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Kevin SpinaleFebruary 10, 2022
Iona Gaels forward Nelly Junior Joseph defends against Seton Hall Pirates forward Sandro Mamukelashvili in a game on Nov. 30, 2020, at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (CNS photo/Vincent Carchietta, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

In the archives at Columbia University’s Butler Library, there is a massive collection of 150 scrapbooks that were assembled by a man named Alexander Gumby, who documented life in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Beyond the news of the day, his collections commemorate Black artists and writers, and his studio in Harlem was a meeting place for Black intellectuals until the Depression. Charged with a class project to examine the scrapbooks a few years ago, I came across a number of articles and pictures of a man named Junius Kellogg. He was clearly being lauded as a hero. I had never heard of him.

It turns out that in 1950, Junius Kellogg became the first Black man to play basketball for Manhattan College. In January 1951, Kellogg was approached by a former player at Manhattan, Henry Poppe, to shave points in a game at Madison Square Garden versus DePaul. Kellogg informed his coach of the scheme, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office had Kellogg wear a wire to record other offers. Kellogg was recognized in the national press because he had rebuffed the ongoing scandal of point shaving in college basketball.

John Gasaway documents this period in college basketball in Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball. In fact, Kellogg’s story aligns well with two great tensions by which Gasaway organizes his account of the rise of college basketball at Catholic colleges: prairie versus parish and integrity versus scandal.

John Thompson: "Georgetown was progressive enough to hire me, but at the same time, Georgetown still had a lot of racism within itself."

From the beginning of the National Invitational Tournament in 1938, when Ned Irish began to promote college basketball at the world’s most famous arena, there was a great deal of money around. There were point-shaving scandals at Long Island University, C.C.N.Y., Bradley University, Seton Hall, Kentucky, Dayton, St. Joseph’s and many others. Before Bradley’s iteration of the point shaving scandal, the corruption of college basketball seemed contained in the urban East, particularly around the grand stage of Madison Square Garden.

Beyond the contrasts between prairie versus parish—rural and Protestant versus Catholic and urban—college basketball in the 20th century was also charged with tension around race. Gasaway writes:

Catholic programs have often been credited with playing a praiseworthy role in this midcentury movement [integration of college basketball], credit that nevertheless acknowledges that the coaches in question were interested primarily in winning games. To the extent that, famously, the University of San Francisco thrived in the 1950’s [Russell and KC Jones] in part by emphasizing Black players to a greater degree than was customary at the time, or insofar as Loyola Chicago won a national title while embracing the same dynamic, some measure of credit is deserved. That credit, however, does not go with Catholic schools alone…In short, credit for breaking down these barriers goes primarily to the players.

Loyola Chicago was the first college in Division I basketball to play five Black players on the court at one time in a game against Wyoming in December 1962. That moment, like the time when Mississippi State broke out of the south to play Loyola in Michigan, represented “a vivid and singular milestone on a journey spanning generations.” Gasaway later details the hatred that Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing endured when playing games on the road in the Big East. Racism remained in various forms.

Georgetown’s coach, John Thompson, would get heated whenever reporters asked him what it felt like to be the first Black coach to win the N.C.A.A. tournament championship in 1984. Gasaway writes, “[Thompson] would say his predecessors, like Clarence ‘Big House’ Gaines and John McClendon, had forgotten more about basketball than he would ever know, and singling him out as ‘the first’ implied no one had displayed enough ability.” In his own autobiography, I Came As a Shadow, Thompson tells of how angry and hurt he was by the unwritten quotas—even on the Boston Celtics, which Bill Russell would later coach (1966-69)—limiting the number of Black players on N.B.A. teams to six. So many guys never even had a shot at the N.B.A. because of the quota system.

About his years coaching Georgetown, Thompson wrote quite bluntly,

They never asked me to change. They never tried to stop me from being Black…That’s not to say I wouldn’t encounter racism within the school. Georgetown was progressive enough to hire me, but at the same time, Georgetown still had a lot of racism within itself. I’m talking about the way some people there thought, what kind of behaviors were tolerated or encouraged, the way opportunities were given or denied. This is a school founded in 1789 with slave labor, whose leaders didn’t think to bring in Black students until Washington went up in flames beneath their feet. None of that disappears just because you brought in some n----- to throw a ball through a hoop.

Thompson’s autobiography is fascinating. The coach’s portraits of Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Allen Iverson fill in so much more about those players’ personalities, and readers get a sense of Thompson’s care for them. About Iverson’s final home game toward the end of his sophomore season, Thompson recounts that the student section at Georgetown “went wild and started chanting ‘Two more years! Two more years!’ That made me angry. The newspaper said I yelled ‘Shut up!’ at our students and threw my towel in their direction. I don’t remember all that, but it sounds like something I would do. See they didn’t know why Allen was thinking about leaving [for the N.B.A. draft]. His family had nothing. His sister needed medical treatment, but they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t have enough food. The fans weren’t concerned about that.”

Thompson’s towel, by the way, was a tribute to his mother, Anna, who would wear a towel over one shoulder when she worked in the kitchen. His parents did not come to many games when he coached at St. Anthony’s High School in Washington, but he felt them there with the towel draped over his shoulder. He continued the tradition throughout his career.

Thompson’s and Gasaway’s books remind us how much fun it is to watch college basketball, how electrifying it is to get caught up in conference championships and the unfolding of March Madness.

In the midst of all the complexity of college basketball on and off the court, Thompson’s and Gasaway’s books remind us how much fun it is to watch college basketball, how electrifying it is to get caught up in conference championships and the unfolding of March Madness. Gasaway reminds us also how well Catholic colleges—big and small, Jesuit, Augustinian, Vincentian, Spiritan, you name it—have done over the decades. Catholic schools dominated the N.I.T. in its first three decades—S.L.U., U.S.F., Seton Hall, Holy Cross, Duquesne, La Salle, DePaul, Xavier, Dayton (2), St. John’s (4) and Providence (2)—winning more than half the championships. Holy Cross was the first Catholic school to win the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament in 1947. La Salle won in 1954 ,while U.S.F. won back-to-back championships in 1955 (the first all Catholic final versus La Salle) and 1956. Seattle University and Elgin Baylor had a shot at it in 1958 but lost to Adolf Rupp and Kentucky. Loyola Chicago won in 1963. Al McGuire’s Marquette team, which underperformed during the regular season, won the 1977 national championship against U.N.C..

Then there was the golden age of the Big East, culminating in the Georgetown 1984 championship and the Big East-dominated 1985 Final Four: Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova and Memphis State. In fact, the Final Four that year was “referred to as the separation of Church and Memphis State,” writes Gasaway.” Villanova is the only Catholic school to have won since their ’85 championship—winning in 2016 and 2018. Loyola Chicago had a memorable run to the Final Four in 2018, and Gonzaga has been in the championship game twice, in 2017 and 2021.

One of the most interesting aspects of both books are the coaching trees, that vast web of relationships that end up creating opportunities on the bench. Take a school like Providence College. Joe Mullaney, who played with Bob Cousy on Holy Cross’s N.C.A.A. championship in 1947, started coaching at Providence in 1955, after a one-year stint playing with the Celtics. Mullaney’s coach at Holy Cross was Doggie Julian. Mullaney ended up coaching at Providence College, and Doggie Julian moved on to coach Dartmouth from 1950-1967. At Providence, Mullaney won the 1961 N.I.T. championship with players John Thompson, Ray Flynn (mayor of Boston from 1983 to 1993 and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican during Clinton’s first term), and Bill Stein, who later coached with Thompson at Georgetown and then became athletic director at St. Peter’s University for years.

Gasaway demurs in offering an overarching reason as to why Catholic colleges have done so well in N.C.A.A. Division I basketball. I will hazard an answer. It is because of Catholic education.

Dave Gavitt played for Doggie Julian at Dartmouth. After graduating and coaching at Worcester Academy, Gavitt ended up as an assistant for Mullaney at Providence—no doubt with the backing of Doggie Julian. In 1966, he took over for Julian at his alma mater for a few seasons. Then Gavitt took the Providence head coaching job in 1969. He would coach at Providence for ten years, before becoming athletic director and the founding commissioner of the Big East Conference. Throughout the formation of the Big East, Gavitt and Thompson worked side by side—having known one another since the 1963 Providence N.I.T. Championship team when Gavitt was an assistant.

Needless to say, their collaboration worked. Mullaney returned to coach Providence in 1981 after Gavitt started as full-time commissioner of the conference. Mullaney recruited Billy Donovan, who later won two championships as coach at the University of Florida. When Mullaney retired in 1985, Rick Pitino took over and led the Friars to the Final Four in 1987—the first time Providence had made it to the Final Four since Gavitt had taken them back in 1973. Throw in Pete Gillen, and there is a tremendous web of college basketball relationships spinning out from one Catholic college.

If you like college basketball, you will enjoy these two books immensely and learn a great deal about the game. You will learn more about Tom Gola and how good he was at La Salle. You will learn that Rick Majerus tried to walk on as a player at Marquette. Al McGuire would hire him as an assistant after he graduated. You will learn that Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers’s head coach at L.M.U., Paul Westhead, played for Dr. Jack Ramsay at St. Joe’s and won an N.B.A. championship coaching the Lakers in 1980. Ramsay himself won an N.B.A. title with the Portland Trailblazers in 1977. You will hear again about the famous sweater game, the “Manley Field House is officially closed!” game, and Villanova’s near-perfect game in the 1985 N.C.A.A. championship. There is sheer enjoyment in recalling the absurdly large personalities of the coaches that populated the Catholic world of basketball in the 1970’s and 80’s—Al McGuire, Thompson, Lou Carnesseca, Gavitt, Rollie Massimino.

Gasaway offers an interesting “Epilogue” to his book which he calls “Identities.” He leads off with a quote from the sportswriter, Frank Deford, penned after the 1985 Final Four:

‘For many Americans, college basketball is the outward and visible sign of Catholicism in the United States.’ It is probably the ritual of basketball itself, more than any particular success within the sport, that binds this one faith to this one game. The defining quality of Catholic basketball programs is not that they necessarily prevail but, instead, that they persist—as a familiar, distinct, and cohesive body of the sports disciples. When speaking of Catholicism in the United States, college basketball is an identity as much as it is a prowess.

Gasaway demurs in offering an overarching reason as to why Catholic colleges have done so well in N.C.A.A. Division I basketball. I will hazard an answer. It is because of Catholic education: the whole top-to-bottom, grade school-through-graduate school behemoth that keeps going along as best it can. And at each level, in almost every main building, there is a basketball gym. Each junior high and high school has a court, and a team with little cost and maintenance save that of redoing the floors every year or so. Catholic college basketball represents the fruit of all the competition and fun that happens in those gyms at the heart of Catholic schools throughout this country. It is a great way to spend the winter.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is your reasoning around the success of Catholic colleges in N.C.A.A. basketball? Why has it worked?
     
  2. The N.C.A.A. has held a Women’s Division I championship since 1982. Notre Dame has won the tournament twice, in 2001 and 2018. They have been runner-up five times. Does the same success that men’s teams representing Catholic colleges translate to women’s basketball as well? Should more emphasis, more energy be directed to women’s programs at Catholic colleges?
     
  3. Here’s a big question that haunts me. Though John Gasaway mistakenly refers to the College of the Holy Cross as Holy Cross University in the book’s index, he does give the school its due in telling the story of Catholic college basketball. Holy Cross remained competitive in basketball through the 60’s, and the team has had intermittent success getting to the N.C.A.A. tournament under George Blaney and Ralph Willard. But the last 20 years or so do not reflect the success of the program’s prowess at mid-century.

    Gasaway tells of the time in the spring of 1979 when talks were held between Dave Gavitt and the athletic directors of Boston College and Holy Cross. Gasaway has Gavitt saying that he and the league wanted Holy Cross to join the Big East. BC joined, and Holy Cross declined. Of that moment, Gasaway writes, “By the mid-1980’s, those decisions [Holy Cross declined an offer to join the A-10 as well] looked disastrous from an athletic director’s perspective, but Brooks [Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., president of HC from 1970-1994] was defended by the holiest [?] basketball legend of all, Bob Cousy. ‘Father Brooks is a sports fan who loves nothing better than to have competitive programs,’ Cousy said, ‘but he has equal enthusiasm for why the damn school is there in the first place.’”

    John Brooks, S.J., was a good friend, a fantastic teacher and a wise spiritual director for me. He is one of the main reasons I entered the Jesuits. I have utmost respect for him. I can absolutely attest to what Cousy says about Brooks’s love of sports. He was a fierce fan who counted among his friends Larry Lucchino and Robert Kraft. Earl Markey, S.J., who was an all-American at Holy Cross in 1953, would back me up on John’s range of sports knowledge and his love for basketball and baseball. Yet, does Brooks’s decision—Holy Cross’s decision—to reject membership in the Big East hold up as a wise one? Did the decision, in fact, end up hurting the academic standing of the college, given the way the best students now choose their undergraduate institution? Or was it an upright decision that tried to create a real amateur athletic conference like the Patriot League?

    These are extremely complicated questions which are only further complicated by the fact that N.C.A.A. athletes are now able to earn money from endorsements and various entanglements in social media. What do people think? Embedded in this question is: should Catholic colleges continue to compete, directing the resources it takes to do so, in big-time college sports? Is this, in fact, the arena Catholic colleges should be identified with?

 

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