Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Doc's take: Fifty Years Ago

Posted at 4:00pm -- 2/2/2010

Doc's take: Fifty Years Ago

While this blog is a Michigan site, part of the mission is to provide access to material related to the overall status and events of the Big Ten Conference, known to many actually as the Western Conference. History, the reporting of and the accuracy of, is becoming a lost art. Lost in the glitter of the present, and the awe-inspiring possibilities of the future, is the past. For many growing up, the past is buried, and this is quite explainable by the pace, technology, and entertainment options of circa 2010.

In this light the article will seek to accomplish two goals: (1) inform about the past and provide proper praise for one of the greatest teams in Big Ten history, in any sport, the 1959-1960 Ohio State men’s basketball national champions. Hopefully, there will be some pleasing for my freshman composition teacher, who gave automatic F’s for a contraction, a misspelled word on a hand-in paper, or using any first person word in a composition.

Through good fortune, the local television station made a landmark deal to cover almost all Ohio State games for the 1959-60 season. The reason was thus: Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell, and Bob Knight were coming to town. Add to this the fact that superior veterans Larry Siegfried and Joe Roberts were already on board. All of these players were successfully recruited by a young, very intellectual, and fiery coach, Fred Taylor.

There was no freshman eligibility then and so everyone waited with baited breathe for this group to hit the floor as sophomores. The unthinkable was happening in Columbus, fans paid attention to basketball, and over the next three years the basketball following rivaled Woody and king football

Good fortune smiled on the author as tickets for Big Ten games came his grandfather’s way. Frankly these tickets were unobtainable and so years later the question was posed to the basketball-loving grandfather (a superior player in his day) how this came about. The response given was that in exchange for tickets, the ticket donor’s house was wired for free by the master electrician grandfather. Every single move was analyzed during the TV broadcasts and at the games. The author instantly received an education regarding the ins and outs of the game.

As freshmen, this team handily beat the varsity in scrimmage games and the attendance of the home varsity games boomed as the fans came to see the freshman play early games before the elders took the floor. Then came the big day, December 1, 1959, and the young hoopsters beat a very strong Wake Forest team, 77-69; the excitement was on.

This team lost close games to Utah and powerhouse Kentucky, then went on a big roll and almost went undefeated in the Big Ten. The absolute seminal game that defined where this team was going was the first Indiana game, won in a true war 96-95. This was a changing of the guard game, in which the dominant team of the past, Indiana, played the dominant Big Ten team of the next decade, OSU. The legendary Branch McCraken coached Indiana, and the Hoosier star was future NBA superstar, Walt Bellamy. Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy went as toe-to-toe as any two players could.

Indiana beat OSU in a true revenge game at the end of the season, 99-83. During the next three years a drubbing of the Lucas-led team would never occur again.

Ohio State was still not ranked highly, more a product of the times of the 1960’s where sportswriters and fans never likely even viewed the Ohio State team play. But the basketball-loving grandfather quickly informed me that Ohio State would win the national title and do so easily.

In those days only certain conference champions and a few at-large independents received bids to the small field. It was during this time that the great Al McGuire refused to play in the NCAA citing the NIT as the true national tournament. 1960 was the moment the pendulum went the way of the NCAA and through the excitement of the next few years (Lucas and company in three straight championship games), the Texas Western breakthrough, and the ascension of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty, college basketball rose to lofty status and the TV coverage exploded.

So, history states that Ohio State beat a very good Western Kentucky team 98-79, beat Georgia Tech 86-69, and beat a highly ranked NYU team, led by future Celtic star Satch Sanders, 76-54. These convincing wins brought forth the big day, the national championship game against the defending champion University of California, coached by one of the greatest coaches of all time, Pete Newell (considered by Taylor and Knight as the supreme big man coach), and led by star big man and future Olympic and NBA star Darrell Imhoff.

There were no bookies putting forward point spreads on TV or in papers back then, but suffice it to say California was a big favorite. The result was a 20-point Ohio State victory 75-55. Ohio State slowed the game down a little and the game plan was to execute like no other team ever had before. The mission was successful as Ohio State played, according to a statistical formula used to chart game statistics, the most efficient game ever.

Why is this team special and worthy of note for all Big Ten fans and not just Buckeye basketball followers? The answers are numerous, very numerous, and all are worthy of discussion.

Let the discussion start with the obvious: Jerry Lucas. Bob knight has called Jerry Lucas the greatest athlete and basketball player in Big Ten history, and he was. Lucas was so superior that all other discussions revolve around who was the second best player in league history. Possessing no ego, and serving his fellow man for decades, Jerry is an introvert who loves being under the radar.

But fifty years let us later take the raw statistics into account. Jerry averaged almost 27 points per game his sophomore year, but could have averaged close to 35 if he so chose. He only took about 16 or 17 shots per game and hit at a 62% plus clip from the field.

Lucas was a near 4.0 student in his days at Ohio State, back in an era when professors were very stingy with A’s and many were biased against athletes. He insisted on an academic scholarship, graduated in three years and later became known as a memory expert. But Jerry always maintained he was not smart, he just knew how to study and memorize.

Jerry Lucas was the penultimate athlete, listed at 6’8” and near 230 pounds, big for the day. Jerry possessed 20-10 vision and had eye-hand coordination similar to Larry Bird. People in his fraternity informed me that they measured him when he was asleep and he was actually 6’9 and 3/4" in height. On the playgrounds in Middletown, Ohio he became a legend as a high school sophomore and although not drafted by the Cincinnati Royals until 1962, the NBA had a Regional gig back then, allowing the Royals to secure Lucas and the great Oscar Robertson, who along with Pete Maravich must be considered the greatest two guards ever in high school (and maybe even pro) basketball Lucas stunned all by saying he thought people should not play for pay.

His athleticism and combination of brainpower may never be equaled. During his time with the Knicks, Lucas memorized all of the opposition’s sets and when the team called a play on the floor at a critical time the Knicks called time out and Lucas would fill the team in on what would next happen.

Jerry Lucas was best known as a scorer, but that picture is incomplete and perhaps inaccurate. He put up monster games in high school, once topping 60 points. In college, his low ego, intelligence, and great eyes provided plenty of lay-ups on old-fashioned high-post scissor and baseline cuts to guys like Havlicek, Mel Nowell, and Larry Siegfried. His high point in scoring was as a sophomore, averaging nearly 27 a game and his scoring declined about one point a year the next two years. In the pros, Jerry averaged about 17 points a game, but in his prime hit over 21, quite an accomplishment with Oscar Robertson on the Royals team. Oscar ran the show and the entire show, so any other player, including Lucas, got the ball when Oscar deemed it necessary. Lucas was unphased and the two went to several all-star games together. The phrase twenty-twenty was used in describing Lucas’s usual contribution in a game, twenty points and twenty rebounds. Foul Lucas and he would hit at about an 80 percent clip, guard him close he went to the hoop, and lay off and here was a center that enjoyed the challenge of taking 22-foot jumpers. Over half of Lucas’ shots were from past the foul line (according to stat trackers) and late in his career with the Knicks he loved shooting from ridiculous ranges topping well over 25 feet. Bill Russell called this the Lucas lay-up and joked he would never venture that far out to guard anyone.

More than anything else, Jerry Lucas could rebound. He practiced by having a helper launch hundreds of shots in practice, and through intense practice and geometry, Jerry could correctly go to a spot, before others, exactly where the ball would deflect, catch the ball in mid air and frequently turn and pass the ball to Havlicek before his feet hit the ground. This was a primary reason this 1960-62 group hit in the 90’s and 100’s with regularity.

Lucas may have been the best rebounding college player in history, excepting Bill Russell, securing game totals frequently in the 20’s and in the pro ranks he exceeded 30 quite a few times and 40 rebounds once, the highest total ever for a forward. And these totals were achieved against the best big men of all time. This shows how dominant Wilt Chamberlain’s record 55 in a game truly was. Besides Chamberlain, Russell, and Moses Malone, Lucas was the best pro rebounder in history and the best pure forward pro rebounder of all time. He left the game averaging about 17 rebounds a game in college and in the pros.

John Havlicek, like Jerry Lucas, and Bob Knight, is a hall of famer and Havlicek and Lucas were named as one of the greatest 50 players of all time. Everyone knew about his athletic talents, including pro football scouts and Woody Hayes. When Lucas announced he was coming to OSU, the other recruits fell lock-in-step. Havlicek never put up the gaudy numbers of Jerry Lucas, and everyone knew this was the reluctant Lucas’ team. But from day one, Hondo was the best defensive player on the team and the best forward in the league at running the fast break. When others were dropping to their knees, Havlicek was going full speed. When things got a little touchy underneath, Havlicek was the enforcer (Lucas was always a finesse player). Red Auerbach was labeled as insane for drafting Havlicek in the first round, but as always came out the insane genius. The Cleveland Browns cut Havlicek essentially to let him thrive in the NBA and not be a tag along on the Brown’s well-stocked roster.

Mel Nowell was thought by many to be better than Jerry Lucas. His high school records were very impressive and in today’s recruiting world, Mel would be a five star or at least a high four star. He was 6’4” big for a guard back then and had a nice 18-foot range. He was solid and could run the break very well. As a big guard, Mel could clean up any rebounding scraps not digested by Lucas and Havlicek.

Larry Siegried was thought to be the potential problem of this mix. He was the returning high scorer and loved to shoot. Through the work of the new young coach, Fred Taylor, and the low ego of the freshmen, Larry found his niche. There never was a problem, showing again that some invented problems do not materialize.

Havlicek, Nowell, and Siegried, all averaged almost exact point totals through the 1959-60 season. This was the very living definition of a well-balanced team.

The fifth cog of the 1959-60 team was a senior, Joe Roberts. Joe, like the other four starters, played pro basketball. Joe was rugged and his offense was based on a now extinct hook shot from deep in the corner. It was amazing to see and the ball was launched from near three-point area. Just as amazing the shot went in.

On the 1959-60 team, Bob Knight was a sixth or seventh man. He loved getting in the game and did not feel, like Lucas, inhibited to shoot. Bob let them fly. His shot was very low in altitude and that cost him in field goal percentage. On a trip to Lexington Kentucky to see a later NCAA Regional series (won by Rice and Michigan by the way), Knight’s freshman coach told the author that it was his duty to take care of the super class in all manner of things. When he checked in at curfew time, there was Knight intensely playing defense on his bedpost and a disgruntled Havlicek soon found another room.

Knight has his dark side and his genius side, there is no mystery about any such evaluation. But he has loyalty, and his primary loyalty of all time will remain with Fred R. Taylor, the coach of the 1959-60 champions.

The author, through Coach Taylor’s cousin, had the opportunity to talk about and with Taylor. Know this, there has never existed a coach with more integrity than Fred Taylor. His coaching tree, like Knight’s, includes Pete Newell and the legendary Henry Iba. His program did what OSU basketball had never done beforehand; win a long string of Big Ten titles, even after the departure of the super class of 1959-62. Fred was a scholar, a former pro baseball player, and a very fiery coach. He demanded team execution, with no exceptions. Coach Taylor’s program was essentially ruined at Minnesota when a massive, physical, very intense Minnesota team, coached by a circus-atmosphere, wild-man that will not be mentioned, started a riot in the closing minutes of the game, one in which Coach Taylor was pulling off a large upset. The game was forfeited, but Ohio State’s star center ended up in the hospital and was never really the same after this incident. Neither was Fred Taylor after he received no help from the Big Ten and even his own athletic director, and the Big Ten protected the talented Minnesota team by sending them on to the NCAA as the sole Big Ten representative. Coach Taylor stopped recruiting and a few short years later, “retired.”

On the last game in St. John Arena, the author was entering and near the ramp to the floor (blessed with first row St. John Arena tickets for 28 years), and all of a sudden there was Coach Taylor in his wheel chair. The fans were mobbing in and it was quite possible for an accident. The writer spread out at the entrance and asked all to stop and let Coach Taylor through. Instantly, as one could expect, the crowd stopped. As the wheelchair and attendant could now proceed, the author looked at Coach and said “Thank you Coach.” Coach Taylor smiled back and preceded onward, it was all he could do.

Coach Bob Knight and Fred Taylor were the best of friends. But in the few games they coached against each other with near equal talent, the gentleman in Coach Taylor was temporarily set aside.

Today, there might be a chance that the nation gets to see the greatness of this team and hear Knight’s certainly profound comments. But then of course, there is always the possibility of the half-time crew squeezing out history for self-enjoyment.

Written by Doc4blu

Go Blue -- Wear Maize!


Yostmeister said...

Great job, Doc.


Anonymous said...

Wow Doc very nice and keep these type of stories coming because these are great and really benefit your guys site.

Anonymous said...

Nice job Doc and keep it up!

Tim R. said...

Agree with the other guys really nice article and keep it up.

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