuses worldwide, with a beautiful, vibrant, and full campus in the San Diego area as the flagship.

Rust set his sights on a chunk of government property formerly known as Camp Elliott, which lay across the street from a middle-income housing development in Scripps Ranch, a neighborhood in northeast San Diego. A 1980 report from the Los Angeles Times describes Camp Elliott as “an oasis in the otherwise barren countryside,” complete with rolling hills and eucalyptus trees. In other words, it was the perfect hub for an international university system that would include campuses in Europe, Africa, and beyond.

In 1964, Rust made his pitch to the government to buy the land. He submitted a plan to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to increase enrollment to 6,500 students over a 10-year period. He would use the Camp Elliott land to build classrooms, laboratories, student housing, and an athletic complex. His plan was approved and in 1965, the government agreed to sell those 400 acres to Rust and the university.

While the school always had financial problems, this is where they intensified.

HEW’s policy stipulated that the university could buy the Camp Elliott property at a discount from market value, provided it was to be used for educational purposes. While Rust never wavered that it was his intention to do just that, how those acres were actually designated is a little murky. Two hundred acres were supposed to go to campus housing, though Rust had to rent out some of it to non-students, supposedly until the university’s enrollment matched its campus growth.

Then there was a deal, not uncovered until later, that Rust had made with a company called USF Investors prior to the sale. USF had given USIU a $1.6 million loan, which went mostly to paying off other loans. The land was to be used as collateral. Only, USIU no longer had the money to develop the property and USF soon folded. Much of the land sat still undeveloped until the university had to sell half of it in 1976. By the time the LA Times piece was published, USIU was also in default on a $1.2 million loan it took from the government in 1968 to build the campus. It was also behind on payments to the IRS and had not turned in some of its payments for its employee pension fund. Thanks to late and missed payments, the school’s debt ballooned to $26 million by 1973.

USIU spent the mid 1970s selling many of its auxiliary campuses, including in London, Mexico, and Kenya, to pay down its debt. Yet through all the turmoil, the university kept its athletics program going and hoped to expand it into a significant revenue source.

Its hockey program, which enjoyed several strong seasons in the 1970s, was transitioning to Division I and finding success there as well. In 1979, USIU football began the transition from NAIA to Division II, hoping to gain full D-II status shortly thereafter.

What the university did not count on, however, was travel costs increasing and paid attendance dropping significantly. A school that was already in deep financial trouble could not keep up.

The Gulls played their final basketball home game of the 1979-80 season on Feb. 8. The paid attendance was eight. Twelve days later, USIU officially ended its football program.

USIU then tried to kick-start its basketball program in hopes of drawing a few more than eight paying fans to a game. The Gulls, without football, joined Division II that April, then transitioned to Division I for the 1981-82 season, despite having no home basketball court.

When coach Freddie Goss resigned in June 1985 after a 1-27 season, the Gulls needed more than a basketball coach. They needed someone who could turn the still-broke athletics program into a real money-maker. They needed someone who could coach, create a compelling product, woo boosters, and promote the program like hell.

Luckily, the perfect guy for the job was coaching just a few miles away.

Credit: John Valdez

THE COACH

Gary Zarecky probably never would have coached a game in Division I if he wasn’t also an expert fundraiser, salesman, showman, and even Sports Information Director.

Zarecky (pronounced Zarsky, but “Coach Z” is fine) entered the picture from about 20 miles south of Scripps Ranch at Sweetwater High School in National City, where he had taken a program with just four winning seasons in the 50 years prior to his arrival and turned it into a machine. In 1971-72, the year before Zarecky showed up, Sweetwater went 0-26. Zarecky recalled his first game, where only the custodian showed up to watch.

His goal was to make Sweetwater a national contender, and that’s what he did. Sweetwater went 1-23 in his first season and 6-19 in his second, but was soon winning 20-or-more per year regularly. Zarecky brought in more than 40 players during his tenure who went on to play Division I basketball, and 20-30 more, he estimates, who played Division II.

Friends later talked about his relentless drive. He says it may have begun when he was a college senior in 1966, when a car struck his motorcycle and he was thrown 26 feet into the air. His right hand was severed, his left hand was mangled, he broke 39 bones, and was nearly paralyzed. It took seven doctors 12 hours to repair his hands, and as his recovery began, Zarecky was faced with true adversity.

With his hands still utterly useless months after the accident, he entered law school, but had to dictate his term papers and learned to turn pages in his textbooks with his tongue. He picked up a side job coaching junior high basketball in order to get himself through school, though he dropped out after two and a half years. That didn’t stop him from writing nearly a dozen law textbooks and teaching the subject at Sweetwater while he was coaching.

“US International was trying to be a Division I program with probably NAIA budget.”

Off the court and out of the classroom, Zarecky was most valuable to Sweetwater as an expert promoter and fundraiser of his program. He was able to build partnerships with corporations in San Diego that then funneled money into his basketball program. It allowed him to travel with his team and ensured his players had the best gear and a supportive crowd behind them.

His ability to raise money caught the attention of Sweetwater superintendent Ed Brand, who was, coincidentally, a graduate of Cal Western before it became USIU. Brand hired Zarecky to fundraise for the schools, not just his team, and the two became close as the low-income Sweetwater school district began to rake in millions.

Brand knew Rust both from his Cal Western days, and just as a superintendent of a local school system that would interact often with college presidents. When Rust began looking for a new men’s basketball coach prior to the 1985-86 season, Brand gave Zarecky his highest recommendation.

“US International was trying to be a Division I program with probably NAIA budget,” Brand recalled in an interview. “The thing Gary did better than anybody was raise money. Gary is what I call an innovator and a visionary.”

When Zarecky was first approached about the position, USIU still had no home gym. It had no practice facility, either. The Gulls were instead practicing at 6 a.m. at a local high school, or in a rented gym in Balboa Park. The first goal would be to actually raise the funds to have facilities, something even Zarecky wasn’t sure how to do.

“I didn’t quite know how to market the program without a gym, without players who wanted to go there,” he said.

It was a stark change to go from a high school powerhouse that regularly drew thousands to an independent Division I program that found local community colleges to host home games. But Zarecky brought one on-court aspect with him that was sure to help draw attention to the program: his style of play.

Credit: John Valdez

THE OFFENSE

In the simplest terms, Zarecky’s offensive philosophy was to just outscore the other team, even if that rarely worked. It was similar to Paul Westhead’s at Loyola Marymount or David Arseneault’s System at Grinnell. Zarecky, however, told me he would get angry when people would call it a run-and-gun offense, because it implied a lack of discipline. He preferred run-and-shoot, because he coached teams to play fast, but make decisions within their abilities.

His goal was always for his team to score and score quickly, but it became more complicated than that.

Around 1980, a young man (Zarecky thinks his name was Matt) came into Sweetwater to teach students basic computer literacy. Zarecky saw him and was struck with an odd idea. He pulled Matt aside and asked if his computer could be used to diagram a basketball court. The goal was to highlight the spots on the floor that would yield the highest-percentage shots in under seven seconds if the offense received the ball at the opposite end of the court. Mind you this was in the days before leagues nationwide adapted the 3-point shot.

“How do you get players? My strategy was that scoring could be a recruiting tool.”

He immediately found results: the highest percentage shots, he said, came from the foul line extended. While the defense was moving backward, it would either stop at the perimeter to pick up the ball handler or collapse under the basket to stop the drive. Then he started playing with different scenarios. What happens if the center gets the rebound? What about a guard? From whom and where should the inbounds pass be delivered after a made basket?

These hypothetical scenarios became Zarecky’s playbook — organized chaos, centered not just around getting a shot up quickly, but around getting a good look within seven seconds. He invented drills, pushing his teams through hours-long practices and using a stopwatch to ensure his plays were executed quickly.

Zarecky was always going to bring an up-tempo offense to USIU, but he didn’t implement his run-and-shoot style right away. In his first three seasons, the Gulls played fast-paced, but under control. They also struggled to gain traction, going a combined 29-55.

They were not set up to ever succeed, either. The university kept constant pressure on Zarecky to schedule as many guarantee games — traditionally early in the season, where a low-major team will go play at a powerhouse program in exchange for a nice check — as possible. That meant, in 1987-88 for example, playing at San Diego State, Oregon State, USC, and Iowa State. There was just no way the Gulls could hope to win those games, or even come close, as an independent no-name school that did not have the cache to bring in elite talent.

Zarecky needed a hook. He needed a way to get people talking about his program.

Credit: John Valdez

There’s one question in particular that he loves asking to anyone who questions his methods: Would you rather watch a game that ends 48-38 or 108-96? Both are 10-point margins, so they’re equally close. It’s just that the higher-scoring game is much more entertaining. Take it a step further and think about reading the local sports page. If you see two teams you don’t care about played to a final score of 86-50, would you read that story or skip over it? What about if the score was 155-119?

Again, same final margin. One will make you stop and read.

That’s the philosophy he thought would help him recruit.

“The biggest thing I learned was it’s a disaster to be an independent,” Zarecky said of his first three years at the helm. “How do you get players? My strategy was that scoring could be a recruiting tool.”

So in his fourth year at USIU, Zarecky went back to his Sweetwater roots and implemented the run-and-shoot. It’s when, according to players, fundamentals went by the wayside and it became all about getting shots up as fast as possible.

It worked to get publicity, for sure, but offered no real difference in the win or loss columns. In 1987-88, the year prior to Zarecky implementing run-and-shoot, the Gulls scored an average of 75 points per game and allowed 82. The next year, they scored 77 and allowed 85. After that, 82 for and 89 against — virtually no difference in average margin of defeat.

But there was a lot more scoring. A lot.

Kevin Bradshaw, the unquestioned star of the Gulls, who still holds the Division I single-game scoring record with 73 against Loyola Marymount in 1991, defended this change.

“I think when you score surreal numbers, people say ‘well something must be wrong with that,’ he said. “Unless youʼre on the biggest stage and youʼre winning the biggest games, people donʼt really respect it. It’s just a different style.”

“We didn’t touch the basketball. It was just strength and conditioning. We didn’t do anything but run the hills.”

Zarecky hired Woody Wright, a former officer in the US Navy, to take the team through military-like conditioning drills. Demetrius LaFitte, a guard who played at USIU from 1988-90, recalled the coaching staff running the players “to death,” to get them ready to play offense as fast as possible. And it paid off, at least for LaFitte, when we was able to play a full 40-minute game at Zarecky’s pace without needing to be subbed out.

Zarecky’s style then informed how he would recruit. As the coach of a small independent, he wasn’t going to bring in 7-footers anyway, but when recruiting post players, he was going to have to find a specific type of person: someone between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 who could handle the ball and didn’t mind running the floor. That way, defined positions didn’t matter as much.

Of course, not everybody was a fan. Zarecky recalls Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim not liking how USIU got a standing ovation after a 135-93 loss at the Carrier Dome in 1988. But Zarecky never wavered in his philosophy.

“[If someone] sees that we play Syracuse and the score as 98-41, he’d chuckle and move on,” Zarecky said. “It’s a blowout against a cupcake. But if you saw a score that was 167-148, uh oh, you raise an eyebrow. The kids raise an eyebrow. Everybody. And the media got involved and said, ‘who is this little small scoring-machine university?’”

It was perfect for creating some buzz.

It wasn’t instant success for Zarecky at USIU. His style appealed to recruits — he knew that they would pay lip service to a coach who preached a defensive philosophy, but players all over the world liked to score points. There was no way around it. But that wasn’t enough to pull in the players who could truly build USIU. The Gulls needed a place to practice. They needed a place to play. They needed more than that NAIA budget.

The administration pushed Zarecky to schedule as many guarantee games as possible. Guarantees remain a common practice among small Division I schools now, where they help a high-major program fill a home game early in the season, lose by double-digits, and receive a check for their efforts.

The Gulls would get somewhere between $50 and $75,000 to play at a big-name school and lose. Because of his run-and-shoot style, it was soon easy for Zarecky to find these games. Opposing athletic directors knew that if the Gulls came in, they could sell out their arenas much faster than if the team scheduled a typical low-major.

Zarecky recalled travelling to Boise State, the best defensive team in the nation, and being greeted by local press as soon as the team got off the plane. Boise State had a promotion for that game: if the Broncos held USIU to 58 points, everyone in attendance would get free Taco Bell.

The Gulls led 63-61 at halftime.

By playing a style that guaranteed media attention and an easier path to scheduling guarantees, Zarecky had made a name for himself and the program. Even today, he and his former players aren’t entirely sure what cost that came with.

Former post player Michael Sterner lamented the lack of skill development in Zarecky’s system, and says he still thinks about how many more games the team could have won if it had a little more discipline.

Zarecky also thinks it’s possible that the team could have won more games with a more traditional style. But unlike Sterner, who thinks the coach was doing it to make a name for himself, he says he didn’t have a choice. Zarecky believes there was no other way to get attention on USIU, which was vital to the program’s survival.

Apart from guarantees, Zarecky pulled in resources himself, working 12-hour days to secure funds or supplies from local businesses. He was able to buy an old warehouse next to a Pennzoil and use it as a practice facility. He fundraised for everything that went inside, from tables and chairs to a basketball court that he purchased from the Los Angeles Clippers.

Then there was the home court. Zarecky struck a deal with Golden Hall, a downtown concert venue that sat 7,500 people. He found companies willing to donate scoreboards, a court, and everything else he needed. USIU built first-class locker rooms for players and officials.

Zarecky worked tirelessly to make sure this was all done according to the letter of the NCAA law. As one might expect, the NCAA investigated the school countless times, expecting to find some sort of violation. The NCAA never found anything wrong. No money went to players. No illegal gifts. Every cent was accounted for in, Zarecky says, a more meticulous way than the school itself kept its own books.

Even though the wins still hadn’t come, USIU had everything it needed to succeed in Division I, or at least that’s what Zarecky thought.

He got an extra boost prior to the 1989-90 season when he found a troubled kid from Florida who had joined the Navy to help turn his life around. That kid would become the star of the program and eventually break a scoring record that still stands today.

Credit: John Valdez

THE STAR

I first met Kevin Bradshaw in the plaza that held more defining moments of his life than anywhere else. King Chavez High School, where he is now the principal, borders to the north, Golden Hall is to the west, and the benches where he used to sleep when he became homeless, are in the middle.

Bradshaw is tall, but unassuming — still jacked, but it’s somewhat hidden under the casual wear of a high school principal on a summer day. His handshake is firm, showing the principal’s authority, but his smile inviting in the way you’d expect from a favorite teacher.

His story begins well over 2,000 miles east in Gainesville, Florida, where he and his friend Vernon Maxwell, a future NBA guard, were the best high school players in the state. They grew up on the black side of town, learning to shoot on a hoop with no backboard, deep into the night as long as someone had a car with headlights that could illuminate the blacktop.

The assumption was always that Bradshaw and Maxwell would go to the University of Florida and star in the SEC — that’s what you did if you were a basketball prodigy living right next to their campus.

But while Maxwell did just that, Bradshaw was turned off by the way big-name schools — not just Florida — viewed the recruiting process. He said multiple times during our interview that he felt “like a piece of meat,” and that as long as he produced on the basketball court, whichever school he picked could take care of any eligibility concerns.

In a documentary made about his life called Shooting for Home, Bradshaw recalled everything the SEC had to offer.

“What do you want?” he asked in the documentary. “If it’s drugs, the drugs were there. If it was sex, the sex was there.”

It wasn’t for him, and so he chose to go to Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. It was about 100 miles away in Daytona Beach, and for Bradshaw, it was a relief to finally be away from home. His town turned on him after he spurned the Gators, and he felt he was no longer welcome.

He played at Bethune-Cookman for two seasons and was phenomenal. His 514 total points as a sophomore are good for 20th in school history for a single season, and that was done in just 27 games.

“So they double-teamed him. They were all running at Bradshaw. One time I looked over and my center was wide open.”

Bradshaw appeared destined to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, four-year player in school history. He averaged 12.9 points per game as a freshman, then led the team in scoring with 19.0 per game as a sophomore. But internally, Bradshaw was not doing nearly as well. He was failing his classes, and head coach Jack “Cy” McClairen refused to step in like higher-profile schools might have. He was also using drugs, he admitted in an interview with me. He thought he was invincible.

McClairen told him to get out. He recommended Bradshaw enter the military and learn some discipline before returning to school.

Bradshaw viewed that as his only option. He felt he couldn’t go home after turning down Florida, then failing at Bethune-Cookman. His home community would not welcome him back. There was nothing to return to.

That’s how Bradshaw headed west, to the USS McKee in San Diego, where the Navy sent him for boot camp. It’s how he eventually joined the All-Navy team — a collection of Navy servicemen who would play in local tournaments and against teams from other branches of the military. There, he met future Spurs legend David Robinson, who had just graduated from the Naval Academy and was doing his mandatory military service.

Robinson took Bradshaw under his wing and helped the troubled kid from Gainesville make one of the most impactful decisions of his life.

“He didn’t know who I was,” Bradshaw said. “He just asked if I had any college eligibility left. He said ‘you need to go to college. There’s no reason you should be in the military.’”

Shortly thereafter, schools started recruiting him again. Arizona State and San Diego State were interested. So was a school Bradshaw had never heard of — one called United States International, better known for its arts department than athletics.

What drew him to USIU was partly what originally drew him away from the SEC, in that he wasn’t treated, as he put it, “like a piece of meat.” Another was Zarecky himself, who had an offense built for scorers and wanted Bradshaw to focus on getting his degree.

Bradshaw would have two years of eligibility remaining, with likely three years necessary for him to get his degree. Zarecky promised him a graduate assistant job or something similar in that third year.

Credit: John Valdez

THE SOARING GULLS

In his first season, Bradshaw averaged 31.2 points per game and was one of four Gulls to average double-figures. Demetrius Laffitte averaged a double-double — 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds — while Steve Smith posted 14.8 points and 7.5 assists per game. As a team, they scored 95.9 per game, and even though they gave up 103, they were a must-see show.

By this point, Zarecky had brought in players he felt he could win with, and it was starting to show. The Gulls had to play their allotted guarantees, where they lost big to Oklahoma (173-101) and Arkansas (166-101), but they also hung with Cal, falling 97-87, and San Diego State, who beat them 108-97.

Bradshaw seemed to be a future NBA Player and a lock to be an All-American at some point. He knew he was coming to USIU to score points, but he didn’t expect his numbers to balloon the way they did. It was a product of the offense and the preparation that Zarecky put them through in the fall.

Bradshaw recalled the first month of preseason practice as being similar to his conditioning in the military.

“We didn’t touch the basketball,” he said. “It was just strength and conditioning. We didn’t do anything but run the hills.”

Bradshaw says he enjoyed that first season, before the financial problems really impacted the team. The Gulls went 12-16 that year, but the highlight for Bradshaw came in a 152-137 loss to Loyola Marymount — a game in which he scored 54 points.

That was the year the Lions made their emotional run to the Elite Eight on the heels of Hank Gathers’ unexpected death during the West Coast Conference tournament. The two teams met at Golden Hall in early December, and Bradshaw remembers Bo Kimble running suicides before the game, seemingly tiring himself out before tip-off. He thought it was all an act.

Then the game started and Kimble was everywhere at once. Rebounding, scoring, driving. Bradshaw called him a beast.

The 15-point Lions win was an important time for Bradshaw because it was affirmation that his team, and he himself, could compete with the best run-and-shoot group in the nation. When the game ended, Kimble approached Bradshaw with some encouragement.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Kimble told him.

Bradshaw and USIU looked at Loyola Marymount like older brothers — the team that does what the Gulls did, but on a bigger stage and with more success. So, Kimball’s words were encouraging to Bradshaw, and Gathers’ death shortly thereafter stuck with him, even if he didn’t know Gathers well.

It made their trip to Gersten Pavilion the next season mean a little bit more. Bradshaw, who had never even heard of Pete Maravich at the time, said he had a “special feeling” when he walked into the gym that night. When the game started, he heated up fast, and by halftime, he had reached 40 points.

Late in the first half, a writer seated at the scorer’s table leaned over to him and told him that Bradshaw was on track to break Maravich’s mark of 69 points.

“Westhead was going crazy. His shirt was soaked. After the game, he hugged Bradshaw and said ‘wow, what a tremendous feat.’”

With the game still within reach at the break, Zarecky and his staff faced a tough decision in the halftime locker room: what do they do about it? If they set Bradshaw loose, he could break the record and it might lift the Gulls to an improbable victory. Then again, it could also backfire if Loyola Marymount found a way to contain him.

As Bradshaw, already exhausted, vomited in the locker room, Zarecky asked his players for their opinion. Coming out of the locker room, the message was simple: To make sure Bradshaw touched the ball. Bradshaw shrugged off his in-game illness as normal for a guy who played his heart out in Zarecky’s fast-paced offense. The coach tried to help his star out in the second half by calling periodic timeouts to rest him.

All the while, Bradshaw didn’t slow down.

Once it became clear that Zarecky was trying to help Bradshaw break the record, Zarecky recalled Lions coach Paul Westhead looking over at him from the Loyola Marymount bench.

“He looked at me like ‘just try it,’” Zarecky said. “So they double-teamed him. They were all running at Bradshaw. One time I looked over and my center was wide open.”

The double-team soon became a triple-team, but to no avail. Bradshaw kept scoring, and soon the opposing crowd got into it, suddenly cheering for the player in the road jersey.

“Westhead was going crazy,” Zarecky said. “His shirt was soaked. After the game, he hugged Bradshaw and said ‘wow, what a tremendous feat.’”

Bradshaw passed Maravich with a pair of free throws and finished with 72 points. That was one of the final bright spots of Bradshaw’s college career. It came after the school announced it was bankrupt and that the athletic program would be folding.

Credit: John Valdez

THE END

The end of USIU athletics was both tragic, at least to those involved, and a long time coming.

Zarecky’s first notion that something was wrong came weeks before the official announcement. He had been preparing to take the Gulls on a road trip when he went to check the team’s bank account. He estimated the trip would cost around $9,000, and to his dismay, the account was empty.

Zarecky stormed into athletic director Al Palmiotto office and demanded an answer.

It turns out the university needed to pay its electric bill and was flat out of money. So, the administration took money from the only place it could — the men’s basketball program. Palmiotto informed Zarecky at the point that USIU was preparing for an announcement.

The school that had suffered decades of financial difficulty finally declared bankruptcy on Dec. 20, 1990.

With the athletic department no longer funded and the school in danger of losing its accreditation, the expectation was that the Gulls would not complete their season. There was no money to pay coaches or for travel.

Zarecky fought for the season anyway. He begged the school’s administration to let his team play out the schedule, both for his players and out of respect for the Gulls’ remaining opponents.

He was allowed to, but had to do it as his coaching staff dropped off and only seven players remained. Eventually there was also no team trainer or support staff. With no athletic department, Zarecky was on the hook for all the team’s expenses, and with no salary coming in to boot.

It all fell on Zarecky, from coaching the team, to washing the uniforms, to transporting his players to and from practice.

What once was a promising season for the Gulls ended with losses in 14 of their final 15 games and a 2-26 overall record, including a 186-140 defeat at Loyola Marymount in Bradshaw’s record-setting game.

“I could not believe the young men who stayed,” Zarecky said. “And my heart bled for those kids because they decided to stay and get their degrees.”

For Bradshaw, this meant more than not having a basketball team to play for. USIU would not honor Bradshaw’s scholarship, so he had no school to return to. He entered the NBA Draft following the season, but was not selected. Seconds after the draft was over, he says, his girlfriend turned to him and told him that not only was she leaving, but that the baby she was pregnant with was not his.

Feeling that he couldn’t go back home after failing out of Bethune-Cookman, not having a college degree, and not having a relationship with his family, Bradshaw had nowhere to go.  That’s how he found himself sleeping on those benches outside Golden Hall, too ashamed to reach out to Zarecky, or anyone else for that matter, for help.

I asked Bradshaw what he did in that time, from June to September, and he left it only at “nothing I’m proud of.”

I didn’t press him.

He also had another year of school to complete, which Zarecky promised him he could do when he first recruited Bradshaw out of the Navy. School would mean not only a degree, but a place to live. It was Bradshaw’s opportunity to get off the street.

Only USIU was not about to allow Bradshaw to stay on scholarship.

“[Zarecky] raised holy hell with the school,” Bradshaw recalled. “We came up with an agreement where I’d pay a little bit instead of the $32,000 it’d cost because it was a private school.”

By this point, Zarecky had moved on from USIU. He soon found a job coaching Foothill College, a community college that, naturally, needed both a fundraiser and basketball coach. Soon, the Owls led the nation in scoring and Zarecky even led them to a couple championships.

When he got tired of coaching (he had been doing it for 48 years, after all), he retired and spent some free time teaching courses for other coaches looking to learn how to fundraise.

As for Bradshaw, he completed his final year at USIU with Zarecky’s help before playing in Israel. What he thought would be a quick trip overseas before returning home to get his Master’s ended up being a life-changing decade-plus experience. There, he scored 101 points in a game, met his current wife, and became the first African-American coach in Israeli professional basketball history. When he returned to the United States, he spent some time as an NAIA coach before taking the King Chavez job.

In the 2012 documentary “Shooting for Home,” he reunited with his family for the first time in over 20 years.

As for the other players, coaches, and administrators, many were hard to track down. Zarecky helped me get in touch with characters like Ed Brand, and I was able to find a few more myself. But many others have either passed away or simply disappeared — lost to history, like the memory of the Soaring Gulls.

Russell Steinberg is a writer and lifelong basketball fan based in New York. As a certified hoops nut, he has covered everything from high school to the NBA, specializing in the college game and all things mid-major basketball.